A follower of the blog recently asked me to write a post about travel in Asia. As I started writing, I quickly realized that there was waaaaay too much for one post. I decided to spread it across several posts and try to keep it as condensed as possible. This first post will offer some general tips and advice.
Last June was my first trip to Asia. To say it was an eye opener is an understatement. It was really nothing like I expected and just about everything you might deal with on a trip, hit us on this one. I traveled to China’s East Coast, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong. These tips apply to those countries.
Fly Business Class
It’s a very long journey, so do what you can to avoid coach. There will be children crying in different languages for 15 hours and that’s not a good start to any trip.
Business Class also gives you a solid entertainment selection with dozens of new release movies, a seat that reclines almost horizontally and special food service.
Don’t Become Road Kill
Pedestrians do not have the right-of-way in Asia, so don’t make that mistake. Further, scooters are everywhere and they travel much faster than the cars. They remind me of a plague of locust coming from all directions in huge groups. Here’s a video I took while in Taiwan – the scooter capital of the world.
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Asians Love Americans
In my experience, Asians (Chinese especially) are thrilled to interact with Americans. A big reason is that they want to learn English. An opportunity to talk with you is a rare opportunity to learn true conversational English. Take the opportunity to talk with people and you’ll find they are very kind and can share some great tips.
Eat Adventurous Early
The food in Asia is different. It’s not bad, but it’s different. The spices are different, the preservatives are different, etc. The bottom line is that your stomach isn’t used to it, so you won’t feel 100% after the first day or two. If you want to eat something crazy or unique, do it as soon as you arrive.
Family Style Meals
Speaking of eating, there is a cultural process for meals with locals. The host will order family style for everyone. Just hope he orders something you can handle. They will bring the dishes out as they are cooked and put them in the middle of the table on a rotating lazy susan. Each person will then spin the lazy susan to the food they want and take it and put it on their plate.
Two big watch-outs:
If you’re a germaphobe, get all the food you want from the dish up-front. Each person will be reaching into it with their chopsticks over and over.
- If someone else is spinning the lazy susan, don’t stop it or grab items on the way by. If it stops for them and you want what’s in front of you, take it, but don’t interrupt their spin; and there is no trophy for picking off the most items as they fly by, trust me.
Tipping may be bad
In Hong Kong and Taiwan, US tipping rules apply. They are both extremely westernized. In China, tips are usually seen as an insult. They think you are giving them money because you don’t think their job is good enough to care for their family. Therefore, instead of being something appreciated, it’s a gesture of disrespect.
Business Card Distribution Custom
This is something you need to know up front. Asians are very professional when they hand out business cards. They hold them with both hands on the top corners and bow as they hand them to you. You should grab the bottom corners with both hands and bow back to receive it. For a moment, you will both be holding the card while bowed. You then give them your business card in the same manner. It’s a show of respect.
I walked in a few minutes late for my first meeting with the Chinese. They were seated around a huge table, so I tossed out my business cards like a dealer at a blackjack table. Then they each got up, walked to me and gave me their cards in the manner described above. I felt like a jackass, but they all laughed it off and we were able to turn it into an ice breaker.
Special No Fee Credit Cards
If you plan to use a personal card very often on the trip, beware that foreign transaction fees will add up quickly. There are several cards out there that waive those fees. Months after I returned, I learned that my card was cloned and being used in Indonesia. Citi refunded those fraudulent purchases, but it was still a pain to deal with. It may be a good idea to get a new, no-fee credit card for the trip, and then cancel it when you get home.
Ride the Maglev Train
If you fly into/out-of Shainghai Pudong (PVG), ride the maglev! It’s not expensive (around $7 USD), but it’s an incredible experience at 267mph. We learned that riding it and then taking a cab was actually the least expensive way to get to our hotel. Below is a video I took of the train ride.
Expectations of what China Looks Like
This was the biggest eye opener for me. I had a version of China in my head that included dirt floors, sweat shops, kids that looked like they were from Save the Children commercials, etc. What I found couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
Every city we visited had dozens of sky cranes doing new construction. I’d spin in a 360 trying to count them and I was just blown away. I counted 36 in Ningbo from one spot.
China is booming and they are becoming more westernized. The building are beautiful, the roads are brand new, there are flowers and landscaping everywhere and you’ll see Audi R8’s, BMW 6 Series, Porsche 911’s, etc. at all of the good hotels.
There is simply a lot of money in China today and it’s being spent by citizens, not just the government. If you have traveled to NYC or LA, then the large cities in China will be strangely familiar.
Overall, just be ready to be surprised and enjoy the experience. There is an amazing amount of culture, the people are kind and everything is very unique. Just keep an open mind and have fun.
Tipping is not required in Taiwan.
This post would far better be titled tips for traveling in greater China. This touches on a fraction of Asia as a whole and all countries visited are Chinese oriented. Motorbikes are proliferous in the more Southern parts of Asia (where it’s warmer) in South/Southeast Asia the plague simile certainly applies. You see about the same amount in Korea/Japan as you would in certain parts of the states.
The Lazy Susan family style is pure Chinese. Family style can be found in many countries but not the standard.
I’ve lived in three separate Asian countries for the past 3+ years, travelled extensively, and always used my American credit card when possible, without issue (Capital One.) The exchange rate matches up pretty close with Google and it’s got a 3% cash back rewards program which more than makes up the difference.
Tipping in Asia is almost always not required or expected, the service generally reflects this. They just don’t have the same concept of checking back and watching for a signal of need.
Business card distribution is not always the same, but general good practice is to take and give a card at the same time respectfully, shake a hand, and read their name out loud with a ‘nice to meet you.’
In Korea, pedestrians DO have the right of way legally, always. Doesn’t matter if the light is green and they superman dive in front of your car. Also doesn’t mean that they won’t run right over you while text someone on their Samsung. That said, Asians are all bad drivers.