1. Don’t… travel during Golden Weeks
For two holidays every year, many Chinese travel to spend time with family.
During National Day (October) and Spring Festival (Lunar New Year), plane and train tickets are difficult to come by and anywhere that stays open plays host to massive crowds at inflated prices.
Do… visit any other time of year
Outside of Golden Weeks, China is big enough that it’s always peak season somewhere.
2. Don’t… expect much English
In some cities you’ll hear a lot, but most will be the same three phrases over and over (see below). If you really need English help, look for a high school student or a businessperson — they’ve often got the right mix of skill and inclination.
Do… pick up some Mandarin
Since you’ll hear “Hello!”, “How are you?”, and “What is your name?“ constantly, it makes sense to learn these phrases in Mandarin and throw them back at your verbal assailants.
Properly answering “Do you speak Chinese?” and “What country are you from?” are usually enough to earn praise of my limited speaking skills. I’ve even impressed some to the point where I get offers of tea and bai jiu, especially on long train journeys.
A bit of bargaining vocabulary also makes a stronger base to argue from in the markets.
3. Don’t…. underestimate bai jiu
“China’s well-known trademark” is a clear liquor with the taste of bleach. It’s a common facet of dinners, official business functions, and sidewalk card-playing. I’ve also used it occasionally as a last-ditch charcoal lighter fluid.
Not incredibly strong as liquors go, and usually consumed in thimble-sized shot glasses. The problem comes once you’ve been asked to imbibe half a dozen thimbles, along with a few glasses of beer or wine.
It eventually catches up, and makes for a rough hangover as well.
Do… give a toast (but always with deference!)
In both casual and formal drinking situations, it can seem like the plan is to get as many different people to toast the foreigner as possible. This way, each teacher/administrator (or random dude at the next table) drinks as little as possible, while you drink each time.
The best plan to counter this attack is to fire back toasts relentlessly. When you do, though, always remember to show respect to elders or superiors by hitting below the rim of their glass. They’ll often try the same, causing a bit of a struggle.
Optimal strategy: go really high, as if you don’t know this custom. At the last minute, drop down to the very bottom of their glass. Gets ’em every time.
4. Don’t… stare at kids’ naked asses
Let’s not gloss over this one, because it will almost certainly happen.
It isn’t uncommon, even in large cities, for children to relieve themselves wherever they happen to be. The first time I caught the show was inside a busy shopping center — a young boy standing in a buggy, and his mother holding a ziploc bag underneath.
There are even children’s pants that are open where the bottom seam should be, made specifically for this purpose. It’s unclear what the cutoff age for this — let’s be honest — convenient habit is, but I never could find a pair of those pants…
Do… try not to laugh too hard
And don’t join in, unless you’re REALLY drunk (see #3 above).
5. Don’t… fear the food
Horse, fish head, stinky tofu, dog meat, chicken feet, and the dreaded durian. Some stink, some squirm, and some are just unidentifiable.
The first phrases of Mandarin I learned were food based, just so I’d have an idea of what I was getting into when pointing at the menu.
Do… go for street food and Muslim noodles
Shanghai has pot stickers. In much of West China, roadside barbecue grills are the thing. Fish balls abound, and the smell of stinky tofu hits from a few meters away.
It’s always cheap, mostly good, and for the best I often end up walking back for a second round. Simply put: eat the street food.
Muslim noodles are another favorite of mine, written as 兰州拉面 and very rarely translated into English. Instead, listen for a long hunk of dough slapping rhythmically against a metal worktable, look for a guy cutting ribbon size noodles off into a vat of broth, and order from the picture menu on the wall.
I take mine fried, throw in a little spicy sauce from the jar on the table, and put my chopsticks into what may be the perfect noodle dish.
6. Don’t… skip through Hong Kong
Hong Kong is more than just Central and Kowloon. The Island has Hong Kong Trail, which cuts east-west across its entirety. The New Territories, north of Kowloon, still feature old-China villages and temples (as well as one of my favorite beach campsites: Big Wave Bay). Lantau’s Big Buddha looks out over this larger island and is reachable by cable car.
You don’t expect one of the world’s most famous metropolises — and one of the most densely populated — to have so much green space, but less than half of the special administrative region has been developed, and a full 40% is prohibited from ever being so.
Do… visit less popular Macau
If Hong Kong is the child of East and West, Macau is their neglected stepchild.
A former Portuguese colony, Macau is now promoted as “Asia’s Vegas.” There are casinos around every corner, plus a horse track and dog track.
But of course, there’s more here than gambling. The Old Town, centered on Senado Square, is mostly old-school Portuguese architecture, churches, and a fort. On the southern island are fishing villages and lots of hiking opportunities.
Stay out of the casinos, and you’ll spend less in Macau than in its more famous sibling across the delta.