How to survive China: 12 crucial tips

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I know I said that was it for my China posts but I have one more for you!

As interesting an experience as China was, it was obviously not without it’s downfalls (as is the case with most travel). So I thought I’d put together a list of tips I wish someone had given me before I went that would have made my life in China a lot easier and a little less bewildering. I had read some of these tips before and honestly wished I’d taken them more seriously. These are less like tips, more like ‘mandatory survival advice’!! Heed my words carefully!

1) If you can speak any Mandarin, it will come in use. Just don’t expect any praise for it!

Just simple things like ‘where is….’ or ‘I want to go here’ whilst pointing at your map and taking to a taxi driver. When I first got to China, I was alarmed at how often people will speak fluent Mandarin at you, regardless of how bewildered you looked or how incomprehensible your reply was, and they would seemingly carry on doing this until they got a comprehensible reply from you or until you admitted defeat with a ‘sorry, I don’t understand’ or ‘sorry, my Mandarin isn’t good’. If you want to try picking some Mandarin up, I’ve been listening to ChinesePod on-and-off for 8 years now and it’s excellent for all abilities. (They give you a free trial but you will have to eventually pay a small subscription fee each month).

2) Take trains, not planes!

I learnt this the hard way. Chinese domestic airlines are notorious for being delayed or cancelled at short notice, sometimes for no real apparent reason, and they’re terrible at dealing with the fall-out. Although a plane is technically quicker than a train, once you’ve added in all the airport waiting time and potential delays, you might benefit from taking a train. If you’re travelling between the main cities, definitely take a train. It’ll be more fun too!

3) Always come with your address written in Chinese.

Taxi drivers don’t speak any English and will simply refuse to take you if they can’t read your address. Having it written in Chinese is pretty foolproof (although they may try and ask you for direction in Mandarin which I thought was nuts). The only exception would be if you’re confident you can speak it out-loud in Mandarin, which I managed on my last day in Beijing and was delighted about.

4) ALWAYS look both ways MULTIPLE  times before crossing a street.

Your trip will be cut very short otherwise. In China, traffic lights are seemingly optional. Cars and bikes will not always stop when they see a person crossing, even if the lights for them are red. I had perpetual road-crossing-anxiety weeks after I left China…

5) Avoid taking about politics, unless invited to.

Even then, tread carefully and especially don’t mention Japan! I had a great, if somewhat bewildering, conversation about politics with a local man in Shanghai.

6) Don’t tip.

If you try to tip someone in China they’ll assume you’re implying they don’t already earn enough money or that their work is undervalued by their employer. Whilst they might not be so offended if they see you’re obviously foreign, it’s best not to. In some parts of China it’s actually illegal to tip people like taxi drivers. The one exception to this rule though is apparently group tour guides. (Although some will still debate this, and for various reasons I didn’t tip my tour guides).

7) Try not to overuse ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’.

Unlike in the UK, people in China will only use these phrases if they really mean it. Whilst the locals will appreciate you speaking some China, if you overuse these phrases, you might sound insincere.

8) Bring tissues and hand sanitiser everywhere.

They’re multi-purpose and you just never know. For example, Western-style toilets aren’t as common as you’d hope. (If you’re out and about and desperate for the toilet, try and find a nearby shopping centre as they’re likely to have Western toilets or at least the cleanest ones).

9) Ladies, bring your own tampons.

It’s apparently got easier in recent years but finding tampons in China is still tricky, especially for a reasonable price.

10) Don’t drink tap water.

Bottled water is super cheap so this won’t be a problem. (Although don’t buy water from stools in tourist hot-spots like the Great Wall. They’ll charge you an extortionate price because they know you have no other option or you won’t question the price!).

11) Get used to having your personal space invaded. 

With 1.4 billion people squished into one country, don’t expect a lot of space and order. For instance, orderly queuing is not something a lot of Chinese people will naturally do. Sometimes you just have to (non-aggressively) get your elbows stuck in and push to the front like they do.

12) Come with a sense of humour.

People will stare at you a lot and ask to take your photo! (And sometimes just not ask…) They may even obviously point at you whilst talking to family/friends. Staring and pointing isn’t considered rude in China, unlike  in Western cultures. People who do these things are generally just very curious and don’t mean any harm. Some people will be tourists from the Chinese countryside and so they will have never seen a white person before. When asking for photos they might be very giggly or excited to meet you. Whether you acquiesce their request or not, have a sense of humour about the situation.

In general, you will see a lot of ‘weird’/different things in China. Take it on the chin as it’s part of the experience! Where else will you see people eating bugs on sticks, dancing in public parks and putting tiny shoes on their dogs?!

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China is definitely different but that doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad’. With some tips before you go, you’ll be able to make the most of every experience that comes your way! China is an exciting, diverse and culturally rich country. You might often get frustrated but I promise you will never be bored in China 🙂

Have you been to China before? Tell me about your best and weirdest China experiences in the comments below!


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