I’m an alien,
I’m a legal alien;
I’m a wàiguórén 外国人 (foreigner) in China.
If Sting felt like an alien when he was visiting New York, I wonder what he would have felt being in China for the first time. A country as vast, as different and as populated as China, can be wildly overwhelming during your first days. On the Internet you can find heaps of valuable tips and most of them are quite helpful. And logical. It seems simple:
Don’t lose your visa
Don’t lose your money
Don’t lose your mind
But life in China isn’t always logical or simple. And that’s why I will take a different course, and give you three things you better lose if you want to survive your first days in China: your dictionary, your baggage and – yes – your mind.
3 Things you better lose during your first days in China: your dictionary, your baggage, your mind [Tweet this]
Or better: leave it at your hotel room. You won’t hear me say you don’t need Chinese to survive in China. You need it, for sure! But when you possess a basic knowledge of Chinese, a dictionary will hold you back when you’re discovering China. So here is how you do it:
Nǐ hǎo 你好 ‘hello’ and xièxie 谢谢 ‘thank you’ are a good start, but they won’t get you far. Try at least to learn some basic sentences, and to understand possible responses. The most common conversations are about:
- Going somewhere (Wǒ xiǎng qù… 我想去… I want to go to…)
- Buying something (Duōshaoqián? 多少钱? How much does it cost?, or the more commonly used zěnme mài? 怎么卖? literally ‘how is it sold?’, but it bears the same meaning)
- Basic needs (Qǐngwèn, cèsuǒ zài nǎr? 请问，厕所在哪儿？ (Where is the toilet please?) And while you’re at it, be sure to remember the characters for male 男 (nán) and female 女 (nǚ)!
- You can describe what you want to say using simple words and then ask how you say it in Chinese
- You can use gestures or drawings
- You can even try some English, you never know…
- And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, you can only learn from them
Always carry a small notebook with you, and write down words, characters and subjects you encounter during the day. When you return to your hotel room, take a look at it and start looking up some words you want to remember or words you might need again. You will see your vocabulary will expand significantly.
2. Lose your baggage
Maybe not so much in a literal manner, although it is recommendable to travel light in China. Visit China with an open mind, and get ready to be surprised along the way. How can you best do this?
- Go to sleep as soon as you can. That way you’ll get rid of your jetlag, and you’ll enjoy China more when you aren’t craving for a bed.
- Immerse yourself in the Chinese culture. Let it drown you without constantly trying to stay on top of things (or to understand them). You will learn very fast how to ‘swim’ your way through China.
My very first experience in China: Just one hour after I had landed, I was involved in a traffic accident. I thought I had made a safe choice with the airport shuttle service of the hotel. I was wrong. We were hit from behind on one of the outer ring roads of Beijing. Luckily I didn’t have any serious injuries. There was a discussion between the drivers and the police even came, but then they started pointing at me and my companion, I heard the word wàiguórén 外国人 (foreigner) and our driver was released. It was my first of many encounters with the chaotic Chinese traffic system as well as the special ‘regard’ there can be for westerners. It was China in its purest form, but at that time I was too shocked and too tired to notice.
- Forget everything you have ever learned about China (except maybe your Chinese). China will teach you.
Don’t blow your nose in public.
Don’t take photographs of people.
Don’t eat street food.
Don’t take taxis.
All with the best intentions, I’m sure, but it’s advice you better forget. I was so full of ‘advice’ when I arrived in China, that I didn’t dare to do anything. So I threw it all out the window and went with the flow. Eventually, I took lots of pictures, ate heaps of street food and took numerous taxi’s. And yes, I did blow my nose in public, as the alternative is just not my forte.
So in general: let loose. Don’t push yourself, make and follow your own rhythm. That way, you will make the most out of your time in China.
Forget everything you have ever learned about China (except maybe your Chinese). China will teach you [Tweet this]
3. Lose your mind
Yes, I know, it’s not the most prudent advice. And it’s the opposite of the logical advice most of the websites give to China first-timers (‘Keep your cool’). But allow me to explain myself. As you have already learned from the first two tips, you shouldn’t over think things when you’re in China. My best advice is to follow your instinct rather than your mind. Or you will lose the latter eventually. So I will end with some short, practical advice concerning food, traffic and toilets in China:
- Don’t try to apply the same criteria you would in your country when choosing a restaurant in China (you will end up really hungry)
- Eat where the locals eat
- Try streetfood if you want to and if it smells delicious
- Avoid Màidāngláo 麦当劳 ( McDonald’s) and Bìshèngkè 必胜客 (Pizzahut). Yes, they are basically the same as at home. And that’s not what you went to China for now, is it?
- Don’t try to find the logic of it all
- Follow the crowd
- Grow eyes on your back
- Have faith
Toilets (here we go again)
- Squat, squat, squat
- Bring your own toilet paper
- Bring your own door
- Leave your shame at home
Toilets in China tend to start out very nice, clean and western looking, but then, while you are traveling, they will gradually change. At first the toilet paper disappears, then the lock vanishes, rapidly followed by the porcelain seats, the upper part of the door, the lower part of the door and eventually even the side panels. To counter the lack of privacy I learned to pee really fast, all the more so because I sometimes felt like a special attraction when I entered the lavatory, as if I had a big flashing arrow pointing down at me saying: “Look! A foreigner who’s going to pee! Come and see! Free show for everyone!”
As with everything in China, I would recommend you to take it step by step. Don’t let it get to you and know that there will be a time you will see the fun of it all. Eventually, you’ll get used to it, and by that time you will enjoy it even more. Because sooner or later, China will blow your mind (or what’s left of it) away.
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By Sofie Van Breuseghem