Exploring a place for the first time and discovering its unique qualities is part of the fun in traveling. If you’re in for shocking, interesting and quirky experiences, then China will not disappoint. You don’t have to go to popular tourist attractions to experience this. Often the most interesting things we encounter when traveling come from observing the daily lives and habits of the locals.
Read on for some of the most surprising and interesting facts about China that first time China travellers can expect and prepare for.
1. Public spitting in China is a custom
Spitting in China is probably number one in the list of surprising and interesting facts about China first-time travel. It is done on streets, even inside buses or trains and is usually done by elder Chinese people. Spitting is not something stealthily done in China. Before the actual release, there’s an audible pre-ceremony of clearing the throat. The duration of which depends on how much needs to be collected prior to its forceful eviction.
So when you hear that sound, it’s a warning to stay away and move over if you don’t want the risk of any phlegmatic contact in any part of your body. I’ve seen people spitting as part of their customs, like in the northern Philippines and in Myanmar, where natives chew betel nut and later spit out the reddish fluid. However, the practice in China has received the most attention to foreigners.
For the Chinese, it’s a normal thing to do. As for me, they can do that but there’s a better, more hygienic place, like trash bins or drains, to put out the discharge. But as long as we are in China where that practice is acceptable, we can’t impose them to change their behaviour. As much as we are disgusted seeing that fluid in Chinese streets, they might as well be as disgusted seeing us blow our nose with our hankie and keeping it in our pockets.
2. Eating out in China is a social activity
Food in China is traditionally shared communally. When you search for a place to eat, you will find that tables are designed for four people or more. Lazy Susan style turntable is common, so is table with a place for hotpot in the middle. Hotpot is prepared by simmering a pot of soup stock at the dining table. People around the table put ingredients into the pot. I have noticed that even the eatery or restaurant staffs eat together on one of the restaurant tables during their lunch break.
When you order a meal, expect it to be good for 2 or more persons. Even a bowl of noodles could be shared by two (I’m not a big eater, by the way). This is not a problem if you are traveling in a group. However, it could be difficult to select meals enough for just one person if you are eating solo.
I ate solo most of the time during my very short stay in China. The good thing is that I did not feel any discrimination whatsoever. To avoid disposing too much leftover, I ask the staff to pack my leftover so I could eat it on my next meal.
In addition, you don’t have to dine out at all times. Almost all of the accommodations I’ve used have kettle in the room. Thus, I sometimes just buy an instant noodle from nearby convenience or grocery stores and prepare myself hot water for my cup noodle.
3. Game of Thrones (the porcelain one) is played differently in China.
No one will dare sit on China’s public toilets because it is likely that you’ll be squatting, not sitting, when using them. Squat toilet is the reigning throne in China’s world of toilets. Westerners may not be accustomed to this kind of toilet, but Asians who belong to older-than-millennials age, especially those who have been to rural areas, will not find squat toilets surprising nor daunting.
Squat toilet in China is not something to be feared of. In fact, there are reports on the health benefits of using squat toilets over Western toilets. What I find rather more challenging than how to use a squat toilet is finding a clean toilet to squat at. Imagine squatting in a cramped space with your face almost level to a trash can full of used toilet papers and other things you don’t want to imagine. Some squat toilets will also be usually wet because the staff will splash water onto the toilet and the floor during cleaning.
Cleanliness depends on where you are. If you are in malls, train station or airport, toilets will be relatively clean and serviced. But if you are in rural areas where public toilets have less budget for maintenance, don’t expect for the most comfortable experience.
Here are a few tips on how to survive China’s squat toilet.
- Always bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
- Pee before you leave your hotel/ accommodation. You can at least prevent an early peeing session after leaving.
- Before you go into the public toilet, check your shoelace. Roll up your pants if you think these have a chance of touching the floor. Make sure there will be no dangling objects from your body that could touch the toilet floor (e.g. your bag, your clothes, straps).
- There may be no or broken hook for your things inside the toilet. If you have companion, hand your things to him/her while you’re using the toilet. This could be really challenging when you’re traveling alone. While waiting for boarding time at the train station, I had to ask a family to look after my backpack while I go to the toilet. As you would in any other country, don’t leave your valuables like money and passport to strangers though.
- Now, for the squat. Be cautious where you step. Make sure your feet are balanced as you squat (I would imagine how hard it would for senior citizens or anyone with knee problems). Your foot on the hole is the last thing you would ever want. Whatever you do, fix your eyes in front, not on the small bin beside you.
- Move away from the toilet after you hit the flush (usually foot pedal-operated or the normal push button tanks).
- Sanitize when you’re done.
4. Beware: some public toilets don’t have doors between cubicles
The concept of privacy is not included in the design of some public toilets in China. Yes, they do have walls dividing the cubicles but front doors sometimes aren’t there to keep your activity concealed. The dividing walls make these toilets thankfully better than ancient Roman toilets where you sit on holed seats side by side with your neighbour (like the ones I’ve seen in the Ephesus ruins in Turkey).
In more rural areas, these “semi-private” toilets exist. They are also squat toilets but you will pee in a drain that is sloped downwards such that whatever you discharge will flow downwards naturally (like the ones I've seen while hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge). The drain extends to other squat seats from end to end inside the toilet and eventually drains outside.
If ever you encounter this kind of toilet in China, my advice is to use the cubicle farthest from the entrance if you don’t want every people from the queue to have a peek while you’re in a vulnerable position.
5. Chinese senior citizens love parks
Whereas parks in the Philippines are occupied by dating couples and families taking advantage of the free leisure space, parks in China are frequented by the elderlies. In public parks, you can see them sing, dance, exercise, do Taichi and yoga, and playing cards or mahjong.
One of the interesting facts about China is the demographic issue with its growing ageing population. The provision of free exercise utilities and leisure space in public parks somehow show that the welfare of the elderly population is given importance.
As in any other countries, public parks are free. If you are visiting China, whatever age you’re in, do visit their parks and take a leisurely walk. Observe the elderly Chinese people and you’ll appreciate why many Chinese live long.
6. Chinese speak loudly both when indoor and outdoor
Even if you haven’t been to China, you may have encountered a busload of Chinese tourists in your own country. Observed how they speak loudly in public? Then, you can expect they would behave the same in their own country.
They tend to speak loudly when talking to someone over the phone even when in public places, inside buses, trains and airplanes, and while eating in restaurants. And so, what’s the big deal with talking loudly? In my home country, the Philippines, people can sometimes be loud, too, especially when having a cheerful conversation with friends and family.
Well, not all people were brought up in the same culture. Some would find it offending, inconsiderate and for many, annoying. So how are we supposed to act in this situation? I will not try to justify their behaviour, but for me, I would just ignore the loud talking, as long as they’re not directly meaning anything offensive towards me or my company.
What if they are just enthusiastically saying something or they just want to make sure they are heard? Remember that China is the most densely populated country in the world and it might be that they’re just used to a crowded and noisy environment.
Or maybe, talking aloud is a way of warding off evil spirits in much the same way as they customarily light up loud fireworks during Chinese New Year (Read here for a glimpse of how Chinese New Year is celebrated in the Philippine’s oldest Chinatown). Okay, I just made up the last one.
7. Queuing in China can be a stressful situation.
Line cutting is a normal occurrence in China. This did not come as a shock because I have had bad experiences with Chinese tourists cutting me in a queue while in my own country and while abroad. Unless that someone has a good reason to cut you on the line (e.g. they will miss their flight or trip) and that they ask nicely, I can allow it.
In general circumstances, however, normal human beings will find it rude to jump ahead of someone properly falling in line to wait for their turn. One of their tactics will be to stand to your side in between you and the one in front. When the line moves, they would gradually insert themselves into the line.
To deal with this, don’t give queue jumpers the opportunity to cut you in. While on the line, stay close to the person in front of you, giving yourself enough clearance to give space between you and that in front of you, but too little space to fit an averagely-sized man/woman. Stay alert and you’ll successfully guard your precious position in line.
8. Want to connect to a secured WiFi? Bet on your lucky numbers.
A large part of Chinese culture is the belief in fortune determined by astrological orientation. This is one of the reasons why they consider certain numbers as lucky numbers. Chinese people seriously consider lucky numbers in their business operations and in their daily life activities.
Even numbers are regarded as more favourable numbers. They believe that the number 8 is the luckiest of them all. Number 8 is bā (first tone, high note) in pinyin and sounds similar to “fa”, which translates to fortune in Chinese.
Most of the hotels or restaurants I ate in where WiFi is available have passwords with the number 8. Not just one but eight 8’s, or 88888888. If ever you come to a public place and found out there’s a WiFi, try your luck and key in 88888888!
9. In China, language barrier is a real challenge.
Well, this is not surprising at all, but I included it in the list anyway. This is something we need to prepare for before coming to China. China is such a big country that English-speaking foreigners will only account a small percentage of the total population in China. Therefore, don’t expect the Chinese community to adjust for you. I have only been to the Yunnan Province and I could not compare how Chinese people can understand and speak English in more developed cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Needless to say, do expect that communication will be challenging, and could sometimes be frustrating. Even if you will be traveling in China for short-term only, it is a good thing to learn a little of basic Chinese, starting from how to pronounce Pinyin characters and Chinese tones (first and second tone, third and fourth tone), to saying greetings like “hello”, “thank you” and “good morning” to asking directions or asking for help.
Learning how to say numbers will also be a great help as this will be useful when buying something, bargaining, asking for bus numbers, or alerting you of boarding announcements in trains, among others. I studied beginners level Mandarin prior to my trip to China and found some phrases and words that were really useful. I’ve compiled it in a kit, which you can download below to help you with your China travel.
A translator app like Baidu Translate is also a must because even if you got through with your first phrase or sentence of the conversation, it will still be difficult to comprehend all Chinese terms a hundred 100% when they reply to you in Chinese. More information on other useful apps to download is discussed in the next section.
Having a Chinese friend or the hotel staff write Chinese phrases for you on a small notebook or piece of paper to show people will also save you from frustrating miscommunication.
10. Phone App is Life in China
Don’t lose your phone when in China. It’s the most useful device to carry on your trip. At the least, download these three apps to help you survive your China trip.
WeChat is Life in China. You need to have this app if you want to have faster communication with your friends in China, your hotel, tour operator/guide, etc. Moreover, WeChat is far more than just a social media app. Chinese people link their WeChat to their bank cards and use it to pay transportation fare, pay food, shops and a lot more. In other words, it is also a wallet.
Baidu Translate is the Chinese unblocked version of Google translate. It lets you translate popular languages into Chinese. You can translate phrases or sentences in text or voice or text to voice and vice versa. Download an offline translation pack to be able to use the app even without internet connection.
I’ve always used Maps.Me wherever I travel. It is an offline map so you don’t have to worry about the app being blocked by the great firewall. Just download the offline map of the specific province you will be travelling to prior to coming to China. Use it to navigate with a vehicle or on foot. The places are labelled both in English and in the native language so you could also use it to ask directions by pointing the name of your destination.
11. Coffee is expensive in China.
China is a tea country. Having said that, coffee in your hotels or cafes in the countryside may not always be available. If ever they’re available, the cost of a fresh ground coffee per cup will range from 20 to 30 yuan, which is already equivalent to one meal in China. If you are a coffee addict, you can bring your favourite coffee packs from home or you could buy from the local grocery stores.
12. You can generate a lot of plastic and other solid wastes while in China.
This statement is not applicable to China alone. The volume of our waste generation while we travel depends on our own practices and choices, but can also be influenced by the current practices in the place we’re traveling to.
On my first few days in China, I noticed that when eating out, bowls, tea cups and disposable chopsticks are typically wrapped in single-use plastics. Thus, even when you consciously dine in to prevent packaging wastes from take-out foods, you will still inevitably generate plastic wastes.
Likewise, men in scooter on their way to deliver take-out foods are a common site on the roads. This indicates how popular packed foods are in China and also how much food packaging wastes gets disposed after food consumption.
With mindful effort and conscious action, we can avoid or reduce solid wastes, thereby reducing your contribution to plastics pollution in China. You might think it’s just one plastic but think of 1.3 billion people who ponders the same.
Bring reusable containers and dining wares such as reusable containers, reusable cups, reusable chopsticks/ spoon and fork and reusable tumblers. It may seem impractical to bring along your dining wares from home while you travel. However, there are now collapsible cups and containers that will take up minimal space in your bag. There are a lot more ways to reduce solid waste generation as we travel. Read here for more tips.
13. Tipping in China Isn’t Expected
I researched this before my trip to China and found out that tipping is not expected most of the time, like when taking a taxi and dining. True enough, I did not feel that restaurants and taxi drivers (though I’ve only tried the taxi twice) expected nor asked for a tip. However, it is customary to tip tour guides in China. RMB 60 per day for the guide is acceptable.
14. Your favourite social media sites will be blocked in China
Welcome to the great firewall of China! If you can’t live without any one of Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, then you will need to subscribe to a VPN or Virtual Private Network to unblock these sites.
There are a lot of VPN service providers and this site has helped me choose which are the best VPNs that work in China. You have to set this up BEFORE you arrive in China because you will need to install your chosen VPN’s app on your device (laptop and/or cellphone) and subscribe to a plan.
Be careful with your timing as you might subscribe too early before your trip. ExpressVPN, the one I used during my short stay in China, will start Day 1 of subscription as soon as your payment is confirmed.
15. Using mass transport like buses and trains is easy.
Another interesting fact about China is that the local transport in developed cities is efficient. If you want to avoid the more expensive taxis or if joining a tour bus with loads of other tourists while following a guide waving a small colored flag isn’t your preference, then public buses is the way to move around within the city.
Besides lesser cost, using the mass transport system is also more environmentally beneficial. You contribute to less fuel consumption and air emissions generation. Public bus fares with routes within cities are very cheap. Fares are fixed at about 1 or 2 RMB one way no matter how far the distance. Long distance buses, on the other hand, are distance-based.
Don’t be afraid to take the bus. Most city buses and long distance buses are air-conditioned. Some bus lines also pass by popular tourist spots, railway stations and airports. Ask assistance from a Chinese friend or from your hotel desk on what bus number(s) to take and how to get to the nearest bus stop before leaving.
Use your offline maps and GPS to guide you while approaching at your destination. Also make sure to bring small notes and exact fare. City buses are on self-service mode wherein you insert your payment in a dropbox as you get in.
Aside from buses, the metro or long distance trains are other alternatives to get around in a DIY fashion. For your convenience, you can book your train tickets online if you wish to move from one city or province to another.
You will get an e-ticket with reference number after online booking. There are special windows for picking-up tickets booked online. Just present your reference number and your passport to the ticket clerk and they’ll give you your ticket after confirmation.
I found online booking as convenient because if you booked multiple trips to different destinations, you will be able to claim your other tickets in the first train station you’re departing from. Likewise, queues could be long in regular windows and are usually much shorter for e-ticket pick-up windows.
16. Winnie the Pooh had been banned in China.
If you don’t want to get into trouble with China’s most powerful leader, keep your fondness of the honey-loving Pooh Bear to yourself while in their territory. If you don’t find the logic, read here. Most will find it amusing or harmless but let’s accept that others will not have the same humour as yours.
17. Your perception of overcrowded will change after traveling to China.
I have been to China only once and in a relatively not-so-peak tourist season. I must say that the amount of Chinese tourists in famous tourist attractions already looked crowded. I can’t imagine how it’s like during Chinese national holiday.
Nowadays, the number of people traveling for leisure is increasing, especially during holidays. To date, there are 1.42 billion people living in China. This fact makes China remarkably more overcrowded than any other country during holiday season. Overcrowded tourist spots, fully booked hotels and train tickets, difficulty in transportation and heavy traffic will ruin your desire for an enjoyable holiday.
Therefore, avoid Chinese national holidays, as much as possible for a less stressful vacation. Chinese New Year (January or February), National Day (October 1-7), Tomb-Sweeping Day, Labor Day (May 1), Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day (October 1-3). Check the current year’s holiday calendar and consider avoiding those dates when planning a trip to China.
18. Are Chinese people unfriendly to tourists? My answer might surprise you.
A lot of people have bad impressions of Chinese people because of unpleasant Chinese tourist behaviour. They cut you in the line, they’d push you when it’s crowded, they talk aloud, and so on. But after traveling to China, I would like to think of it in a different light.
China is a populous country and the Chinese tourists we meet from around the world or in the country we live in only represent a very small percentage of the entire Chinese population living in China. It is difficult not to generalize but still, we shouldn’t.
As I’ve already mentioned, I only spent about two weeks in China. However, in that short span of time, I’ve met friendly and helpful locals, despite the language barrier. Many times I have asked for help on how to get from one point to another and three of those times, I’ve been treated to transport fare.
I was surprised when a group of young Chinese ladies whom I asked for directions, offered to book me a taxi through an online App. When the taxi arrived, they told me that they already paid for the fare and that I don’t need to pay the driver. Despite the language barrier, they went out of their way to help.
In another instance where I had to take a taxi from the bus station to my guesthouse since no direct bus is available, a Chinese couple offered to share a taxi ride with me. I was ready to share the taxi fare with them but they insisted they will pay for it.
So, are Chinese unfriendly to tourists? My answer is No. Some may not be willing to talk due to language barrier but this is what I would like to think…there is good in everyone. Good thoughts invite good things to happen in you.
19. Restaurants with pictures on menu is not hard to find in China
There are a lot of big and small, budget and high-end restaurants in China where pictures of the offered dishes are displayed not just on menu cards but as menu boards displayed conspicuously in the restaurant. All you have to do is point to the dish you want. This is a great way of overcoming language barrier while ordering.
This method reminds me of the Philippines’ carinderias where people choose from a display of already cooked food. You then point which dish you want to order. Hence, the term turo-turo in Filipino (or point-point in English). In China, the similarly turo-turo style eateries are scattered on the streets. In one of the restaurants in China, I was even handed a long stick so I could point which dish I want from their array of menus displayed on their wall.
Some basic knowledge of Chinese food terms will be helpful to verify whether the dish contains chicken, beef, duck or pork.
20. Exotic pets are casually sold in some parts of China.
During my last day in Kunming, I decided to go somewhere nearby and saw a flower and bird market labelled in my offline map. As I arrived at my intended destination, I doubted if I arrived at the right location because I didn’t see any sellers of flowers. Instead, I found several pet stalls along a small segment of a street.
I did found birds in cages for sale. What surprised me is that the stalls are not only selling birds but also a variety of other animals such as exotic fishes, small turtles, bugs and some small furry animals I don’t know the name of. What’s more, some of the small creatures were coated with brightly colored paints to make them look more attractive.
I was silenced. These poor animals will become cool pets of their would-be owners. While writing this article, I began googling about exotic pet trade in China. I then discovered how “bird and fish markets” also exist in other provinces/ cities such as Zhejiang and Beijing.
Some rare animals like snakes, lizards, fennec fox and sugar glider are even transported to China from other countries as far as North Africa. Whether this is illegal or part of a domestic breeding program, it raises issues on biodiversity loss, animal ethics and human safety.
Have you been to China? What was your most interesting discovery of China?
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