The People’s Republic of China is a perplexing place for outsiders—a communist country where you’ll often feel like you’re trapped inside a shopping mall, where English is constantly a form of decoration and only occasionally a means of communication.
The international mega-cities of Beijing and Shanghai have taken Westernization to heart, but outside the cosmopolitan centers, China is still a hot mess of a destination—in the best way possible.
Now that U.S. passport-holders can get 10-year visas for business and tourism, the options for experiencing both Chinas are multiplying.
This guide—collected wisdom from a year in a massive, smelly, industrial, capital city called Jinan—will serve you particularly well in China’s lesser-known cities and mountaintop villages—and everywhere in between.
1. Borders, Privacy or Subtlety
This is not a place for sensitive noses or squeamishness and definitely not a place for those who need their personal space. It’s a country of rigid cultural and political rules while, somehow, anything can be done anywhere. Feel free to smoke cigarettes and throw garbage on the floor of homes, restaurants and offices. Hock up your lung butter without batting an eyelash and relieve yourself in the open—especially if you’re a child, but honestly, anyone can do it. Walk in the street; drive on the sidewalk. Ask questions about age, marital status and physical appearance the moment you meet someone. And if you don’t look Asian, prepare to pose for photos with Asians who’ve never seen an American in person before; you’ll feel like a celebrity stalked by amateur paparazzi around every corner.
Start practicing with chopsticks now because local restaurants, which should never be closely inspected for cleanliness but do serve the best food found under a roof, are chopsticks territory. You’ll be able to get a spoon on request, but not a fork, so carry your own if you need it. A delicious local haunt in Jinan is ?????? (Lu Xi Nan Xiao Xiang Cun), a family-run basement restaurant that serves traditional home-style dishes from both Shandong and Sichuan Province cuisines—forks not included.
3. Western Toilets, Toilet Paper or Soap
If you find a bathroom with all three of these, appreciate the fact that you’re somewhere fancy. For all other outings, come prepared with your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Using a bathroom in the PRC will teach you how to not sweat the small stuff. You will smell bathrooms before you see them, and if you stay in China long enough, you will stop caring.
4. “Chinese” Food
No, they don’t have anything vegan (unless you can find a Buddhist restaurant) but it’s a pretty safe bet that most dishes you don’t recognize are some form of tofu—unless they are pickled chicken feet, pig feet, barbecue sheep penis, fried cicadas, etc. China has eight unique regional cuisines, which means there are a lot more options than are on the menu of your Chinese food takeout place. Plus, there’s cheap and mysteriously delicious street food, including hot soy smoothies for breakfast, dumplings for lunch, and snacks of cut pineapple in summer and roasted sweet potatoes in winter. Let’s not forget the barbecue stands selling skewers of mutton, chicken wings, eyeballs, testicles, dried fish, tofu, scallions and other tasty snacks to be slathered in spice and grilled before your eyes, even late at night (a rarity in a country where almost everything shuts down by 10 p.m.).
5. The Internet
Government censorship is very much a reality in China, which means if you want to access Google services, Western social media or almost any foreign news sites, you’ll need a VPN. While they’re not technically illegal in China, there has been a significant crackdown on many commercial VPNs and an increase in censorship in general since early 2015. Still, many VPNs can be downloaded freely in mainland China with a simple search on Baidu, the Chinese Google.
At formal meals, no one drinks alone. If you want a sip of your Tsingtao (the tastiest and most ubiquitous of the national brands of light beer) or baijiu (the Chinese clear liquor, made from sorghum and best described as tasting like purple) you wait to be toasted, or offer a toast with the phrase, “Lai! He jiu!” (“Come! Drink alcohol!”) and everyone with hooch in their cup drinks together.
Yes, it is true that the air in Los Angeles is less polluted than the top 74 major cities in China. Wear a mask if you want to blend in with the locals on particularly smoggy days, but be aware that, according to science, it won’t actually do very much. The right type of mask (not a blue surgical one) with a proper fit (tight and uncomfortable) will keep out most of the larger particles, but not the tiny carcinogens released by unregulated factories and cars.
Squaring a stereotype of Soviet-style starkness with the free-flowing capitalism of China can make your head spin. Never forget that the Chinese Communist Party rules, but guanxi (which ranges from favoritism to outright bribery) and the mighty Yuan are much more influential and visible, respectively. Nationalism, on the other hand, is impossible to miss. A good piece of advice if you don’t want to rock the boat: Don’t mention The Three T’s—Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. No one wants to see your “Free Tibet” T-shirt. Discussing Taiwan’s supposed independence is a good way to get into a fight. Oh, and the Tiananmen Square massacre is often seen as an unremarkable protest during which several students were arrested and released—just like last year’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.
In China, English is everywhere and nowhere. Every billboard, T-shirt, and consumer product is emblazoned with English words that don’t form sentences, or English letters that don’t form words. But don’t expect cab drivers, waiters or sales clerks to know more than “hallo.” If you can tell a cabbie where you need to go and where you’re from in Chinese, you’ll be lauded as a linguistic genius. Otherwise, when you get into a cab, just say “ni hao” (pronounced, “knee how” and meaning, “hello”)—and hand over an address in Chinese characters. When ordering food, point and say, “yi ge zhe ge” (pronounced, “ee-guh jigga” and meaning,”one of this.”)
4. New Friends
Just as the Chinese tend to be straightforward when snapping your photo and getting to know you, they are genuine and honest in friendships, as well as extremely generous. You will be a spectacle when you arrive, but if you can get past the initial shock—the uniquely Chinese stares, sounds and smells—you can expect a warm welcome and good friends to return to the next time around.
is a writer and journalist who moved to China indiscriminately, and is happy she did.