China is a vast, beautiful and culturally rich country just begging to be explored. However, with less than one percent of the population classified as English-speaking, this Eastern nation can also be a confusing place for us Brits. Having spent three utterly baffling yet completely rewarding months there, I’m well versed in the weird and wonderful world that is modern-day China.
Here’s a few things I learned from my time in China that may come in handy on your next trip to East Asia…
Personal space really isn’t a thing
Swimmers wrestle with rubber rings at a pool in Daying County, Sichuan Province. Newszii
A Communist country, China’s sharing-is-caring mentality runs deep. This is especially true when it comes to personal space. In China, your space = everyone’s space, so don’t be surprised when people get up in your grill here.
Top tip: If you’re particularly attached to your own space, it may be best to stay at home.
Neither is queuing
Beijing’s subway system in rush hour offers perhaps the most hellish commute of all time. Clip via Youtube
A great British pastime, queuing is an alien concept in China. To our friends in the East, a queue is really the national cue to move forward, and fast. A prime example is China’s public transport. The term ‘bottleneck’ was actually invented to describe the phenomena that occurs every time a train arrives at a platform in China. Forget single-file, don’t even dream of waiting for others to disembark, just charge! No toddler, elderly or infirm is shown mercy in this free-for-all – just look at the poor sod circled in the clip above!
Top tip: Flustered at first, I left China diving headfirst into the dog-pile. The only way out is through, so get stuck in there, although please don’t end up like this unfortunate lady below.
A bus ride she’ll never forget via The Daily Mail
Taxi’s aren’t necessarily an easy option either
Taxis in China are easy in theory but perplexing in practice. The grid-like construction of Shanghai (where I spent my three months in China) makes navigation a walk in the park but the lack of English spoken by the taxi drivers can turn even the easiest of routes into a mission. No matter how clearly I enunciated and how slowly I spoke, my address remained an uncrackable code to taxi drivers.
Top tip: For a successful cab journey, your best bet is to jot down your destination in Chinese beforehand. Be sure to double-check what papers you hand over first though – my smug-traveller smile was wiped clean off when I accidentally handed over a note to my driver that was meant for my doctor. An elaborate game of charades involving the over-the-top miming of toothaches (him) and driving maneuvers (me) was well under way before I realised my mistake.
Wine and dine
Eating out is an exciting experience wherever you go in China. Whether you are going for hot pot with friends or just dashing out for some dumplings, the delicious and diverse options in China always fit the bill. If you don’t read Chinese though, ordering can be a little bewildering. You can either play Russian roulette with the menu or attempt to decipher it. The first option is always fun, although you do run the risk of receiving pig-brains and chicken feet instead of the noodles-and-beef combo you were after.
Top tip: If you’re going to decipher the menu it’s a good idea to learn a few basic characters. I used memrise.com for this – it’s an awesome website that teaches you little hacks for remembering all the Chinese characters.
… just don’t forget your table manners
There are many rules when it comes to dining etiquette in China. Some of the top ones include never stab with chopsticks, always put your glass lower than your elders when toasting and only use your bowl for rice, though the list is lengthy.
Top tip: Be sure to read up on Chinese table manners before eating out to avoid any embarrassing faux pas.
Prepare for the big smoke
China’s smoggy cityscape remains strikingly alluring. Ken Lawrence via Unsplash
China’s urban landscapes are notoriously impressive … when visible. Infamous for its high levels of pollution, China’s skyscrapers often disappear into the heavens for weeks at a time as smog engulfs the upper stories.
Smog is not the only thing in the air though. The highest consumer of tobacco in the world, locals here account for one in every three cigarettes smoked about the world, totalling a whopping two trillion cigarettes every year. So head to China and you’ll be passive smoking your way through a pack-a-day in no time. Despite these alarming figures, only a quarter of Chinese people actually believe that smoking causes lung cancer, so locals remain relatively unfazed.
Do your squats (…not the gym kind)
The toilet as we know it takes second place to the squat toilet in China. Today, modern establishments tend to install Western toilets so you could pay a trip to China without even encountering a single hole in the ground.
Regardless, always squat, never sit. Despite diagrams, many Chinese are yet to understand why the Western world makes it so damn hard to stand and balance on top of a toilet seat.
And while we’re on the subject of toilets, don’t be surprised to see babies doing their business in bins. Public bins frequently double as public potties.
Stay out of spitting distance
Well, you get the idea. Daily Mail
Spitting is considered quite vulgar in most parts of the world but is relatively commonplace in China. In some areas, public spitting has now been criminalised and residents are forced to save it for home. That said, the law is very loosely enforced and this lifetime habit is hard to break, so expect to dodge a phlegm splatter or two when out and about.
Above all, enjoy!
Each and every day something amazingly beautiful – and often amazingly flabbergasting – will catch your eye here. Enjoy every second in the vibrant, chaotic and utterly captivating cities of China. Like me, you won’t regret it.