Chinese culture for first-time travelers

Recently I was looking through my photos from China. Some of them remind me about the differences between European and Chinese culture, the others bring me the memories of things which surprised me. I was repeating myself “it’s a pity I did not know that before”… That’s how I came up with the idea for this article. Today, I’m going to collect all that what I’ve experienced and considered different in China compared to that what I’m used to in Europe. If you are going to visit China in the near future, reading this article will be a good start.

In the beginning, I’d like to make one comment to avoid any misunderstanding. Below listed points are my subjective view on China. It might be that you have visited other places than me, met different people and your view on Chinese culture and the country itself is different than mine. I’m good with that, and I’m not going to change your view:-).

This article is hell long, loaded with high-quality photos and really interesting texts, and definitively worth to go through it all. But I’m also giving you the opportunity to jump to the part most interesting for you by picking the headline from the Table of Contents:

Arrival to China

Chinese Visa

If you want to visit China, you must have a Chinese visa. Chinese visa is issued for a specified period of time with a certain number of entries.

And please, never underestimate visa expiration date… Yes, I know personally a man who was informed at the airport’s counter desk that his visa has gone out a few days ago. You can imagine in what kind of trouble he got. And believe me, it is not difficult to forget about it.

Use some reminders like Google Calendar to notify you about the coming date of expiration in advance.

Just after landing – Immigration Office

As I described in one of my previous articles about things to remember when booking the flight, you will go through immigration procedure just after landing. It looks more-less like this:

  1. In a plane, you will receive the immigration document to fill in advance – do it. It’s a yellow paper where you enter basic data like your name, date of birth, your destination address and what is the purpose of the visit. Yes, this is one of these situations when it’s good to have a pen with you 🙂 Think about it in advance and pack it. If you want to know more about things to pack with you to China, read my previous article about how to pack for a business trip.
  2. Next, go through fingerprints scanning machines (automatic – self service), take a printed ticket and go to the appropriate queue to meet the immigration officer. Even if the length of the queue will frighten you, don’t worry – Chinese people came to perfection with the handling of massive crowds. You will spend there from 15 to 30 minutes.

Leaving China you will go through the same procedure like in point 1 – fill in the Departure Card in advance (see photo below) and present it with your boarding card to the immigration’s officer at the counter:

Chinese culture - departure card
Chinese immigration document – Departure Card

… and baggage claim

Keep in mind that your luggage will be checked if you carry food or any illegal substances. This is often done with the assistance of the Detective Dog.

Chinese culture - detective dog
Detective dog at work

Domestic flights in China

It’s quite easy to get to the biggest cities of China from almost any part of the world. Airlines worldwide offer direct connections to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen, and many others. But if you want to get to some smaller city, then you will experience China domestic connections. It’s not so different from what we know from Europe or USA but you will notice that:

  • Just after flight security announcements about fastening your seat belt, store big items, and so on, you will hear a message from “your security officer”. On each Chinese flight, there is a security officer on board. In the announcement you will hear that you are under surveillance and in case of any offense, this guy will bring you in front of justice.
  • On domestic flights, you will not be served with any alcohol – only soft drinks are available. I think this is coming from Chinese culture, as drinking alcohol is not very popular in China (except the north of China 🙂 )
  • I’ve seen it on dozens of flights – meals are always served in cardboard boxes:
Chinese culture - flight food served in boxes
In-flight food package

Why? The reason is very simple – it’s much easier to collect the garbage later. This really works – good idea.

Money and paying in China

Renminbi, Yuan, RMB, CNY all these names mean the same – Chinese currency.

One Yuan is more-less 0,13 EUR or 0,14 USD (October 2018).

Every time I go to China I take some US dollars in cash and I exchange them for RMB on the spot in the special cash machines. To exchange money, you need to scan your passport. Generally, in China wherever you go, whatever you do, they will take your photos, scan your documents, fingerprints, check documents and so on. My subjective feeling is that it became a part of Chinese culture – double or triple checks of everything is a pretty natural method to secure things.

If you want to use your credit card – it’s possible with Visa, Mastercard, and other worldwide services but from my experience, credit cards work perfectly mostly in hotels or airports. Once in a supermarket, my card was rejected and I had to find ATM to withdraw cash. You can imagine – I stopped the whole line and people were waiting for me in the queue… Luckily Chinese people are patient and nobody killed me 🙂

Chinese use massively mobile phones to pay almost for everything. WeChat – a WhatsApp like messenger app is very popular in China. It offers also money transfer functionality and something called a Red Packet. This is coming from Chinese culture – when Chinese people are happy, they send some small amounts of money to their friends and this is called Red Packet.

Nihao! – basic phrases in Chinese

It’s always good to know some basic words in the local language. In China, start with “Nihao!” – it means “Good morning” and say “Xie, Xie” to thank someone.

It’s really difficult to speak Chinese, but people will always appreciate when you know at least the basics like “Good morning” or “Thank you”.

If you are interested in some more basic phrases in the Mandarin language you can check my guide on basic phrases in 5 languages.

Chinese culture of “the face”

This is one of the biggest cultural difference between China and Europe. And many Europeans complain a lot on that.

In Chinese culture, the face means the honor of the person and loss of face is the worst thing that can happen to a Chinese.

Let me give you an example. Let’s assume that we are dealing with the following situation: you ask somebody on the street how to get to the nearest metro station? Believe me, you will always get the directions. Even if the person you ask has no clue where it is – to satisfy you, and to not lose the face, you will be lied to… Yes, this is how it works. And believe me, you will have to deal with it many times. After a while, you can get used to it and just being aware of this helps a lot.

The Communism

The political system of the People’s Republic of China is a socialist republic. The country is ruled by a single party called the Communist Party of China. Chinese culture is highly hierarchical, therefore you will see a lot of uniforms, monuments, militaries, police, and propaganda. Last year I was in Shanghai at the time when China launched a new regulation regarding smoking in public. I mean they banned it.

My first thought was that it will take some time to implement it in all these bars and restaurants full of cigarette smoke. And you know what? It was not a case – the new rule was implemented with immediate effect. At that time I could see on my own eyes, how strong is the influence of the communist government on the society.

A few months later, I was visiting China during the national congress of the Communist Party. I learned that each Communist Party member is allowed to watch TV broadcast from the Congress at work – it’s an extra free time. A good way to keep a high number of subscribers :-). The worst thing was that the internet extremely slowed down for the time of Congress event. The reason was that the government didn’t want to have any unexpected information/protests or whatever, so they came up with the idea of censorship for the whole… country.

Chinese culture - monuments
Monument of Chen Yi in Shanghai

Religion

The Chinese are mostly atheists. I’ve seen the Christian church just once in China. From the discussions with my Chinese friends, I had a feeling that for them believing in God is equal to believing in Fairy Tales, no difference.

Most of my Chinese friends had heard about the holy wars and they believe that thanks to getting rid of religion they have fewer troubles and are able to keep such a big country in one piece.

Crimes and safety

Believe me, there is no other country in the world with such a huge number of surveillance cameras. Katie Melua was singing that “there are nine million bicycles in Beijing” but someday somebody should sing that “there are nine million surveillance cameras in Shanghai…” 🙂 And do you know how they called this system? “Skynet”. Yes, like the AI of Doom from the Terminator…

Anyway, cameras and policeman on each corner gives some sense of safety. I’m speaking for myself but my Chinese colleagues confirm that crime is not a problem in China.

Internet in China

If you are going to visit China without any VPN service, forget about Google, FB, Twitter, WhatsApp, Dropbox and many more popular apps and sites in the world. China government installed a firewall called “Great Firewall” which protects Chinese society from information from outside…

You will ask, so what do they use the internet for if they are cut off from the Google, FB, Amazon and so on? Well, imagine that there are Chinese mirrors for the banned sites. The functionalities are also pretty awesome like the apps we know in EU and sometimes better. For example, Chinese people say that if you can’t find something on TaoBao, then it probably does not exists 🙂

To bypass the “Great Firewall” you have to use VPN services. Have it already installed before entering China. It’s much more difficult to install such app behind “Great FireWall”. To know some more details on that, read my article about VPN for China.

Chopsticks

My advice – try to learn to eat with chopsticks before visiting China. This will prevent you from being hungry 🙂

Of course in Shanghai, Beijing and some other big cities you will get the knife and fork if you want, but by doing this you build a cultural wall between you and your hosts. Chopsticks are an important element of Chinese culture and therefore you should respect it and try to eat with that 🙂

Chinese culture - chopsticks
Chopsticks

Service in restaurants

I just love this part of Chinese culture – you enter the restaurant, get the menu card, you order food and at the latest in five minutes, the first dishes land on the table. And this is not an exception, it is a standard for all restaurants.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been visiting with my friends one of the Shanghainese restaurants called “I Love You”. Right after we were seated, the waiter brought us the hourglass and he solemnly swore in Chinese that all the dishes we ordered will arrive in 25 minutes. If they will fail to complete the order before the hourglass runs out, you get one dish and a dessert for free.

25 minutes to deliver all ordered dishes.

Lost in translation

Writing about this restaurant, one anecdote comes to my mind. During my first visits to China, I did not know any words in Chinese. The same my colleagues. So, just after we found a free table, we let the waiter know he would come over. It was a young man and he did not know a single word in English. We were absolutely convinced that some words are international. So the first thing we asked for was Menu.

Unfortunately, he did not understand… After repeating 5 times loud and clear the word M-E-N-U and trying with gestures to show a book in the air, he just turned and disappeared. In a few seconds, he came with a young waitress. We thought that she speaks English, but we were wrong. Next day, our Chinese colleagues were laughing when we told them what happened to us in the restaurant.

Our friends enlightened us that if you want to get a menu card, you should ask for “Càidān”, and the sound of the word “menu” in Chinese is similar to “beautiful” in reference to the lady… That was a perfect example of “lost in translation” :-).

Chinese food

If the service in restaurants is something that I love in Chinese culture, then Chinese food is something that I adore!

Try everything

First of all, you don’t need to compose starters, main dish, desserts for yourself. If you eat with your friends, then all ordered meals end up at the center of the table and everyone takes himself what he likes the most. This is much better compared to European culture where you order one dish and if you are unhappy with your choice, then forget about stealing food from the neighbor’s plate :-).

Huge choice

If you stay in a large Chinese city like Shanghai, you will never feel culinary boredom. You can pick among a variety of Chinese restaurants from different parts of China (each province means different cuisine). You can eat Korean food, Japan food, Thai food, German food (in Shanghai you can eat a true German schnitzel as in Bavaria), name it and probably there is a restaurant nearby that will serve it for you.

Chinese culture - German schnitzel in Shanghai
In Shanghai, you can eat a true German schnitzel as in Bavaria
Chinese culture - Korean food
Korean restaurant in Shanghai

Hot Pot

Hot Pot is a very popular way of having your meal. The tradition was born in Sichuan province and very quickly fitted into Chinese culture. The principle of hot pot is simple – in the center of the table, there is a hole for pots with boiling water with spices: one spicy, one mild and there can be some more – whatever you like. Next, you need to dip into these pots all kinds of food like slices of meat, vegetables or seafood.

Chinese culture - hot pot
Hot Pot in HaiDiLao restaurant

Dumplings

Dumplings are also part of Chinese culture. Recently my Chinese colleague told me that it is Chinese tradition to eat dumplings before departure. This tradition came from old times. In seaside towns, when the sailor was to sail out into the sea, he was receiving dumplings for dinner. As the dumplings during cooking always stay on the surface it was taken as a good fortune. So now you know why in Chinese business lounges you can always have some dumplings 🙂

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Street food

This is something I did not try, but on each street, you will see a lot of opportunities to grab something of these:

Chinese culture - street food
Street food

Fresh food

In many restaurants (especially in these with seafood), you will be able to pick your dishes before it will appear on the plate in front of you. This gives you confidence that it is fresh.

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Chinese culture of ceremonies at the table

I told you about service and food in Chinese restaurants, but there is one more element in this puzzle. Chinese culture is very official and therefore you should know at least basic rules of behavior at the table:

  • Unless you are not “Laoban” (it means the boss or the most important person in the room), don’t take the seat first, rather wait until you will be seated.
  • If you take the seat in front of the doors – it means that you are the host. In other words – you will pay for lunch.
  • If fish was served, then nobody can touch it until “Laoban” will start.
  • “Laoban” starts with fish head and tail. This is sometimes difficult for European “Laobans”.
  • If you will eat everything that is on the table, then it is a sign for your host that he ordered too less and expect more food to come… Chinese culture of eating is opposite to the European tradition, where we show our satisfaction by eating all that’s on the plate.
Chinese culture - fish
Laoban’s fish

Paying the bill

When it comes to paying the bill in China – don’t worry about a tip. Leaving a tip on the table in the restaurant in China will end with a waiter chasing you, trying to give your money back.🙂

It happened once to me and my colleagues in China. If you are interested in this topic, you can read some more in my article on how to tip in different parts of the world.

Chinese proverbs

I don’t know if this is only my feeling, but Chinese people have natural ability to quote Chinese proverbs perfectly matching to the situation. Proverbs are a big part of Chinese culture and it really sounds smart 🙂

One is still in my memory. It’s about giving the example to gain respect:

If you want to scare monkeys, you have to kill the rooster.

Modernity and tradition

Before I visited China for the first time, I thought that this country is little backward in technology and less modern than Europe. Well, definitively it’s not a case in big cities like Shanghai.

Chinese society is really keen on technology. They use their phones when paying, communicating, and entertaining. You can spot electric cars everywhere in Shanghai – much more than in EU and US altogether. There are extremely fast trains and good air connections between the cities. Skyscrapers rising from the ground shows how fast China develops.

On the other hand, you can see a lot of traditional buildings, old towns, people practicing Tai Chi on the pavements. The most important is that it works all together and is kind interesting for foreigners.

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Shopping in China

Supermarkets in China looks more-less like in Europe. Some of the goods in the store may seem exotic, but the majority is the same. It’s more difficult to get good cheese at normal price as the Chinese do not like it too much. The same with coffee.

What I’ would recommend you to buy in a supermarket is Chinese tea. Doesn’t matter if it’s jasmine, green or any other kind – all are better than what you can get in Europe. Trust me, tea bought in China tastes better 🙂

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Fake market

One of the stereotypes about China is that they produce a lot of fake products… So if you are going to visit Shanghai and you are interested in brands like Adibas, Njike, Wneger or Guci. Then you can visit the metro station “Museum of Science and Technology”. This is the underground market named by foreigners “fake market“. Chinese people don’t like this name, therefore try to limit the usage of the word “fake” in this phrase.

You can find on the fake market all the world’s most popular brands in “special price for you my friend”. It’s huge, and you can find there everything. Starting with electronics, through souvenirs, toys, watches, finishing on clothes.

But be careful. If you are going to buy something, never agree with the first price given by the shopkeeper. You have to bargain with him. Remember that these goods are cheap imitations of real products and will never bring you the same quality as the originals. All the stuff I bought there got broke soon after I came back home. Therefore the strategy should be more like: “I’ll give you 1/10 of this special price you offered me… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ “.

This is a little bit like theater. First, shopkeeper pretends to be offended by your offer. Then you leave. He runs after you shouting his second offer. You turn back and the fun starts again… 🙂

Coffee

Coffee lovers – China is not a place for you. The Chinese are simply not used to drinking coffee.

Tea is the king and nothing will change that.

Of course, you can find a place where they serve coffee, but you need to search for it. Forget that somebody in the company will ask you to go for a coffee break. The best what you can get is instant coffee (Nescafe 3 in 1) or coffee in a can:

Chinese culture - instant coffee
Coffee in a can

Well, I drank it for the first time in my life in China and… I did not like it. If somebody would ask me how chemistry tastes like, I would serve him Nescafe in a can if you know what I mean 🙂

Starbucks

That’s a real paradox – did not I just told you that the Chinese do not drink coffee? Yes I did, and it’s still true, but they love Starbucks! The paradox is that in China, in the most famous coffee shop which is Starbucks, the top-selling product is not a coffee. Go and check what people have on the table – if you see a coffee, it means that this person is foreigner 🙂 They drink everything but the coffee at Starbucks.

I’m drinking coffee in Starbucks – it means I’m foreigner 🙂

Hotels and accommodation

Picking the wrong place for accommodation can ruing your business trip or vacations. Therefore, you can use below-listed hotels where I’ve been sleeping a few times and I can recommend the accommodation there.

In Shanghai:

In Yantai:

In Changchun:

All these hotels are clean and tidy – perfect to rest after a hard day at work.

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Toilets

This topic may seem trivial, but I think it’s worth to mention that seating toilets in China are the minority. The most popular are squatting toilets. The good news is that in above-listed hotels you will have a “normal” seating toilet in your bathroom – that’s a value 🙂

And don’t worry – there are also seating toilets on the airports and some train stations.

Chinese culture - squating toilets
The most popular toilet type in China

 

Chinese culture - european style toilet
Toilets in hotels are the sitting ones

Chinese culture - european style toilet

Driving in China

You are not allowed to drive in China with International Driver’s Permit (IDP) as China did not sign the convention on IDPs. You need a Chinese license to drive in China. On the other hand, there is a question if you would like to?

Driving a car in China is different than what we are used to in Europe or States. I would say that there is something like the Chinese culture of driving. Let me share with you my observations from the streets of Shanghai, Chongqing, Yantai, and Changchun:

  • The main rule on the road is: if you do not push in, it means you do not want to go. You need a lot of assertiveness on the road to drive in China, especially in big cities like Shanghai. Pushing in and enforcing the priority on the road is the everyday life on Chinese streets.
  • Despite the fact that Chinese driving style is aggressive, people stay more-less calm. I’ve seen a dozen dangerous situations on the road where people remained still. The same situations in Europe would end up with people stepping out of their cars and do start the fight.
  • The larger vehicle is considered as the one with more privileged on the road.
  • Speeding is not a case in China
  • Pedestrian on the highway is nothing unusual

Mopeds and bikes

The most popular means of transport in China are mopeds and bikes. As cars are still too expensive for many people, bikes and mopeds are a perfect alternative. You can buy such vehicle dirt-cheap.

On the other hand, it’s amazing what they carry with these vehicles. Sometimes I was asking myself: “Ok, but how did you load it men??!” (see my photos below). Such things you will find exclusively in this part of the world 🙂

The dark side of the huge popularity of motorbikes is that many of the moto drivers are lacking driving skills (or even minimum of responsibility).

As an example – electric mopeds do not emit any sound while driving. Combine it with driving at night without lights on and you will know what I mean by lack of responsibility. Unfortunately, it happens every day on every street. I witnessed several such situations.

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Cars

There’s a lot of European brands on Chinese streets but there is one thing very specific for China. You can buy European or American cars (especially premium cars) in L-version. “L” means Large.

Generally Chinese love large cars. And not only cars. My observation is that in China everything that’s big and large is considered better. I think this is a part of the Chinese culture and mentality.

Also, local car manufacturers grow with their sales and I’ve seen a lot of nice looking Chinese cars on the streets. Some of them were killing me with the brand names – what would you say for driving a Trumpchi or Beyond Your Dreams (BYD)?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Pretty cool, huh?

Chinese culture - Trumpchi
Chinese car brand – Trumpchi

Car plates in Shanghai

As I wrote before, cars are still expensive in China but even if you have enough money for a car, you should check again your bank account if you can afford to buy car plates. For example, if you want to drive in Shanghai you need to have an additional 10 000 EUR on top to buy car plates. Only the Shanghainese plates enable you to drive on Shanghai highways.

I’ll tell you more – as my friend told me, there is a limit of plates and first you need to sign up for the lottery. Then win,

Yeah, it’s not so easy.

Recently the Chinese government allowed issuing car plates for free in Shanghai if you buy the electric car. Immediately people started to buy electric cars. There are thousands of them on the streets of Shanghai.

Crowds management

The population of China in 2016 was 1.379 billion and in 2017 Shanghai had 24.18 million inhabitants (official ones). That’s a huge amount of people and each day these millions of people commute to work, buy stuff, need entertainment and from time to time some holiday.

In China, you will see queues for everything, but even long lines are moving pretty fast. One of the practices I’ve noticed is that they are continuously adapting the throughput of the processes according to the demand. Usually, there is a guy who is managing the line, directing people to unload the traffic.

Metro stations are a good example of huge crowd management. One way lanes full of people, no flow conflicts, everything goes smoothly. To avoid accidents with pushing someone by the crowd on the track, the tracks were separated from the platform.

Chinese culture - metro
Shanghai metro station
Chinese culture - crowds management
Floor visual signs with an indication of waiting time

Traditional medicine

Traditional medicine is a part of Chinese culture and exists in parallel to the conventional one.

There are also two types of drug stores: conventional and traditional ones. As my colleagues say, depends on your decease the doctor will guide you to use some herbs or other natural medicines or prescribe the pills if your health problem is more serious.

For foreigners visiting the traditional pharmacy is an opportunity to buy some fancy souvenirs like old ginseng root.

Chinese culture - natural medicine
Old ginseng roots

Karaoke

The Chinese love to sing. Karaoke bars are very popular and sometimes you can confuse them with high-class restaurants due to the expensive interior design – marble floor, private rooms with stage and a microphone, everything is shining (see picture below).

Moreover, they not only like to sing but also can do it. I was pretty shocked when I heard my Chinese colleague singing for the first time – he was like a pro. He explained to me then that singing is a part of Chinese culture and considered as a very good thing to relax.

Anyway, the European team had no chance with our Chinese colleagues in a karaoke competition. To put it mildly, the sounds coming out of our mouths did not match the music 🙂

Chinese culture - karaoke 1
The corridor of one of the karaoke bars

As my friend said, in Chinese culture, the best way to relax is to sing a song. In public places like airports, train stations or malls you can spot karaoke booths (see below).

You just go there, close the doors, pick the song and sing. I never felt the need to take advantage of it, but I’ve seen that these booths are pretty busy. I guess this kind of business would not find a lot of customers in Europe 🙂

Chinese culture - karaoke booths
Karaoke booths in Beijing airport

Contrasts

It’s worth to mention that China is a country of big contrasts. You can see a lot of high-tech and smart solutions and just a few meters further you will face something completely opposite.

China is still developing and I know from my older colleagues who have been there 20 years ago, that China has made a cultural leap. With this pace of growth, China will be a different country in the next 20 years.

Chinese culture - contrasts

Think big, act bigger

This is something that hits you just after arrival to China – the scale of everything. Starting from airports through roads and ending with buildings – everything is big and there is a lot of everything.

This way of thinking – long-term planning and scale thinking is a part of Chinese culture and their strategy.

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Final words

Once, I’ve heard from one European guy living in China for more than 20 years something like this:

In China, everything is possible but nothing is simple.

I can agree with him. In my opinion, China is one of the most interesting countries in the world but you need to understand the Chinese culture and Chinese mentality. Without that, a lot of things will annoy you and make you mad.

I hope you like it – let me know in comments and if you want, share your stories and experiences.

Featured image and photos in the article: Lucas

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