5 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to China

1. No Need to Leave a Tip

Unlike most Western cultures, in China you are not expectedto tip. The waiters and waitresses get paid a monthly salary, and in most casescomplimentary accommodation (boarding and meals), and therefore do not expectto get compensated through tips. Therefore, on a restaurant bill, you are notgoing to find the tip fields you may expect.

Several years ago, when traveling in China, my husband (whois an American and doesn’t feel comfortable not tipping) left 20 Yuan (roughly3 dollars) on the table as a tip after paying with cash. As we were leaving,the waitress hurriedly caught up to us, holding the change in her hands, “Sir,you forgot your change!” When my husband told her that it was a tip, theexpression on the waitress’s face was more bewildered than anything else.

Similarly, when a bellboy helps you with luggage at a hotel,or when a pool boy brings you new towels, there’s still no expectation for atip.

In my view, an underlying reason for this “no-tipping”culture is an abundance in labor which leads to a lack of “appreciation” forthe actual person who does the job. In many fields, labor is a commodity andcan be replaced easily. At gas stations, you will find staff standing at each pump,holding the nozzle and ready to refuel your car for you. In department stores, salespeople are found every ten feet, ready to find you your size. The lack ofappreciation also leads to a lack of “personal warmth”. Waiters and waitresses usuallywouldn’t tell you their names; they also wouldn’t get offended if you carriedon with your conversation with your friend, without stopping to pay anyattention to the waiters or waitresses when they came to refill your tea orclean away dirty dishes.

The only occasions where you may come across tips will likelybe:

  • In certain “high-end” restaurants, a 15% or 18%gratuity may be added in your bill automatically.
  • If you stay at a five-star hotel and decide toorder room service, you will likely find at the bottom of the menu a notationthat “A 15% gratuity will be added to the price above.”

However, the gratuity you pay in the above two situations islikely NOT going to go to the pocket of specific waiter/waitress who servedyou, for reasons we are going to discuss in the next chapter.

2. Waiters/Waitresses Won’t Come to You Unless Summoned

You and your friends have been ushered in to your seat. Thehost has brought each of you a nicely-bound menu with illustrative, mouth-wateringpictures. You are hungry. You can’t wait to try some of these dishes! Thischicken dish looks good…and maybe that fish one too…You are ready to order! Youwait, and wait, and wait…Where the heck is your waiter/waitress?  They haven’t even brought you your waters!

You look around and see a few waiters idling here and there;you also see people who arrived later than you did have already been served.WTF?

The truth is, in Chinese restaurants, the default is for thewaiters to not “disturb” you unless summoned. Therefore, when you are ready toorder, you will need to gesture to a waiter/waitress (a simple wave would do),and he or she shall come over.

I said “a” waiter/waitress, because in Chinese restaurants, there’sno “assigned” waiter or waitress to tables. You can grab anyone to help you. Thewaiters and waitresses get paid a monthly salary and share the workload of theentire restaurant. Since there’s no tip, switching waiters/waitresses is notgoing to mess up their compensation.

You could say “ni hao” (“Hello” in Chinese) or “fu wu yuan”(“waiter/waitress” in Chinese) when you gesture at the waiter/waitress to catchtheir attention.

3. Don’t Eat The Spicy “Balls”

Szechuan-styled cuisine is very popular in China these days. Heavily spiced, Szechuan cuisine could be a blast to your taste buds in an overwhelming yet addictive way. However, watch out for these small, round balls of fire (they are yellow or dark brown, hard and the size of a freckle – see in the picture). It is called Szechuan peppercorn and is very commonly used in many Szechuan-styled dishes. I personally love the unique flavor it adds to the dishes.

Szechuan-styled Chicken. My husband’s favorite.

However, one thing to bear in mind: You are not supposed toeat them! You will have to pick around them. Of course, it’s not like it’sgoing to kill you, but if you accidentally eat them, you will first experiencea numbness to your tongue and lips (which could seem a little “scary”, but thatpart is okay, if not normal, with eating a dish heavily spiced with Szechuanpeppercorns). Next, you could temporarily lose your voice – literally! Ithappened to one of my friends…

Similarly, the dried red peppers as in the above dish are not for eating (if you don’t want your mouth on fire) but for flavoring only.

Don’t say that I didn’t warn you😉

4. Don’tLeave Your Belongings Unattended

This is a real story: on an ordinary weekday morning, one ofmy friends was on a crowded bus on her way to work. She was listening to musicon her iPhone (which was tucked in her coat pocket) with earphone. Suddenly,the music stopped. She thought she must have accidentally hit the “pause”button on the touch screen. The bus was so crowded with everyone pressingagainst everyone else, so she decided to not bother to dig her phone out to fixthe music. Two stops later, when she finally squeezed her way through themorning commuters and got off the bus at her stop, she was speechless when shefound that there’s nothing attached to the end of her earphone. Her phone hadbeen snapped away and stolen. That’s why the music had stopped.

Whereas crimes such as physical assault are relatively rarein China, thefts happen much more often than you are used to in the UnitedStates (but less often than in some other countries). Please take two minutesto read the below tips on how to avoid thefts in China – they are very easy tofollow but could save you a ton of trouble (just imagine all the inconveniencesyou’d have to deal with if your phone or wallet – letting alone your passport –got stolen in a foreign country!)

  • Do notleave your phone on the table or your purse on the seat in a public place(if no one else in your group is at the table), when you go use the bathroom or go order food. You phone or purse mightnot be there anymore by the time you get back.
  • Alwayskeep your valuable belongings in your sight. When I dine alone in a crowdedrestaurant, I NEVER set my purse on the seat next to me and then bury my headin the meal in front of me, because someone could very well grab my purse frombehind the seat and I wouldn’t see a thing. Vicinity doesn’t mean safety, ifyou are not paying attention to your belongings. I usually sit my purse on my lap, or wrap the strap around my wrist sothat I feel the movement if my purse is being slipped away.
  • If youare in a crowded public place (for example, a bus or a metro station), always hold your purse or bag close toyourself. Don’t let your purse stringing behind as you push yourselfthrough people. If you are carrying abackpack, I strongly suggest you carry it on your chest, rather than onyour back.

Better safe than sorry.

5. Bring Toilet Paper with You, and Hand Sanitizer

Many times (except if you are in a high-end shopping mall, five-starhotel, nice restaurant, etc.) when you go to a public restroom, you would findno toilet paper in the booth.

Imagine yourself in great need of relieving yourself in theworst way. You were lucky you found a public restroom just in time. It’s notthe cleanest, but that’s okay…Just when you were half-way through, to yourastonishment, you found out that there’s no toilet paper under the toilet papercase! How desperate would you be?! You don’t want to be that person…So, let’scarry some toilet paper in the backpack during the day, just in case…

If you don’t want to carry a big roll with you, you couldchoose to buy these neatly packaged paper napkins. They are available in almostany grocery stores or convenience stores. They are of Kleenex quality and morefor Kleenex and paper towel purposes than “anything else”, so I guess theywould look a lot “better” than a roll of toilet paper sitting in your purse😉

Each individual pack is less than the size of a cigarette packet.

Also, it is not uncommon for there to be no soap in thepublic restrooms. Therefore, bringing a small bar of soap or some handsanitizer with you wouldn’t be a bad idea.

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