Yesterday, Scott shared some of his trip planning advice for families contemplating visiting China with kids. Today, he shares some more travel tips! It’s a big country after all.
1. Having been to China (Shanghai) I struggled to communicate with my limited knowledge of Mandarin. What advice would you give to non Mandarin speaking visitors touring China for the first time?
Both the written form and the tones spoken in standard Mandarin can be intimidating to those who don’t know the language, and I’d guess this is probably the biggest single factor in preventing more families from traveling to China.
In the biggest cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou there has been a concerted effort to use English in street signs, buildings, and transit. The major tourist sites like the Great Wall, and hotels around the country, also are well-covered with written English. Inter-city travel on flights and high-speed trains is pretty intuitive and there will be English-speakers around to help.
Another part of the equation is traveling with a tour group, as you’ll always have an English-speaking guide to handle things like museum admission and arranging transportation. This was especially helpful on our adoptions trip, as we had a great deal else on our minds!
But tour groups also mean you’re giving up a degree of freedom, and my wife & I really love to explore. We figure if we’re halfway around the world we really ought to learn what everyday life is like – such as shopping in a supermarket or taking an evening walk in the park.
In cases like this, knowing even a few key phrases – “good morning, excuse me, how much, thank you” – goes such a long way to establishing connections with people. (I’ve made a “cheat sheet” on my site to help.) Chinese know their language is difficult and don’t expect people of European descent to be able to have a conversation, so just by making an effort you’ll score big points. (If you’re an Asian non-speaker, however, you’ll have a very different reaction.)
You’ll also see how many routine interactions use very little language – buying groceries, for instance. The numbers on the cash register tell you what you need to know.
And you may be pleasantly surprised at just how many people you’ll encounter who do speak English – and want to practice with you, or tell you about their overseas family!
Is most of China ready for independent family travel? No – unlike Tokyo or Hong Kong where I’d heartily recommend plunging in on your own. But being in a place where you have to work hard to figure things out can be very exciting – and fun when you realize that yes, you can order a McDonald’s Value Meal without someone to help you!
2. Is China stroller friendly and baby friendly? How would you recommend parents with young children get around from place to place (public transit, taxi etc) and can baby items (diapers, formula, baby food) be found easily?
Anywhere you go in China or anywhere in East Asia – big city or small town – you’ll find an overwhelming love toward babies and children. Security guards and taxi drivers, flight attendants and of course the old people everywhere will not be able to resist themselves and will shower your kids with affection.
We found getting around with collapsible umbrella-type strollers was not any more of a problem than in the U.S. or Canada. I also brought a backpack-style baby carrier on several trips, which was convenient in allowing me to use my hands, but got really uncomfortable when humidity was high!
Public transport is a big help in China, whether by rail or bus. Services are frequent and will certainly hit all the main tourism spots, regardless of where you’re visiting. If the city you’re visiting has a stored-value card (like the amazing Octopus Card in Hong Kong) for transit, be sure to get them; they usually have a good discount over single fares, and keep you from having to fumble with coins and bills. Learn how to read maps and timetables, and you’ll get where you want to go!
Taxis are a really good value compared to North America, but will require you to use more spoken language than you may be comfortable with.
Baby supplies such as strollers and diapers are readily available – look for a nearby Wal-Mart, Carrefour, or similar supermarket. Formula should not be purchased in China – there have been a number of contamination cases emerge since 2007 which implicated the whole dairy industry … bring in your own supply from home if traveling with an infant. Baby food is still a novel concept in China – as noodles and rice are easily digested, and meats and vegetables are often finely chopped in traditional cooking, young children routinely eat what the grownups do! The rice porridge known as congee is a traditional food for infants, but hearty enough that people of all ages eat it!
3. How did you survive the flight and time change?
The time change from North America to China was not as a problem than we expected – mostly because flights take the better part of a full day to get across, and arrivals in Beijing / Shanghai / Hong Kong are usually late at night. By the time you arrive, you’re exhausted from travel, but get to have a full night’s sleep and rise naturally with the sun the next morning. (It also helps that most Asian cities tend to stay out late and not get up early.)
Coming back to North America has been the big issue on our trips, as the flight times have you taking off in daylight, fly through a sunset and sunrise in only a few short hours, and then arrive in daylight about when you started. You’re exhausted from travel, and your body clock is exactly opposite of everyone else’s.
My big mistake after our two-week adoption trip was in letting my family pick us up at the airport and take us home, because they were so excited to see us and wanted to talk and interact with our daughter for hours, when all we were capable of at that point was crawling into bed. That day didn’t go well. Since then, coming home from overseas trips we’ve either driven our own car back home or used a shuttle service, and then kept ourselves away from humanity as much as possible for a day and a half.
Yes, drinking lots of bottled water and eating healthy foods is important; so is sleeping when it’s night regardless of how you feel. My wife has had some luck with melatonin but not so much for me. The most practical advice is to give yourself one extra day when you get home where you know you’ll be worthless and probably in your pajamas the whole time.
For surviving flights, we’ve found a few strategies that help. First, if you have a toddler, buy her a seat. Not only is this good sense for safety, it also means you have 50% more legroom and an extra checked piece of luggage at no charge. Second, avoid the really long nonstops like Toronto-Hong Kong or Atlanta-Seoul where you can and break up the flight in places like Vancouver, Seattle, or Tokyo. Stretching your legs, using a proper restroom, and getting a good hot meal can make a big difference in your attitude and help keep you mentally fresh. Third, try to sleep as much as possible (which is really funny as I haven’t slept on any trans-Pacific flight) – my little girl is wonderful at this and it helps tremendously on arrival. Finally, pack one carry-on bag to be the snacks/toys/entertainment unit so you don’t have to keep reaching into the overhead bin or under the seats in front of you.
4. What are the essentials that parents should pack for a trip to China? As there is so much to see and do each day and so many different day tours/activities to do – what should parents pack when traveling with kids on these tours?
Packing light is a skill family travelers have to practice over and over. On each trip we take, we learn we can get by with less. Figuring out a laundry strategy is key – we used hotel services and had good results for shirts and pants; try to carry detergent and hand-wash socks and underwear (although you may need to iron them to dry, as even high-end hotels don’t often have great room humidity control.) Don’t plan on “dressing up” in China – as a family you won’t be going anywhere that requires it, and you’ll only come across as rich and overbearing if you do. One outfit per day (or less), and no more than two pair of shoes per person. In a country of over one billion, no one will know if you wear the same outfit twice in the same week!
A good outfit for exploring a city in China in moderate weather would be a short-sleeve shirt (polo or golf shirt for men, for instance) with khakis or lightweight long pants, and a good pair of walking shoes. “Business casual” perhaps dialed down one notch; leave the jewelry and accessories back in North America. Kids will do just fine with cargo shorts and t-shirts. Avoid sandals or open-toed shoes – Chinese culture doesn’t like looking at bare feet, and the ground may not be the most sanitary place to step on… Clothes should be in like-new condition, modest yet comfortable. Have light jackets along in case of rain or chilly mornings, and bring an umbrella (especially for hot sunny days or of course rain.)
The humidity in China can’t be overemphasized enough, especially in the south. I’ve seen women with elaborate hairdos in tears after a few minutes away from the hotel. Keep hairstyles as simple as possible, where you’ll only need a brush.
It’s easy to play “spot the American” in Asia. Anything with a corporate logo or t-shirt with a supposedly funny saying on it is a likely target. Baseball caps, too. Also, anyone who tucks his shirt into his pants. (Remember, men, moisture will wick down the shirt and into the front of your trousers. Think about what that’s going to look like on a hot day.)
Scott started Wen in China in 2008 after he and his wife, Ann, completed the adoption of their daughter Wynn, from China, with the goal of helping other adoptive families “fill in the blanks” about their upcoming travel experiences that traditional guidebooks and adoption-agency briefings couldn’t cover. The scope of this effort has expanded as everyday families are becoming more interested in travel to China, Japan, and elsewhere in East Asia, and in learning about the culture of those lands. WenInChina.com shows families how to navigate key airports, deal with climate, and understand the food and culture they’ll see with over 80 articles, and growing.
In addition to the adoption trip in 2007, covering Beijing, Nanning, and Guangzhou, the Norris family has also returned to Asia in subsequent years with week-long trips to Tokyo and Hong Kong. They’ve also shown Wynn around North America from Florida to the Pacific Northwest, and taken her to Denmark as well. They live in Minneapolis / St. Paul, Minnesota, where Wynn is attending a Mandarin-immersion elementary school, and plan to keep traveling every year.