FAQ for the first-time traveler to China

Q: Traveling in China sounds too hard.  How can I get around if I can’t speak or read Chinese?

If you’re an English-speaker, traveling in China isn’t as difficult as you might think.  One thing I’ve learned from traveling in developing countries is that if there’s money to be made from tourists, you’ll always find people who can speak English.  Every day countless enterprising people in the tourist trade — from shopkeepers to tour guides — are eagerly learning English and practicing with foreigners.

Although I can speak basic Mandarin, I’ve had no problem backpacking solo through other Asian countries where I didn’t speak a word of the local language — from Cambodia to Burma to Nepal.  In fact, I found it much easier getting around these countries compared to my English-only travels through France and Italy.

The Chinese — particularly the younger generation — are enthusiastic about learning English.  According to a Wikipedia estimate, there are some 10 million proficient English-speakers in China.  And that doesn’t include the often-cited 300 million “English learners” in the country, who start as early as third grade.  The Chinese know that English is the de-facto language of global commerce and politics.  Students applying to college have to pass a mandatory English proficiency test.  They also know it makes them much more marketable after graduation (though their reading skills are far superior since they’re typically shy about practicing their conversational skills).

Also, remember that the government is aiming to be the top tourist destination in the world — they’re investing billions of dollars to make travel as easy as possible for foreigners.  So unless you’re venturing way off the tourist track to some tiny remote village, you’ll get by fine with English (and some good non-verbal miming skills).

Q: What about crime?  Won’t I be a target as a foreigner?

See the section on “Safety & Crime” for more info.   In short, crime against foreigners (especially violent crime) is extremely rare in China.  Any would be criminals understand that getting caught committing a crime against a foreigner is bad publicity (and “loss of face”) for the country’s ambitious tourism industry.

If anything, you’ll just be over-charged for stuff.  At worst, you might get pickpocketed if you’re careless and unlucky. Or if you’re not careful, you could get scammed (see “Scams”).

On the whole, the Chinese have a very favorable and respectful view of Westerners (even Americans despite our recently battered global reputation).  Some may not like our government policies but as a population, they’re good about differentiating between the actions of a country’s leaders and the average citizen.  On a similar note, when I was backpacking through Vietnam, I was a little worried about telling people that I was an American.  I was astounded to find that not a single person I told showed even the slightest bit of ill-will towards me, despite the “American War” that killed millions of Vietnamese (I heard the same from many Caucasian Americans too).

So don’t worry about being poorly treated or targeted as a foreigner.  Instead, worry more about that bus barreling down the street towards you.

Q: Isn’t everything there polluted?  What if I get food poisoning or get sick?

Pollution is a problem in China, there’s no denying.  For the traveler, the main concern is air pollution inside the cities or around industrial areas.  So if you’re asthmatic or have some respiratory issues, this could be a concern.

It’s possible that I’m not as sensitive to it because, personally, I’ve never really noticed it to be any worse than the pollution of say, L.A. or any other major Asian city.  Which is not to say that parts of China don’t have apocalyptic pollutions — but for the most part, these areas don’t overlap with the tourist destinations that you’ll likely encounter (such as mining towns and industrial centers).

As far as getting sick from drinking water, bottled water is cheap and plentiful.  And because the Chinese love their tea, you’ll find purified, boiled water everywhere — from your hotel room to your train carriage.

And in my opinion (and from talking with many travelers) your risk of getting food poisoning in China is low, especially compared to other developing countries.  Chinese food is typically made with fresh ingredients and stir-fried at high temperatures.  But still, be wary of any food that looks like it may have been leftover from yesterday’s buffet or otherwise sitting around.  Stick with places that have a high turnover of customers (and bring some Imodium AD just in case)!

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