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Eight Things You Need to Know about Visiting China

May 11, 2015

If you are visiting China for the first time, here are eight things that I thought might help you survive China (arranged in no particular order).

1. Always have a pack of facial tissue with you

facial tissues in a supermarket

Facial tissue packs in a supermarket.

I used to be amazed by the huge variety of salad dressing in American grocery stores. They go on and on on the shelves. In China, you will be amazed by the variety of facial tissues that go on and on on the shelves. There is a reason for that: toilet paper is scarce in public bathrooms, including those at airports, hotels, restaurants, and housed in mysterious buildings on the streets. I actually believe that the true marker of China being a developed country is not the world No.2 GDP or sending a spacecraft to the moon, but to simply have toilet paper in public restrooms. Because having or not having it, believe it or not, has profound indications of China’s social development, citizenry, and economic well-being, among many other things. Long story short, bring your own paperwork.

2. Kiss the ice goodbye

kettle in a hotel room

You are likely to see a kettle like that in the hotel.

Chinese restaurants don’t offer ice water. If you ask for water, you are likely to get a glass of boiled, hot water, or other free beverage like tea or soy milk, all hot or warm (coffee is also out). Tap water is not drinkable in China and therefore edible ice is rare. Looking for the ice machine in the hotel? There might not be one. What if you want to drink some water? Boil tap water with the electronic kettle provided by the hotel and wait for it to cool down. No time or mood for that? Get bottled water from supermarkets and refrigerate it. Yes, supermarket is highlighted here because bottled water from street vendors or small corner stores might contain enough germs to sicken your stomach. (An urban joke has it that in China, even water can be fake. Sad. I know.) And please recycle the bottles. This is not for Shanghai or China; this is for the planet.

3. Choose the right chopsticks

8_110421141355_1We Chinese are very proud of chopsticks. We think they are one of most wonderful things we’ve ever come up with. They make our hands deft and our brain sharp, having to figure out how to grasp a slippery fish ball with two thin sticks. Brilliant. Your challenge, however, is NOT to learn to use chopsticks, but to decide if you want to use the disposable ones, the reusable ones, or bring your own. I wrote about this issue a while ago and you need to decide it for yourselves. I would go for the reusable ones, all the while praying I don’t get someone’s hepatitis. Man. Maybe I will just bring my own.

4. (Don’t) mind the crowd

Subway during rush hour.

It is crowded in China. No matter where you go. So you’d better ignore the crowd after a while, knowing there are just going to be people everywhere and they ain’t going away, ever. You still have to mind the crowd, though, to watch for pickpockets, for example. And ladies, if you are riding the subway, please wear a long sleeve layer. Let’s just say there are bad people out there and you don’t want to give them chances. Plus, there will be strong AC blowing on the trains and you might want to stay warm anyway.

Road signs in Shanghai

Road signs in Shanghai.

5. Try to speak Chinese

Duh! Of course, there is no shortage of English-speaking people in a international mega city like Shanghai to give you directions and you will be shocked to see how vendors can negotiate prices in fluent English. But being able to utter some Chinese words earns you a lot of points. People will be impressed and be even nicer to you. 谢谢。你好。再见。洗手间在哪?我要去… 我的名字叫… etc., etc. You should at least know these words.

6. Don’t eat everything

Street food

Street food vendor; everything is going to be either grilled or boiled.

First thing you should avoid is uncooked cold dish (凉菜), as delicious as it is. Street food such as 麻辣烫 and 烧烤 is beyond amazing, but not for you, at least for the first couple of weeks. Instead, opt for the restaurant version of it, less fun but safer, tasting about the same.  Also, Chinese restaurants don’t serve individual orders unless you eat alone. Everybody shares the food ordered as a group. If you are lucky, the restaurant provides serving spoons. If not, you will have to dig in the same plate with your own chopsticks just like everybody else.

7. Negotiate your right of way

This is how vehicles and pedestrians negotiate their way through.

This is how vehicles and pedestrians negotiate their way through.

First and foremost, NEVER expect Chinese drivers to yield to pedestrians. Please. This is a life vs. death matter. In fact, Chinese drivers don’t yield to anybody or any vehicle unless they are forced to, such as by a police officer. Also be aware that people cross the street from all over, with or without crosswalk or the walking signal. Recently, electronic bikes have invaded the sidewalk and now pedestrians have to fight one more enemy. Best practice of jaywalking? Be alert, be smart, and follow the crowd.

8. Get ready for the gaze

enchangtedPeople in the US are used to seeing different hair colors, eye colors and skin colors. People in China are not. You will stand out in the crowd, and yes, people will stare at you. Don’t feel offended. It is mostly friendly gaze.

Final note: you might find none of the above to be true because China changes every single day and my most recent visit to China was two years ago.

Eventually, you will just have to use your human instinct and common sense, plus some cultural awareness. I can tell you China is fun, exciting and awesome. Still, it is a hot mess. So brace yourself and have a blast!


At Long Last, China Declared War, On Pollution

March 5, 2014
Li Keqiang

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivers the
“Report on Government Work”
to the National People’s Congress (Xinhua photo)

The central government of China finally declared war on pollution during the annual National People’s Congress convention.

In his “Report on Government Work” on March 5, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told thousands of top legislators that China will “determinedly declare war on pollution.”

This is so far the strongest language the central government has used on the matter of environmental pollution. Phrases such as “determinedly deal with” have been used in the past, but to “declare war” is a big leap from the past rhetoric.

This leap came faster than many people would have expected, myself included. And what can I say? Thanks to the suffocating smog that has frequented Beijing in recent years, where the top leaders live and have to suffer it just like the rest of the over 20 million residents?

It is sad by all accounts, that a beautiful, ancient city has to suffer such heavy pollution. But if not for the smog, which perhaps the premier himself is also sick of, people may have to wait longer for the war declaration.

On the other hand, however, the declaration is only too late as China has experienced exacerbating pollution for no less than two decades.

I have written about the pollution problem in China at least since about eight years ago and have waited and waited to see when the government will become really decisive to curb pollution. But for years, I have seen the government either putting economic growth ahead of the environment, or paying lip service to fighting pollution.

Is it still lip service this time around, albeit louder? I hope not, because Mr. Li Keqiang and Mr. Xi Jinping, the president, need to breathe clean air and see the blue sky, too. While other rich Chinese immigrating to Canada and enjoying the fresh air there, Mr. Li and Xi cannot escape the smog. They better do something about it.

The Humanity Dilemma of the One-Child Policy

July 4, 2012

In the latest strong signal of China’s possible relaxing of the one-child policy, experts from a high level think tank suggested “consider allowing second child at full scale.”

These experts, from the State Council Development Research Center, wrote this opinion in an article published in the China Economic Times, a newspaper published by the research center, also posted on the website of Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-run news agency.

There is speculation that these policy consultants’ suggestion has something to do with a recent uproar on China’s micro-blog site, Sina Weibo, triggered by the forced abortion of woman’s seven-month old fetus because it was her second child. A bloody picture of the body of the fetus lying beside the mother was posted on Sina Weibo, drawing thousands of comments and reposted thousands of times. The brutal killing of the fetus was harshly condemned by netizens.

The incident is far from being the first or the last forced abortion in the name of enforcing the one-child policy. In the over 30 years of implementation, the one-child policy has effectively put a lid to China’s exploding population, but at the same time caused countless human tragedies. To a certain degree, the policy, particularly the way some local governments have enforced it, is against humanity.

A woman once told me she was forced to abort her second child. A nurse helped her and fooled the government officials on the abortion. For several years after the baby was born, the woman had to tell others the baby was her nephew. She also told me an episode where a man in her hometown killed another man’s son because the other man, a family planning official, forced the abortion of the man’s unborn child. Again, these tales are hardly alone.

Not to mention the jaw-dropping number of abandoned baby girls in China, most of whom were thrown away because their parents were expecting to have a son, and they had only one spot for a child because of the one-child policy. Even if they had to bear the punishment for having a second child, these parents would rather pay the price for a son rather than a daughter.

And what about the basic human desire of childbearing? Many, many people who had a baby want to have another one. Several of my friends in a major city told me they do want to have another child. “But I can’t. I will lose my job,” they say.

So is completely throwing away the one-child policy the once-and-for-all answer to all the humanity issues in China? Probably not. Crudity and tragedy amid its enforcement notwithstanding, the one-child policy had a good reason to exist in the first place. Over one billion people’s food, clothing, housing, jobs and education no doubt pose a formidable challenge to the limited natural and economic resources the country has to offer.

China’s country side, for instance, has for decades been proved to be too small to accommodate the growing rural population, thus the massive flow of migrant workers to the cities. They work the dirtiest, hardest jobs with sh*tty pays, and are treated like subhuman. To create jobs for a growing population, factories were built on farm lands or forests, and later polluted waters and air. Contaminated water, dust covered homes, cancer, birth defects, you name it, followed. Harm to the environment for human needs, ironically, eventually will amount to harm to humanity.

By all accounts, it is a dilemma. Strictly allowing only one child is not so humane, but not controlling population at all could, too, result in humanity disasters in China. However, upgrading the one-child policy to two-child policy may be a reasonable solution.

China in Weibo/Episode 1: The Iconoclast of Lei Feng (Watch Video)

March 10, 2012

A famous reporter in China once told me: China is a country where truth is in short supply. Well, until weibo came along.

Weibo is the Chinese name for mircoblog. The most popular microblog service in China right now is the one provided by, or Sina Weibo. Weibo is a concept borrowed from Twitter, which is not accessible in China. Adopting Twitter’s standard, posts on weibo cannot exceed 140 Chinese characters, which actually account for more words than do English letters of the same amount. With 140 Chinese characters, roughly 70 words, a weibo post can express a lot.

The China unveiled on weibo is very different from the one presented in any traditional media outlet in the country. Weibo carries facts and opinions one can never see in traditional media, because weibo, which is open to everybody who can get online, is not so tightly controlled by China’s propaganda authorities. Despite rumors that the authorities may shut it down completely someday, so far, weibo is alive and well.

Weibo thus has become the platform for whistleblowers to reveal official corruption, for people to criticize the government or simply express opinions that might otherwise be silenced. As such, weibo also has become a window through which one can see China from a very different perspective.

Starting this week, I will choose on a rather regular basis interesting stories, debates and phenomena that I spot on Sina Weibo and present the information through multimedia.

This first episode is about Lei Feng, a national icon died 50 years ago, and how people use weibo to articulate different meanings of this icon than those presented in state media.

The New York Times published an article on March 5 on the same topic.

Related articles:

The real story behind Lei Feng’s photos  (in Chinese)

More on Lei Feng (Xinhua resource; in Chinese)

China Pictory: Layers of Transformation

February 24, 2012

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Being back in my hometown could be a stress, because I have to deal with the fact that the place I grew up has become such a strange city that I can’t even find my way home without taking a cab.

Where has the place in my memory gone? So I looked everywhere, and found traces of the old city amongst layers of the city’s skyline, much like reading the growth of a tree through the layers of tree rings.

But unlike tree rings, which preserve even the very first year of growth, the older layers in my hometown are bound to be demolished sooner or later. The city, like thousands of cities around China, is transforming into something the decision makers considered as “modern.” When red bricks, gray clay tiles and metal-bar covered windows are completely replaced by shiny glass walls and sleek high-rise apartment buildings, the city will take a whole new look, and the one as I remember will be gone for good.

I may be sad, but I know it is simply unstoppable. No one can ever stop modernization once you open the door to it. Old streets, traditional buildings or ancient sites could only survive as government designated preservation, just enough to allow people like me to maybe have a taste of the past.

Sure I will enjoy a new, modern city with all its glamour and convenience. But I will always remember, dearly, the quiet, narrow, stone-paved streets that I strolled down with my parents, once upon a time, on a warm Sunday morning.

(Photos by Josie Liu)

China Pictory: The Return of Real Chopsticks

February 3, 2012

By “real,” I mean chopsticks that are actually chopped and polished, not those disposable ones that require you to split them before using. (see the slide show below)

Why “return”? Well, it’s a long story.

Chinese people have been using chopsticks for thousands of years, and there have been thousands of types of chopsticks, from down-to-the-earth bamboo chopsticks, to really fancy, sculptured ivory ones. And in the 90s’, yet another new kind came along: disposable chopsticks.

At the beginning, people thought they were cleaner and healthier, since people didn’t really trust that restaurants could do a good job cleaning chopsticks after use. Pretty soon, disposable chopsticks took over most restaurants across the country and pushed the real chopsticks—reusable but requiring cleaning—off the stage.

About a decade later, people started to hate the new comer, partly because the media reported that some restaurants, instead of disposing those disposable chopsticks, picked them up from trash and reused them. Meanwhile, environmentalists said disposable chopsticks threatened the survival of China’s already endangered forests.

Many people, disgusted by those wasteful and perhaps not really disposable chopsticks, started to bring their own reusable chopsticks to restaurants, and they would bring them home to wash after eating. Others thought the self-provided chopsticks were just as disgusting since they were not washed promptly.

With their clean and healthy claims debunked, disposable chopsticks were under siege. Campaigns were waged to stop their use, and people’s once love for their convenience and hygiene turned into aversion.

But life without chopsticks is just unimaginable. So restaurants, which used to get rid of reusable chopsticks to attract customers, brought the old-fashioned chopsticks back for exactly the same reason. This time, with better cleaning solutions.

Hence the return of the real chopsticks.

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(Photos by Josie Liu unless otherwise indicated)

More on China’s environment by Josie Liu:

Some thoughts on China’s Environment

Local Governments Blamed for Unsuccessful Environmental Campaign

China’s Economy Growth Pays Too High Price: State Official


China Pictory: One-Child Policy Challenged

January 27, 2012

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(Photos by Josie Liu)

More on the One-Child Policy by Josie Liu:
New Law to Prohibit Sex Selection Abortion

Chinese Authorities Trying to Update One-Child Policy Slogans

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