China is, for the most part, a pretty safe place in which to travel -- you don't have to worry about accidentally venturing into the wrong part of town. That said, you do need to have your wits about you to ensure that you travel safely and prudently. There are a few customs that foreign guests to China sometimes find unsavory. Being aware of these will help you prepare for likely events without coloring your trip unsatisfactorily. Read on to learn the different types of hassles and nuisances travelers may experience in China.
As mentioned, it's very important to keep your wits about you in any crowd situation. Pickpocketing happens to many here and it's not localized to foreigners. Here's how to be travel smartly:
- Don't keep all your money in the same place.
- Don't carry too much cash around with you.
- Don't carry your passport with you. (Though if you do experience a passport emergency, here's what to do.)
- Keep your bag zipped and hold on to it tightly when on a crowded subway or in other crowded places.
- Don't carry your wallet in an open back pocket.
- Don't carry valuables in a backpack.
Touts and Vendors
Around large markets, many touts (aka aggressive street vendors) hang around trying to get you to come and look at their wares. A wave and friendly bu yao (pronounced "boo yow"), which means "I don't want/need it", is enough to get them to leave you alone.
However, if you at all look like you might be interested, they can pester you to come have a look at their stall. Start with being firm but friendly. If it continues, you can give a sterner bu yao. If it gets really bad, ni zuo kai, (pronounced "nee zoh kye"), meaning "Go away", may finally do the trick.
If you're feeling uncomfortable or harassed, report it to the local authority -- there are usually security or police presence in big markets who are meant to control this kind of behavior.
Queuing or Lining Up
Possibly the most annoying thing you'll experience in China is standing in line -- or the lack of one. Pushing, shoving, and cutting in line without even a glance is common. Unfortunately, the best you can do is anticipate it and deal with it. Here's how:
- Breathe deep.
- Stand your ground.
- Indicate you were there first if someone cuts in.
- Cut back in front of the person who cut in front of you.
- Get close and personal -- don't wait back at what seems to you a normal distance. Get right in there and fight for your turn.
- Don't take it personally.
Spitting and Burping
Many Chinese spit and burp publicly without a second thought. In this culture, it's not considered gross or rude. However, due to SARS and the awareness of disease spread, there are public campaigns to stop spitting and it has worked, if slightly, in larger cities. But don't be surprised if you hear loogies being hawked (just remember to take your shoes off before you go into your hotel room).
Burping is a sign of contentment and considered a compliment to the cook. Just shrug it off and immerse yourself in the cultural differences -- which certainly do make life interesting!
Traveling with Cute Kids
Chinese people adore children, and 99% of the time, this makes traveling with children a breeze. The 1% where it's not so great is the possibility of everyone you meet wanting to hold, tickle, give candy to, or coo at your baby or toddler. Sometimes this is delightful -- who doesn't appreciate someone else fawning over your beloved offspring? But if you're in a hurry, or your child isn't receptive to strangers, it can be tiresome. The best way to handle it is to be polite and use some of these tricks:
- Indicate your baby is sleeping and keep the stroller moving.
- Smile, and shake your head and wave your hand no.
- Intercept any candy and say thank you.
- Keep on moving.
While China's economy steams ahead, many are getting left behind. Needless to say, there is still abject poverty in China and some of the afflicted take to big-city streets to try to eke out a living by begging. Big markets, upscale restaurants, and bars/clubs are usually big targets as well as ATMs by large hotels.
Simply put, be careful. It's up to you whether to give or not. If you do opt to give, especially to a woman with a child, keep in mind you might quickly be swamped by large numbers of other beggars. Make sure you keep your wallet safe. It's best to walk quickly away. It's difficult to witness poverty and the eyes of a begging child are hard to forget, but your money may be better allocated by giving to a charity that supports local schools or women.
Crossing the Street
The pedestrian is the lowest man on the transportation totem pole in China. Be aware that despite that little green man beckoning you to walk across the street, you need to stay alert -- look both ways, look again and then keep on looking as you cross. Cars will turn in front of you and buses will not slow down as they push through bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Locals tend to jaywalk and cut into moving traffic without so much as a glance to see who's barreling down their direction. Keep this in mind -- you can't be too cautious when it comes to dealing face to face with traffic in China.
You've read the papers and seen it on the news: China is one of the worst polluters on the planet. Gobbling coal and other resources to fuel its burgeoning economy, the air quality in many cities is frightful. Keep this in mind before you go, but don't let it stop you from your travels. Once you're outside major cities, you'll be amazed at how lovely the skies can be (just visit the Great Wall from Beijing on a bad day and you'll understand). Bring along asthma or allergy medication and perhaps even a facemask to help keep your lungs clear.