10 Things You Need To Know While In Beijing

Summer is fast approaching. For those of us living here in Portland, we welcome the warm weather with a little more anticipation than most. Don’t get me wrong, I love Portland, but there are times during the long winters when I feel a little like Forest Gump recounting all the different types of rain that relentlessly soaks my cloth shoes. If you’re a Converse lover and you live in Portland, there’s one indisputable fact you can be sure of, your feet are wet. While clear skies aren’t something to be taken lightly for us poor Oregonians, there is another reason I’m looking forward to the coming summer, returning to Beijing. While I haven’t visited Beijing for a couple of years, it has become a home away from home in many ways. (If only in my head.)

There’s no place in the world like Beijing. For those of you who have been there, you know what I’m talking about when I say it seeps into the very fabric of your being (and I’m not just talking about the smell). Going to Beijing is like going to another world. It’s a world where not only do most people not speak your language, but, in most cases, they’ve never even seen someone like you. You feel like an extraterrestrial when you step on to the subway or bus while commuters’ expressions switch between senseless joy over your appearing to complete awe, as if you were some new kind of zoo animal to be gawked and pointed at. Is it awkward? Of course. But is it adventurous and amazing? You better believe it! Traveling to Beijing, or China in general, requires a cultural flexibility like no place on Earth.  But if you’re up for it, you will not experience a more adventurist land anywhere.

If you’re planning on traveling to Beijing, there are a few things you need to be prepared for. Like most things I’ve learned, I’ve earned the knowledge the hard way. Perhaps you won’t have to, but on second thought, where’s the fun in that?

1. They don’t serve coffee at McDonald’s until after 10am.

Perhaps you’re reading this and you don’t live in Portland. If you are, you need to understand something about us Oregonians. We love our coffee. We don’t just love coffee, we worship it. It’s no coincidence that Starbucks sports that goddess lady as their logo. Starbucks hails from Seattle, but there are over 300 stores here in Portland. We judge everything based on coffee. We work out of coffee shops, we go on dates to coffee shops, and even our churches are like coffee shops.  In fact, some churches have the best coffee in town. Last summer I had the opportunity to visit multiple churches in the area, which is rare since I’m a pastor myself. During these visits I conducted a spiritual survey in my head to determine the effectiveness of the church. The number one factor on the list was: Is their coffee good? (Actually, it was the only factor on the list. What does that say about me?) If you want the results to that survey, just let me know, I’ll hook you up.

Back to my point: coffee is a big deal. Apparently they don’t understand this in China and in all those parts of the world that drink tea. It’s imperative that you understand that in the East they worship tea, not coffee. This fact is never more apparent than when you step into McDonald’s at 9:30am and order a coffee. First off, the cashiers don’t speak English.  So when you order your coffee it’s not because you communicated with the cashier, it’s because you pointed to a picture and grunted. Remember, the grunt is the universal language. After pointing and grunting, they will take your cash, move you to the side and then point to the clock and signal 10am. At first, you’re going to think they are just trying to tell you it will take a few minutes, but, let me burst your bubble, they’re not. It doesn’t matter that it would only take about thirty seconds to brew the nourishing nectar your body so craves.  A rule is a rule, and they are going to follow it. Other than us addicted Americans that wander in every so often, nobody wants coffee, so be prepared to wait. This brings us to my next need to know fact- waiting for a taxi.

2. Need a taxi?  Get ready, that’s all I’m saying.

Beijing is an ocean of cars and most of them are yellow. Just like in New York, the yellow cars won’t stop if you’re in the way. The first rule of thumb to remember as a pedestrian in Beijing is that you don’t have the right of way. This is a hard reality to swallow, especially for us Portlanders with our refined sense of pedestrian justice and our personal bike lanes. If you want to survive crossing the road while in China, my advice is to find someone really old and get behind them. If they’ve survived to see gray hair then it’s safe to assume they know what they’re doing. Crossing the road is an adventure all of its own while in China, but getting a taxi is whole other story. It’s not that it is always difficult to get a taxi, only when it’s raining, snowing, exiting the Forbidden City, or when you’re life depends on it. It’s almost as if the Chinese taxi drivers have a sixth sense to identify an American in stress.

Once you’ve gotten in a taxi, there is a whole other adventure waiting. No matter how good you think the little bit of Chinese you’ve learned is: it stinks. When you tell them where you want to go with your pathetic attempt at pronouncing their language, you will then get the universal Chinese taxi response of a guy loudly shouting at you in Chinese like you’re supposed to know what in the world he is saying. My tip to you, plan ahead where you want to go and have a Chinese national write it on a card for you to give to taxi drivers. Hotel concierges do this for us pathetic foreigners all the time. Once you’ve communicated where you want to go, get it, buckle up (if the car has a seat belt), and hold on for dear life.  Beijing traffic doesn’t resemble our U.S.streets in the least. The best way to describe how their traffic flows is a river. Lanes are only a suggestion in China, and every open space is fair game. You will be weaving and bobbing through cars, bikes and even the occasional oncoming bus. Of all the things that are guaranteed in China, a crazy taxi ride is among them.

3. That meat on a stick, it’s not chicken.

Occasionally, there are going to be times when you’ll be tempted to buy food from a vendor on the street. From my experience, this is okay, but you just need to know what you’re getting yourself into. There is a good chance that yummy chicken you’re salivating over isn’t chicken at all. What is it you ask? Well, could be dog, cat, rat, donkey (Yes, I said donkey, which as their saying goes, “Donkey meat on earth is the equivalent of dragon meat in heaven”), or any other variations of white meat you can think of. Use your imagination, they have. As long as you have an adventurous pallet, you’ll be fine. Unfortunately for me, I’m a food weenie.

4. If you got a good deal, it’s because it’s fake.

Apparently, there is a mystical haze over the city of Beijing producing an intense longing in all who visit to purchase the cheap gadgets. It must be something in the smog. This mystically haze not only produces a deep longing for junk, it weakens our resolve to say no. A few years ago I took a team of people to a place called, The Silk Street Market. It’s a six of seven story mall packed full of boot leg products for barter.  The place is chock full of Chinese merchants licking their lips over every foreigner who walks down the aisles. It’s the most intense shopping experience ever. Imagine walking down an aisle at the grocery store with a clerk positioned every five feet on both sides of the aisle. As you walk down, you are then approached by every single clerk intensely beckoning you to purchase whatever it is they are standing by. At Silk Street you aren’t going to make it through unscathed, which is part of the attraction of the place. Merchants are going to be pulling on you and screaming at you to buy their products. I suggest bringing a friend, this way when someone corners you, you can then point to your friend and say, “they would love that, talk to them.”  Once their attention is turned, run for it.

The first thing you need to realize is that Chinese nationals don’t shop at these places. Why, you ask? Well, because the stuff is junk. It’s not real, my friends. Now does that mean you can’t get a good deal? Absolutely not. I’m still wearing a fake Columbia I got there a few years ago, and the zipper hasn’t even broke yet. You just need to know it’s not a quality product. Also, if you get cornered because of your good nature that doesn’t want to offend people, don’t walk down the aisles of Silk Street alone. They love people like this. I had a couple of friends that just didn’t want to be rude, so in the conversation they casually mentioned a price. (This is a big no no by the way. Once you throw out a price, you’re beginning the game, and they expect you to hold to your end of the deal, even if it was just a suggestion. Every product has a thousand percent mark up, so your Nike’s going for five hundred Yuen, are really worth about fifty to sixty or less.) The item was starting at a pretty high price, and they offered about half. At first they were pretty proud of themselves, until the merchant took them up on it in a flash. Now, they had to back peddle. They explained to the merchant that they didn’t have that much money on them. The merchant said, “No problem, I’ll take you to the ATM.” Let me just tell you now, if a merchant wants to take you to the ATM to secure a deal, it’s not a good deal. RUN!

5. The corn ice cream is better than you’d think.

Obviously, being in a different country, you’re going to see and experience some foods that seem so odd. One such example is corn ice cream. I know what you’re thinking, gross, but don’t start looking for you barf bag just yet. The stuff isn’t half bad. The pea ice cream is pretty good too. Also, when you visit McDonald’s, make sure at some point you grab a cup of corn instead of some French fries; it just adds to the experience.

6. The Coke and Milk isn’t cold.

This was the big downer for me. Anyone who knows me knows I love Coke almost just as much as I love coffee. With that said, I only really like my Coke one way, extremely cold. If it’s just barely cooler than room temp I don’t want it, and that goes for milk as well. By now you’re wondering how you can have unrefrigerated milk? I wish I had an answer for you, but I don’t. All I know is the stuff is gross warm; same with the Coke. I do have a solution for you, but it’s not for the faint of heart. I embarrassed my wife many times with this little endeavor, but every time she was thanking me when she asked for a sip of my Coke. So here’s what you do. When you’re in the store, grab your bottle of Coke and your milk, then head to the ice cream section. They love their ice cream, so I guarantee they’ll have one. Open the case with all the individually wrapped ice creams and shove your Coke and Milk underneath all of them. Make sure there is someone else around to cause a distraction, and then exit the store. Come back in about an hour, and you have ice cold Coke and milk. Enjoy.

7. You’re not going to learn Chinese.

This is a big misnomer when it comes to China. Everyone who visits thinks they are going to finally be able to brush up on their Mandarin, but this sadly is not the case. Unfortunately for you, every young person in China wants to brush up on their English. I know, you’ve traveled thousands of miles to learn how to say amazing things like “I speak Chinese very well,” but you’re going to have to learn all of those saying in the comfort of your home with your Rosetta Stone on your own. If you’re lucky, you’ll walk away from your time in China being able to say “xie xie” properly. (It means thank you.)

8. There is no ten second rule, just leave it alone.

I can’t stress enough this next part. When you’re in China, anything that touches the ground is now as unclean as a leper. At some point in your trip, you’re going to drop something, and you’ll be tempted to pick it up and go about your business. Whatever you do, don’t do this. Whether it was food that was dropped or an article of clothing, there is a procedure that must be followed. First, pick up the dropped item, not with your hands unless you want to wash them with paint thinner, and place it in a sandwich bag. (Carry them around with you.) Once you get to where you’re going, take the dropped item out of the bag and place it in a bucket. From here on out you need to act quickly because your dropped item is contaminating the inside air, and find some lighter fluid or butane. Pour the lighter fluid on the item, and set it on fire.

So why is the ground so dirty? Two words: split pants. What are split pants? Well, here in America have the luxury of diapers. In China, many families can’t afford diapers, so they came up with what they thought was the next best thing: split pants. Split pants are simply pants with the crotch cut out. I know what you’re thinking, wouldn’t that make a mess. Yes, yes it would. This is the primary reason why the ground is considered off limits. The other reason is the spitting. Yes, I said spitting. I never would have imagined there was a place in the world where spitting was so out of hand that at times the government would actually fine you for doing it. I can’t say I blame the people for spitting though. Once over there, it won’t take long for you to want to spit as well. As beautiful as Beijing is, it is one of the most highly polluted places in the world, and it doesn’t take long to take its toll on your sinuses. Just be forewarned, if you decide to start hacking and coughing, you may have to pay for it.

9. They have multi-purpose bathrooms

The multi-purpose bathrooms have proven to be one of the toughest adjustments for me every time I travel to Beijing. Multi-purpose bathrooms consist of two things. First, you have a squatty potty. If you don’t know what a squatty potty is, it’s just your basic hole in the ground that flushes. When you’re not used to using a squatty potty they can actually prove to be trickier than you would think. If you’re not careful, you might finish doing your business, stand up thinking you’re done, and discover you have something on your pants. It happens all the time, so don’t fall prey to it. The second part of the multi-purpose bathroom is the shower. What’s so strange about having a shower in the bathroom you might ask? Well, it’s not so much the shower that’s strange, but more the placement of the shower, which is sometimes directly above the squatty potty. Never in all my life have I been more alert in the shower than when I am in China. It doesn’t take long before you are navigating the multi-purpose bathrooms like a pro, but don’t be surprised if you never feel clean.

10. The beds are like boards. Actually, they are boards.

I don’t know about you, but I love my soft bed. This was one of the biggest shockers for me the first time I traveled to China. For what ever reason, the Chinese people seem to prefer firm beds. I don’t know if they have the same syndrome as Jim Caviezel had in “The Count of Monte Cristo” where after sleeping on a rock slab for 13 years, he couldn’t stand a soft bed. Whatever the reason, you can prepare yourself for the reality that all of their beds are hard.  The only exception is if you stay at an American standard five star hotel, which I can’t afford, and probably neither can you.  Let’s be honest though, you’re not going to China to sleep. It’s all part of the adventure and the hard beds just add to all the stories you’ll get to tell. On one particular visit, my wife and I stepped into our room, and within seconds we were cracking up at our sleeping situation. Not only were the beds hard as boards, they actually were boards. They were literally sheets of plywood padded with a comforter.  Looking back, I still chuckle.

Well, there you have it. 10 Things nobody else will tell you, but you need to know, about your time in one of the most amazing places ever. Beijing will keep you on your toes, and without realizing it, it might just seep into your soul too.

Have you traveled to Beijing?  What other culture shockers did you experience?

5 Responses to “10 Things You Need To Know While In Beijing”

  1. krystle March 27, 2012 at 5:30 #


    This is awesome!! China is such an amazing place, and I hope to return several more times!! This made me laugh because I viewed and responded to most of these experiences much like yourself. Too funn!

    • tommuellerbooks March 28, 2012 at 5:30 #

      China is such a blast. I’m going in June if you want to join:-)

  2. Vince September 16, 2012 at 5:30 #

    Such a great article that I found it so true like my situation, I’ve just arrived in Beijing in a week and currently renting an old apartment for 4 month stay. The squatty potty just drives me mad and rofl at the same time

    • tommuellerbooks September 16, 2012 at 5:30 #

      Thanks Vince. I hope you’re enjoying your time there. Beijing is a fun place. Plus, after four months, you’ll be able to write a pretty funny article yourself.


  1. 10 Lessons Learned The Hard Way « tommuellerbooks - April 3, 2012

    […] 10 Things You Need To Know While In Beijing […]

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