The language issue was a challenge during my trip to China. And I did have some culinary frustrations. But China exceeded my expectations in so many ways. Perhaps my expectations were needlessly low. It didn’t help that my phrasebook had some helpful expressions such as, “What time does the hot water come on?” and “There is a rat in my room.” I read so many warnings about China before my trip. I was sort of expecting the worst. But those Communists, bless their hearts, really came through for me!
1. Helpful Locals
Many of the various challenges I encountered were mitigated by the surprising (to me) helpfulness of the locals. I had expected the Chinese people to be somewhat cold and standoffish (like we New Englanders can be). Maybe I had this preconception because of the decades that they’ve lived under Communism. Happily, I found the complete opposite to be true. Throughout my trip, strangers, even those unable to speak any English, approached me and gave me a hand when I must have looked completely helpless and clueless. This was true from my first night in Shanghai–when a waiter helped me open a drink bottle using a method completely foreign to me, and probably to the entire Western world—to my last night in Beijing—when a non-English-speaking police officer accompanied me down a dark alley to a theater I had trouble finding on my own.
2. Reasonable Throngs
I had been dreading the crush of humanity in a country of 1.4 billion people. And there were a few times I had a hard time getting a good picture because it seemed like all 1.4 billion people were standing in my way. But there was another aspect of China I wasn’t considering. China is vast, and it seems that nearly everything in it is huge. Tens of thousands of people visit the Forbidden City every day, but it’s so enormous, it doesn’t seem quite that crowded. The same was true for so many of the temples I visited. Don’t get me wrong. There’s not a whole lot of opportunity for solitude. (Or for quiet. The Chinese love cranking up the tunes in public parks, often for exercising.) But China actually has a much lower population density than Italy or Switzerland, and just a little higher than the Czech Republic or Poland. The subways did get pretty crowded at times, but for the most part there is room for all those people. No, there were no employees pushing passengers onto the subway to get them filled up like cans of sardines. (That actually happens in Japan.)
Okay, I was visiting in the off-season, especially in Beijing, where it was frigid. I’m sure that helped! I have read horror stories about unbearable crowds at the Forbidden City. But I always avoid visiting someplace during peak tourist season. Fall is often a good time to travel—not high season, but not overly inclement weather either. It’s always best to be strategic when you decide when to travel.
I was expecting to be discouraged by litter and dirt. I was absolutely wrong. The streets and tourist sites were very clean. Workers were constantly sweeping and scrubbing. Communism works! Most importantly, and entirely contrary to my expectations, I found the public restrooms (which conveniently can be found virtually everywhere) to be shocking. Shockingly clean, that is. No, they weren’t spotless. But less face it, there’s no shortage of grungy restrooms here in the US.
There wasn’t as much smoking or spitting as I anticipated. Okay, I did see a bit of loogie-hocking and snot-rocket-blowing in Beijing, but it was so bitterly frigid while I was there, I gave everyone a pass on that. I imagine that this was true (and that things were cleaner than I was expecting) because my trip was limited to major coastal cities, where appealing to Western visitors is paramount. It could be that a lot of the nastiness you hear about still goes on in cities of the interior of China. I hope to find out sometime in the future!
5. Chinese Hotel
In Beijing, I stayed at the DoubleTree in the city and the Hilton at the airport. I was anticipating Western levels of service. Not so in Shanghai, where I stayed at a hotel that was part of a Chinese chain. Based on what I read online, my expectations were fairly low. Going in, I knew my hotel had just one great advantage going for it: the fantastic location directly across the street from a subway stop on three major lines. Chinese chain hotel, you played me for a fool. The staff was friendly, and their English was pretty good. The room was shabby but perfectly acceptable (for me, in any case). The WiFi, although somewhat complicated to connect to, worked with absolutely no problem. There was ample toilet paper. The internet told me to expect none of these things. The internet was wrong. Imagine that! (Granted, there were some shady types lingering out front at night. But I can’t completely fault the hotel staff for that.)
6. Beijing Buses
Public transportation was exceptional, as I was expecting. But finding English-language announcements and signage on the Beijing buses, which I had not been expecting, really was the icing on the transit cake. (And if you know how much I love public transportation, you know that transit cake is one of my favorite snacks.)
There’s one weird thing I get stressed about whenever I travel abroad. I know that I’m not the only American who suffers from this particular anxiety. What’s the story with tipping? Before my trip, I read time and again that there is no tipping in China. As a matter of fact, offering a tip can come off as an insult. Simple, right? But I’m an American, and to not tip can seem like an insult. Not tipping can then lead to stress. Well, there were a few times, primarily in hotels, where tipping just seemed the appropriate thing to do. On those occasions, I offered tips to the bellman or concierge. And they happily accepted them. Tipping-induced stress, be gone!
So despite my many initial apprehensions, it turns out that China is a pretty cool place for a pampered American to visit after all! I would encourage anyone to visit China. Unless you’re with a group, you will encounter some language issues. But as long as you stick to the major cities along the coast, you’ll get by just fine. Now I don’t expect most travelers to try to get around Shanghai and other places by bus like I did. And I’m sure I enjoy being challenged when I travel more than most people do. At the same time, don’t expect taxi drivers to speak English. Seriously though, everyone on the planet needs to experience the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. And there’s only one way to see them: Go to China!