Like almost everything else in China, tourism is a huge business. More than 129 million people visited China in 2013, some on business but many on pleasure trips that ranged from river cruises to historical tours. Chinese travel is a $51.7 billion industry – but for many potential tourists, China remains a mysterious land, full of dark cultural mores and even darker food.
A new book sheds some welcome light on Chinese travel. Never Try to Drink a Chinese Woman Under the Table tackles the difficult issues of what to do, eat and drink in China with straightforward language and welcome humor. A companion website lets readers, tourists, and old China hands swap stories and suggest solutions.
We talked to the authors, Richard Bradspies and J.D. Fox, about their book, their favorite Chinese foods, and the ever-popular Chinese custom of the drinking contest.
In general, what sort of place is China to visit? How high does it rate on the Must-See-O-Meter?
J.D.: To be honest, you could spend 20 years of vacations in China and barely scratch the surface. Most people visit Beijing and Shanghai, and, yeah, they’re world-class cities. They dwarf a lot of popular western destinations in every possible way. And then Xian is popular for its terra-cotta warriors. But there’s so much more beyond those three. China has breathtaking scenery, varied food, thousands of years of great art and history. On the Must-See-O-Meter? Well, if you’re the sort of person who wants to experience how billions of people on the other side of the planet live, get booking.
What’s the No. 1 thing that surprises most first-time visitors to China?
J.D.: You go in expecting a third-world country, and then you go to Shanghai and it’s like diving into a Star Wars movie. The city and its architecture are incredibly futuristic.
One of the most entertaining parts of your book is when you talk about the culture of drinking in China. What are the odds that an average traveler is going to wind up in a drinking contest with a native Chinese, and what are some things they need to be aware of?
Richard: Okay, first off: The average leisure traveler is NOT going to partake in a drinking challenge. It’s a special occasion even for a business traveler. Most of the time, the people who wind up participating in drinking challenges are Westerners working for Chinese businesses. However, as we note in the book, a Westerner who’s going to China to land a business contract may get a special banquet, with unusual types and amounts of food and drink. But we agree: When drinking challenges happen, they’re really something.
Food. Give me your tips for navigating around all the different foods in China. What should you definitely eat, what should you avoid, and then tell me something I didn’t know about food in China.
Richard: Food is extremely important to the Chinese, and there’s a huge world of Chinese food that we never get to experience in the United States. For independent travelers, our advice is pretty simple: be adventurous. Try going off the tourist streets to find the restaurants where the locals dine. You don’t have to speak Chinese to eat like a native. English is spoken in the major cities, though not fluently, and some restaurants have English menus, even though they can be poorly translated. Other restaurants have menus with pictures, and it’s totally fine to point at dishes that interest you. And you know what? If a dish looks good to you, try it. Don’t ask what it is until after you taste it. At that point, so what if it’s rabbit or jellyfish? They’re both delicious.
J.D.: Here’s something to definitely try when you’re in China: breakfast. It sounds too simple, but a real Chinese breakfast is this varied assortment of different kinds of dumplings, rice porridge – what they call congee – crullers, and savory dishes, and it’s delightful. In Southern China, you have to have dim sum. Lamb is great; so is duck. Duck tongues are very popular – and they’re really tasty.
What to avoid? Steer clear of American fast-food chains, and foreign food in general. Why go to China to eat Italian food, or Taco Bell? At the other end of the spectrum, you can avoid the barbequed insects on a skewer that are boiled alive in hot oil before your eyes. Not that you weren’t going to avoid them already.
What’s your favorite Chinese dish, the one thing you always make sure you eat when you’re there?
Richard: It’s so difficult to pick just one, but authentic Mapo Tofu is wonderful.
Let’s talk about some common customs and how they’re viewed in China. Tipping.
Richard: Tipping’s a Western custom that’s only recently been introduced to Asia. Generally, you don’t tip. Some high-end restaurants that cater to tourists will tack on a 10 percent service charge, but that’s about it. Taxi drivers don’t expect tips, either.
Richard: The Chinese are a gracious people, and they’ll do everything in their power to ensure you’re comfortable. However, you need to keep in mind that the Chinese are more formal and deferential to authority. In professional settings, they shake hands. They don’t hug.
Richard: Bargaining is part of the Asian culture, so it’s generally expected. But it’s our experience that most Westerners are uncomfortable with haggling. In larger stores and high-end shops, prices are fixed. In other places, feel free to play the game. In crafts markets and tourist areas, definitely bargain. Plan on paying about half the asking price.
Complaining about something that’s not right on your trip.
J.D.: Well, the Chinese are world-class complainers. However, you have to keep in mind the Chinese cultural imperative of “saving face.” The worst thing you can do is to demean someone in public.
It might be acceptable – and expected – for a Chinese person to complain about a hotel. For a Westerner, it’s more complicated. China has world-class hotels and service, so if you’re traveling first-class, it won’t be an issue. If you’re traveling on a tourist budget, keep your sense of humor about what’s going on. And if you need to complain or make a request, do just that. Don’t make a scene.
Okay, so you’re at a meal and someone just issued you a drinking challenge, and the liquor tastes like turpentine, you’ve already had too much already, you’ve just had a plate of braised frogs with nappa set in front of you, and everyone in the restaurant is talking extremely loudly in Mandarin. How do you gracefully extricate yourself from that situation?
Richard: If something like this happens, you won’t be on your own. You’ll have a Chinese host-slash-mentor who will look out for you, and it’ll probably occur in a banquet situation. In terms of skipping the alcohol altogether, if you’re a businessperson, your one out is to say you’re taking medication. Oh, and to explain our book’s title, women are better at drinking challenges than men. They know when to bow out.
Obviously your book is a must-read for any business traveler heading to China. What’s the one section you strongly encourage any casual traveler to read?
J.D.: Start with the food options. After that, the chapter titled “When Does Yes Mean Yes?” really helps point up the differences in cultures. Westerners get baffled by Chinese who seem to be offering affirmation when they’re just trying to be gracious.
In general, though, Never Try… was written for everyone, not just businesspeople. It’s the only book out there that addresses cultural issues with a sense of humor instead of the “Oh, my God! Do this, but don’t do that!” approach. The way we look at it, humor trumps fear any day.