China is synonymous with giant pandas, ancient temples, the Great Wall and lots of people. However, there are a number of things about this intriguing country that may surprise you, particularly if you’re a first-time visitor.
1. Half of the country is empty
The majority of China’s 1.3 billion people live in megacities in the east of the country. This is due to better job prospects, higher salaries and a generally better standard of living than the rest of the country.
The west of China is practically empty. Provinces such as Tibet and Xinjiang are home to untouched and rugged landscapes, vast skies and scattered towns and villages.
While most ESL teachers end up working in a city in one of the more developed eastern provinces, a handful prefer the ‘wild west’ where ethnic minorities and unique cuisines can provide a richer experience.
American Josh Summers and his wife taught English in China’s little-known Xinjiang province. Ten years later, they’re still there and loving it.
Yes, this is in China! (Pictured: Kanas Lake, Xinjiang).
2. Dog meat is not widely eaten in China
It’s a myth that everyone in China eats dog, cat and snake meat. Sure, some do, but it’s a tiny minority.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that sells dog meat, particularly in the developed cities where most ESL teachers end up working.
Perhaps it’s the international headline-grabbing Yulin Dog Meat Festival, or Lychee and Dog Meat Festival as it’s officially known, which has many people thinking that eating dog is common practice.
This annual celebration is held in Guangxi province, which borders Vietnam in the south of China. The festival spans about 10 days during which it’s estimated that about 10,000 dogs are consumed.
The Yulin government has distanced itself from the festival, saying that it doesn’t officially organise it.
3. Temperatures can be extreme
There’s no one-size-fits-all description when it comes to China’s weather.
Beijing, in the north, can be boiling hot in summer and often drops to well below zero in winter. Compare this to Shenzhen, in the south, where a sub-tropical climate prevails.
If you’re going to China for a quick trip, spring and autumn are the best months.
For longer stays, for example if you’re teaching in China, check the climate of the city you’re interested in going to as part of your planning. Teacher contracts are for one year minimum so make sure you’re comfortable with the climate before you commit.
4. KFC is everywhere in China
You’re in luck if you like KFC and you’re headed for China. Why? The country is home to more than 5,000 of the fried chicken outlets in over 1,100 cities.
In fact, KFC is the largest restaurant chain in China. It’s no surprise then that KFC is one of the most recognizable foreign brands in the country.
Chinese KFC outlets have distinct differences with their American and European counterparts. For example, the floor space is typically much larger, many are open 24/7 and you can even enjoy home delivery.
Most importantly, the food at Chinese KFCs is different and special menu items for the local palate are launched regularly. Try rice as a side dish, a custard tart for dessert or a Twister with duck sauce!
The fast-food chain’s latest innovation in China, reports TechCrunch, is its partnership with Baidu (China’s version of Google) to introduce in-store kiosks with facial recognition technology. The machines will be able to scan your face and make menu suggestions based on your mood, age and gender.
While Western fast-food outlets in China are considered by some foreigners as an oasis, make sure you try some of the delicious, local fare. For instance, Shanghai’s famous ‘xiaolongbao’, or soup dumplings, are to die for.
5. China has a world-class train system
Unlike some Western countries that simply pay lip service to improving public transportation, China has invested heavily in building a world-class bullet train system.
Most major towns and cities are connected to a network that spans the entire country. This enables the efficient passage of countless people as well as encouraging development and tourism in previously untapped regions.
Compared to flying domestically, China’s bullet trains are a cost-effective way of travelling long distances. A first-class seat on a Beijing to Xian service costs around US$125.
A bullet train in China.
6. Western social media is banned in China
Social and political commentary is controlled in China. That’s why some Western social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, are banned and inaccessible.
In addition, some major websites including all the Google sites (like Gmail, YouTube and the Google search engine itself) are also blocked.
Colloquially it’s known as The Great Firewall of China.
It’s not all bad news, however, as there’s a way around it. You can access your favorite sites by using what’s known as a ‘virtual private network’ or VPN.
To ensure you have access to the sites you want to use, you should pay for the VPN before arriving in China. If you leave it until after you arrive, it may be difficult to set one up as the sign-up or payment page could be blocked.
7. Chinese people are eager to learn English
Estimates vary but about 300 million Chinese – nearly as many people as there are in the U.S. – are currently learning English.
They recognize that it’s the worldwide language for business, and they’re eager to learn.
Chinese students are generally very diligent and strive for top marks. They much prefer reading and writing, so as a foreign teacher in China, one of your challenges will be to get them to speak up.
Games, fun activities, roleplaying and plenty of teamwork will help them improve their oral English.
8. You’ll see matching clothing
Considered a fashion faux pas in the West, wearing clothing that matches with a loved one is surprisingly deemed acceptable couture in China.
You might see a parent wearing the same t-shirt pattern as their child, like in the photo below, or a loved-up couple showing their commitment to one another with matching attire.
Don't be surprised to see people wearing matching clothes in China.
As reported in Daily Mail, couple Li Yang and Zhou Wanting always coordinate their outfits with each other. Although they live 1,000 miles apart, Li said: “We always wear the same clothing when we are together.”
So don’t be disturbed when you come across people in matching clothing. It’s a fashion crime that’s worth witnessing!
9. You won’t see many birds in China
While you might see matching clothing in China, you probably won’t see many birds.
In urban areas, birds are as rare as, well, hen’s teeth. Loss of habitat, poaching and pollution all play a role in this.
If you want to see birds, you’ll need to travel to a nature reserve or a rural area where there are wetlands.
It’s a real downside to this otherwise spectacular country.
10. China has only one time zone
Despite China spanning five geographical time zones, only one time zone is officially observed – Beijing Time.
It’s been like this since the Chinese government unified its time zone policy in 1949.
However, the ethnic Uyghur people in Xinjiang province run on local time, which is two hours behind Beijing Time. This is because Xinjiang is situated so far west.
Most businesses and schools start their day at 8am local time, despite the clock showing 10am.
When arranging a time to meet with someone in Xinjiang, it’s best to confirm if it’s Beijing Time or local time. Otherwise, you could be waiting for a while!
For those of you who have been to China before, what's surprised you the most?