Travelled to 10 countries / regions

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I was born and raised in Hangzhou



Asia > China > Useful Info
Updated on Jan 08, 2019 Useful Info

A local's tips for what NOT to do in China as a tourist

Having been to many countries, it's pretty clear to me that there are big cultural differences between China and western countries. Below is a list of useful "avoid doing" tips for travellers to keep in mind when visiting China to dodge awkward social situations and staying safe.

For cultural tips, I've split it into 2 categories: those that you'll be expected to follow even though you're obviously a tourist, and those that are nice if you followed but you won't offend anyone too badly because they'll give you a pass as a tourist:

Cultural tips

  • Tips you absolutely need to follow:
  1. Avoid talking about politics or religion (including Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang): this is actually fairly standard anywhere in the world, but especially so in China. These are sensitive topics that get people riled up and emotional, and you can see otherwise friendly people get hostile very quickly. Religion is less divisive, but other than buddhism and taosim, most people regard Abrahamic religions as cult-ish, so it's best to avoid bringing these topics up
  2. Don't publicly criticize anyone: the concept of "face" is very important in China, meaning you don't want to publicly embarrass anyone as it's considered a big taboo. So, instead of being direct, Chinese people devise ways to say negative things about someone or something in more roundabout ways (I personally don't think this is a good habit, but that's whole different topic). It's very nuanced and as tourists it's better to just avoid saying negative things about anyone in general
  3. Don't criticize your host city in front of locals: Chinese people are not in denial about the problems our cities face. We all know that our air and water is polluted, traffic is terrible, people don't line up, and these are all the things we complain to each other about online and in person all the time. But, if we hear these from a tourist I think most people would feel personally offended. Anecdotally, I've had drinks with an American friend before where we were conversing in English about some of the challenges Hangzhou faced and our waitress came over to me and told me in Chinese to shut my American friend up.
  4. Don't stick your chopsticks in the rice bowl: it's something every Chinese are taught not to do from a young age. The reason apparently is that it looks like a tomb. We are a pretty superstitious group of people. Instead, place your chopsticks horizontally on top of your bowl. This is essential if you're invited to eat at someone's home
  5. Don't open gifts in the presence of the gifter: completely opposite to western habits, it's considered impolite to unwrap your gift when you receive it in China. Instead, unwrap in private when you get back to your hotel later

  • Tips you'll likely be given a pass because you're a tourist
  1. Don't tip: in China we don't tips anywhere, it's just not our habit. Some people might even see it as demeaning. This include restaurants, hotels, salons, massage parlors, and anywhere you can think of
  2. Don't hug locals: we don't hug in China, especially between men and women. In the west it's a sign of platonic affection, but in China it makes most people feel very uncomfortable because it feels too intimate. Even handshakes are only really done in business and otherwise formal situations. If you're being introduced to locals in casual social settings, shaking your new acquaintances' hands can seem odd (but it's not frowned upon though). Usually a casual smile and nod will do in these social situations
  3. Don't suggest that the bill should be split: if you're eating out with a local, your host will feel very awkward if you suggest that you split the bills. Instead, your host will offer to pay for the entire thing, and here comes a little bit of circus you're expected to engage in: instead of letting your host pay for it, you should also offer to pay for the entire bill instead. Your host will then insist that he/she pays, at which point you should insist that you pay. Try this at least 2 times before giving up. And don't worry you're not going to end up paying for it if you're not the one who issued the invitation

Health and safety tips

  1. Don't go anywhere with any strangers: there are a lot of scammers targeting foreigners. They're usually young people that chat you up, and then at some point will ask you to join them somewhere (tea house, bar, cafe, park, whatever) to either continue the conversation or to practice their English. These are almost 100% scammers and you'll be parting ways with thousands of yuan if you go with them
  2. Don't do drugs: because of how much we are taught about the Opium Wars growing up, drugs (including party drugs like marijuana, MDMA) are extremely heavily stigmatized in China. If you're a younger backpacker, it can be tempting to try to procure some of these drugs, but trust me if you get caught you're likely going to be stuck in a Chinese jail for a long time as the punishment are very severe
  3. Don't drink tap water: I don't think there's a single city in China whose tap water is drinkable. Most locals boil the tap water first before drinking it, but my suggestion for tourists is to stick to bottled water for drinking. You don't have to worry about using the tap water for showering and brushing your teeth, though
  4. Don't participate in protests or take photos of local protesters: this is pretty self explanatory but I personally know some American friends who have gotten deported from China before for protesting. Deportation is the best case scenario and it can be much worse

General travel convenience tips

  1. Don't travel during National Holidays (the week of October 1st): this is not a safety thing or cultural thing, it's just that during the National Holidays (also called Golden Week) it's too crowded everywhere for you to have an enjoyable time anywhere in China. This is the week where everyone in China gets off so domestic tourism is at its peak
  2. Don't leave your passport in your hotel: a lot of transactions in China require your passport, like converting cash, buying train tickets, buying bus tickets, getting into major attractions (like the Forbidden City). It's much more convenient to have your passport on you
  3. Don't forget to get a VPN: lots of international websites are blocked in China, including Google and Facebook. Download a VPN app for you phone and laptop before you come to China to continue to be able to visit your favorite websites