Doing One Thing That Scares Me: Going to China

“Wow, you’re so bold! I would be too scared to run with the bulls.”

That’s the sentence I heard when I told my new-found Sydney friends that I was going to run with the bulls in July 2012. It got me thinking about my choice; “I’m not brave. Jeannie just asked me and I thought ‘Hey, what a cool idea. I’m going to say yes.'” I didn’t actually really consider the consequences of running with the bulls until I saw a guy get pinned to a wall by a bulls horns – thankfully escaping harm – whilst standing on a balcony in Pamplona. Even then I was still in denial and the nerves and realisation that I was going to really run with some big scary bulls didn’t kick in until I had no choice but to run.

Yes, I am an idiot.

But reflecting on all of this I realised that I’m actually a scardy cat – no, really I am, even if I do have ‘Outran a bull’ on my resume – so I’ve decided 2013 will be the year that scares me… starting with being scared in China.

Why am I being scared in China?

I’ve come to realise after my repeated trips to Hong Kong that I’ve begun to develop a similar stigma towards Mainland China that the Hong Kongese have*, despite never having ventured further than ShenZehn – a major economic city in the Southern province of Guangdong. It was time to break down that barrier and head North… but after years of being told stories from hotel porters of how unsafe Mainland China was for both foreigners and Hong Kong residents the mere thought of heading over the border left me, pardon the language, scared shitless.

So, I booked a flight to Shanghai.

I didn’t really think about it further than: “I want to go to South Korea” and with Shanghai being somewhere in between Hong Kong and Seoul it provided the perfect place for a pit-stop. Further winning me over was seeing photos of Pudong and the mere thoughts of five-days of ‘all you can eat’ Xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) – it was decided and I was booking a stopover to China’s most cosmopolitan city.

But on the date I wanted to leave Seoul to return to Australia it turns out there are no flights available with frequent flier miles for another four-days. That means I had a choice between four-days in Hong Kong, four-days in -6 degrees Seoul or an adventure somewhere new… so I’m going to Beijing – China’s cultural capital.

What are you scared of in China?

I have a long list of reasons why I’m scared of China, most completely irrational, so here’s a few;

  • I don’t speak the language. I studied Chinese (Mandarin) for four-years and I remember how to say “Ni Hao” (hello)/”Wo jiao…” (My name is…)/”Ham bao bao” (hamburger) and the words for “McDonald’s” and “Coca-cola” – at least I won’t starve but I don’t know what my waist line will think of me…
  • I don’t eat seafood – a big part of the Chinese diet; nor do I know how to say “I don’t eat seafood” in Mandarin
  • I don’t know where the food comes from. In Australia we often hear about product recalls on food in China, particularly milk, so this leads me to believe I’m going to die if I drink the milk… and potentially any other food, especially dairy based.
  • That being said, I might die from drinking the water as well.
  • They smoke indoors… I’m a non-smoker. No more explanation needed.
  • China is one of the most, if not the most, polluted countries in the world. I’m worried what the horrible air will do to me and how much heavy metal poisoning my blood stream can deal with.
  • The stories that the Hong Kongese and mainstream Media have told me about people having their organs harvested, kidnapped, or killed.
  • The scams that are present, especially in big cities, like what happened to Lauren from Never Ending Footsteps.
  • The fact that I’m a solo-female traveller in China.
  • I might die of hypothermia. Being an Aussie I don’t deal with the cold well… and to me cold is anything below 15degrees C. Shanghai is around 0 degrees and Beijing is around -4 degrees, and I only packed two pairs of jeans – this is going to be a fun trip…
  • Two words: Squat Toilet

See? Pretty irrational considering so many people travel to China daily and seem to get out unscathed.

Despite my reservations I’m going to China (actually, when you read this I will be in China). I’m going to eat the food, walk in the polluted air, and master the squat toilet. I’m going to learn some of the language, I’m going to freeze to death (can’t really help that one) and I’m going to explore these two amazing cities. I’m going to scare myself and get well outside my comfort zone and it’s going to be pretty awesome… right?

How would you conquer your fears when visiting a country?

* Not all Hong Kongese have this particular stigma, however the ones that I have encountered – particularly hotel workers I have spoken with – do recommend against visiting the Mainland with stories of kidnapping, thieves and organ theft. That being said, many Hong Kongese head across the border every day because massages, beauty and shopping is often considerably cheaper than in Hong Kong.

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  • Reply
    January 3, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Yay go Nicole!! I have to say that I went on a trip to China many years ago where I spent a LOT of time alone — and it was the most difficult travel I have ever done. I was so exhausted by the end! But I loved Shanghai…. Now, my brother lives in Xioman and speaks excellent Mandarin. Life’s funny!

  • Reply
    January 3, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    I was in Beijing in September. I wasn’t alone but I also don’t speak Mandarin and I had a great time with no problems. Beijing doesn’t have as much seafood as some other places so you’ll be able to avoid it easily. I was nervous about China too but I ended up loving it, I hope you do too!

  • Reply
    January 3, 2013 at 4:05 pm

    I spent a month travelling through China in 2011; it’s an incredible country and you’ll have a great time. Just use your traveller’s common sense and you’ll have no problems. I have a few extra tips though;

    If you need someone who speaks English, find someone under 30, they will most likely have studied English at school It’s really not a problem in major cities anyway to be honest.

    When it comes to squat toilets, don’t play the hero. Lock the door and remove your pants, trousers, skirt, whatever. Better to be semi-naked in a locked toilet stall than covered in … well, you know.

    If you’re in Beijing you have to eat at Ghost Street. There are literally dozens of incredible restaurants, the menu translations are amusing but not much help so if you’re nervous about what you’re eating (understandable) choose a place with pictures on the menu.

    If you’re hostelling, consider 9 Dragons Hostel (not hotel). It’s big, welcoming, friendly and safe. Plus their staff were awesome, they arranged us a private cooking lesson with a Chinese chef, a trip to the Great Wall followed up by a trip to a Chinese Shooting Range where the Chinese Army taught us how to shoot an array of weapons (a bizarre day, but a memorable one) and most impressively a trip to Lhasa!

    Remember that Beijing is really big. This sounds silly, but the maps make it look like you can easily walk between attractions. You can, and its a good way to see the city, but it will take longer than you first expect.

    And on tea ceremony scams…. tea ceremonies are worth a go – but treat it like a taxi, know where its going before you get in, make sure its legit, and always confirm the price BEFORE you go. If you have any doubts, walk away.

    You’ll have a great time, its a fascinating country, just go in with your eyes open. oh, and I lived in Seoul for 2 years – it’s one of my favourite places in the world. Make sure you go to the Bird Tea House in Insadong to take a few minutes out of the rush – that’s not its official name, but ask around someone will know where it is.

  • Reply
    January 3, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    ah, I so understand you! I went to China in October and it was my first trip outside of Europe. I didn’t think too much when booking a ticket, my Dutch friend was living there, she invited me to come and I thought it’s a brilliant idea 😉 Eventually I didn’t visit her but wandered around China on my own for 2 weeks. and I survived and even enjoyed it at times 😉 I’ve just realized, when being there, that I’m not all that fascinated with Chinese culture that’s why I’m not super excited. But in terms of all your fears I was fine and I’m sure you’d be too!
    I also don’t speak Mandarinian, I only could say hello and thank you. But with the help of smile and hands I didn’t have any problems with getting around. Also I was surprised how many people I had to deal with was able to speak really good English. Train/metro/bus station, hotels/hostels or any tourist areas were really fine with that.
    I had even bigger problem with food – I don’t eat meat at all. And it wasn’t easy so in Beijing sadly I only ate in Western places and I made peace with McDonald’s but when I finally decided to try some non-meat food (as I could never be sure if it’s really vegetarian;)) it was really delicious! You can use the trick that my friends did in China – they had pictures on every animal that could be eaten and they just showed pictures, pointing what they wanna eat and what they don’t want to try. It was a perfect solution!
    As for the scams – you’re aware of them hence you’ll be fine. I was encountered couple of time by scammers (mostly in Shanghai) but when you read all that stories the red light in your head just blinks and you almost laugh these people in the face 😉 So just use the common sence there and you won’t be scammed!
    As for squat toilets – don’t overthink them, you often don’t have any other choice 😉 Just remember to always have a toilet paper or tissue with you 😉
    I also was a solo female traveler and there wasn’t even one situation I felt in danger. Annoyed at everyone staring at me – yes. But at the same time people were really nice and friendly. So really, there’s not much to worry about!

    I already wrote a little bit about China on my blog so you can read it there but if you have more questions feel free to ask, I’ll be glad to help you!

    and Happy New Year! 🙂

  • Reply
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    January 3, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    I think part of why we had such a hard time dealing with China was because we stopped in HK first and had dinner with friends there who filled our heads with horror stories about how eating anywhere other than proper restaurants would result in us dying, and all the shops would rip us off. We were pretty scared stepping off the train in Beijing…

    Of course, I think we still would have had issues with China, even without the help of our HK friends, but that’s a whole different issue! 😉

    Foodwise, I think you should be able to avoid seafood fairly easily. I don’t think we ever ate it, and we were in China for nearly a month. Probably best to avoid the meat altogether, if you can, as we had some really suspect parts in some of the dishes we ordered!

  • Reply
    Dena Barrie
    January 3, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    Im laughing at your post because I am conquering fears in your home country. Thanks for a most interesting blog. I will be back!


  • Reply
    Dena Barrie
    January 3, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Im laughing because I am overcoming my fears in your home country! Thanks for a most interesting blog. I will be back!

  • Reply
    Amanda @ Farsickness
    January 4, 2013 at 12:31 am

    Out of all the Asian countries I’m planning on visiting next year, China is the one that scares me the most. Mostly because of the lack of English that I’ve heard about, and my lack of any Chinese skills beyond ni hao. Good luck and I’m sure it will end up being amazing in some way 🙂

    Also, how long will you be in Korea? Stopping in Seoul?

  • Reply
    January 4, 2013 at 3:38 am

    Ummm…they’re perfectly rational fears as far as I’m concerned haha. I would worry about where he food/drink was coming from and if it really was ‘chicken’ though I suppose we eat street food in other places so it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch?
    I can completely understand your fear that they smoke inside though. I couldn’t taste my food in Japan for all the smoke around me…I’m so glad they banned it here in the UK.
    As for the squat toilet…skirt up, legs open, butt stuck out 😉

  • Reply
    January 4, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    He he, love this post. China is beautiful and there are only two things you should be scared off: the Chinese people forming queues to take photos of you (whilst fighting eachother) and the squat toilets. They were pretty grim when I went in 2006, but you get them everywhere in Asia really, so by now I got used to them. The secret is to take a she-wee and tiger balm to rub it under your nose. Good luck! 🙂

    • Reply
      January 16, 2013 at 11:32 am

      Haha, thanks for the suggestions. I was very lucky to not encounter a squat toilet (purposely avoided after using them in the past!) but you’re right – China is really beautiful. =)

  • Reply
    January 5, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    Oh! Ha! All those worries could be applied for most places we go to!
    You’ll love Shanghai and Beijing!

    • Reply
      January 16, 2013 at 11:29 am

      Haha, you’re right on all accounts!
      I loved Shanghai and Beijing as well… just not the pollution levels.

  • Reply
    January 7, 2013 at 5:48 am

    Have fun! Confronting your fears is always scary, but on the other side of them they usually don’t seem too bad. 🙂 Can’t wait to hear about your trip to China.

    • Reply
      January 16, 2013 at 11:27 am

      Thanks for your kind words, Jessica!
      You’re right – reflecting on my time in Mainland China it wasn’t half as bad as I thought.

      I hope to share some posts early Feb. 🙂

  • Reply
    Jaclyn Kader
    January 7, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Wow, I can SO relate to these fears and maybe one day, I’ll have a chance to overcome mine too. Fabulous blog, I’ll be back for sure!

    • Reply
      January 16, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Thanks for your kind comment, Jaclyn!

      I hope that you to get the chance to head to China and face up to your fears. =)

  • Reply
    January 29, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Good for you! And in case it helps, squat toilets are a piece of cake (and arguably a lot better for your body)–once I got used to them, I actually liked them!

  • Reply
    A Rose in Shanghai – Meeting Kind Strangers in a Scary City
    March 20, 2013 at 3:49 am

    […] was already scared of China, and nervous about Shanghai. Having never ventured further into China than Shen Zehn, the economic […]

  • Reply
    March 12, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    I’m studying abroad in China this summer and im SO excited but so nervous at the same time! which of course makes sense 🙂 I know nothing in mandarin other than hello and “father” lmao random i know i know. However, im going there to teach english for a few weeks, since im an English as a second language major (cant tell by this comment but im not trying) hahaha so anyway, thank you for sharing this. Ive never heard of the squat toilets, so this should be interesting!

  • Reply
    Alex Filicevas
    February 9, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    haha great read! Hope that trip went well for you! I had the same idea about mainland China and when I got the scholarship to study masters in Beijing, I was still reluctant. Althought, still terrifying at times and sometimes so ‘f**ked up’ in an understandable way, it is a wonderful place and I love it here now, and have got another 1.5 years to go. I keep the record of my experience at http://www.alexandbeijing.com so will be interesting to look back later on 🙂

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