Are you looking for the truth about China?
There are lots of myths, misconceptions and half-truths about China.
Based on my travels in the country, I’d like to separate the fact from the fiction for you.
When I first announced to the world that I was headed for China, some people expressed confusion at my choice.
“Why would you want to go to China? Not even the Chinese want to live there!”
But for ever sorry shake of the head, I was met with an equal number of excited and encouraging comments. This was mostly from people who’d been there themselves and quite unexpectedly, fell in love.
In this blog, I’ve put each heading in talking marks. This denotes the kinds of things you often hear people say about China.
Hopefully, by the time you finish reading, you’ll have a better idea of what China is really like.
Ultimately, you can make up your own mind!
1. “Chinese people are rude”
I’m pretty certain that my hesitations about China had hatched from conversations I’d had with other travelers.
I remember speaking with a couple in a backpacker bar in Van Vieng, Laos. They seemed relieved to be among other foreigners in a tourist ‘safe space’.
They assured me that the Chinese countryside was even more beautiful than they’d imagined, but the people were blunt, shouty and argumentative.
Some foreigners seem happy to speak scathingly about the perceived rudeness of public behavior in China. The problem is, a concept like rudeness is completely relative, not even between cultures but between individuals.
We tend to judge another culture’s ‘politeness’ by directly comparing it to our own.
In reality, this leads to false equivalences. This is especially the case when you consider a culture like China’s.
It has evolved completely separately from the West and developed different concepts around acceptable social behavior.
Try not to turn your nose up in disgust at a Chinese restaurant patron letting out a hefty burp mid-meal. Rather, take a moment to realize that these behaviors aren’t normally associated with being rude or disrespectful.
In fact, loudly enjoying a meal can be considered a way of complimenting the chef!
It helps to look at it from the other side.
For example, wearing shoes indoors is considered intolerable by most Chinese. Few Westerners, however, give it a second thought.
In my own experience meeting Chinese travelers, I have almost universally been met with friendly smiles and an eagerness to engage with guests to their country. Never did I find their curiosity invasive or overbearing.
And speaking the tiniest bit of Chinese, even ‘ni hao’ or ‘xie xie’, would inevitably be met with grins of appreciation.
2. “Customer service in China is bad”
Of course this has a lot to do whether you’re dining at a high-end Shanghai restaurant or munching on street food.
When eating at local joints, my experience ranged from being completely ignored to having an army of eager wait staff surrounding my table trying every method in the book to help me order what I wanted.
I can pretty safely generalize that the young Chinese working part-time in cafes or managing trendy bars are usually extremely helpful to foreigners.
On the other hand, the ‘dragon lady’ who runs the local canteen with a permanent scowl and a complete lack of patience is absolutely not a myth!
3. “China isn’t tourist-friendly”
According to a recent report on tourism competitiveness, China doesn’t make the list of the world’s top 10 unfriendliest countries. Having said that, it’s probably not anywhere close to pushing the friendliest either.
And that’s not necessarily because Chinese people aren’t foreigner-friendly.
When your first introduction to China is a group of locals arguing angrily at an airport check-in counter, or a near freak-out while getting lost inside a gigantic train station, it’s easy for anyone’s first impression of China to be a country with a less-than-welcoming attitude to outsiders.
Yet overall, I’ve found Chinese people – outside of high-pressure, crowded environments – to be very friendly to visitors.
They’re curious about foreigners. Never did I find anyone’s attention invasive or overbearing.
Taking the time to meet and converse with young, English-speaking Chinese residents was especially enlightening. I found most open to engage with all kinds of topics, even the so-called ‘taboo’ ones!
They were unfailingly polite in conversation.
4. “The language barrier makes travel extremely difficult”
While more young, educated Chinese than ever speak college-level English, it’s likely that the majority of locals you’ll interact with will speak little to no English.
The language barrier shouldn’t be seen as a source of dread. Instead, it’s a chance to practise your improvisational communication skills.
Lots of restaurants have picture menus, so ordering is simply a matter of pointing at whatever strikes your fancy. If no visual references are available, a quick round of charades is often enough to get your point across.
If you’re tech savvy, use your phone. Download an app like Pleco to look up Chinese words on your camera.
That way, you’ll know whether you’re ordering a simple rice dish or hundred-year eggs!
Google Translate can also be a real lifesaver when trying to make sense of menus and signage. The technology is impressive, but best saved for simple one- or two-word translations.
Trying to get too complicated will likely lead to bizarre, and often hilarious misunderstandings.
(You can also check out all the helpful apps for China here.)
If you’re anything like me, and just want to eat what the locals are eating, just stroll in, scan the tables for something that looks appetizing and gesture accordingly.
5. “The pollution in China is unbearable”
Visit Beijing, or much of northern China in the winter, and for much of the season, this statement is sadly undeniable.
Not only does the dreary haze and choking smog make travel miserable, it’s a serious health issue for the locals forced to live with it.
Throughout much of China, air pollution is far worse in the depths of winter. This is particularly the case in the north, where winter temperatures are harsh.
This is largely because the majority of urban Chinese households rely on central heating provided by coal-fired power stations, constantly running on overdrive.
While Shanghai fares significantly better in the air quality stakes, particularly smoggy winter days can still negatively impact on your travel plans.
Yet there is hope for the future. The Chinese government has recently started to crack down harder on the worst of its polluting industries.
Still, winter air pollution has to drop significantly before it can be considered safe. This could be years off.
If you can, try to avoid northern China in the smoggiest months between October and February.
Now, for the good news.
Depending on where and when you go, the pollution in China may well be a total non-issue. My visit to southern China’s large cities and rural villages saw clear blue skies almost every day and incredible, unimpeded views of the mountain ranges.
Being far warmer overall, southern China can be visited during the winter without too much worry about smog.
But even in the south, winter air quality levels take a dip. Visibility might not be on quite the same level as in spring and summer.
On the plus side, there are far less tourists in places like Guilin, Yangshuo, Kunming and Dali during the November-March off-season. Just remember to rug up!
6. “The street food is unsafe, and you might eat dog meat”
I’m a street food aficionado (I’ve even written a blog specifically about Chinese street food).
I can tell you straight up, Chinese street food is the bomb!
No two regions’ cuisines are exactly alike. When it comes to food, north, south, east and west can seem like entirely different countries.
Skip the street food experience in China and you’re missing out on an entire, amazing facet of Chinese culture.
If you’re the kind of traveler who turns their nose up at food that hasn’t been prepared by a restaurant chef, perhaps China isn’t for you.
But if you are worried about getting sick, stick to food that’s been cooked in front of you and is piping hot.
Will you accidentally end up eating dog while using the time-honored ‘point-and-pray’ method while ordering street food in China? Absolutely not.
Yes, dog meat is consumed in some parts of China, mostly in the south.
However, it’s largely considered a ‘speciality’ product. It’s not something grilled up at random at cheap barbecue stalls and roadside noodle joints.
Even where dog meat consumption is fairly commonplace, there are still many who are against the practice. So to order dog meat, you’d really have to look for a place that specializes in it.
7. “China is way too crowded”
This issue definitely has some basis in reality, although there are many places in China worth seeing that aren’t crowded.
Any attraction considered popular and famous is bound to draw in big numbers of domestic tourists.
The best strategy for avoiding crowds is going during the tourism off-season. Avoid school holidays, and definitely avoid national holidays like the Lunar New Year and Golden Week which is the first week of October.
(You can read up on Chinese holidays here.)
Visit tourist attractions either immediately after they open or closer to closing time, as well as during lunch. That way, you’ll usually miss the majority of the package tourists.
Tour groups in China generally travel in convoys of buses. They go from photo spot to souvenir shop, rarely staying long at any one place.
Most groups will converge at a designated photo spot and rarely wander far from the bus, their group or the main path.
You’ll soon find that most of the time, escaping the crowds is easy. Instead of photographing that famous rock formation from a packed roadside platform, find a hiking trail to take you to an even better viewpoint.
Sometimes just walking for 10 minutes in the opposite direction of the buses is enough to transport you from complete chaos to absolute solitude.
It’s easy to see why the truth about China can be misguided
China is incredibly vast and unfathomably ancient. It’s a country full of contradictions.
It’s a place where different ethnicities and classes clash and converge, with enough strange cultural quirks to confound and even shock the most experienced traveler. And it’s also still largely seen by the West as a secretive, authoritarian nation.
Looking at the big picture, it’s easy to understand why so many misconceptions and myths have arisen around China as a nation, and what it means to be a traveler within its borders.
I highly recommend you go see it for yourself. You might even find your own truths.
The truth about China is a big topic and I hope I’ve covered at least some of it here. If I’ve missed anything, please let me know in the comments. Got a few extra minutes? Read my blog on the best stuff to do in Yangshuo, a magnificent place in southern China.