Most first-time visitors to China thoroughly enjoy their trip and start planning their next one as soon as they return home. As a travel destination, China has a lot to love, but as with any foreign country, certain habits and features of the local culture and society may seem strange or even distasteful to outsiders. Without making value judgments, here are some of the things that Westerner tend to find the most odd or off-putting when they visit the Middle Kingdom.
If you look stereotypically “foreign” (i.e. not Chinese) you are certainly going to encounter the unfamiliar and sometimes unsettling experience of being an object of curiosity. While many city dwellers are used to seeing foreign people on a regular basis people from more remote areas may stare at you as if you are an escaped zoo animal. While etiquette in Western countries dictates that we not stare or point at someone who looks different from ourselves, many people in China feel no qualms about sizing you up and speculating with their friends where you might be from. Some locals may be bolder still and try to strike up a conversation with you or take pictures with you. The way you choose to react to this kind of attention should be a matter of personal choice. If you feel comfortable posing for a photo or having a chat with a local person, then you should feel free to do so. Likewise, if you would simply prefer to be left alone, you should not feel obligated to make small talk or take photos. While the overwhelming majority of people you will meet are simply curious and have only friendly intentions, if you feel uncomfortable for any reason you should let your Alpha Exchange coordinator know immediately so he/she can deal with the situation.
While it’s officially frowned upon by city governments, some Chinese people, especially the older generation, regularly spit in public. There’s not really much to say about this one except that it’s a fact of life in China. The good news is that most spitters are well-practiced and accurate with their phlegm, so no need to worry about becoming an accidental human spittoon.
One of the results of having a giant population is that personal space as a concept has basically ceased to exist. Chinese cities are huge, bustling, and full of people in a hurry. Crowding, pushing, and opportunistic line-jumping are all things you are likely to encounter during your visit to any Chinese metropolis, especially when venturing on to public transportation. Indeed, a normal day on the Beijing or Shanghai metro makes rush hour on the New York subway look downright comfy by comparison. The important thing to remember when someone is jostling you on the station platform is that it’s nothing personal. Chinese urbanites are used to a degree of physical contact with the people around them and usually won’t feel personally offended if they get bumped during their daily commute or when waiting in line to see an attraction. Having said that, if you feel that someone is intentionally trying to encroach on your personal space or making you feel uncomfortable, you should alert your tour coordinator right away.
China’s rapid development in recent decades has lifted millions out of poverty, but has come at a serious environmental cost. Air pollution is a major problem across China and especially near urban or industrial centers. Visiting China in for a brief period will not cause any lasting damage to your respiratory health, but the sensation of inhaling smog can certainly be unpleasant in the short term. Luckily, pollution masks are available almost everywhere and do a reasonably good job at filtering out particulate matter. There are also several apps you can download that monitor current levels of air pollution in various Chinese cities, so have a look on your preferred app store. In the end, there’s not much you can do about the pollution on any given day, but being aware of the problem and taking some steps to prepare yourself is important.
Of all the things you might have expected to miss from home (your family, your friends, familiar food etc.) rules-based driving might not have made your list. After spending a few days as a pedestrian in China, however, you might find yourself longing for the meaningful sensibility of American traffic lights and the vigilant supervision of the traffic police. In China, driving regulations are more like loose guidelines rather than hard and fast rules and are often ignored completely. As a result, Chinese traffic takes on a state-of-nature quality with every driver looking out for him or herself. The key to surviving the chaos is to always keep your eyes open and focused on the road (and also on the sidewalks since they sometimes double as streets or parking lots). It’s never a good idea to be distracted by your cellphone while walking, but it’s especially important to stay focused on your surroundings when exploring a Chinese city. When crossing the street, do not assume that you have the right of way simply because the traffic lights tell you that you can cross. Look both ways and make sure that drivers see that you are crossing.
Few things are as elemental to our common human experience as doing our business. That’s why visitors to China might be surprised that such a familiar routine can be so different in other countries. The first thing to know is that although the majority of homes have Western style toilets, most public facilities will feature squat toilets. While perfecting the stance can be a challenge the first few times you try it, squatting means you don’t have to make contact with the toilet itself which makes for a more hygienic experience. You should also remember that very few public restrooms will provide you with toilet paper, so it’s best to buy some small packs of the stuff from any convenience store. That way, you won’t find yourself unprepared in your time of need. Additionally, used toilet paper is usually discarded in a small trash can next to the toilet rather than flushed directly down the toilet. Finally, Chinese restrooms are chronically low on soap for public use, so it’s recommended that you bring your own bottle of sanitizer to wash up with.
Travelling to a foreign country, especially one as different as China, will always present travelers with a few less than pleasant surprises. It’s very natural to sometimes feel annoyed or put-off by certain aspects of what you see around you, especially when they don’t gel with your understanding of polite conduct. But with a little advanced notice and preparation, these differences will be a minor blip on your radar rather than a cause for major frustration. When travelling, it helps to understand the social and cultural context for the things you encounter. As always, keep an open mind and embrace the differences that you see around you.