Visiting China for the first time
July 15, 2014 4:06 PM   Subscribe

Ni hao! I will be visiting China for the first time this December. Please share your advice and anecdotes!

I will spend a week over Christmas visiting a family member studying in Ningbo, China. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to experience China firsthand, however short. This will be my first time in Asia; I'm an American with extensive European travel experience. The family member speaks Mandarin (not yet Cantonese, sadly) and is quite familiar with Chinese culture so I know I'll have a good guide when I get there.

I would appreciate hearing any and all personal stories and advice, both general and specific -- places to go, things to do (or not do!), how to pack, cultural comparisons, blogs and books to read, gift ideas, phrases to memorize, things to keep in mind, and more. I love anticipating and preparing for travel, and with your help, I'll be off to a good start. Xie xie -- thanks!
posted by smorgasbord to Travel & Transportation around China (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Eat literally everything, ignore any previously held cultural assumptions about food and just stuff it all in your mouth. You might regret some of it but you will also make awesome discoveries.

Not sure where you are from in the US but I'm from NYC and I found that NE China was a lot colder in the winter than I was expecting, like really hellishly colder even though the relative temperatures were the same. I ended up having to go to the local Walmart for warmer socks and long underwear.
posted by elizardbits at 4:41 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I lived in Shanghai for ten years, but only visited Ningbo briefly. I recommend taking the gaotie (high-speed rail) to visit Hangzhou and/or Shanghai for a couple of days, if you have the time. It's about an hour to Hangzhou and another hour to Shanghai, and the tickets are around 12USD per leg.

If you're interested in checking out one of the nearby "ancient water towns," I think Shaoxing is the largest and closest to Ningbo, but there are also several between Hangzhou and Shanghai ... Xitang, Zhujiajiao, etc. They're all pretty much the same, so don't worry about going to more than one.

As far as things not to do, my only advice is to be wary anyone who approaches you on the street. Those nice students who want to practice their English and invite you to their tea ceremony are trying to rip you off. As are the people inviting you to sample various teas inside the buddhist temple. And the old ladies pressing "prayer papers" into your hand outside the buddhist temple.

Seconding elizardbits regarding food. And that that area of China is surprisingly cold in the winter -- something about the humidity makes 5C feel like -5C -- so dress warmly.
posted by bradf at 4:53 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thirding food. Be as adventurous as you can (though smart, too). When I lived in China, I had all manners of street food and never had any issues. In fact, the only time I ever got food poisoning was from eating Domino's Pizza in Beijing. Go figure.

Lucky for you, Ningbo is more SE China, which means winter shouldn't feel like the devil incarnate is trying to freeze your toes off one by one. Elizardbits is right, though, about the brutality of winter. Temperatures can be deceiving -- it's the wind that's a real bitch. In any case, I'd bring a good insulated winter coat, gloves, thick socks, a scarf, and a hat. Definitely can't hurt.

If you can, do try and pick up some basic Chinese before you go. (Numbers are always a good thing to know.) China's a little different from a lot of other places in that people really do appreciate even very mangled attempts at speaking Chinese, if it's sincere and effort-filled. I know you'll have a guide and all, but I tell ya that even if you you're too shy to say anyhing out loud in Chinese, being able to pick up the meaning of even a few words someone else around you is saying really is the damnedest feeling.
posted by krakus at 5:35 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Things to brings for yourself:

* definitely winter clothing...don't be fooled into thinking that since it's southernish China that it'll be warm. It won't, even if Ningbo is near (or on?) the coast...and also be aware that indoor heating does not exist in the southern parts of China, so you'd want to wear your winter jacket indoors as well as out. Make sure your clothing will last your trip.
* a set of fork, knife and spoon, if you're not comfortable using chopsticks. It'd be good to have a set that can be easily carried around in a tiny pouch or case, plastic would be good if sturdy and inexpensive and easy to clean. Most restaurants don't have Western silverware, unless they're the 5-star hotel restaurant type.
* hand sanitizer is always a good thing to have when travelling...helpful when you want to eat something with your hands and don't have anywhere to wash off the dirt, grime and bacteria on them
* good walking shoes, as oftentimes urban trekking can easily become urban hiking when you need to dodge discarded garbage / foodstuffs / human waste

Things to bring for family member:

* anything reminiscent of home...even if some things from home can be purchased in China (at rather high import prices...$4 for a can of pork and beans!), it still shows you understand hir situation. If it's something they're particularly fond of, all the better. I had never really appreciated (or even had) Jelly Belly jellybeans before I received them in a care package....they were awesome, especially the ones of flavors hard to find over there (ie, root beer, grape jelly, cinnamon)
* akin to the above...anything that can be deemed good stuff that you can get past customs
* money?
* a Cantonese-English phrase- / textbook would be a pretty smart idea, since books of that type are really rare to find in the mainland. Besides, it must be difficult learning Cantonese in an area where most people wouldn't speak it (maybe head to Hong Kong or Guangdong for a bit of that? Christmas in HK is interesting...I was there at that time last year), so any tool to help him learn would probably be much appreciated.

Also, you might want to get comfortable squatting...and doing your business squatting. Particularly if you want to "rought it" a bit, so to speak. Even in the cities, often you can only find squat toilets. And they'll likely be filthy and stinky, so bring a strong stomach along with that winter clothing.

(Most of this you probably know since you're a well-seasoned traveler yourself.)

(Another random thought...since air pollution is so bad, maybe bring something to help you breathe cleaner air, some sort of air filter/mask? When we went to Beijing in 2008, my brother and I had left the plane for less than an hour and already he was coughing. Ningbo might be better than Beijing air-wise...but still not as good as the air in the US, I would think.)
posted by ditto75 at 7:02 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't worry about your family member not knowing Cantonese. You won't really need it in that area.

Definitely bring a winter clothing. There's no heating down there! I visited family near Hangzhou and slept with an electric blanket at night and had a coat on if I was indoors during the day. Out and about in the sun wasn't too bad though.

Your European travel experience really won't have anything to do with going to Asia. They're completely different regions. Try to refrain from passing too much judgement about how dirty/smelly/disgusting things are when they're just different.

You really won't be able to see much of China in a week. I doubt you'll be completely over jet lag then.

Also, haggle your heart out in the markets! It's intimidating at first, but lots of fun. If you aren't completely sure about numbers in Chinese, many shopkeepers will be more than happy to give you a calculator and you pass that back and forth.

As ditto mentioned, squatty potties are pretty normal. Do have some toilet paper with you, but make sure that you can actually flush it down the toilet. Some older ones don't have the pipes to handle it. It'll have a wastebasket (that's usually overflowing) so you can put in used toilet paper.

Try to make it out to Hangzhou. It's gorgeous. I was there in early/mid December a few years ago and lucked out with snow. It was actually thick, wet, and white snow that just blanketed the West Lake there. Quite possibly one of my favorite memories ever!
posted by astapasta24 at 8:24 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

OH GOD the other thing I just remembered, I can't believe I forgot the horror of it all - definitely check with your relative before you go that their hot water heater is NOT dependent on solar energy. Or if it is, prepare yourself for super tragic cold showers in the dead of winter if you get a few days of rain.

kunming why did you betray me
posted by elizardbits at 8:44 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think travelling to China is that different from travelling anywhere else, like Europe (would you have asked this question if you were travelling to Sweden?):

1. Be observant and humble
2. Assume good intentions and don't judge
3. Don't do things a local person wouldn't do (while this might be hard in general, it is very easy to translate for a traveler: don't do things in public places that you don't see local people doing in those public places)
4. Don't make assumptions (about China, Chinese people, how Chinese people behave or how Chinese people feel about their country, their government, the economy, the one-child policy, the US, anything!)

A few specific items on food/eating (that you could actually "derive" from the four points above):

1. Seconding elizardbits on that you should eat everything. Food is a very important part of Chinese culture. Of course you will encounter Chinese people refusing to eat street food for health or safety reasons, but it's extremely rude for a foreigner to refuse certain foods on such grounds.

2. If you don't know how to use chopsticks, learn before you go.

3. If you are eating with other people, pay attention to how they eat and imitate. Do they eat from the bowl or the plate? Do they move food from communal plates using their chopsticks? A serving spoon? A dedicated pair of chopsticks? The back of their chopsticks? How much food do they move to their bowl/plate at the same time?

How people eat will depend on the region, setting, and with whom they're eating, so it's really difficult to provide general rules here. But people will take notice if you do it differently from everyone else.
posted by yonglin at 8:48 PM on July 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I visited Ningbo for a long weekend while I was living in Shanghai. I opted to take a car down as the Hangzhou Bay Bridge had just recently opened and I thought it'd be cool. It was. I took the train back, and that was cool as well. If you're open to them, most experiences in China are, well, just cool.

I'll assume your relative will know the tourist sites and some "off the beaten track" locations. When I visited, I just walked and walked and walked coming across, amongst other things, a hairstyling class (30 something students, mannequins and wigs) in a park and a marching band playing Souza tunes outside a local christian church. I can link to some picture from the visit if you'd like...

I'll nth the advice to eat everything. If anyone asked what you like, refuse to answer. Also don't let them tell you what they've order. It helps keep the preconceptions in check. Just eat and enjoy.

Have a great time!
posted by michswiss at 1:21 AM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You won't be in a Cantonese-speaking area, so don't worry about that.

The main thing that will help you enjoy China (because it's an interesting and beautiful place dammit) is being open-minded and collected. How do you feel about, say, pork trotters? I know someone who, upon trying his first bite of pork trotter (and being told that that was what it was) was like WTF Chinese people are crazy that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard -

Which, obviously, doesn't seem to have helped him enjoy his stay here. And the same goes for toilets - by the way, don't flush toilet paper down - and people spitting and littering and the like. You're a seasoned traveller, and seem really excited about China, so it's probably not going to be an issue for you. And yonglin above has excellent advice.

Also! Buildings in the southern part of China usually don't have heating, as some have already mentioned, and it's wet and cold. So layers and maybe thermal underwear, especially for nights.
posted by undue influence at 5:26 AM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just noticed a stupid typo.

"If anyone asked what you like, refuse to answer." That'd be rude. If you like it just keep eating more and more...

What I meant to say was: If any one asks what you like before ordering, refuse to answer. My best meals in China were almost always about the company, the place and the discovery of new flavours. I didn't know what I was in for until I'd thoroughly enjoyed a breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Then, of course, there are the after hours noodle vendors. I was a regular at a few in Shanghai. To Die For! There are bound to be some in Ningbo.
posted by michswiss at 6:50 AM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I want to thank everyone {elizardbits, bradf, krakus, ditto75, astapasta25, yonglin, michswiss, undue influence} for sharing your knowledge and advice! It's exactly what I was looking for and ALL of it is helpful: the temperature differences, food suggestions, Cantonese clarification (whoops on my part!), location tips, behavioral advice, and more. I hope to apply it all in person and then write a quick trip report here.

[And, michswiss, of course, I'd love to see the photos you had mentioned!]
posted by smorgasbord at 2:44 PM on July 17, 2014

Response by poster: I'm writing one final update to thank everyone again for having written in with advice. I just got back a few days ago and had an AMAZING time getting-to-know China (loved it!) and visiting the family member. If anyone would like to see some photos or hear stories, please PM me and I'll send you a link when they're available. Xié xié!
posted by smorgasbord at 11:22 PM on January 3, 2015

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