• Cortney Dowdle

Challenges and Tips for Traveling in China

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

I started The Savvy International to be a resource hub for students, parents, and educators to learn about studying in the USA and to share my passion for travel. So of course I’ll be sharing blogs about studying in the USA, but I do think of this space as a place to share some of the crazy travel stories. And guys, I have a lot. This particular travel story is all about putting a positive spin on difficult travel and trying to be a better person while doing it. You know, important stuff. I've had some amazing experiences in China. I've met incredible colleagues, made friends, and seen pandas and The Great Wall.

Before I dive into some of the challenges and ways that I overcome them when traveling in China, let me just say, I'm sure it's different if you're just on holiday. The work culture is one of the biggest adjustments in China, and I've met plenty of people who have went on 10-day vacations and loved everything about the cities and culture they encountered. No matter what, I am super grateful for every travel experience, and I truly believe my perspective changes every time I go somewhere again or for the first time.

So it’s not easy to travel for work all the time, and I’m sure many of my fellow international educators could shower you with stories and tips and horrors if they’ve been in the field for a few years. For me, there aren’t many parts of travel that I don’t love. BUT. I have found China to be one of the most challenging places to travel to, and I couldn’t help myself wanting to share some of the details. As I think about the reasons that I find China such a challenging country, I’m also thinking about a book I’ve been reading, called The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer. If you haven’t checked it out and you work with international colleagues or students, I highly recommend it.

There are many things I love about the Chinese culture, like the food, transportation, and rich history, and there are also things that make it difficult for me, as an American, when I travel within this country. The latest time, I traveled with a group of 8-10 total people. We always had at least one native colleague who was guiding us around, which was great for any communication difficulties. We spent a few days in Vietnam and then moved to China for about 10 days.

If anyone reading this knows me, they know how sarcastic I can be, and while this is usually a good thing, sometimes, it can make me a little, well, pessimistic at times. By the third day in China I was ready to throw my computer at a wall, throw my phone out the window, and throw myself off the highest rooftop. Sound a bit dramatic? In hindsight, it was. But let me explain…

The Chinese government monitors internet usage very closely. This means that those of us traveling from other countries need to download a VPN (or virtual private network) in order to be able to access many sites that aren’t allowed by the Chinese government (sites like Google, Facebook, Instagram, and more…I bet your mind is reeling at the thought of not having access to these for 24 hours let alone TEN whole days). So right off the bat, the VPN is challenging to connect. I use the word challenging instead of saying words like “infuriating” or ”nightmare”. For me this past trip, my internet would only connect at all if I got the VPN to connect first, and even when this happened, the connection would last anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes before I would have to disconnect and reconnect, which could take 10-20 to not in this lifetime minutes. Insert me throwing an adult tantrum in my hotel room.

From the first city (we went to four cities total), I found myself frustrated at every little thing. Perspective is everything, right? I grew up in a small town out in the country, surrounded by rolling hills, huge fields, and tons of space to run around and play. I grew up with a very deep appreciation for personal space, and I am inherently used to giving people space to breathe. China is a very crowded country with over one billion people living there, so it’s understandable this is not usually the case. I always joke in China that at any time I think the bus or train or elevator is full, someone from China will think it’s only at half capacity.

Then there’s the food. China has amazing, delicious, and diverse food to offer. I love dumplings, hot pot, and noodles, so yummy. I love their tea, with all the rich flavors. One thing we are in America (I’m 100% comfortable admitting it and also admitting how badly it needs to change), is wasteful. We waste food all the time, at home and especially at restaurants. The Chinese culture is exactly the opposite. While I pride them on not being wasteful, there are so many parts of animals that we in America grow up not eating or not wanting to eat, that it’s shocking when you get foods and learn they are organs, or feet, or throat, etc. It’s just not something we are used to. I’m as adventurous as the next person, but even I struggle after a few days. I just need a break now and then.

Chinese culture is also a lot different than American culture. The culture is very work oriented and things like free time, personal time, or vacation time, are practically unheard of, at least in my experience traveling there. I traveled to China for my job, which is a full-time position that doesn’t stop when I go on the road. This means that in addition to the connection issues, we were working 16 hour days with the team we were traveling with and couldn’t keep up with emails or work from the office. Every minute of the day was planned out for us, from 8:00 AM to 10:00 or 11:00 PM most days. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m naturally introverted, meaning I need that downtime to regroup, do work, and get my thoughts together…or just sit quietly…all alone…with no noise.

I found myself thinking about how to best stay positive and change my perspective to suit the situation in China. The book I’m listening to talks about how yes, it’s important to make an effort to understand personalities in the work place (or in life), but it is equally important to take cultural differences into consideration. I found myself asking, what could I do to understand this culture more? How can I express my thoughts in a way that comes across clear, not rude or unprofessional or ungrateful? And most importantly, what helps makes China a more enjoyable trip for me?

At this point, I think I should just dive in and lay out my best tips for making China an enjoyable work or personal trip. I’m hoping for any fellow international educators that some of these help you or give you new ideas…

  1. Pack old shoes that you’re okay throwing away before you go home – squatty potties are in most public places in China!

  2. Always have extra TP or tissues on hand (refer to #1)

  3. Hand sanitizer and more hand sanitizer - this pretty much applies anywhere for me where there are lots of people, trains, planes, and taxis

  4. Try all the teas – hot tea, cold tea, bubble tea - so delicious!

  5. Embrace Chinese food because it’s amazing, but work in a break every two or three days where you get another type of food

  6. Remember that people are not pushing you or running you over to be rude, and that it’s just part of the culture because they are used to being in crowded places

  7. Even if you aren’t a forward person (I hate confrontation about pretty much anything), the Chinese culture is much more forward and direct. If your tour leader or colleague asks your opinion, don’t beat around the bush. Say what you’re thinking. I waited until I was way too frustrated at eating too much Chinese food to ask if we could get American food and I think they honestly didn’t realize our group would want a break from traditional Chinese food. They were just being accommodating hosts.

  8. Prepare as best you can for not having a lot of free time for work or projects. I went into the trip thinking I could manage all of my emails and work remotely, but in the end, it just wasn’t realistic. I could have notified my colleagues that I wouldn’t have internet access or time to manage those things on that trip ahead of time.

All of that being said, China is a great country to have the opportunity to see. Take the challenges and think about the ways you can improve your work experience there!

The next blog will shift back to university admissions and getting through the waiting phase of the process.

Stay tuned!


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