A First Timer in China

Recently, I visited our two program sites in China – Chengdu and Shanghai. My time there was a whirlwind and I enjoyed experiencing China for the first time with our new students as they arrived for the fall semester. I did some research beforehand about China, and our students came well prepared; however, there were still a few things I myself or the students didn’t know. If you’re thinking about studying in China check out this list.

15 Things I Didn’t Know or Expect About China

  1. You’re in Hot Water

I found it hard to stay hydrated in China. I knew they drank hot water but didn’t realize how limited cold water was. You can’t drink the tap water and the beverage served with meals is usually tea. If you do ask for water it will come hot since water has to be boiled to decontaminate it before drinking. You can ask for cold water, but it comes bottled so you have to pay for it. You can also buy bottled water at stores and small roadside vendors, but it’s not always refrigerated. You’ll get used to the hot water and tea, but when it’s 86 degrees and 97% humidity, you’ll be looking for that cold water!

  1. Food is Really Affordable

Food in China is really affordable, I mean really affordable, like cheap; especially at the little shops and restaurants in the campus neighborhood. You can find noodles, dumplings, baozi, meat & veggie bowls, and more at really affordable costs (equivalent to $2-5) for a filling meal. In the touristy areas or nice restaurants, you’re looking at a little higher cost, but still not bad. In Shanghai I went to a nice restaurant in a more touristy area and still only paid $14 for my meal. Grocery stores are also really affordable.

  1. Salads are Rare

You’ll find a lot of vegetables in China – bok choy, mushrooms, cauliflower, etc. – and they’re tasty, but they’re almost always cooked. Fresh vegetables and salad dishes are not very common. Chinese tend to prefer all three of their main meals to be cooked because that is what they are traditionally used to, but also, cooking is widely believed to make foods safer for eating by killing any contaminants from water and pesticides. On that note, be sure to wash all vegetables and fruit with drinkable water before eating or cooking.

  1. Tofu is Really Popular

I didn’t realize tofu originated in China and it’s still very popular. Tofu comes in several variations – soft or silken tofu, firm tofu, tofu noodles, and I’m sure there’s more. Spicy tofu is very popular, especially in the Sichuan province (Chengdu). Be open to trying it. I found I enjoyed tofu noodles and firm tofu, but silken tofu is just not for me.

USAC students in Chinese culinary class

  1. We all Scream for Ice Cream!

For people who don’t like cold drinks, they sure love ice cream. One third of all ice cream bought globally is consumed in China, which became the largest ice cream market in the world in 2014. You can find ice cream all over. You’ll even find some really cool looking ice cream options, for instance just google “Chinese waffle cone ice cream” or try tea flavored (like Jasmine or Green Tea) ice cream.

  1. Breathe In, Breathe Out

The common perception is China’s air quality is awful, that you can’t see because of pollution and everyone wears masks. The thing is, China’s air quality isn’t always bad. I was there the end of August and early September. The air quality was much better than I expected and I really didn’t notice a difference from back home. There were blue skies and clouds, I could breathe plenty fine, and no one was wearing face masks. There are times of the year when the air quality is much, much worse (especially during winter), but it’s not always bad.

China air quality

  1. Smoking is Still a Thing

For a country with poor air quality and pollution issues, you would think that smoking was non-existent, but it isn’t. Smoking is still a thing. I didn’t really experience any issues during the day or at restaurants, but two of my taxi drivers were smoking in the car. When you go through the airport security you’ll really see the impact. They have a bin just to collect BIC lighters before people go through and the number of lighters that are being collected is crazy.

  1. Yes, You Will Need Pepto

And maybe some Dayquil or Nyquil. I’m not going to get too detailed here (no TMI warnings), but the food is different and it takes a bit for our stomachs to adapt. Just bring Pepto, I would almost guarantee you need it at least once. Also, in addition to our stomachs adapting, our bodies need to adapt. There is a lot of flying and time-changing involved in going to China, you’re on the move when you get there, you’re excited and this all just combines to wear you down a bit. I myself got a 24-hour cold and noticed many students coming down with similar things as well. It’s nothing major, you’re just adapting to a different environment.

  1. Don’t Flush

If you didn’t know, you do now – you cannot flush toilet paper in China, even in western toilets. This is mostly due to the older sewage systems and piping. There are some more modern areas and hotels where you can, but unless you’re sure, it’s better to just toss it. In public toilets there will be bins and in your dorms you’ll want to get a bin. In public toilets there is not always toilet paper, so carry a small pack of tissues with you. Also, most public toilets are squat-style, so no need for toilet seat covers. In your dorms, you will have western-style toilets.

  1. WeChat is King

Get WeChat, seriously. It runs everything. This is what you use to instant message and you can also share photos, play games, make video calls, read the news and more. In addition, it has a commerce function, like Venmo. You can pay for things and send money to people. You do need a local bank account to use the commerce portion, but I recommend you get one and connect it. The students figured out how to do this pretty easily and had it all set-up within the first week. You can pre-load your account with cash then use WeChat to pay at restaurants, for ride-share bikes, and send others money. It really is a life-line.

Exploring Shanghai

  1. Cash over Card

If you don’t decide to pay with WeChat, just know that I found cash much more popular and efficient than a debit or credit card. Some places may only accept Ali Pay or WeChat Pay, or they only accept cash. Either way, credit cards are the least common option of the three. You will also definitely want local currency when you arrive and ask for smaller bills. Most taxis do not take credit cards, cash only, and you might have to buy a metro ticket which usually takes Union Pay (a Chinese credit card) so you would need to use cash. It’s a good idea to have the local currency when you depart for China and then ask questions during orientation to find out the current preferred method of payment for vendors.

  1. Bike Sharing

There are bike sharing companies in China and the bikes are everywhere. It’s really easy to get one and ride to your destination. You do have to use an app to pay for it, but it’s very cheap. A ride is typically 1 yuan (~$0.15). It’s really cost-effective and an easy way to get around.

Bikes of China

  1. Get to know DiDi

DiDi is the Uber of China. Download it. You can link it to your WeChat wallet as your preferred payment option. From what I can tell, it works very similar to Uber. 

  1. You’ll Need a VPN

To use social media – Facebook, Instragram, etc – while in China, you’ll need to have a VPN. I used ExpressVPN which I installed on my phone. Several other students also used this one, but there are lots of other VPN providers as well. Get and download the VPN before you get to China, it’s easier than dealing with it abroad. There are ways to do it once you’re there, but you’ll probably need a local student to help you.

  1. Everyday Low Prices

Yes, there’s Walmart. There’s also Ikea and Carrefour so you can pretty much get whatever you need. During orientation, the program staff will take you to a larger store where you can get home supplies like sheets and towels, as well as groceries.

Danielle is a Communications Specialist in the USAC Central Office. She visited the Chengdu and Shanghai, China programs in fall of 2017.