5 Mistakes You Will Make in China

There are lots of mistakes that westerners often make when living in China. Here are my top five.

1.You think “Mylikes” must be the same as “Malteasers”

The word chocolate is the same in every language I know. Admittedly I only know four languages, but in English, French, Japanese and Chinese it’s all the same word. That said, someone hearing the Mandarin word qiǎo kè lì 巧克力 for the first time might not recognise it as sounding anything like “chocolate”. This is because the word came to Chinese through the Wu dialects and qiǎo kè lì is the Mandarin pronunciation. If you ask someone from Shanghai, Suzhou or Hangzhou to say qiǎo kè lì in their dialect then you might be shocked by just how close it sounds to the English (and French… and Nahuatl).

If you’re new to China you will soon find that it is difficult to get hold of your favourite qiǎo kè lì from back home. You might be tempted to try one of the many doppelgangers available, the most infamous of which is “Mylikes”.


a box of mylikes

They look just like Malteasers but don’t be fooled. They are made from a horrible fake chocolate and any attempt to quench a qiǎo kè lì craving with “Mylikes” will only end in disappointment.

2. You sign up to Express VPN

Everyone knows China has internet censorship. Even the government has given up pretending that it’s just coincidence your browser crashes every time you want to watch porn. Did I say porn? I mean YouTube.

When I first went to China I saw it as a blessing in disguise. Almost every site I would use on a daily basis was blocked (Facebook, google, YouTube, WordPress, the news) and so I had much more time to study, free from the distractions of the internet. After a couple of years I decided it would be good to fān qiáng 翻墙 which is literally “get over the wall” and means to get around the internet censorship. So I paid for a fān qiáng ruǎn jiàn 翻墙软件 (get over wall software).

My mistake was to believe the many “blogs” that I saw online listing the best fān qiáng ruǎn jiàn. I paid for the fān qiáng ruǎn jiàn that always seems to end up top or near the top of these lists: Express VPN. This company also appears at the very top of Google adverts if you type in anything about a VPN. In fact, they are probably the most aggressively advertising VPN company and it wouldn’t surprise me if they spent more on advertising than R&D.

My experience of Express VPN was far from good. It usually worked but would often take a long time to connect (like half an hour). Sometimes it wouldn’t connect at all and when I contacted them with the problem it was clearly just someone in a call centre copy and pasting set responses such as “try connecting to a different location” as though I wouldn’t have thought to do that myself.

I have since changed my fān qiáng ruǎn jiàn to one from a much smaller company that costs about half the price of Express VPN and works perfectly. I’m not saying that Express VPN doesn’t work. Chinese internet censorship and the ability of fān qiáng ruǎn jiàn to get around it seems to constantly be changing. It even varies from province to province. My advice is to ask friends, colleagues and classmates what fān qiáng ruǎn jiàn they use and whether it is working well at the moment (they might just happen to recommend Express VPN). Whatever you do, I strongly advise against paying for a VPN on the basis of adverts, even if those adverts are cleverly disguised as blog posts.

3. You try to buy deodorant

Many parts of China get really hot and humid during the summer. You would think deodorant xiāng tǐ yè 香体液 (fragrant body liquid) and antiperspirant zhǐ hàn yè 止汗液 (stop sweat liquid) would be a big market. But you would be wrong. It can be very difficult to get hold of xiāng tǐ yè and if you’re lucky enough to find some it is often two or three times the price it would be in Britain.

It turns out that Chinese people just don’t sweat that much, and those that do often don’t care enough to buy xiāng tǐ yè  (though when I’m squashed onto a hot bus I really wish they would care a bit more). If you sweat a lot, like me, then I suggest packing a few roll-on antiperspirants in your luggage before going to China. Spray cans take up more space and will often get confiscated at train stations and subway stations, where they do an airport style ex-ray check on your luggage before you are allowed to enter.

4. You buy an android phone

Of course there is nothing wrong with an android phone (called ān zhuó shǒu jī 安卓手机 in Chinese). However, if you want access to Google play and English language apps then you need to think twice before buying one in China, because you can’t get the Google play store on a Chinese phone, even if you have a VPN or take it outside of China. The firmware installed on ān zhuó shǒu jī in China doesn’t allow you to use Google play. This doesn’t bother some people, but it’s definitely worth knowing if you’re going to buy a phone in China.

Another thing you need to know is that if you buy a shǒu jī (phone) from China Mobile then you will only be able to use China Mobile sim card. This isn’t because the phone is locked by the network, it’s because China Mobile uses a different 3G and 4G technology to the rest of the world.

china mobile

beware of china mobile 4G

You will have no problems making phone calls and sending SMS messages if you take your China Mobile phone back home and put a different sim card in it. However, you won’t be able to use 3G and 4G mobile internet because the hardware is different. Buying a shǒu jī from China Unicom isn’t a problem though because they use the international standard 3G and 4G technology.

5. You wait to be served in a restaurant

I once went to Pizza Hut in China (I know that’s already a bad start.) The waitress (fú wù yuán 服务员) took me to a table, brought me a menu and walked off. She never came back. I got out my textbook and studied for about half an hour before leaving without having ordered anything. The fact is that in China fú wù yuán (waiters/ waitresses) seem to think it is rude to ask someone if they are ready to order.

When Chinese people are ready to order they shout out fú wù yuán to get the attention of the waiting staff. If you don’t shout out fú wù yuán it is quite likely that they won’t come over and take your order or ask you if you need anything. The same goes for when you want to pay the bill, you need to shout fú wù yuán to get their attention. None of this trying to make eye contact and politely waving nonsense. If you do that in China the fú wù yuán will most likely just think you’re a creepy foreigner staring at them and waving.