Photo: Mills Baker
1. You have to travel outside Beijing and Shanghai before you can claim you’ve traveled in China.
China is full of history and beautiful landscapes. Although Beijing and Shanghai have a lot to offer, some of the most amazing experiences will not come in these cities. Harbin is home to the largest ice and snow festival in the world and is held every year in January. Hangzhou and Suzhou are known as heaven on Earth in the famous Chinese phrase “Heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below”. Bordering Tibet, Yunnan province is home to 53 of China’s 56 minority cultures and will make you forget China’s megacities completely with its vibrant clothing and beautiful natural landscapes.
2. First, when Chinese invite you to dinner, you have to accept their invitation.
Try all the food they want to order for you, and let them pay when they offer. It is a great sign of respect when Chinese invite you to dinner and they are extremely proud of their cuisine, often wanting to order some of the most glamorous dishes on the menu for you to try. During dinner, when someone says gan bei to you, holding up their glass, know that this is not synonymous with cheers. Gan bei literally means “dry cup”, more closely related to bottoms up. They expect you to finish your drink in one swift chug. A word to the wise, always keep your drink low, while refilling often. One never wants to get caught with a drink filled to the rim when someone yells gan bei.
3. China’s cultural development lags far behind that of its economic development.
The unprecedented economic growth in China leaves a distorted understanding that their cultural development has been able to keep pace. Unfortunately, China’s cultural exchange with the world has a lot of room for improvement. When considering China’s soft power — their contributions to the world via publishing houses and film production studios for example — they struggle greatly in market share, and what is produced, is rarely exported outside China. Ethnic minorities abound in western China, but this population is a large majority of the 82 million that live below the poverty line. They lack access to the economic development making great strides in the larger cities and this puts their heritage at great risk.
4. Communication is bound to be a struggle, so please be patient.
Chinese is an intricate language that includes an individual character for every thought one might want to express. This tonal language is further complicated by the necessity to control one’s voice with each word. An incorrect tone or a lack of emphasis on a specific syllable often means that you’ve expressed something entirely different from your intended meaning. To simplify things a bit, “ma” can express horse or mother, it can also imply an inquisitive tone at the end of a sentence, or it can be used as the verb ‘to scold’. It all depends on how you say it.
Only in 1982 was Hanyu Pinyin accepted as the international standard to use the Latin alphabet to clarify Chinese pronunciation. Travelers, whether you believe you can communicate in basic Chinese or you believe Chinese people should all speak English, please be patient when having trouble communicating. Please understand two things: one, it’s likely that your pronunciation is incorrect. And two, even when a heavy emphasis is put on learning the English language, Chinese students often struggle because their traditional rote memorization study habits do not coincide well with a Latin-based language.
5. Elderly Chinese have some interesting practices to keep fit.
Take a gander to the park any day of the week before 8AM and you’ll find elderly Chinese walking backward and slapping themselves. Walking backward is believed to keep the spine healthy as the body is forced to stand up straight and lean slightly backward in order to stay balanced. Slapping themselves on the arms, shoulders, and back is a sort of massage, keeping blood flowing to these areas of the body. This all includes some extreme speculation on my part as there is nothing to back this up other than hearsay and folktales.
6. Vigilance is extremely important both as a pedestrian and as a passenger.
For every 100,000 motor vehicles in China, there are 104.5 road fatalities each year. In the United States, this number is much lower at 12.9. Before visiting, it’s important to understand the underlying causes of this terrifying statistic. In 1990, only 5.5 million people owned cars. That’s 0.5% of the country’s total population. In only 20 years, the numbers of cars owned increased to 70 million, or 5.2% of the population. With that said, the dire statistics of automobile accidents in China does not rest solely on the increase in the number of cars on the road. We must also consider the history of transportation in China and the education each citizen is provided with before they begin to drive.
The majority of Chinese drivers today did not grow up in the backseat, kicking their feet to the latest sing-along on their way to summer camp. The average citizen did not have the resources to buy an automobile 25 years ago. Today, when wanting to obtain a driver’s license, a written exam must first be passed. There is not a course to take, nor a teacher to guide you, simply a handbook that must be memorized. With a passing score on the written exam, one may begin driving lessons. Neither the driving lessons nor the final exam, include driving in a realistic environment, therefore the success of the students is almost guaranteed. Parallel parking is rarely mentioned nor is the importance of maintaining a constant speed. I’m often suffering from motion sickness in the backseat when traveling more than 20 minutes on the freeway because most drivers only know how to go fast and how to brake sharply, forcing my body to remain in a constant forward and backward gravitational pull that eventually has me feeling quite uncomfortable.
7. If it’s summertime, you’re going to see a lot of Chinese men with their bellies hanging out.
When the weather becomes hot and humid, Chinese men will roll up their shirt, letting their belly hang out. Many men will claim that this practice helps them to cool off and that Chinese medicine supports the idea. Eastern medicine practitioners have fought back, claiming that there is no support for this within Chinese medicine’s theories. Whether or not it helps one to cool off, prepare for unfit bellies hanging out.
8. You shouldn’t skip the Impressions performances.
Zhang Yimou was the Chief Director of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Among an innumerable amount of projects, he has put together three culturally rich performances around China, known as Impressions. These performances showcase the ethnic minorities and their way of life. They can be found in Yangshuo, Hangzhou, and Lijiang and are not to be missed, seriously.