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Tips for taking your Mandarin immersion kids to China

August 10, 2011

Beijing Book Alley Photo by Kendall Goh


By Kendall Goh                                                           Last updated 3 August 2011

















I went through the process of planning and taking a trip to China this summer and thought I’d share what I learned in case other MI families could benefit from our experiences and mistakes.  I’m not an expert by any means and will do many things differently next time.

We traveled for over five weeks with two adults, a college kid who speaks some Mandarin and a 3d grader at an MI school.  Though I’d been to China before, I had never been with kids and had some trepidation about bringing them there.  Another MI family with two kids who had been traveling for two weeks before arriving in Beijing overlapped with us for two weeks in Beijing. We decided to get apartments in the same building and send the kids to the same camp and we went through much of the China trip planning process together.  Several other MI families were kind enough to share their China travel tips and experiences as well.[1]


Start early

I started planning in January for an early June departure.  In one sense five months was very early to begin the planning.  It allowed me to do the it in a relaxed way, consider and change the itinerary, travel modes and accommodations many times, search for the perfect apartment in Beijing, and attempt to meet the very diverse needs of our four-person travel cohort.  However, in another sense five months wasn’t far enough ahead.  I had been saving my frequent flyer miles for years for this trip expecting that when my daughter turned 8 we’d go to China.  However, I was unable to use my nearly 200K miles to upgrade to business class because I started attempting to book the flight too late.  I was advised that one should book an upgrade trip 11 months ahead.  (Note that for many of our school families who are premier 100K flyers this won’t be an issue.)

Or late

Another parent at our MI school decided to take his kid to Shanghai for the summer, started planning, got their tickets, got their visas, and left, all within about three weeks.  They appeared to have a very successful and fun trip, too.  One thing to keep in mind for short-time planning folks, though, is the time it takes to get a visa from the China Consulate.  It took me just over a week to do it myself which included two several-hour long visits to the China consul.  (see below)

WHY GO  Visiting family, studying language or sightseeing?

I think it makes sense to get clear on why you’re going to China because the planning for each of these types of trips is so different.  Of course, there may be overlap (like you plan to hook up with family and to do some sightseeing).  If you’re traveling with others, make sure you understand everyone else’s reasons as well.  Doing this before you start to plan–with the recognition that during the planning process your reasons/desires/

expectations are likely to change–might help you chose destinations, methods of travel, accommodations, etc.  For example, since two of our group were interested in maximizing sightseeing in certain cities, we chose to fly between many destinations rather than spend days on the trains.  Additionally, since in Shanghai we had planned sightseeing for each day resulting in little hotel time, and I wanted to stay in a historic hotel on the Bund (fabulous The Astor House), we all four shared one large room with two twin beds, a sofa and a rollaway.  Elsewhere we had two rooms and once we even had two connecting rooms.

If your idea is to get your kid the most Mandarin practice possible, then sticking to areas where there is a lot of Mandarin spoken on the street makes sense.  Because it’s the language of education throughout China you’ll likely find people speaking Mandarin everywhere.  But out in the provinces*, you may find Sichuanese or minority dialects spoken on the street more than Mandarin.  Or, as happened with us, the Mandarin sounded very heavily accented to us, to the point where the kids could not understand it at all.

*One note about the provinces.  People use the phrase “out in the provinces” or “in the provinces” to mean the more rural areas of China.  It’s a bit like in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights we say, “out in the Avenues” to mean out by the ocean where the streets are numbered avenues and are quite a long way from City Hall, in many ways.  In China, Beijing and Shanghai and some other large cities are actually provinces themselves.  They’re also huge.  Really huge, with populations around 20 million.  In China, a city of 500K is a very small city.


If it is not your first trip to China and/or you’re there primarily to reinforce your kid’s Mandarin education, you might want to choose a summer camp or language course and stay for two to four weeks in one city.  We decided to stay put in Beijing for two weeks and let the kids do a language camp there.

HINT:  Consider deciding what part of town in which you hope to stay and then chose the program, rather than vice versa.

HINT:  When studying a map, consider the size of the roads to be crossed.  Even if it is only a few blocks to the camp, walking may not be feasible since some roads in Beijing are difficult to cross safely.  Likewise, if you plan to take the subway daily to camp, consider the subway line and how crowded it is likely to be when you need it.  Rush hour on the subway is not for the faint hearted and can be quite unpleasant for people who are only four feet tall.

NOTE RE TIMING:  most camps seem to begin later in June or July so for our families who finish the school year at the end of May and want to travel early to miss some of the hot weather, it might be too early to join a camp in China.  The school years there tend to get out later than ours.  See “No Camp” idea below.

Camps & language programs:

  1. Capital Mandarin.   [contact Sonia]  We used this one in Beijing and had mixed reviews.  The good: the school adjusted the program to fit the two MI 3d graders and offered extra classes for my college-aged niece; were very helpful generally; and most importantly, my kid liked it. Someone described it as akin to CAIS summer camp: morning academics and afternoon enrichment.  The not so good: it was pricey; the other students were not native Mandarin speakers either; they weren’t used to having fairly advanced non-native speakers so my 3d grader’s group was very small with just our two the first week and only three kids the second week; some of the classrooms are small and airless; there was no outside playtime many of the days; some of the field trips were adult sightseeing trips.
  1. Sino Language Gateway  This one offers several cities including Kunming, Yunnan.  I didn’t research it but did hear from one dad who had mixed reviews from two summers ago.  I might be inclined to give this one a try if we were going to stay in Kunming longer next time.  [As an aside, two of the four of us loved Kunming and could see spending extended periods there. I have an old friend who lives there and had been there before so that likely colored my view but my niece saw it with fresh eyes and also loved it.  It helped that in Summers in Beijing and Shanghai are extremely hot, humid and smoggy and KM has a Spring climate year round.]
  1. ACLS Beijing Summer Camp at:  I didn’t research this one and the website appeared to be in Chinese only.  It was recommended by some parents on the Beijingkids magazine website.
  1. No Camp.  An alternative to a summer camp, offered by a parent who took his daughter to Shanghai last summer, is to hire a local Mandarin-only babysitter and send the sitter and the kid/s out to explore together, all in Chinese.  It might prove more useful to your kids’ Mandarin practice.  The parent hired someone recommended by his hotel.  It is also possible to post a query on various parent websites as well.  Try
  1. The following were extracted from Beijingkids website after doing a summer camp search.  I did not investigate any of these or confirm that they offer Mandarin activities.  You’ll need to do your own due diligence with these as with those above. If the links do not work, you might want to go to : do a search for the camp name.  Prices are in RMB (exchange rate is about US$1 to RMB6.5) and phone numbers are Beijing:
    1. Shuren Leadership Summer Camp
Ages: 9-15  Price: RMB 4800
Where: Beijing Shuren-Ribet Private School
 For more information, please contact the school office via email at:, 8085 6787
    2. 2011 International Bilingual All-around Summer Camp 
Ages: 5-15 
Price: RMB 3800/term or RMB 1950/week for one person. Where: Lido Country Club (part indoor); Lemon Lake Club (indoor) and Yosemite Club (indoor). There are bilingually taught small classes, and they are divided by level and age. or 138 0131 4810
    3. Beanstalk Summer Camp 2011
Ages: Grade 2-Middle school
Price: RMB 10500
Where: Beanstalk International Bilingual School

On offer is a mixture of language/academic learning and sports activities and excursions, with both a Chinese language summer camp program and an English language summer camp program available. For details,, 5130 7951.
  2. The following camps were also available on the Beijing-kids website but my links do not work.  If interested, search that website for the name here. Or post a query on Beijing mama’s yahoo group.  One of the Beijing-kids’ managers is a dad on that yahoo group:
    1. MIkids Summer Camp 2011
    2. Golf and Chinese language summer camps at Tian Zhu Golf Club…
    3. BSB Summer Camp – July 14 to August 15 2011…
    4. Teen Summer Camp (Session 2)
    5. 2011 International Bilingual All- around Summer Camp…
    6. Kids Summer Theatre Camp
    7. JUMP! Engage: Adventure Expedition 
Age 11-12… 
Age 13-15 
Age 16-18…
    8. CISB Summer Camps: From kindergarten to middle school…
    9. Even more choices



This is another area dependent upon your personal comfort level, why and where you intend to travel.  If you are sticking to the well trodden path, been to China before, or if you speak Mandarin, you can probably do without a travel agent and guide.  If you’ve never been to China and don’t feel like dealing with finding a taxi while profoundly jetlagged, it’s nice to have someone holding up a sign with your name on it when you come out of customs.

We used a travel agent to book the domestic travel and used a mix of guides and no guides once there.  In BJ, we used the camp’s airport pick up services but found we did not need them, overpaid, and could easily have managed getting a taxi to our apartment without the help.  It was different out in the provinces where there were a couple of times I was happy to not have to negotiate rates and whatnot along with thousands of others getting off of a train, and in one case, getting off of a train at 2 a.m.

HINT:  each member of your party might want to carry a card with the hotel or apartment address, phone and location.  Most places have these but the font is so tiny they can be difficult to read.  We found it useful to rewrite it ourselves (in Chinese of course) to show cab drivers.  Some drivers seemed uninterested in reading the address or directions, may have had reading impairments generally or may have needed reading glasses to make out the tiny font.  I’m middle-aged myself, and my niece thought offering the taxi drivers my reading glasses made sense.

Though we had had no guides in Beijing (except for going to the Great Wall), we decided to utilize one in Shanghai because we had only a few days and wanted to maximize sightseeing (and minimize Mama’s melt-downing) there.  My partner wanted to see the Jewish Refugee museum and wander around the former Jewish ghettos in Shanghai.  We had our travel agent organize that for us and provide the transportation. It was great to have a van and driver scoop us up the fabulous Astor House Hotel (the oldest hotel in Shanghai)

and take us to these various places, rather than spending time getting there on public transportation the way we did in BJ.  We were also able to take the van out to Zhujiajiao (one of the ancient canal towns ), though my niece did it by bus with a Shanghai friend the day before.  We used guides in other places as well, but did not in places where we had our own contacts or family.

Group tours

Most travel agencies offer similar group tours to the most popular places.  For example, you can do Beijing-Guilin-Shanghai very easily with nearly every outfit.  This is the least expensive way to go with the agencies since they have some economies of scale booking groups.  I’ve never tried group travel but many people swear by it.  If several families are going, it might provide your kids with built-in playmates.

HINT:  I might consider doing a local Sea Ranch or Tahoe type trip with other families before signing on for something as potentially challenging as China.  It might be worth considering that when traveling we can be at our worst and at our best.  Jetlagged, sleep deprived, exhausted from heat, smog and walking, can make the best adult traveler quite cranky, let alone the kids!  Add to that our different tolerances for planning or lack of, cultural challenges like having to guard carefully your place in line or deal with someone blowing cigarette smoke into your kid’s face, and I can easily see how families might return on not-speaking terms.  We were lucky in that when we overlapped with another family they were folks we’ve known for years and otherwise were on our own or with our own extended family in China.

Package Tours

Even if you are not going with a group of other travelers, it is possible to book the package tours with just your family group of four or whatever it is.  Again, most agencies offer similar destination packages.

Self directed travel

You can dream up your own itinerary and either go it alone or use an agent to help you figure out the domestic travel pieces and/or the sightseeing at each destination.  We made up our own itinerary that included some places in the West that are off the beaten path because we have family there.  It was useful to see those areas that seemed like “old China” because the large cities have become so wealthy and capitalistic. We included the Yunnan as well because I had been there many years ago and had been talking about it for so long that everyone else also wanted to see it.  The Lonely Planet Guide says if you only have time for one province, make it the Yunnan.

TIP:  I would not recommend the (minority tribe) Naxi village of LiJiang now as it has become the number one destination for domestic tourists and is extremely crowded and commercial.  There was a huge earthquake there in 1996 and the government dumped a ton of money into LiJiang to create a tourist destination out of the ancient Naxi town.  The Naxi’s #1 industry went from agriculture to tourism almost over night.  However, I do want to shout out to our Naxi guide there, Angel.  She was wonderful and one of our favorites.  She reported that Naxi women are so known for their hard work in the fields that it is said to marry a Naxi woman it is like marrying 10 donkeys.  It had been a matriarchic society.  The men, on the other hand, appear to be known for drinking and gambling.  We witnessed enough of that to believe it is true.

Travel agencies

We used China Travel Service “CTS” and I would not recommend them.  I think their Beijing office may be a good one but our local San Francisco office is lacking.

Our friends used “CTO” and liked them a lot.



If you have a travel agent they probably offer a visa service for a fee.  If you live in San Francisco it is easy to get your own visas.  Just download the form here:

fill it out, take your passports and go to the consulate at 1450 Laguna here:

and plan to wait in line for a bit outside and then inside the building.  Then go back the next week and pick up your passports with the visa inside.

HINT:  On another mom’s suggestion, I arrived at the consul shortly before opening in the morning and shortly before opening after the lunch hour.  It helped as I did not have to wait very long (less than an hour) to get into the building and then about the same inside.  I had heard that the agents could be very rude but did not experience that myself.  In fact, both women I dealt with were kind and efficient.  Interestingly, just like my kid, both women also teased me about my terrible Mandarin.

You can compare the consul’s fees with your agency’s fees. In our case the agency’s surcharge for obtaining the visas for us was only about $40 per visa plus the cost of Fedexing our passports to their office in Southern California.  In the end, it might have been worth it to pay the agency’s fees rather than missing work in order to wait in line,  twice.  My niece got her own visa back East by mailing her passport and application to an agency that specialized in this work.  I saw people who were likely doing just that at the consul, with plastic bins filled with stacks of 40 or 50 blue passports.  Seemed like a potential job opportunity for someone and I had the fleeting thought that I might have time to start offering that service myself.


Booking flights

We let our agent book our internal flights and trains.  The flights are fairly straightforward and we did not have difficulty speaking English when checking in even when out in the provinces.  I do not know if our agent saved us anything by booking the internal flights as we never got a breakdown of the fees we paid, even when needing to make a claim against our travel insurance.  We flew: Air China; China Southern; and Sichuan Airlines.  I am not sure if one could book those flights on Expedia or another website and I didn’t try.

Flight delays

It’s worth noting that the internal flights were often delayed and that announcements or postings indicating why or when the flight might actually take off were nearly nonexistent.  We nearly missed a train as a result of a late plane and that was one time it was nice to have a travel agent dealing with getting us from the airport to the train station rather than having to negotiate that ourselves.

HINT:  Most experienced China travelers know to expect flight delays, to book the first flight of the day, and to give themselves a large gap between flights in case there’s a problem.  We were flying back to Beijing from Chengdu, a 2.5 hour flight for which I had allowed 18 hours.  In the end, it took us over 21 hours to complete that 2.5 hour flight; we missed our flight home.  Summer is monsoon season and Beijing experienced a severe thunderstorm so many flights were canceled that day.  We were extremely lucky to get the same flight the next day.  In the future I might plan a longer last night and day in Beijing if we were flying in from out in the provinces.



It’s apparently not possible to purchase train tickets many months ahead of time.  We were told that at least some of the tickets are available only 10 days before travel and during the summer months, seats can be hard to come by.   Additionally, there are different levels of accommodations on trains including “soft sleepers” and “hard seats.”  We were meant to have the former on one memorable, nine hour train ride, but instead were given the latter.  The guide is apparently not allowed inside the ticketed area (much like an airport) so by the time we were aware of the mistake, the guide was long gone.


Another MI parent had warned us that the train bathrooms are challenging because they can be quite filthy.  In addition, in our hard seat train, the bathroom was a squat toilet.  Though we got used to them in China generally and actually grew to prefer them over the Western style (cleaner because you don’t have to touch anything), using a squat toilet on a moving train is quite a feat.  Another China-experienced MI parent also suggested that everyone have “potty shoes” on the train for this reason.

HINT:  For women only: buy Urinelles or another product (in travel and camping catalogs) so you can urinate standing up.  We brought several packages thinking we’d need them for squat toilets but wound up only using them with filthy Western toilets in order to not have to touch anything.


Our hard seated train did not have a dining car despite our guide’s assurances that it would.  We brought some snacks but did not bring meals.  There were snacks available on the train from a man dragging a cardboard box tied with a rope down the aisle, but after about five hours we all needed to eat something besides crackers.  At some of the stops there were vendors selling packaged ramen noodle bowls.  The train had hot water available but we were not sure how long it had been boiled and were leery of it.  However, after five hours we decided that whatever stomach ailments might result from the water were outweighed by everyone’s hunger and crankiness.  Two of us got off the train and bought some noodles for dinner.  On the sleeper train there was a dining car with table service and a menu (in Chinese only).  At night the dining car filled with sleeping people who had come up from the hard seat cars further down, but during the dinner hour it was possible to get a good, kid-friendly meal.

Trains and Timing

On the actual sleeper train we were meant to arrive at our destination at 2 am and were afraid we might miss the stop.  We set our alarm watches for 1:45 a.m. so we would have time to get the luggage down from the overhead storage area.  I woke up at 1:20 and saw we were in a city, slowing as though we were going to stop.  I tried to wake everyone up, tried to find the ticket agent for our car, and once I found her, tried to ask what the next stop was.  Even with my abysmal Chinese I understood that she said our stop was the next one.  None of my family believed it but we did, in fact, arrive at our destination some 22 minutes early.  The ticket agent for our car barked at my niece who was having a hard time waking up enough to climb down off of her bunk.   I would not have expected a train to be early (what of the people wanting to board it then?) but ours did.  So, if you have a middle of the night arrival, be sure to set your alarm clock a tad bit early!  Of course, this was out in the provinces and I suspect train schedules in BJ and Shanghai are not so fluid.

Bullet trains

We took the high speed Maglev train from the Shanghai Pudong airport and it is very fast, the fastest train in the world, they say.

It was recommended to us by several travelers and was indeed exciting.  It took about 8 minutes to travel the 16.5 miles.  However, it drops you on the Pudong side of Shanghai and is meant to connect you to the subway system but they are separate systems.  We were happy to have a guide and van after the Maglev ride since we had kids and too much luggage.

The Bullet between Beijing and Shanghai is now up and running, as I understand it, but we did not take it.  There was an accident on another line of the bullet this month and a lot of media reports about it.  It might be worth googling it if you’re going to take that train.



It is possible to book many hotels on line, even in China.  We used Expedia for Beijing, Shanghai and Sichuan, used family in Sichuan, and used our agent for other areas.  One thing I would do differently is to investigate better the locations of the hotels the agent booked for us.  In one case, we were very far from the center of the Old Town where we spent most of our time.  The hotel was vintage and architecturally interesting (my requests), but required a taxi or the guide’s van every day.  We did better when our hotels were close to the areas we wanted to explore on foot.  I heard the same from a family who stayed far from the Bund and far from the French Concession in Shanghai.

We found few of the hotels (even new ones) offered connecting rooms, which would have been ideal for our four person group.  Since one of the kids was college-aged, we wound up letting them have a room of their own close to our room.  Also, many hotels have the old China configuration of two (very hard) twin beds with a table console between them.  That table has the switches for lights, TV, radio and “do not disturb.”   I saw this all over China in the 1990’s and still saw it in many places this summer.   To find a soft, king sized bed with a high pillow count, one had to look for the new Western  and expensive hotels.


We wanted an apartment with a kitchen and some hanging out space for our two week staying in BJ.  The other family’s mom and I searched on line for weeks.  We discovered that you can’t just rent a place on Craigslist (there is one, here: ) because most places have restrictive one-year leases that do not allow subletting.  Without a rental contract you cannot register with the local police station, which is required (see below).

There are many real estate agents on line that can help find an apartment.  I learned from one of the BJ yahoo groups though that it makes sense to use more than one agent because two different agents might quote different rents for the same unit.  I also had difficulty with hearing back from people when my friend, the other mom, was hearing back quickly.  I realized, belatedly, that she had an auto-signature on her emails showing her company’s name and her impressive title.  This is China; status matters.  I put my own title on my emails and started hearing back too.

There are many, many “service apartments” which are like the longer stay places in the US and are mostly in new, fancy buildings.  They’re furnished apartments with kitchens and are like hotel rooms in that they may have maid service, breakfast buffets, pools (a plus), massage, and many other services.

Most of the Service Apartments have a minimum stay of a month, however, including those recommended by our kids’ camp.  We wound up finding one that allowed two week stays on line through Expedia (whose rate was substantially less than the website rate.)  The Ascott Beijing (not Raffles) was in the Chaoyang district, not far from our camp at Capital Mandarin.  Our contact there was guest manager Mr. Sellen Zhang at   He did a fabulous job making us feel at home and addressing our needs.

HINT:  Many of the experienced China travel parents had suggested finding a place with a pool.  Like they said, after a day of sightseeing or camp in the hot, humid, smoggy city, it was great to spend an hour or so in the pool before getting ready for dinner.  One parent reported that her pool required swim caps on everyone and sold overpriced ones so she suggested bringing some.

Staying with friends and family

It is possible to stay with friends or family if they have a house or apartment large enough.  However, any foreign visitor is required to register with the local police station (or two or three if there are city, county or special zone police stations).  It’s my understanding that if you fail to do this you won’t get in trouble but your hosts will.  This is not something to shirk.  With the increase in capitalism and the market economy in China it is easy to forget the State.  Don’t.

You have to register when you’re at a hotel, too, but the hotels will do it for you.  They’ll take your passport when you check in and make a copy, then file that with local law enforcement.  Make sure you keep tabs on your passports and get all of them back from the hotel before going to your room.  Losing your passport in China is a traveling crisis and requires your immediate attention.

Housing swaps

One MI family we know had luck using a housing swap agency

for stays in Beijing and Shanghai.  There are many agencies that offer this service, have listings and photos of houses available and the destinations their owners seek.  Like the hotels booked by our agency, I’d guess that location is a primary consideration.



We intentionally booked places with internet so we could stay connected to work and family at home, communicate with the travel agents, and Skype.  We found that some of the places we stayed had wireless internet but many had only an Ethernet cable in the room.  Several places advertised “wireless” but were apparently referring only to the lobby.  While my computer assistant swears that it is a bad idea to hook your laptop into an Ethernet cable anywhere but home, I did it many times so I could have access in the hotel room or apartment.  My new Apple Macbook Air needed a converter Ethernet to USB and I had to go to the (authentic) Apple store  in BJ to find one.  Next time I’d bring one along.


Some US phones can be used in China and you can buy a SIM card at the airport.  Some US phones can’t be used.  Check with your carrier even if your phone can work there because we heard many stories of gigantic bills upon returning home for failing to understand the carrier’s system for use overseas.  I ordered a cell phone from and received the phone number before departing, which was handy.  My phone was a very low quality one but my partner’s was a normal, reliable one.  I opted for voicemail at an extra charge but it never worked (nor was I charged for it).  My phone, for all of its faults, was serviceable, well-used and it was relatively inexpensive.

A friend who is a frequent business traveler to China explained that attitudes toward being readily available by cell phone are different there, that one is expected to be available and to pick up the phone when called, which might explain why voicemail is less important.   I observed many people answering their phones during dinner or even when in meetings with me.

Power and plugs

Voltage in China is 220V so check any appliances.  My laptop (my fantastic, small and light little MacBook Air) and camera charger both did fine and neither needed a step down  power converter.  Plugs are another matter and in China there are three possibilities known as A, I, and C.  If you don’t bring an electrical outlet adapter, they are not hard to find in stores and your hotel may have one to loan you.   Every place had at least one outlet like the US outlets but the outlet adapter allowed us to plug in more than one laptop to charge overnight, so I’d bring at least one.

HINT:  It’s nice to charge up the laptop, DVD player, phones and camera batteries overnight so you don’t have to even think about them and whether you’re about to get on a train that’s supposed to be 5 hours that turns into 9, or a plane that’s supposed to be 2 hours that turns into 21!  For example.


Many travel agents and on line mags have suggested packing lists and I have one too (***).  The basic advice is to pack as lightly as possible.  Summers are so hot in the East that you don’t need much in the way of clothing.  On other websites I read that China was still more formal than the US and that people didn’t wear shorts or Tshirts there.  That was my experience when I traveled there in the 1980s and 1990s but not when I went in 2004. And it was not our experience this summer at all.  Many people wore all manner of very casual clothing, even in Beijing and Shanghai.  If you’re traveling the way we did to the West and to the higher elevations of Yunnan and Sichuan, then you do need hoodies or jackets as it was chilly at 10K feet elevation.

TIP:  You might want to bring at least one nice, going out in the city-type garment especially if you have a packable sundress or the male equivalent.  We wound up going out like you would in any city (SF, NY, Paris?) more than I would have thought when traveling in Asia with kids.

First aid items

One parent who traveled with her two kids last summer suggested packing lightly but she also said she brought loads of meds, bandages, and basically an advanced first aid kit. We also brought a lot of first aid type things and included epipens for both me and my daughter.  Since we were way off the beaten track and visiting a farm, our doctors thought it made sense to have those.  Since our epipens are now the same size and so large, next time I’d only bring one set.  I’d also reduce in half the other first aid supplies (though always have Tylenol, pepto and a change of clothes inside the cabin on a long flight) since you can get most things in the big cities.

Additionally, we always travel with stomach bug prescription meds for everyone and the powder form of electrolyte drinks just as you would for Mexico.  We have not needed them in many years despite yearly travel but it’s terrible to not have them when you really need them.  An expat suggested that we know everyone’s blood type.  In the event of an accident where someone needs blood, the idea is you’d not want to use the blood supply in China.  It turned out I didn’t even know my daughter’s blood type, nor did her pediatrician, since we’d never had occasion to have it tested.  Next time we need testing for something else, we’ll ask to have it typed.

Bad Air

One thing I would buy upon arrival in Beijing are face masks. They even sell them with lots of bling.  The air is terrible on the streets and even down in the subway where they apparently use some horribly toxic cleaner.   If you’re an asthmatic (I’m not, or wasn’t), be sure to bring whatever inhalers you might need.


If you’re traveling to buggy areas, or malaria or Japanese encephalitis areas, you’ll want some bug repellant.  My niece brought a slow absorption DEET lotion from here that was recommended by the university travel clinic where she got her vaccinations.  Our local county travel clinic did not know about it and sold me some high strength lotion then wouldn’t allow me to return it.  Both my niece’s clinic and ours in SF also sold us a clothing spray that supposedly lasts six weeks.  We used both the Sawyer product and the spray and can report very few mosquito bites despite being in areas where there were many very large mosquitoes.

Packing for the 12 hour flight

One on line advice columnist said bring tons of airplane activities, more than you need.  On the outbound flight we did this along with a DVD player for my daughter.

HINT:  We made a little chart for what activities and snacks we’d have when.  Hour 1:  draw pictures.  Hour 2:  play card games.  Hour 3-4:  Kid:  Watch DVD. Mama: write on laptop.  Hour 5:  write in journals (we bought matching ones for each of us); etc.  We didn’t follow it on the plane but it did help me remember to pack all the things we needed.  But on the flight home, we didn’t make a schedule and I failed to pack many of the activities, crafts and games in the backpack…and her DVD player ran out of battery.

OTHER PACKING ADVICE:  Several of the experienced China travel families sent along great packing advice that I’ve included it here:

1)    bring ziplock bags – I would fill them with food from the hotel breakfast for when the kids needed a snack before lunch

2)    bars and fruit leathers – very helpful to have them when the kids needed a snack

3)    lots of toilet paper in zip lock bags [most bathrooms do not have paper so you need to bring your own.  I bought those mini tissue packets and carried those around, always.]

4)    purell, used it all the time

5)    each child had a small backpack to carry water, snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses, etc.  I had to remember that they had the backpack, but it made my load lighter

6)    each child was responsible for his/her own luggage

7)    Hats, fans, umbrellas and squirt bottles are a must

8)    Definitely carry water.

9)    A handkerchief that you can wet and wear around your neck is helpful.

10) potty shoes for the train as everyone pees on the floor.

11) a washcloth or small towel to rinse dirt off face as well as dry hands

12) bring sunscreen [while sunscreen is available in China, many moms reported that the quality isn’t the same. I couldn’t tell. Plus, we brought too much.]


Vaccinations and meds

These depend upon where you are going to be and for how long.  My daughter’s pediatrician recommended that we go to the SF Health Department Travel Clinic at Civic Center.  I heard from another MI parent who is also a pharmacist/pharmacologist that it is recommended to go there rather than a private travel clinic because it is thought they’re less likely to order shots you don’t need.  We didn’t need much and we were traveling pretty off the beaten track and also to a farm.  See more hints under packing advice.

Altitude sickness

We planned the trip to step up slowly from sea level to about 5K for 24 hours, then to about 7K for four days, then to 10K for 36 hours, then a little mini-trek at around 11K.  At the highest elevations most of the group tours we ran into included people of all ages, even kids, who had small oxygen tanks for personal use.  The tour groups’ guides were also carrying oxygen for their tourists.  All the hotels had warnings in the rooms as well.  We each brought meds (by prescription from your doctor at home) for altitude sickness just in case.  I traveled in Tibet in the 90s and wound up with a woman who developed cerebral and pulmonary edema from altitude sickness; she very nearly died in the Lhasa hospital.  Since then, I won’t travel to elevation with people who don’t have their own meds. We didn’t need ours, or the oxygen tanks, thank goodness.


I don’t drink the tap water in China or anywhere in Asia or Mexico.  Others do.  Read here about water.

Many hotels filter all their water but some don’t so we use bottled for teeth brushing.

HINT:  we place a washcloth over the bathroom sink faucet to remind ourselves not to put our toothbrush under the tap.


Some people do not eat fruit that they cannot peel, fresh vegetables or other foods that have likely come into contact with tap water.  I’ve gotten horribly ill on trips where I have been extremely careful, and not gotten sick at all on trips where I’ve been reckless.    We tend to be very careful at the beginning of any trip, then less careful the closer we get to the end with the idea that the antibiotics we’ve brought along are good for 10 days and we don’t want to use them up too early in the trip.

HINT:  My suggestion is to not be paranoid but to be sure to get some meds from your doctor before you leave.  For the kid’s versions of stomach antibiotics, ask the pharmacist to not mix it up and bring the powder along with the distilled water, and mix it yourself if you need it because once it’s mixed, it needs to be refrigerated.

We didn’t need any of our meds for this trip though both adults and the college kid suffered some mild intestinal woes the latter of whose seemed directly attributable to the big raspberry type fruits called Bayberry that cannot be peeled. It happened twice to her but she thought that fruit was worth it!

HINT:  Do what our friends did and go to the market and try all the fruits you can.  We can get lychee and longon easily here in San Francisco, but not the Queen of Fruits (aka mangosteen) or the King of Fruits (aka Durian.  In many hotels there’s a circle/slash sign with a Durian right next to the circle/slash sign with a cigarette.  Durian smells like rotting flesh but tastes great if you can get past the smell!)


A dad who went last year warned us that traffic rules are different and we experienced it first hand walking from our apartment building to the kids’ camp.  It was only about four blocks and should have been a simple morning stroll.  Instead, it was a bit of a nightmare where with three kids we needed at least two adults.  The road rules appear to be that whoever has the greatest mass and speed has the right of way.  That puts pedestrians dead last, so to speak. Crossing streets is no different and cars, though directed by uniformed traffic officials waving orange flags, may fail to stop for red lights…even if you and your kids are halfway across the road.  As our friend said, “basically, it seemed like it was the peds’ obligation to watch out for and stay out of the way of cars. Same goes with right of way at intersections. A whole different set of rules.  Be super careful and attentive when crossing the street.”

Seatbelts (and other auto observations)

These are not commonly found in taxis.  Even in taxis that have seat belts there is often a seat covering over the back seat that makes the buckle unusable.  Don’t bother bringing your booster seat for use in taxis.

Many expats hire a car and hotels can arrange one for you if you don’t have a travel guide’s van and you have a small kid who needs a five-point-restraint.  Of course, here as in many places, you’ll see children balanced precariously on the front handlebars of a motorbike, or a baby loose on someone’s lap in the front seat of a car, or whole families crammed into the roofed area of those three-wheeled modified motorcycles (they call them tuk-tuks in Thailand; I never learned the Chinese name for them).  Some people just take their chances while traveling and we did our share of that too.  However, we also saw a recently flipped car lying on its crushed roof by the side of the Yunnan-Tibet road.

In Beijing there are limitations on what license plate numbers are allowed to drive on which days inside the city limits.  For this reason, some people have “black cars” (sort of unpermitted taxis, I think) do their driving on their off days.  In Shanghai, cars registered outside the city limits are apparently not permitted to enter until 10 a.m.  For that reason, in the morning hours the far right lane of the elevated roadway into the city is stopped with parked cars waiting for 10.


We heard many warnings and horror stories about pickpockets and learned that the crimes experienced by most tourists (and locals) are by pickpockets.  This is especially so on the subway and buses, or in touristy areas.  Our Shanghai guide and a monk who had lived in Xian both said that we would not feel our pockets being picked; the pickpockets are very stealthy, very good at what they do and you won’t notice.  We heard US passports are worth a fortune in China. We were lucky that we did not have any troubles along these lines.  Still, I sure did not want to have to miss parts of the trip trying to get a passport replaced.

HINT:  Lock your passports in your hotel safe or carry them in an interior necksafe or waistsafe.  Know where your passports are at all times.  My kid is old enough to keep track of a purse but not her passport; I maintained possession of the passports.

HINT:  Keep a copy of the photo/info page of your passport and your kids’ passports in a bag separate from the passport itself.  I also bring a list of US Embassies and American Express offices for each destination in hard copy in my bag.  If I need those, I don’t want to have to be looking for an internet connection and firing up my laptop to get them.

Getting lost

Count on it.  Well, if you are exploring alone at all chances are you’ll get lost at least once.  If you carry around your hotel’s “take me to…” card or have the address otherwise written down (in Chinese), you’ll be fine.  My niece and I spent hours and hours wandering around the Hutongs in BJ and it was one of the most memorable afternoons of our trip.  We were completely turned around and lost and figured that was more than fine.

What’s not fine is, of course, having your kid get lost.  Many places, including the subway, are so crowded that it is tough to keep track of a kid so be sure to hold hands and teach them not to wander.  As we all know, kids are likely to pay attention to some commuter’s shiny bag and keep walking on following it, not noticing that you’ve stopped at the subway ticket machine.

HINT:  A dad who traveled last summer suggested making a dogtag with contact information for the kid to wear, always.  The other family we overlapped with discovered and ordered waterproof ID bracelets with changeable contact information tags at  We changed out the hotel information for each city and included our China cell phone number as well.  We never needed them but the parents and the kids felt more secure in having them.




It is worth checking out some websites and spending some time thinking about cultural differences.  I think to have a better trip it’s worth working on our own awareness of cultural bias.  Spitting, smoking, personal space, not necessarily queuing in line for things, pushing, squat toilets, etc. are all things that might feel uncomfortable if you’ve not traveled much, or traveled in Asia much.  I think many of those things have lessened in the years I’ve been traveling and especially since the Olympics in BJ but I think it’s important to examine one’s own judgment around things that are culturally acceptable elsewhere.

I was trying to figure out how to explain it to someone and I thought of eye contact.  I wonder it would be just as unlikely for a Chinese person (I mean from China, not me) to stare you in the eye and say you’re flatly wrong about something as it would be for you to hawk and spit on the sidewalk?  Maybe that’s not a good example but that’s the kind of hanging out with our own senses of okay-behavior and not-okay-behavior I was thinking might help open our minds and hearts to experiencing another culture without judgment.  Not sure.

It might be worth familiarizing yourself with other cultural do’s and don’ts as well.  For example, don’t take the last bite of something on a plate and do wait for the host to tell you where to sit at the dinner table.  There are many websites, even travel agents often have some do’s and don’ts.  I don’t necessarily agree with all of these but it’s a start:

Business cards

Business card exchanging is a big deal in China so bring your cards and be ready to give them to people.  It is appropriate to both offer and receive someone’s card with two hands.  In fact, offering anything of value should be done with two hands.  You’ll see people giving you your change with two hands, and your credit card, too.  If you don’t have a business card, you might want to have one made.  Even my college aged niece had one made with her school address, cell number, and, most importantly, her email address.

We met up with my friend in Kunming who is now the Provincial director of tourism there.  In the first 45 minutes we were with him I think he gave five or six business cards away.  It was impressive.


Consider bringing local gifts from home.  We brought some small and light things for teachers, drivers and guides like San Francisco keychains, and some more substantial things for my cousins, work contacts and friends.


Take off your shoes when going into someone’s home.


When stepping into a temple, step over the threshold left foot first.  Do not step on the threshold itself.  Walk around the temple in a clockwise direction.  Do not take photos inside the temple buildings, though in the courtyards it is usually acceptable.



  1. Kids info
    1. My number one go-to for questions was a yahoo group in Beijing  I was able to join and continue to learn a lot reading and posting queries of my own.  A lot of moms of small children but a great resource for things like “where can my kid ice skate in Chaoyang District” and “what can I do about the fact that none of the taxis we hail have seatbelts.”
    2. Another great resource in Beijing is Beijingkids magazine.  It is available in many service apartments and hotels, and on line here: It has lists of parks, schools, and nearly every activity I could think of.
  2. Chinese
    1. Before going, I wanted some Chinese exposure and a friend, an expat in BJ, recommended so I did that for a few weeks before leaving. I met another expat in Shanghai who found these pods very annoying but I didn’t have that issue with them.
    2. See also:  Where to Learn Chinese website
  3. Other interesting websites
    2. Internships for big kids:
    4. yahoogroup ExPatsinChina—not very active but some members responsive if you post your own question
    5. Some of this only applies to this group’s travel but much of it is useful to anyone going to China:


CHINA Packing List  (suggestions dated 31 May 2011)

  1. Suitcase (not to exceed 44 lbs inside China)
  2. Shoulder bag/daypack/carryon
  3. Passport carrier/money pouch
  4. Credit cards
  5. Long distance phone card?
  6. Health insurance cards for each
  7. Luggage ID tags (place address inside suitcases also)
  8. Emergency contact information
  9. Personal ID and/or driver’s license
  10. Address book – mailing labels
  11. Wallet and cash/blank check/2nd wallet for Chinese cash
  12. Phrase books
  13. Guide books
  14. Travelers checks
  15. Maps
  16. Passport with Chinese Visa – valid for dates of the trip (plus copies stored separately)
  17. Tour Itinerary, tour guide local contacts, and Hotel Information for all cities (Hotels in Chinese too)
  18. Contact Information in China
  19. US Embassy addresses & phone numbers in China
  20. American Express Office locations in relevant cities/Amex card/blank checks
  21. Air Tickets – confirmed with seat assignments


  1.  Sunglasses
  2. Watch and alarm clock
  3. Antibacterial wipes
  4. Grounded converter plug (everyone in our group needs their own)
  5. Power converter (Need?)
  6. Laptop and charger (ditto)
  7. Camera and charger (need converter?)
  8. Camera downloading box
  9. DVD player & charger for Kid
  10. DVDs for me and for Kid
  11. blackberry & charger for mama
  12. Gifts list & gifts
  1.   Coffee
  2. chocolates (no too hot)
  3.    American ginseng (didn’t get)
  4. American flag pins
  5.    San Francisco momentos?
  6.    Fish oil capsules
  7. nuts
  1. clothes
  1. bathing suits for me and Kid
  2. bathing caps
  3. squirt bottles [really great for hot days]
  4. sun hats [buy there? Never got]
  5. daytime backpacks for each
  6. pj’s —
  7. hoodies–
  8. sweats—
  9. underwear—
  10. bras—
  11. socks
  12. around house clothes—
  13. touring clothes (if jeans, make them stretchy—squat toilets are tough in jeans)
  14. black travel sundress/professional-ish outfit?
  15. leggings x 2
  16. jacket or hoodie (60s in Yunnan)
  17. Capri jeans x 2
  18. shorts-
  19. flip flops—
  20. Keens-
  21. spare airplane clothes—mama
  22. spare airplane clothes—kid
  23. toothbrush
  24. toothpaste
  25. brush
  26. lice comb
  27. contact solution
  28. contact case
  29. contacts x 45 days
  30. spare glasses
  31. earplugs for all/also have on plane
  32. bandaids
  33. Antibiotic lotion
  34. Antibiotics for
  35. Altitude sickness meds for both
  36. Peptobismol for
  37. Sunburn lotion (?)
  38. Sunscreen (have heard China’s brands are not as effective)
  39. Lip balm
  40. bug spray/lotion from clinic
  41. makeup?
  42. face lotion
  43. Feminine products
  44. Nail & cuticle clippers, tweezers
  45. Toilet paper/tissue packets
  46. Children’s medications
  47. Medicines and prescriptions
  48. Vitamins
  49. Hairties for both
  1. toiletries—
  1. games
  2. projects
  3. paper
  4. markers
  5. airplane projects
  6.  swim goggles
  7. sunglasses-
  8. reading glasses
  9. books for adults
  10. books for kids
  11. postcard address list

On plane

  1. laptop & airplane charger & regular charger (?)
  2. Kid’s dvd player and charger; dvds
  3. Games
  4. coloring set
  5. journal
  6. Other things for plane
  7. Airplane blanket/pillow set
  8. Colored pen
  9. Plane snacks
  10. Books
  11. Plane gift for Kid
  12. Reading glasses
  13. Dvd player/dvds
  14. Wipes
  15. Urinelles


[1] Thanks to Cate Reigner, Chris Chang, Nancy Lin, Jan Larky, Ed Sweeney, Marie Ciepiela and Jennifer Irvine.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ken permalink
    August 12, 2011 11:42 am

    Great article!!! Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. janice permalink
    February 11, 2013 10:23 pm

    I just read your post on your trip to China in 2011. I am preparing to travel with my 13 year old twin boys this summer and attend summer camp as well. I would love to connect with you on any updated information you might have on Mandarin Immersion Summer Camps in Beijing or Shanghai. Janice

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