An American in China – Things I Wish I Knew Before Going
China is an amazing country! If you love history, diversity, culture and food then China is a place you’re going to want to visit. While I really enjoyed my recent trip to China there are a few things I wish someone had told me before I left. I recall dramatically thinking, “the internet failed me” as I encountered one unforeseen situational challenge after another. Hey, don’t let me freak you out – nothing I’m writing about here amounts to a “big deal” but I figured it would be nice to spare some of you the hardship of having to deal with some things so here we are.
Wine by the glass is a rarity
I know, I know a real first-world problem…..so Dabbler, why is this first on your list? Well let me tell you why. My Mom! She traveled with me to China and she likes to have a glass of wine at night. While I admit that tracking down a place that would pour a glass led to many an interesting journey, I wish I had known beforehand that it would become such a chore. If you’re staying in a 4 or 5 star hotel then you’re probably okay. But the typical Chinese restaurant is not going to serve wine by the glass. Wine by the bottle is on almost every menu but a single serving just isn’t possible in most establishments – they just don’t go out and drink wine like they do in the US. So, if you’re a person who likes that evening glass (or three) of wine then you are best served to plan ahead and ensure you are staying in places that provide that as an option. Or you can just do what my Mom did and buy it by the bottle and not worry about it anymore.
Meals are typically served one dish at a time
Of course this excludes really nice hotels. Most restaurants in China are going to bring you one item at a time as it comes out of the kitchen. So, if you order rice, sweet and sour pork, some vegetables, and a water – it is all going to come at random times – but never together as one complete meal. It was explained to me that the Chinese tend to eat one dish at a time so this is entirely normal for that culture. Makes sense to me and I admit that I personally don’t care how my food comes to me as long as it finds its way to the table, but I can imagine how some of you may have “a thing” when it comes to food and I wanted to prepare you for the inevitable.
They can’t understand your Chinese
Chinese (Mandarin), unlike English, is a tonal language. This means that the tone you use indicates the meaning of a word. Some words may have 4 or 5 different meanings based on the tone you use (see image for an example). Given this, I noticed that the Chinese are very attuned to tonal differences and anything that isn’t right on the money may as well be in a completely different language because they’re not going to understand it. The problem I had was when I tried to pronounce a word that I thought was “close enough” to the actual pronunciation, they couldn’t understand me at all. You and I speak in a language (English) where the word itself and the context the word is used in provides its meaning. Because of this we are used to being able to understand someone who is “pretty close” to the right pronunciation – not so in China. This is not how Mandarin works so do yourself a favor and learn a few key words before you go.
Pro Tip: Get a translation app that will make it simpler for you to communicate.
The restrooms don’t have toilet paper
Again…a nice hotels will be the exception as this TP-free zone pertains mostly to public restrooms. A number of tour guides informed me that people in China steal the toilet paper from public restrooms to cut down on their day-to-day living expenses so these places just stopped supplying toilet paper altogether – they bring their own. Whether this is true or not I am not certain, but I do know that toilet paper can be hard to find at times. Consider yourself warned! Grab some napkins and come prepared because the likelihood of you needing to take a poo while touring a tea plantation in Hangzhou is high and you don’t want to get caught without the good stuff. Better yet get you some wonderful wipes like these to ensure you have an enjoyable wiping experience no matter where you are.
Pro Tip: I quickly figured out that Starbucks was the safe haven for pooping with confidence. Luckily there are a lot of Starbucks in China. Thank you Starbucks!
China has moved past Uber
Uber China was a thing, but China bought the company and created its own Uber-esque company called Didi. It now comes with English capabilities in a number of major cities in China and I highly suggest you consider it. Getting a taxi can sometimes be a nightmare so have the Didi app ready and you should be good-to-go.
On another note, taxis in China are quite inexpensive. Should you not feel like downloading another app you are probably going to be just fine trying to grab a taxi off the street as there are plenty of them and they typically have very cheap fares.
Typical napkins do not exist in restaurants
That’s right, what you and I would call a napkin is not to be found in the vast majority of establishments. In fact, it has been my experience that roughly half of all restaurants won’t have napkins on the tables at all. But…if they do, instead of the typical, absorbent napkin you’ll find in the US, you’re going to get something more akin to a small tissue that would be used to blow your nose or probably more closely related to cheap toilet paper. I’m not quite sure why this is because Chinese foods have a lot of sauces and liquid so there is almost always need of a napkin, but you’re just going to have to use a bunch of those little, thin pieces of tissue to mop up your mess. It’s really not a huge deal but I found it very interesting that it is hard to find toilet paper in some places while what appears to be actual toilet paper is found on the tables trying to fool you into thinking it’s a napkin. Either way it works just fine when you wipe your mouth so it’s really not a thing but it is something I found interesting and wanted to share with you here.
There you have it good people! Some of the little things I wish I had known before traveling to China. But, like I wrote previously – there really isn’t anything about China that is going to derail you entirely. It’s really pretty awesome and the pros of tourist travel in China definitely outweigh the cons so just do your best and don’t be a jerk to people if you get frustrated with something and you’ll get along just fine.