When we read about dogs being beaten to death by health officials or women being forced to have abortions in China, how can we put these shocking stories in perspective? The same way we do it when we read about things like protests and politician sex scandals at home: by comparing those news stories to our usually much more mundane personal experiences. Those things make the news because they are unusual. When we read about China from thousands of miles away, it can be difficult to tell what stories even the Chinese would find shocking. The best way to resolve this is to follow the advice of an old Chinese adage: 百闻不如一见 băiwèn bùrú yíjiàn, that is, “hearing something one hundred times is not as good as seeing it once.” Find a program that will get you to China and go!
There are several kinds of programs from which to choose when planning your first trip to China, and there is no “best” kind, just ones that are more or less likely to help you achieve your individual goals. Here is a quick breakdown to help you get started:
· Tour Groups – Usually 1-3 weeks long, good for adults/families who want to see what all the hubbub is about without quitting their jobs
· Summer Study Abroad – 1-3 months long, good for high school and college students who want to test the waters
· Semester or School Year Study Abroad – good for high school and college students who already have some experience with Chinese language and/or culture and have already dealt with some of the culture shock involved with Sino-Western interaction, even if only in the home country.
Of course, even within these categories, there are many choices: adventure tours, the “usual suspects” (e.g., Beijing- Shanghai- Xi’an) tours, language programs, high culture programs, internship programs, programs run by foreign organizations, programs run entirely by Chinese schools/organizations, and so on. If you want to learn the language, go on a program with mixed Sino-foreign management who understands where you’re coming from; if you want to travel China the way Chinese people do, join a Chinese tour group… and hold on to your hats!
Most programs will provide you with some sort of pre-departure information. No matter how long these orientations are, they represent editorial decisions on the part of those in charge who must choose what information to impart during the relatively brief amount of time available. Some details are best saved for when you’re just about to go, like, “how should I bring money,” or “what should I do about my peanut allergy.” If you’re just starting to think about going to China, here are some basic things you should do before you go, no matter how you get there:
· Learn at least a little Mandarin. Even a little broken Chinese will allow you to make direct contact with nearly anyone you may encounter. Whether you’re saying, “how much does this cost,” “where is the bathroom,” or just “bottoms up,” being able to produce a few key phrases will open many doors.
· Get your shots. Better safe than sorry, so ask your doctor what vaccinations you should get for a trip to China. If you live in the US, the Centers for Disease Control has a website that can give you a heads-up regarding what your doctor may proscribe.
· Get ready for some culture shock. There is a reason why there is an entire industry built around training Asians and Westerners to communicate with each other effectively: the two cultural traditions really are quite different. Of course, basic human needs are universal, but how we express these needs and our reactions to others’ needs are culturally-informed. For instance, good hosts want their guests to feel comfortable. Good Chinese hosts will predict what their guests want and provide it to them without asking; good American hosts will provide their guests with a series of choices: what to drink, what to eat, what to do after dinner, etc., etc. In Chinese culture, an American host would appear to be placing a great burden on his/her guests, while a Chinese host in American culture could appear overbearing, especially if s/he were unable to anticipate the guests’ desires (no hot tea, for me, please).
· Get your visa. Work with your program on this one: different programs will require different visas, and, like in China itself, things go more smoothly when you work through someone with a personal connection to people working in the relevant government office.
· Get your airline tickets. Your program may take care of this; if not, there are a number of websites you can use to research flights, e.g., kayak.com, flychina.com, etc. And, old-fashioned as it may sound, travel agents are still a very good source of information and sometimes better-priced tickets. Try to find one locally who specializes in Asian itineraries, in case you need help putting together a creative itinerary.
· Be prepared to spend a little more on your first trip to China than on possible follow-up visits. You are essentially paying people to show you how things work. Restaurants with English menus cost more, but they’ll feed you while you figure out the names of your favorite dishes; pre-arranged tour buses get you where you’re going without having to figure out the local transportation system, but once you feel comfortable with the lay of the land, you can take bullet trains and domestic flights (all signage there is bilingual), and maybe even city transit!
· Pack as lightly as possible, no matter how long you’re going for. Sometimes, you will need to carry your luggage some distances, perhaps from a tour bus to a hotel entrance blocked by construction, or through a train station with no luggage carts to be found. The wheels on your suitcases will be handy… until you get to a long staircase with no escalator. Err on the side of washing your clothes (by hand, probably) more often and packing fewer sets of clothes. If you go in the summer, you can buy short-sleeved shirts in China; Chinese long sleeves tend to be too short for Westerners.
The most long-lasting memories of many trips are often those that involve people (for better and for worse!). Get out there and talk to the people around you in China – find out where they live, what they like to do, what they think about. You may find that folks everywhere are just trying to make a living and create a better life for their loved ones. The more stories you hear, the more you will be able to differentiate between what is common and uncommon, the kind of contextualization that you need every time you read the news. If one person says real estate in China is too expensive, maybe that person is just an outlier. If everyone you talk to says that real estate in China is too expensive, then maybe there is something to it!
Granted, those who do not speak Chinese will be limited to conversing with locals who speak English. While fluent English speakers are a minority in China, their experiences are no less authentically Chinese than those of the masses who do not speak English. Furthermore, English-speaking Chinese people know many non-English speaking ones, so you can still access the experiences and perspectives of the majority through the English-speaking minority. Even in the most strictly-regimented tour group schedule, you can make conversation with the tour guide, sometimes your hotel front desk staff, with high school and college-age students at tourist sites, and so on. Of course, you need to get your photos of the Terra Cotta Warriors, but save 10 minutes to talk to some Chinese tourists who are just as impressed by the tombs as you are!
The longer you spend in China, the more you realize you still do not know. When you get home, keep reading articles about the country, this time armed with your newfound ability to add context to the events. Share your stories with your family and friends… up to a point. You don’t want to become that person who can’t shut up about their trip to China and who is now an expert on everything Sinological!
Most of all, keep in touch with Chinese people you’ve met, either by email (which Americans prefer) or with the WeChat smart phone app (which Chinese prefer). Your new friends can keep you up to date on what the Chinese themselves care about and you may be able to begin with them the cycle of reciprocity upon which friendship in East Asia is based. They already helped you have a rewarding experience in China; now, it will be up to you to find ways to say “thank you”!
Based in Columbus, Ohio, Patrick McAloon spends his time bridging Chinese and American culture through cross-cultural communication training programs, study abroad programs, Mandarin instruction and Chinese language pedagogy instruction. His new book, Studying in China, is a guide for people thinking about going to China for the first time… and their parents and teachers. See TUTTLE publishing website for more details on this book.