Why eight travel tips for China? Eight is a lucky number in Chinese because it sounds like the word for ‘prosper,’ though two, three, five, six, seven, and nine are lucky numbers, too!
1. Get a good guidebook. In China, perhaps more than any other country, buying a good guidebook and reading it before you get on the plane is imperative. Lonely Planet does a good China guidebook, and Rough Guides does a stellar one for Beijing. The maps are indispensable. So is the language section. Read the sections on health, visas, history, culture, dos and don’ts, and everything else.
2. Then read some more. China isn’t Italy or France, where it wouldn’t take much time to figure out what was going on. In addition to your guidebook, read another book about China. Peter Hessler’s River Town is a good start. So is Rob Gifford’s China Road. For more options, check out books categorized under ‘China’ on Amazon. There are so many good China books, it’s hard to go wrong.
3. Forget about Chinese. Many Westerners attempt to memorize vocabulary and phrases and use them once they’ve arrived. Don’t bother. Because Chinese is tonal, and tones take a long time to learn, you won’t be understood. Beyond hello (ni hao), thank you (xie xie), and no thanks/I don’t want/need it/that (bu yao), you’re better off using simple English (Toilet? Pay now? Train station, please). Of course, you can adjust your speaking level to suit the situation (English will be understood in luxury hotels, for instance), but in most everyday situations, communication will be difficult and hand gestures don’t seem to help. Get used to it.
4. Dine right. This is where the language section of your guidebook comes in handy. Point at a listing and ask if they have it. There might be an English menu, but, again, unless you’re supping in an upscale establishment, even common dishes such as kung pao chicken will likely be translated as ‘spicy children cube Sichuan province hot paste peanut garlic plate.’ Seriously. Also, in China, never do ‘I’ll have what they’re having,’ because you just don’t know what they’re having. Moreover, the more bustling a restaurant the better. Finally, you might want to avoid street-vendor food due to questionable hygienic standards.
5. Know where you are (no one else will). Westerners are often mystified and frustrated by what they perceive as poor-direction-giving in the Chinese world, and the manner in which directions are given (provided someone does know where the place you’re looking for is) is rather different from the step-by-step approach in the West. If you must ask for directions, choose a taxi driver or an elderly person. Carry a map and perhaps a compass. In Chinese cities, streets are laid out according to the points of a compass, e.g. Nanjing East Road. Cities like Beijing are effectively grids, so it’s almost impossible to get lost – once you get your bearings.
6. Everything is negotiable. Got your eye on that Laughing Buddha alarm clock? Find out how much it is and offer half. The vendor will usually have a calculator to facilitate communication. Prices have a way of plummeting once you start to walk away. Be nice, however, and don’t overdo it. No need to get upset over a dollar.
7. Go with the flow. Foreign tourists are often overwhelmed by China. Why does everyone push and stare? How come no one knows where anything is? Why did I get ox brain soup when I ordered vegetarian dumplings? China marches to its own ancient beat. You can’t change it, so be flexible – without being a pushover.
8. Be careful what you say. Remember, China might be open for business, but it’s not open to political discussion. Talking to locals about democracy or Tibet or Taiwan might not get you into trouble, but it could get a Chinese person into a pile of it. Many Westerners, even tourists, make the mistake of projecting their ideas onto China, when they ought to be observing it and seeing how much they can figure out.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World. For more information, visit his website at TroyParfitt.com.