For a lot of people, myself included, Asia is kind of formidable when it comes to travelling there. Going to the beach, a cruise, these are all fairly easy choices. Asia, China, Japan, all seem so complex! I personally don’t speak or read anything other than English. And I am pretty adventurous in what I will try in regards to food, but they really know how to push the limits! For some, this is why they choose the go to Asia, for the diversity and the challenge. But for the people I know, this is why they wouldn’t dream of going there. I think this could be a mistake. It is my belief that differences do not make things good, bad, or “weird”, they are just not what we are accustomed to. But this friends is WHY we travel in the first place! If we didn’t want to get out in the world, then we would just stay at home perpetually. So to help ease some of this anxiety, I have asked a fellow coworker of mine for a personal interview via email. He has asked to go by the name Ned, just for personal comfort and in case someone from his previous employer should happen to recognize him. He is a “regular Joe” like you or I, who has been there and experienced Asia firsthand. I will quote his words for his responses to my questions, so that you may all get a feel for who Ned is and why I asked him for this interview.
I started the interview off with Ned’s age and hometown.
Ned- ” I am a super old 30. I am from our lovely town of Springfield.”
“Places you have traveled and how long at each?”
Ned- “Colima, Mexico – 3 different trips, each 1 week
Hawaii – about 12 days there
China – 3 years total, spent most of my time traveling throughout the southern part, also made trips to the major tourist cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Hong Kong, Lijiang, Kunming, Guilin to name a few) but I lived in a “small” city in the south
Thailand – 3 weeks
Vietnam – 2 weeks
Russia – 2 weeks
France, England, Wales, Ireland – it was a month total for all, the exact dates I don’t remember all that well.”
So from this information, I could gather that Ned has a good eye for travel. But I really wanted to zoom in on his extensive time in Asia. So I continued with “What kind of travel did you do when you were in Asia?”
Ned- “I traveled a LOT for work, and I also traveled on holidays and also traveled all around the country to be the loud American tourist.”
“Can you tell about the work you did there, you don’t have to mention the company or anything that could be linked to them. But maybe some specifics like: were you paid by the company, if so in US currency or local currency? Was it ever dangerous? Did you come across many Americans that were also there for work, if so what was a common occupation for Americans in Asia?”
Ned- “As for my actual job, let’s just say I was quite unofficial in most everything I did. In this unofficial capacity I did a lot of village mapping. My job was to travel all around and find villages, ask them questions about their village like how many people were there, what kind of religions they had, quality of life questions, things like that. I guess you could say I was part of a census team trying to gather information to see what kind of projects would most benefit the village (farming education, water sanitation, livestock raising education, etc.). At that point my co-workers and I were in the very beginning stages of work, and I personally was laying a foundation for any who would come after me. My preferred mode of transportation for this was motorcycle. It was cheap, easy, convenient, and quite necessary at times as some of the mountain road couldn’t support anything wider than a motorcycle. We would also rent out vans (particularly a type called a 面包车 or “bread van” because it is shaped like a loaf of bread) if we had a group to tote around. If we were going on long trips we would take public buses, which are also incredibly cheap but not as convenient as the motorcycle. Was it ever dangerous? Depends on your definition. Likely the answer is yes, it was incredibly dangerous, considering the manner in which rural Chinese people drive, but we never had any incidents, so perhaps there was a method to their madness that went unseen by foreign eyes.
I also worked as an English teacher for a time. This is likely the occupation most often held by foreigners in China. If you are a native English speaker, most schools won’t require any kind of formal education. The teaching jobs will almost always pay in Chinese money (called yuan or sometimes RMB).”
“And what would you say are some common misconceptions about travelling throughout Asia?”
Ned- “I suppose a rather common assumption is that English can get you anywhere. This is not so much true. Larger cities do traditionally have a larger percentage of English speakers (Hong Kong probably has 95% English speakers), but one should remember it’s usually only the rather highly educated that can speak other languages. Taxi drivers traditionally do not meet this criteria. However, hotel desk staff almost always speak some English, so one may find it useful to plan your day before hand and get hotel staff to write down locations you want to go. That way, when you get into the cab, you can point to the writing and the cab driver hopefully will be able to read (though some can’t) and know the place (this also happens on occasion). Airport staff are all adequately trained in English so language barriers are never a problem there. Train stations are hit and miss; sometimes they speak English, sometimes not.”
“Can you tell us what some of your favorite/least favorite differences were about Asia in comparison to the US?”
Ned- “Before getting into cultural differences, I always like to preface my comments with the statement that different cultures are just that, different. Different doesn’t mean bad, nor does it necessarily mean good, just different. Least and favorite things come down simply to preference. With that said, differences abound between China and America, most of which are more humorous than anything else.
For one, like most of Asia and the Middle East, lines do not exist. So when at the train station if you see a mass of people gathered around a booth like a bunch of 5 year old children playing soccer, just realize you will have to be assertive and kind of push your way through the crowd in order to get anywhere.
When shopping, you MUST haggle, unless you want to pay twice what something is worth. Almost always when they see a foreigner they will start the bidding, so to speak, at around double the price. Hold firm at your lower price and don’t be afraid to use the walk away tactic to get them to come down in price.
Tipping is a very western notion, one that has not yet made it to China. Some of the larger cities might be more accustomed to it, but if you travel to a rural area and try to tip the bell boy, they won’t know what you are doing and will be quite uncomfortable as they don’t know why you are trying to give them money. Same thing applies to restaurants. Exact amounts only when paying the bill, anything more they will just return to you assuming you have overpaid.
Speaking of giving things, in most Asian cultures I know, if you want to give someone a gift, you will have to offer it several times in order to actually give it. It is customary to refuse a gift twice before accepting it, so you must be persistent when trying to give a gift, and you should also remember to refuse something twice before accepting it.
Now, China is not known for being clean (and is likely the most polluted country in existence, perhaps rivaled only by India). People will spit, litter, and children are allowed to urinate and defecate on the sidewalks (so watch you step). This one takes a little getting to.
However, to offset that bit of unpleasantness, Chinese people are some of the warmest and kindest people I have ever met. Foreigners are treated like rock stars. People will CONSTANTLY try to take pictures of you, with you, and you may even get a request for an autograph or two. You will receive continuous greetings of “hello!” from school children eager to use the one word in English they know. And the older you are, the better. A gray head of hair will get you instant VIP status anywhere you go. If you are traveling in the villages you will have numerous requests to join someone for a meal. As far as I know it is not rude to accept this offer, but do be aware that if they are entertaining a guest they will pull out all the stops and try and spoil you, which might be very costly to them, so use discretion on this.
Perhaps my least favorite thing about China is the noise. I’m a personal fan of peace and quiet, so the noise pollution of Asia in general was always a struggle for me. Horns on cars are not offensive, merely a way of communicating one of a hundred different messages, and every retail store lining the street will have the music cracked to 11 trying to draw in customers. Most hotel windows do a decent job of filtering out the sound, but on the street it can be rough if noise bothers you.
But any negative aspect of the culture pales in comparison to perhaps the absolute best quality China has to offer: food. Chinese food, the real kind, is beyond spectacular if you know what to order. They have strange dishes that are tailored to a more unique crowd (I’m looking at you, blood tofu), and if someone offers you “three scream mice” you might want to politely excuse yourself from the table, but for the most part, the food is beyond comparison. For the first two decades of my life I hated to eat vegetables, and then I met authentic Chinese cuisine. The Chinese can seemingly prepare any vegetable in a way that will make it so very desirable you will ask for seconds and thirds. And for my fellow carnivores, the meat dishes are sublime. You will have the urge to turn your nose up to “fish scent pork.” Resist that urge (seriously, it’s quite good). For all of their culinary prowess, the Chinese have yet to master the sweets. Desserts are something best left to McDonald’s or KFC sundaes, or Oreos from the grocery store.”
For my final question with Ned I wanted to discuss something rather humorous, but necessary. “Something I have personally watched on a travel show through China was that while there were most modern amenities, in some places toilets were merely holes in the ground with no toilet paper. Is this fairly common throughout Asia or only in poorer locations? And how did you handle these kinds of situations?”
Ned- “The toilet topic always comes up. First, like all things, the quality of the “facilities” depended on where you went. If you are in Beijing, you will likely be able to find the Western style toilets you are used to if you really want to. But most Asians have what we affectionately call a “squatty potty.” These are not so much holes in the ground as toilets you stand on. Most often they are just like our porcelain toilets, only someone decided to put them directly in the ground instead of elevated a few feet in the air like we are used to in the West. However, if you travel out of the cities and into the villages, it’s a completely different story. Consider rural China much like early 20th century America. People get around on bicycle, use ox to plow fields, and have the Asian equivalent of outhouses to do their “business.” These basically are holes in the ground, but hey, whatever works.
And the toilet paper! I totally forgot about that. Overlying rule for all of China: always carry some form of “tissue” for doing what the Chinese call the “big job.” You will NEVER find a bathroom that supplies TP. I have no idea why, but this is true everywhere. In the stores you will come across these little packets of paper that look like 10 packs of napkins…well, they’re not napkins. They are for when you are out in public and nature calls. This is just what everyone does. Always, ALWAYS have paper with you, as the sudden change in diet will make these callings of nature quite frequent (there are so many good poop stories to share, and so little time.)”
This concluded my interview with Ned, who I want to personally thank for taking the time to help enlighten us with his experiences. I know I learned a lot from him and about Asia! I hope this shed some of the anxiety about Asian travel, so that no corner of this Earth goes untouched by your wandering feet my fellow travelers! As always, if you have any questions or comments, you are encouraged to leave them for either myself or for Ned. 这是更好地出行万英里比读万卷书. (It is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books.)–Chinese Proverb.