Lessons from My First Visit to China

- Molly Cadle-Davidson

After traveling nearly 7,000 miles, my plane had finally touched down in Beijing, China. This was my first time in the country and the start of a 10-day adventure. While I was there to speak at two international conferences on biologicals, I also made time to soak up the culture and get outside the conference hotels. For other first-time visitors, here are a few tips.

Take public transportation. Unlike in the United States, public transportation is efficient and well orchestrated. For example, I took the train, which traveled at speeds of 180 miles per hour, to Nanjing to introduce ABM to potential public collaborators at Nanjing Agricultural University. That wasn’t even the express! China has the world’s largest high-speed rail (HSR) system, with more than 11,000 miles of railway connecting 28 of China’s 33 provinces. According to one article I read about the Chinese transportation system, “The Shanghai Maglev line is the first commercial HSR to use ‘magnetic levitation,’ reaching speeds of more than 400 km/h (248 miles per hour).”

Eat with chopsticks. Chinese dining can be a novel experience for Westerners. I did not use a fork the entire time I was there. Much to my surprise, I was complimented on my chopstick skills by Chinese colleagues. “Try to do as the locals do,” was my motto, even if it makes you uncomfortable — by the way I was uncomfortable the entire 10 days I was away.

Use a translation app. Outside of the conferences I participated in, there was little-to-no English spoken, on signs or anywhere I looked. It’s important to plan for this. I used the Google Translate app and found it to be very helpful. Be creative in how you communicate.

Be adventurous. With fascinating sights all around, it’s easy to do. I visit the Summer Palace in Beijing, which is said to be the best-preserved imperial garden in the world. It’s remarkably located, as the temperature on the day I visited was 100 degrees but on the palace grounds it must have been 20 degrees cooler. Keep in mind the public holidays; it’s worth knowing when the public holidays are because that’s when everyone will be there, and the crowds could be burdensome. Also, wear good walking shoes.

Laugh at your mistakes. When you’re in a new place and everything is unfamiliar, you’re going to make mistakes. I mistakenly ate a piece of paper, thinking it was a very thin pancake. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself because, inevitably, you’ll get something confused and make a mistake. By the way, once I got to the actual pancake, it was delicious. And my biggest chopstick challenge, a bowl of noodles in Shanghai, turned out to be the best meal of my trip and the best noodles I’ve ever eaten.

I’m so glad I took the opportunity to go, and I was so glad to get back home. When you travel, embrace the adventure and make yourself uncomfortable.

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