What to expect when visiting China as a family

Like most people, I travelled to China with a bunch of preconceptions. One of the most exciting aspects of visiting foreign cultures is to be proved wrong! Here are some surprising things I’ve learnt about what to expect when visiting China:

Chinese food is not as bad as its reputation suggests.

Yes, there are a lot of chicken feet. But that aside, people with a Western pallet can eat well in China for little money. Dumplings are delicious and easy, and there are endless varieties of noodle, vegetable and rice based dishes. Regional specialties such as Hot Pot or Beer Fish are a bit more daring, but still palatable. I was also quite surprised by the range of tasty street food available, such as hand-made bread, pasties or crepes.

China is clean.

Not sure why, but I had imagined China to be quite grubby, at least in comparison to Japan. Maybe because of their truly nasty spitting habit. But, spitting aside, China is spotless. There’s an army of street sweepers and cleaners hard at work at all hours. The only exception perhaps are the toilets, which are mainly hole-in-the-ground loos.

It’s not as expensive as one might think.

While China is not a cheap place to visit in terms of accommodation or tourist services, it’s reasonably cheap to eat out and get around. Subway tickets and taxis cost relatively little, as do meals in Chinese restaurants. The exception being Western chains, which are pricey in comparison. Entrance fees to major sites are reasonable compared to Western capitals. Entry to the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, for example, one of China’s most famous attractions, is c. £15 in high season, £12 in low season.

There really are a lot of people. Everywhere.

This isn’t particularly surprising, but China is a very, very crowded place. Perhaps because of the fact that space is a luxury they have to share with 1.4bn people, the Chinese have a different definition of personal space. It can get quite cosy. Also, for British travellers, queuing is not a done thing in China. We learnt quickly that the principle tactic was elbows-out-and-push.

Under the chaotic surface, China is organised and efficient.

With so many people to accommodate, and parts of the country still catching up with China’s fast economic growth, life can seem a bit haphazard and chaotic. But there is clearly method in the madness, as things generally work. Getting a taxi outside a train station may appear like disorganised mayhem, but in fact somehow follows a specific, orderly system. Buses, once you found them, or trains, once you managed to get on, run on time and well. Just run with the chaos, and you’ll find that it’s in fact quite efficient.

Courtesy is not common in China.

People aren’t unfriendly and we’ve met some terrific, open and helpful people. But, by enlarge, don’t expect much warmth or help from strangers. Compared to our experience in Japan, we were surprised at how little assistance we were offered, especially as a family travelling with a young child. On the contrary, we found ourselves shoved and pushed aside on several occasions.

Life without Google is hard.

We underestimated the impact China’s internet restrictions would have on our ability to do, well, anything. In particular the lack of Google maps caused issues, as so many other apps link to it. There are Chinese equivalent apps (e.g. Baidu), but obviously they are in Chinese, and therefore couldn’t help us much. We also found that neither WhatsApp nor plain text messages worked reliably, we had to resort to using email to communicate with friends and family at home. Having said that, there’s a lot of positives about a short-term social media / internet break, and I actually enjoyed ‘going back to basics’ for a while.

It’s difficult to protect your child’s privacy.

In our culture, it’s commonly acknowledged that a child’s privacy is sacred and to be respected. This includes not taking photographs of someone else’s children without their parents’ permission. We knew that Rosie would receive quite a bit of attention, Western babies just aren’t a common sight, and we expected to be photographed. But we weren’t quite prepared for the lack of distance or sensitivity we experienced. Countless times, people stuck cameras in Rosie’s face, filmed us over lengthy periods while eating dinner, or found it appropriate to tug on Rosie’s clothes. Rarely were we asked if this was ok. To an extent, this is part and parcel of visiting foreign cultures and I can generally live with it. For me a line was crossed however, when people didn’t acknowledge the anxiety they were causing my daughter. Rosie is very shy with strangers and did not at all feel comfortable with the attention she received, especially when she was touched or spoken to quite loudly. Despite her discomfort, and often tears, people continued to prod, stare and take pictures. It often needed a very firm ‘This is enough!’ to get people to back off. The attention we received didn’t tarnish our experience, but is something to be prepared for when planning to visit China with a child.

If I haven’t put you off yet and you’re still considering a trip to China (which I urge you to!), read my tips for planning a family holiday in China. 


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