Happy New Year, everyone! I began 2015 with my family in Qingdao, China. A beautiful, unique city located on the coast between Beijing and Shanghai in the Shandong Province. It’s a relatively small coastal town by China standards (a quaint 8 million) that was founded by Germans in the 19th Century, occupied by the Japanese through the World Wars, and finally reclaimed by the Chinese in 1945. An utterly diverse history that made it a city that’s one of a kind in China.
One of Qingdao’s more recent claims to fame was being awarded the host city for all sailing events in the 2008 Beijing Events. During our trip there we saw the Yellow Sea, visited the Tsingtao brewery, experienced snowfall, and explored mountains. We bought Champagne at a local grocery and tried Sichuan hotpot.
Welcome to my Travel Guide: China Style
Home for the Holidays: A Traveling Paradox
I had the opportunity to visit China for a third time over the holidays, and just like my first two trips (you can read more about those here and here), this excursion didn’t disappoint. I continued to learn more about Chinese culture and history, appreciate my parent’s expat lifestyle, see new things, and again just marvel at the wonderful differences between Chinese culture and my own.
I spent two and a half weeks in China this trip and the more time I spend in the country, the more I want to see of it.
If you ever have the opportunity to travel there. Take it.
I’ll admit it’s on the more adventurous side of travel destinations. There’s a whole list of reasons it may not be topping your list of Places to Go in my Lifetime: Eastern culture, literally on the other side of the world, language barriers, societal norms (or perhaps differences of norms is a more accurate phrase), financials, government politics, safety, health. The list goes on.
Yet, in spite of all of that, I find myself appreciating China all the more now that I’ve been there multiple times. I see and experience those differences, and find myself wanting to know more. On my first visit to China, I went with some preconceived notions of what I should expect, and of course was wildly surprised in what I found out. It’s a learning experience going somewhere outside of your comfort zone, where you may feel a bit out of your depth, outside of your culture and everyday familiarity. However in my experience, it’s at those moments you see something new.
When in China
When I decided to reflect on this trip as a travel guide, I thought about what people would want to know or what I get asked about the most. People are curious about China, and that’s okay because I am too.
So, as this is a travel guide I happily begin with some frequently asked questions.
“Is China different?”
Yes it is. It’s bound to be. They are located on a completely different continent and operate with a different culture, government system, language and lifestyle than a person from the United States may be familiar with. In some ways their struggles are very similar to what we have here in the United States, and in other ways they’re completely separate.
“How is China different?”
- The population- This is a big one. China is quickly approaching 1.4 billion people. 1.4 BILLION. That’s an unfathomable number that’s impossible to understand. China’s land area is only a bit bigger than the United States, yet more than 4x as many people live there. (We operate here with about 315 million people.) This has led China to develop megacities with 20, 25, even 30 million people living there. For some perspective, the state of Texas has a population of about 26 million people. New York City (our largest city) reaches about 12 million IF you include suburbs. Shanghai is one of the bigger cities (but not the largest) with about 24 million people living in approximately the land area of Los Angeles metro area. It’s just incredible.
- The government- What China is perhaps most known for, at least in the United States, is that they are a communist government. Which of course is different from our democratic set-up. They do have a president (Xi Jinping) and a cabinet with various premiers, ministers, and councilors. Besides that, I honestly can’t tell you that much about their government system. My experience with their government rests in the process of obtaining a visa (required for all US travellers) and the censorship on the internet. If we weren’t in my parent’s apartment (which has a Hong Kong VPN) we were blocked from various social media sites and Google. Whatever you may think of their goverment, it can’t be denied they’re guiding a huge, unprecedented population with enormously ambitious projects and building a national economy that’s becoming respected around the world.
- The architecture- Those hugely ambitious projects I just mentioned? Yeah, it’s in the architecture. Shanghai especially is world renowned for their buildings. Cranes dot the skyline and throughout China, construction is big. In Shanghai right now, they are finishing the Shanghai Tower, which when complete will the second tallest building in the world. We also drove by the new convention center which is located very close to my parent’s place. Once that is complete it will be the biggest convention center in the world. Trust me, it was massive. I guess, on a more routine note their buildings are just taller in general, whatever city you drive through. Apartment buildings are regularly 30, 40, 50 stories tall. What we consider ‘high-rise’ is normal for the Chinese- probably back to the population thing.
- Societal Norms- This can be a hard adjustment. Social and cultural norms are different. Things that may seem rude to us, are not to them. Chinese have a much lower personal space threshold, as in bumping into someone is fine, as in crowds can get intense, as in blatantly snapping a photo on your cell phone is okay. There is no translation for ‘excuse me’ in Chinese. Eastern thought predominantly leads to ‘finding the middle way.’ Which makes it hard to set hard and fast rules, because many of the Chinese they just do their own thing anyway. My working translation: ‘As long as it’s not bothering you than whatever, man.’ Again, just a different way of thinking and acting.
- Language barriers- Another big one. Chinese mandarin in not even remotely close to English. It’s an entirely different system, history, and grammar mechanics. Furthermore, they utilize more tonal sounds than what we use in the English language. We lose that ability to distinguish those tones as kids simply because we don’t use them. What I found interesting, is that not all mandarin is the same. Just like English, there are different dialects so even among the Chinese there are barriers. Shanghaiese is a distinct dialect, which is different from the northern Beijing dialect and the southern cantonese-influenced dialect.
“How did you get around?”
My parents are fortunate enough to have a full-time driver, named Allen. Chinese driving is influenced by their culture and would be nearly impossible for an American to handle (in my opinion). It’s a certain level of chaos that oddly seems to work quite effectively, for the most part. But anyway, Allen is big mode of transportation by car for my family. We also utilized trains. China has an excellent rail system with both regular and high-speed train options. On this trip we took high speed trains to Nanjing and Qingdao. Beijing and Shanghai both had excellent, easy to navigate subway systems (as I’m sure other cities do as well). Planes, taxis, ferries and plain old walking were also effective transportation methods for us. In spite of the size of the cities and country, transportation options were widely available.
“That seems such a far way to travel.”
Again, yes. But, putting a limit on travel is immediately limiting yourself. It’s easy to forget that our world is so big. It’s simultaneously incredible and completely normal that we literally have the capability to travel to the other side of the world over the course of a day. In 14 hours I can cross an ocean from one continent to another. So, while yes, it is a long day on a plane. It’s a minor miracle that it’s not longer.
The important thing is to focus on the destination. From the moment you step off the place, the trip becomes worth it. Besides, sometimes you find connections with strangers you never expected to meet. On my way to China this time I sat next to a friendly Chinese lady who was returning home to visit her family in Hangzhou, but she and her husband live in Mishawaka, Indiana.
“Traveling to China must really make you appreciate America.”
Of course I appreciate the United States. There’s no place like home, as the saying goes, and I love my home.
I appreciate our grocery stores, social networking, and freedoms I have because of my government. Ice water in restaurants is a gift I’ll never take for granted and I love having my personal space even when I’m in a crowd. Google is a gift, and even this blog is something I am grateful to be able to share with you.
However, when people make this comment it’s almost as if they’re expecting me to somehow say China was lacking in some way. And, I just won’t do it. America is incredible, beautifully diverse and one of the great countries in the world, but do you know what?
China is too. They are doing amazing things. China’s people are working hard, making a mark in the world, and marrying their Eastern heritage in a Western-oriented world.
I appreciate China’s transportation systems for car, train and subway. I appreciate the vision and scale they have for their cities. It’s reflected in their architecture and the pride of their people. I appreciate the kindness they’ve shown me and the excitement strangers exhibit when they see me, a white girl with curly hair walk by. I appreciate their entrepreneurial spirit and the mass amounts of shops, restaurants and other services available. I appreciate their cultural differences and am fascinated by their history that spans millennia.
“I could never be that adventurous.”
Do you know me? If I can do it, I promise you can do it.
I’m grateful for the places I’ve had the opportunity to visit, and it makes me want to see even more of our world. Travelling is an incredible thing that allows us to see awesome things that are happening outside of our daily lives. Part two, of this travel guide is tips I’ve gained from my travels, particularly to China.
- Keep an open mind- Things are going to be different out there. And that’s not a bad thing. However, it takes an open mind to be willing to try and accept something new. To get out of our comfort zone and appreciate something from a new perspective.
- Never lose your sense of adventure- Flexibility is a must, especially when travelling. Things may not go exactly as planned. Maybe you get off at the wrong train station (yep, that happened this trip), maybe you get stuck in Detroit overnight because your plane was 4 hours delayed (that happened too), maybe you’re going somewhere completely new, maybe you’ll go out on a limb to try something you’d never normally do. Do it! Don’t get so lost in the details that you fail to appreciate where you’re standing right now. At this moment. Look around you and don’t lose that sense of awe.
Be Practical- Having a plan, even a loosely developed one, goes a long way in reducing your stress level. Once you’re to the destination the last thing you want to do is be taking extra time to figure everything out. So be flexible, but practical. Having a final destination or goal in mind can help schedule out the day and give your day a certain level of purpose.
- Finances- Money can be the greatest burden in travelling. I get it. Yes, it gets expensive, especially if you’re going overseas. Airfare seems to be the first, big hurdle. However, what I can say to that is to take the time to set a budget range and plan for the expenses. Name your ideal spending level and an absolute max level and work from there to meet somewhere in the middle. Have an idea of what you’re going to do and give yourself some leeway to have some fun and maybe spend money on something not accounted for. Making the decision to go, is the biggest first step. Finances, is the second. Be responsible with your money, but please don’t let it take over your trip experience.
- How to prepare- I prepare for trips by looking online, initially. I like to read through travel blogs, discover some suggested itineraries and start to piece together a list of things I would like to do. My second step is to actually get a travel book of some kind. I like having a physical thing I can have with me, especially abroad, when I don’t have immediate access to wifi or cell phone data towers. The Lonely Planet were excellent books I used in Beijing and Shanghai. They had great suggestions and the maps were very helpful. My best advice- make a list of ideas and potential places to see and work from there to see how to best hit as many as you can.
What are you waiting for?
I had an excellent trip to China spending time together as a family, continuing to find great things to do in and around Shanghai, as well as travelling outside of the city to visit Nanjing (the former Chinese capital) and Qingdao.
I know you have a dream destination in mind, maybe it’s China, maybe it’s somewhere else. Go visit it! Make a plan! Start saving those dollars! Every little bit counts.
I have been bitten by the travel bug and my dollars are currently being saved for a trip to Germany and Switzerland I’ll be taking in March.
Adventure is out there!