Pamela MacNaughtan

For a lot of people, their first trip to China can be overwhelming, especially if they are ‘going in blind’. China is a country of opposites. It’s yin and yang -as are most Asian countries. China will challenge your patience and push you past your comfort zones -whether you want it to or not.

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow. – Chinese Proverb


You have a choice. You can become a victim by allowing the small idiosyncrasies to get under your skin, or you can take it head on and become the victor. Whatever your choice may be, I can almost guarantee that you will find yourself in tears, at least once or twice. Conquering China is a hefty challenge, but if can be done!

Take Everything Your Mom Taught You & Toss It!

Growing up in a Western culture, we’re taught from a very young age that we need to be polite and respectful. Our Mothers have spent countless hours coaching us to “Remember your Please and Thank yous”, “Don’t point at other people” and “Don’t stare, it’s rude”.

Those things have been tattooed into our brains with permanent ink. They have become a part of our daily behaviours, and because most of us follow these rules on a daily basis at home, we expect people in other countries to do the same. This is mistake #1. China is not America or Canada or any other Western culture. China is China.

  • The Glare– In China, they do not stare at you, they glare at you. You can either become offended and end up in tears, or you can tell yourself it is part of who they are and probably still end up in tears. Glaring can be a hard thing to get used to (especially if “Laverne & Shirley” are bigger than what they are used to seeing). If you can find a humorous way to deal with the glares, great. If you’re feeling overly tired or slightly grumpy when you wake up, maybe stay in and read until you’re feeling better mentally. A positive mental state is a key to successful travel in China. One of the things I’ve done to combat the glares is to look them in the eye, smile and say Ni Hao (Hello, in Mandarin). This usually throws them off and most people will smile back, which will ease the tension.
  • Pointing– This is usually done by children or teenagers. For the most part, seeing a foreigner can be a weird thing. If they are not accustomed to seeing people of different skin colours, or sizes, they are going to be curious. Pointing will ensue. If you look at it from a curiosity point of view, rather than a meanness point of view, it won’t bother you as much.

The Flashing of Bulbs

We will take hundreds (some of us will take thousands) of photos during a trip. We’ll snap photos of everything from landscapes to urban settings to people. Photography is one the best ways to share your adventures with your friends & family.

In China, however, there will be an added twist. You will become the subject matter of countless photos. Yes, I said you! Once again, this is where a positive mental state will come in handy.

China is one of the few countries where I felt like I was trying to dodge the paparazzi. Here is a couple of ways to deal with your new found fame.

  • Umm… hello! You are gracing this country with your presence. They should be taking your photo and telling all their friends how wonderful it was to meet you! Envision a red carpet laid out in front of you and strut your stuff!
  • A group photo with a bunch of Chinese strangers is exactly the same as a group photo with your friends back home, right?
  • Pretend it is a magazine shoot, strike a pose! If you can add some Chinese people to the photo op and have them strike a pose too, great! By the time it’s over, you’ll all be laughing.
  • Hold up your camera and take a photo of them, taking a photo of you. They will either shy away or laugh and have fun with it.

Embrace The Chaos

As with many Asian countries, China is a great example of organized chaos. Remember all those times at home, when you’d be stuck behind a crazy driver who seemed to be making up their own rules? Remember passing them and at times discovering they were Chinese? Remember muttering under your breath about crazy Chinese drivers?

Guess what.

They all drive like that in China. In China, there are no rules. The lines painted on the pavement are merely decoration -or so it seems.

In China, they believe in organized chaos. I’ve been in cars that have pulled in front of someone that has pissed them off, stopped their vehicle, turned off the ignition and sat there holding up traffic. Horns were blaring, I was going deaf, but my driver was making a point.

When he decided the other driver had learned his lesson, he started the car and we were on our way again. Nobody left their vehicles, they just honked their horns, really loudly.

In North America, someone would have been beaten or shot for pulling a stunt like that. In China, it is normal. For some reason, the lack of road rules works here. The accident rates are not nearly as high as they are back home. If you can let your mind go and accept that things will be chaotic, you’ll be fine.

Truckers Know Their Food!

Growing up, whenever we’d pass a restaurant with a lot of 18-wheelers in the parking lot, My Dad would tell us that the food must be amazing inside. In most cases, the outside was a dump. The windows were clouded with dirt and grime, the parking lot was a mess, the bathrooms were gross and the grounds were overgrown. In other words, these places were dives.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered that my Dad was right (Damn…). About 80% of dive restaurants serve really good cheap food, and not just in North America. In China, a lot of your really good food comes from small little restaurants that you probably wouldn’t think twice about.

In Beijing, I found a great noodle house near my hostel that was so small, it fit about 20 customers inside. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that the food was freshly cooked, cheap and delicious! Finding good eats in China can be an adventure, but it’s up to you to make it a fun adventure.

  • Walk through hutongs or small side streets. You’ll find some really yummy food and it is generally very cheap.
  • If it looks good and tastes good, go with it. Don’t ask what it is. Just eat it. Trust me on this one.
  • If it’s crowded with locals whenever you walk by, stop and eat.

Customer Service? What? No Way!

In Western culture, we have become very accustomed to certain levels of customer service. We’re taught that ‘the customer is always right’ and ‘service with a smile’. If we don’t like something, we can return it and get our money back. If we need to take a taxi somewhere, no problem, flagged one down or call one up and you are good to go.  This is not always the case in China.

There will be times where taxi drivers will refuse to drive you somewhere, or where clerks will scowl at you. You’re different. You’re foreign. It is just how it is at times.

It’s usually during these instances when I find myself having a hate, hate relationship with China, rather than a love, hate relationship. It can be hard to combat, especially if you’re tired and just want to get back to your hostel. If you don’t speak a lick of Mandarin, it can be even more frustrating. Chances are, you will cry. Don’t let it ruin your entire trip to China though.

  • Carry around the address of your hostel/hotel written in Chinese. Most hostel staff will be happy to do it for you!
  • Don’t go all New Yorker on them and start making a fuss. Just walk away and find another taxi driver. If you feel like you’re going to go out of your mind, bite the inside of your cheeks until you find a taxi that will take you, then breath out slowly.
  • Consider it treat night. Splurge on dinner or do something special for yourself to help bring back your happy side.

A Positive Mental State Is The Key to Successful Travel In China!

This is probably the most important advice I can give you. As I said in the beginning, China will push you past your comfort zones, whether you want it to or not. It’s a country that thrives on the principles of yin and yang. Chinese cities have some of the worst smog/pollution problems in the world, but the countryside is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Some people will avoid you like the plague because you’re different, while others will ask you to sit down and join them for some tea because you are different.

Before your trip to China, do some research. Read articles or blog posts about what life is like, and be prepared to let go of your comfort zones. Personal space is a myth in China. People will be open about their curiosities. The air may hurt your lungs if you spend too much time in the cities.

You’ll meet the most delightful elderly Chinese woman and have a conversation that neither one of you will understand. You’ll visit monuments and sites that are thousands of years old. You’ll encounter untouched landscapes. You’ll eat questionable food. You’ll learn to let go, sit back and enjoy what the world hands to you, and if you’re like me, you’ll ball your eyes out on the morning that you have to leave it all behind.

Open your mind, set your expectations free and embrace the obstacles and challenges. China has a way of changing a person. Whether the change it positive or negative is totally up to you.


  • December 11, 2010

    I love this article, so many good tips. It sounds like China is sort of like my worst nightmares in High School — they’re all going to stare and point at you! It’s probably really hard not to take that personal, especially when it comes across as rude. We get a lot of attention when we travel because of the baby, which does make me a little self conscious (imagine EVERYONE turning to look at you) but it’s always so positive, lots of smiles and cooing at the baby, so it’s very different. I can’t imagine the same thing but with a glare! Yikes. Again, great tips, thanks so much for sharing. Kind of makes me even more curious about China.

  • December 11, 2010

    I’m living in Shijiazhuang teaching English until next summer and have found everything written here to be true for my experience as well. I agree with Michael – a friendly response can open up doors to amazing experiences. It’s best not to compare – just know it’s different here for different reasons and go with the flow. The people I’ve gotten to know have been kind, helpful and incredibly gracious. I feel so lucky to be here.

  • December 12, 2010

    I will admit that I know very little about China as it is, but… wow. This post is great for someone who hopes to go there someday 🙂

  • Jeremy

    December 11, 2010

    Sounds spot on. I got my photograph taken so many times, as did everyone else I was with. Especially since I visited during the National Holiday, everyone was traveling. We were told, as shocking as it is, some people have never seen foreigners before as it was their first time to Beijing too.

    In regards to the food. Chinese food is inversely proportional to the quality of the restaurant. I found that “nice” looking places often served the worst food, and I really only found myself enjoying the street food from rutty vendors and shacks. It sounds backwards, but it’s true.

  • Michael

    December 11, 2010

    Living in China made me understand a few things in WHY they do these. For the most part, travelers passing by will, like you said, either cry about it or take it in as it is because well – its China. The truth is however that they actually DO have their reasons for the things they do. While our culture has taught us differently and our opinions may be different from the Chinese, I think it could help to look deeper in into these reasons for a better ‘conquer’ or trip. This is a country of thousands of years of history and culture and 1.4 billion people.

    The most important advice for new comers I think is to really be laid back and relaxed. So when you see someone taking a picture of you, don’t get angry and instead pose and make them laugh. Next thing you know, they’ll be inviting you over to their place and you’ll have ‘the local experience’. They are curious and the Chinese people are extremely kind. Disregard the fact that they don’t say Thank You or Your Welcome back to you every second like we do in English. In fact, Chinese friends don’t expect it at all because the gesture is given and there’s no need to say it.

    There is a different set of kindness in China. Eating a meal with a group of people is entirely differently than how we were raised. Though it may not seem like they are kind because just a few minutes ago the guy wouldn’t take you in his cab, they are reasons for it and perhaps you may not understand it but don’t take it personal because a Chinese person will have the same answer if he/she was going in the same direction. It is not because you are a foreigner.

    Ek sorry for the long comment. When I first got here, I did get frustrated easily but I think after some time I started to understand them and actually started to changed my attitude towards life with it. I’m generally more relax and take things as they go. Was it China that did this? Could it have been the same elsewhere? I don’t know. All I know is that China has been good to me in ways I didn’t expect.

    Awesome article. Got me thinking of a few articles to write. 🙂

  • December 12, 2010

    I will be passing through China next year, sounds like a step above other places I’ve been. Although I’ve heard the stares are much worse in India

  • December 12, 2010

    China is the country that I love to hate. I’ve been living in Asia for 10 years, and I still found it a hard go. Maybe that’s why I lost my memory card with at least half the photos that I took during my month I was there.

    When people ask me “How did you like China?” I smile and say nice country, but there are many other countries that are just as nice or nicer. I’ll go back to do the Wall again, so I can get some photos and I’ll go back to Shanghai. Beyond that, I’m not sure it’s worth the aggravation.

  • December 12, 2010

    Wow Pam…what an eye-opening post! I knew China was different, but I had no idea it went that far. I had to adjust to the same thing living in Spain in terms of people staring…and I look Spanish! It’s really difficult in the beginning, but then I just had fun with it and stared when the mood struck too! I love how you combat it with a smile 🙂

  • December 13, 2010

    It would be so hard not to take the glaring and pointing personally! Shedding your own cultural expectations is definitely one of the hardest aspects of travel.

  • December 14, 2010

    Great travel advice Pamela! Reminds me of a book I just read called Getting Lost in Planet China. I’ve only been to Hong Kong and that was so long ago, that it barely counts. Excited to visit mainland China and experience the organized chaos for myself.

    ~cheers, hiptraveler

  • December 17, 2010

    Thanks for this great article. I’ll make my way to China or Beijing specifically next year. This serves as an introduction of what I should expect there. Keep writing there!

  • December 19, 2010

    I never been to China, I was born in Taiwan. However my fiance is from China so he promised me to take me back to visit his homeland and his parent. I bet it will be a different experience. I don’t think people will take picture of us since we both speak Chinese heehhe. Great post.


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