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Tips for taking your Mandarin immersion kids to China

May 25, 2014

 

horseproduce

By Kendall Goh

Introduction

I went through the processes of planning and taking several trips[1] to China and thought I’d share what I learned in case other Mandarin immersion families could benefit from our experiences and mistakes.

When to plan

Start early

For the first trip with kids, 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 it in a relaxed way, consider and change our 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.

 

In another sense five months wasn’t far enough ahead. I had been saving my frequent flyer miles for years for this trip. 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 learned since that upgrades are very, very difficult to come by. It makes much more sense to save enough miles to buy the ticket outright with miles. The earlier you can plan it, the more likely you’ll be able to secure the “saver” awards requiring fewer miles per ticket.

 

Hint: Start travel hacking and saving miles. There are many websites to help you maximize your points including the Travel Hacking Cartel, the Points Guy, and Nomadic Matt, among others.

 

Or start late late

 

Another parent at our Mandarin immersion 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:[2] 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 in 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, 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. For the longer stays I prefer a service apartment, which is basically an apartment with bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen, but with hotel service like cleaning and a front desk as well.

 

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 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.

Finding a language program

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. In 2011 we decided to stay put in Beijing for two weeks and let the kids do a language camp there before we explored other parts of the country. In 2013 we stayed in Beijing for a month.

 

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 you stay a few blocks from 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 on timing: Most camps seem to begin later in June or July, so for 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 year there tends to get out later than ours. See “No Camp” idea below.

 

Camps & language programs

 

There are many camps and language programs for kids. In 2011 we did a Beijing camp that was basically desk-sitting school, drilling and grilling. In 2013 we did a soccer camp. If you do an internet search you’ll find many camps. Some camps aren’t particularly language camps and some that really are language camps are more like school. The soccer camp we did in 2013 wasn’t a language camp but there were very few kids who spoke English and essentially none of the staff did. So, my daughter and her buddy played soccer and did craft projects like any soccer camp in America, except that this one was all in Mandarin.

 

No Camp

 

An alternative to a summer camp, offered by a parent who took his daughter to Shanghai in 2010, is to hire a local Mandarin-only babysitter and send the sitter and the kids 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. One summer we hired one of our San Francisco Mandarin immersion school staff who summers in Beijing. It is also possible to post a query on various parent websites. Some expat families’ Ayis (household helpers/babysitter/cooks/nannies) are off for the summers while the families are visiting their home countries. Try http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Beijing_Mamas/

Guides, groups or going it alone

 

Guides

 

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.

 

In 2011 we used a travel agent to book the domestic travel and used a mix of guides and no guides once there. In Beijing, 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 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. I didn’t think that was very funny.

 

In 2011, though we had had no guides in Beijing 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) http://www.astorhousehotel.com/en/index.php

and take us to these various places, rather than spending time getting there on public transportation the way we did in Beijing. We were also able to take the van out to Zhujiajiao (one of the ancient canal towns http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zhujiajiao ), though my niece did it fairly easily 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.

 

One of the dads in our San Francisco Mandarin immersion school has organized a school trip a couple of times. The benefits of that are the kids know each other and have a great time, the parents have built in playmates for the kids, and the logistics are taken care of. One mom, an experienced traveler and organizer herself, takes her family on these group trips for those reasons even though she and her kids have already lived a summer in Beijing and she could easily negotiate all the travel on her own. The downside of this kind of group travel is that the kids will tend to speak English with each other and have little contact with native Mandarin speaking playmates.

 

Hint: I might consider doing a weekend away with other families before signing on for something as potentially challenging as several weeks in China. It is worth considering that when traveling, we can all be at our worst and at our best. Jetlagged, sleep deprived, exhausted from heat, smog and walking, all can make the best adult traveler cranky, let alone the kids! Add to that different tolerances for planning or lack of, cultural challenges like having to carefully guard 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.

 

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. In 2011, 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 modernized. 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.

Visas

 

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 forms from the Chinese consulate website, take them along with your passports (with at least six months remaining on their validity), passport photos, a print out of your return air tickets because nowadays you have to show you’re leaving China, at least some hotel reservations, and any invitation letters or other documents your visa type requires.

 

The visa requirements and types have changed recently, so be sure to confirm what supporting documents you need. Plan to wait in line for a bit outside and then inside the consulate. Then go back the next week and pick up your passports with the visa inside. Be sure to check the hours of operation before you go.

 

You can compare the consul’s fees with your agency’s fees. In our case, our 2011 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.

Domestic travel within China: Flights

 

Booking flights

 

In 2011 we let our agent book our internal flights and trains. In 2012 and 2013 I did everything myself. 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 on three airlines, Air China; China Southern; and Sichuan Airlines. You can book yourself with eLong.com, ctrip.com, or even Expedia.

 

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. Because of this, they book the first flight of the day and to give themselves a large gap between flights in case there’s a problem. In 2011, when we were flying back to Beijing from Chengdu, I allowed 18 hours to complete the 2.5 hour flight. It took us over 21 hours to complete the 2.5 hour flight, including seven hours (count them!) sitting inside the hot and smelly plane on the tarmac at Taiyuan. We missed our flight to San Francisco. 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 home the next day. In the future I might plan a longer last night and day in Beijing especially if flying from out in the provinces.

Domestic travel: Trains

 

Ticketing

 

It’s apparently not possible to purchase train tickets many months ahead of time. Train 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.

 

Bathrooms

 

Another Mandarin immersion 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 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 Mandarin immersion parent also suggested that everyone have “potty shoes” on the train for this reason.

 

Food

 

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. I suspect train schedules in Beijing 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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Maglev_Train

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—opposite The Bund— and is meant to connect you to the subway system but they are separate systems.

Accommodations

 

Hotels

 

It is possible to book many hotels on line, even in China. We used an on line company 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 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 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 the kids 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 the summer of 2011. To find a soft, king-sized bed with a high pillow count, one had to look for the new Western and expensive hotels.

 

Apartments

 

We wanted an apartment with a kitchen and some hanging out space for our two week staying in Beijing. 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: http://beijing.craigslist.com.cn/ ) 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. Though I learned from one of the Beijing Yahoo groups that it’s a good idea 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 (less impressive) title on my emails and started hearing back too.

 

There are many, many “service apartments” which are like the longer stay hotels in the U.S.. They 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.) not far from our camp but, as mentioned, requiring crossing some hair-raising streets.

 

Hint: Many experienced China travel parents suggest a place with a pool. 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. Swim goggles are also useful for the varying chlorine levels. I developed the worse double-eye infection of my life after swimming goggle-less in the Chaoyang Park outdoor pools one summer.

 

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 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 Mandarin immersion family we know had luck using a housing swap agency http://www.homeexchange.com/

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. Airbnb is fairly present in Beijing now as well. Like the hotels, I’d guess that location is a primary consideration.

Internet, telephones and power plugs

 

Internet

 

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. Be sure to bring a USB-to-Ethernet converter.

 

It likely goes without saying that some websites are off limits in China. For example, you will not be able to access your Facebook account. Gmail accounts often don’t work as well.

 

Some people get around the Great Firewall of China by opening a VPN (Virtual Private Network) account before they go. You have to do it before you go so you can download the software in the US. Obviously you won’t be able to do that download when in China. Depending upon the location of the server, China can squeeze it or shut it and that sometimes happens. For this reason, people don’t go blabbing about their VPNs and try to fly under the radar about them.

 

Telephones

 

If you have an unlocked phone, you can buy a SIM card in China and just top it up when you need to. But some U.S. phones can’t be used or need to be unlocked. You can also just buy a cheap flip phone in China for use in China.

 

Check with your carrier. Even if your phone can work in China, we heard many stories of gigantic bills upon returning home because users failed to understand the carrier’s system for use overseas.

 

You might find that in China attitudes toward being readily available by cell phone are different, that one is expected to be available and to pick up the phone when called, and few people even have voicemail. I observed many people answering their phones during dinner or even when in meetings with me.

 

You might want to download Skype or Vonage or some other free calling service before you go. Skype’s video calling is free but they also have a voice calling service that is very inexpensive and pretty reliable. Just open an account and top it up before you go. I used Skype or Vonage daily to call the U.S. or Geneva. My partner used Skype almost exclusively to stay in touch with his office. (Of course you’ll have memorized the time difference!)

 

Power and plugs

 

Voltage in China is 220V, so check any appliances. My MacBook Air, iPhone, iPad and camera charger both did fine and none 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 U.S. outlets but the outlet adapter allowed us to plug in more than one laptop to charge overnight, so I’d bring at least one. For reasons unclear to me, our service apartment in Lido, Beijing, in 2013 only had U.K. style plugs, so our multi-country converter came in handy there.

 

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.

 

Money

 

The currency in China is called the Renminbi (RMB) or Chinese Yuan. The slang is kuai but that just means the same thing, like 100 dollars is the same as 100 bucks. The exchange rate is about US$1 = RMB 6.2.

 

China is still a cash society. If there are checks there, I never saw them used. We paid even our rent (paid three months at a time, in advance) in cash. My realtor was appalled at the idea of checks and wondered how we could trust them and “why wouldn’t they be forged.” She said, in China, “you always have to carry money ‘on the body’.”

 

Traveler checks are virtually unknown. Credit cards are gaining in popularity and can be used in some high-end restaurants but not the majority and certainly not in smaller cities.

 

Most people use their home country ATM cards to withdraw the local currency at local banks, but be careful of fees on both sides. Do bring extra ATMs of other banks or accounts just in case you lose one.

Heath and safety concerns

 

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 San Francisco Health Department Travel Clinic in San Francisco’s Civic Center. I heard from another Mandarin immersion mom, who is also an experienced pharmacologist, that it is recommended to go there rather than a private travel clinic because it is thought they are less likely to order shots you don’t need. I always also check the Center for Disease Control’s website for my travel destinations, though it used to be true that the CDC sometimes recommended vaccinations that the U.K. had stopped recommending so again, do your own research.

 

In addition to the usual, worth considering are: typhoid; Japanese Encephalitis; rabies; and malaria prophylaxis. Remember that some are a series of shots so you need to start thinking about them early in your planning.

 

Rabies:

I think rabies is a three shot series and recommended for kids who’re likely to let dogs lick them. China has the second highest number of reported rabies cases in the world, with over 2,000 deaths on average reported each year for the past 10 years, according to the World Health Organization.

 

Our pediatrician told my daughter to tell mama even if a sweet dog just licks her. Often we think of rabies as a mean dog biting our kid. We opted against the rabies vaccines but my niece got the series for the 2011 trip. My brother (her physician dad) and nephews had had to go through a post-bite rabies series some years ago, so to them the risk was very real.

 

Vaccinating tends to be a very personal and hot-button issue with many families, so you have to do your own research and make your own risk-assessment and decisions.

 

Altitude sickness

 

In 2011, we planned the trip to step up slowly from sea level to about 5,000 feet for 24 hours, then to about 7,000 feet for four days, then to 10,000 feet for 36 hours, then a little mini-trek at around 11,000. 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 1990s and wound up with a woman—a very fit Irish woman—who developed cerebral and pulmonary edema from altitude sickness. It is said that there is no predictability with altitude sickness from person to person or from trip to trip. The Irish woman very nearly died in the Lhasa hospital after our tour guide abandoned us, visa-less, to take some of the others trekking. But on her next trip she might be fine. In any case, ever since then I won’t travel to elevation with people who don’t have their own meds.

 

Water

 

In the large urban areas the water is safe from biologic contamination so you won’t get the stomach bug that way. However, much of the water supply is contaminated with heavy metals, so it’s still not a good idea to drink it (or eat farmed fish, for that matter.)

I do use it for teeth brushing and such. In the rural areas where you don’t know the water source, it makes sense to use bottled water even for that.

 

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

 

Bad Air

 

The air can be, in fact, as bad as everyone says in Beijing and other big cities, and it’s also unpredictable. Consider bringing N95 face masks. You can get them in many hardware stores in the US. The ones they sell on the street in Beijing, while cute and blingy, don’t filter the fine particulates. You can check out the air quality on line and read about why you might want to care.

 

Bugs

 

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 Sawyer

https://www.sawyersafetravel2.com that was recommended by the university travel clinic where she got her vaccinations. You can also get a permethrin from various sources including amazon.com. Spray your clothing before you go. It’s a large bottle and never seems worth the luggage space so I spray before packing.

 

Fruit

 

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 the 2011 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 my niece 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).

 

Traffic

 

A Mandarin immersion dad who went in 2010 warned us that traffic rules are different and we experienced it first hand walking from our apartment building to the kids’ camp in 2011. It was only about four blocks and should have been a simple morning stroll. Instead, it was a bit of a nightmare. With three kids we needed at least two adults to be safe. The road rules appear to be that, “Whoever has the greatest mass and speed has the right of way.” 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 pedestrians’ 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.”

 

Understand that the death toll from collisions and pedestrian/bike versus car accidents is very, very high. No one collects the data (or reports it) but it is real and it is huge. When we moved back to San Francisco my daughter was shocked at pedestrian behavior at home where pedestrians have the right of way. She was only 10, but she’d remark about how if that person (walking in the crosswalk and texting, for example) would be dead if that person were in China. Be careful.

 

Seatbelts (and other auto observations)

 

Seatbelts not commonly found in taxis or they are tucked beneath the seat or seat covering. 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 (sanluche). 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. Such a sight will make your blood run cold.

 

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” (hired cars) 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. In the morning hours, the far right lane of the elevated roadway into the city is stopped with parked cars just pulled over and waiting for 10.

 

Crime

 

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.

 

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 U.S. Embassies 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.

 

Until we lived in Beijing in 2012, I didn’t even try to take the three wheeled tuk-tuk things called sanluche (three wheeled car). In Beijing, they are often enclosed in the back like a little tuna can. There’s enough room for one or two passengers on one seat back there. The driver can be open-air or enclosed and the vehicle is like a motorcycle. When the driver is enclosed, the exhaust is overwhelming and my Beijing friends and I surmised that that work environment accounted for the sanluche drivers’ almost universal bad mood. Worse, even, than Beijing taxi drivers. It was in those vehicles that I experienced my only known rip-offs (probably I was ripped off in the market or by real estate agents but I didn’t know it.) Folks in my Beijing office advised me that those sanluche are known for ripoffs and that I should avoid them. It happened to me twice in nearly a year so that’s not a bad track record until you figure I only actually tried to take those vehicles three times. Stick to the taxis or even black cars, or even the bicycle (now run on battery) rickshaw type things. Those are always open air and the drivers are usually very chipper (okay, well, my sample size for those was not much better. Maybe n=5.)

 

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 Beijing 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 the summer of 2010 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 http://www.simaenterprises.com/ 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.

 

Hint: In a pinch, write your Chinese cell phone number on your child’s arm in ink.

 

Hospitals

 

A dad in our Mandarin immersion school who travels to China for business numerous times a year suggested knowing the address and number of the local hospital in all of your destination cities. I’ve not done that before but will do it this coming summer. This dad took two of his own kids one year and wound up needing to make an emergency room run with one kid. This dad speaks Chinese and is a super well traveled, super experienced-in-the world kind of guy. So if even he recommends having hospital info figured out before traveling with kids, I listen.

 

When we first moved to Beijing in January of 2012 I had to figure the hospital/medical care thing out for myself. I had already determined that our health coverage was effective abroad but I didn’t know the hospitals or how I’d get care when something came up and I needed it. I wound up taking the advice of the parents on the yahoo group Beijingmamas and going to Beijing United Hospital in the Lido area of Beijing. There, I received excellent care as did my daughter later in the year. My doctor spoke only Chinese but the nurse spoke some English. My daughter’s doctor spoke English.

Random thoughts and lessons

 

Culture

 

It is worth checking out some websites and spending some time thinking about cultural differences. 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 and squat toilets, all are things that might feel uncomfortable if you’ve not traveled much, or traveled much in Asia. I think many of those things have lessened in the years I’ve been traveling, especially since the Olympics in Beijing, but 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.

 

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 for this and 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:

http://www.kwintessential.co.uk/resources/global-etiquette/china-country-profile.html

http://www.chinese-culture.net/html/chinese_business_culture.html

http://www.cyborlink.com/besite/china.htm

 

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 a 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.

 

Gifts

 

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.

 

Shoes

 

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

 

Temples

 

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.

 

Kids info

 

My number one go-to for questions was a yahoo group in Beijing http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Beijing_Mamas 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.”

 

Another great resource in Beijing is Beijingkids magazine. It is available in many service apartments and hotels, and on line here: http://www.beijing-kids.com/ It has lists of parks, schools, and nearly every activity I could think of.

 

Chinese

 

Before going, I wanted some Chinese exposure and a friend, an expat in Beijing, recommended http://chinesepod.com/ 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.

 

I also got Qingwen on my iphone and used it constantly. Other useful sites and aps include: googletranslate; googlepinyin; nciku mobile; and yellowbridge.com.

Packing tips

 

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 Eastern part of China that you don’t need much in the way of clothing. On other websites I read that China was still more formal than the U.S. and that people didn’t wear shorts or T-shirts 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 my experience more recently at all. Many people wore all manner of very casual clothing, even in Beijing and Shanghai. If you’re traveling the way we did in 2011, to the West and to the higher elevations of Yunnan and Sichuan, then you do need hoodies or jackets as it was chilly at 10,000 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 (San Francisco, New York, Paris) more than I would have thought when traveling in Asia with kids.

 

First aid items

 

One parent who traveled with her two kids in 2010 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-Bismol 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.

 

Packing for the 12 hour flight

 

One online advice columnist said bring tons of airplane activities, more than you need. On the outbound flight in 2011 we did this along with a DVD player. Since then we’ve been relying on the iPad. I allow her to choose some new movies to download before we leave.

 

Some parents rely on the inflight entertainment system, as most planes offer movies galore. Except that it can be broken, as one family discovered to their horror on a long flight.

 

Hint: For littler kids: 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.

 

Sample packing list

 

CHINA Packing List

 

  1. Suitcase (not to exceed 44 lbs inside China)
  2. Shoulder bag/daypack/carryon
  3. Passport carrier/money pouch
  4. Credit cards and ATM cards
  5. Health insurance cards for each
  6. Luggage ID tags (place address inside suitcases also)
  7. Emergency contact information
  8. Personal ID and/or driver’s license
  9. Address book – digital and in paper form in case your device crashes
  10. Wallet and cash/blank check/2nd wallet for Chinese cash
  11. Phrase books, guide books and maps
  12. Passport with Chinese Visa – valid for dates of the trip (plus copies stored separately)
  13. Spare passport photos for each
  14. Itinerary, local tour company contacts, and hotel information for all cities (Hotels in Chinese too)
  15. US Embassy addresses & phone numbers in China
  16. Hospitals addresses in each city
  17. Air Tickets – confirmed with seat assignments

 

Personal

 

  1. electronics
    1. Laptop or ipad and charger
    2. Camera and charger
    3. Grounded converter plug (everyone in our group needs their own)
    4. Power converter if your devices need this
    5. Watch and alarm clock
    6. Phone and charger
  2. Hand sanitizer in small bottles and/or antibacterial wipes
  3. Gifts
  4. daytime backpacks for each [kid can carry their own water, cap & snacks]
  5. ziplock bags for snacks [available in Beijing but expensive]
  6. squirt bottles [really great for hot days]
  7. clothes
    1. bathing suits for me and Kid
    2. sun hats [or buy there]
    3. rain poncho [or buy there]
    4. pajamas
    5. hoodies
    6. undergarments and socks
    7. handkerchief [for sweaty brows]
    8. around house clothes
    9. touring clothes (if jeans, make them stretchy—squat toilets are tough in jeans)
    10. professional-ish outfit?
    11. shorts-
    12. Tennis shoes or keens, flip flops, potty shoes [last summer we wore blingy flip flops for a month]
    13. spare airplane clothes for each
  8. toiletries
    1. toothbrush & toothpaste
    2. brush, comb, lice comb
    3. contacts, solution, case
    4. spare glasses, reading glasses
    5. earplugs for all/also have on plane
    6. BandAids
    7. Antibiotic lotion
    8. Antibiotics for stomach bugs for both adults and kids
    9. Altitude sickness meds for both
    10. Pepto Bismol for both
    11. Sunscreen (expensive and not as effective in China)
    12. Lip balm, favorite lotions
    13. Shoe powder for sweaty shoes
    14. bug spray (order from Sawyer)
    15. Feminine products
    16. Nail & cuticle clippers, tweezers, razor
    17. Children’s medications
    18. Medicines and prescriptions
    19. Vitamins
    20. Hairties for both
  9. swim goggles and bathing caps
  10. sunglasses
  11. books for adults & kids
  12. airplane activities

 

 

[1] We traveled to China the summers of 2011 and 2013, and lived in Beijing for the year of 2012. We’re again headed to Asia including China this coming summer of 2014.

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 26, 2014 11:03 am

    Kendall – Wow! You covered all the bases. Well done! My wife being from Shanghai, our needs are a little different, but for those ‘all American’ families who are taking the big plunge, this is going to be really helpful. The only thing that could the make the trip any better is having friends who work for United or another airline so that you can get flight discounts! 😉

    Dale S. (Aptos MI parent)

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