Four practical things you should know how to do in China and SE Asia

Eat, drink and be merry


Welcome to the land of hot pot, noodle soup for breakfast, Peking duck and wonderful veggies cooked in clay pots.  Throughout a lot of SE Asia, you can get away with just using a spoon.  But as you work your way east, you’ll want to be proficient with chopsticks.  Hold the first one resting on your middle finger and in the cradle of your thumb.  Then use your thumb and index finger to control the second one.  You will have more control if you hold them towards the top rather than the bottom, though I found this counter intuitive.  Practice on some slippery items – tofu, tomatoes, boiled peanuts – and you will quickly become an expert.  Once you’ve grown accustomed to using them, the idea of putting a sharp metal object in your mouth seems kind of gross.

You will soon be impressed by the versatility of the chopstick.  I’ve seen people use the fat end of a chopstick to open a bottle of beer and a woman I traveled with used one to hold her mop of curly hair up in a bun.  (She did not recommend wearing one to bed, telling me once, “You can’t sleep in a chopstick.”)

There is also some great street food.  I enjoyed dumplings, sweet potatoes and tea eggs in the north.  And in the south, they have the cleverest way to cut a pineapple I’ve ever seen, making it into an easy to carry, easy to eat popsicle-like snack.

If you are told that a restaurant is “not appropriate” for westerners, you might want to heed the advice.  One place we visited had quite an assortment of pickled animals in bottles including a small dog.  You will be able to eat authentic and delicious Asian food, but there might be a limit to how native you want to go.

Squat and stare


Okay, now you know how to eat, but what goes in must come out.  Using a squat pot is not particularly difficult, but it does take a little practice.  It’s not a bad idea to start building up those squatting muscles before you go.  Once you get there, you’ll be glad you did because, trust me, you won’t want your hands to touch anything.  One tip- the ceramic platforms with foot holes are designed for Asian-sized bodies.  You might find that you need to adjust where you put your feet according to the length of your legs or you’ll miss the target.  Once you’re used to using a squat pot, you’ll probably find them preferable.  If a place is going to be dirty, better to have your shoes touch it than your bare skin.

The second part is harder to get used to.  If you travel in China, you will have people watch you while you do your business.  At first this is really weird, but by the time you leave, you will probably be so used to it that your bladder won’t be able to release unless someone is staring at you.  Weirder still is the fact that you will have to stand in front of a stall that has no door and stare at someone else while you wait your turn.  I know you can’t imagine that you’d ever do that, but in a country of 1.6 billion, you do what you have to to keep your place in line.  So, look straight ahead and imagine something- anything (practice Mandarin characters in your head, try to memorize a map of Beijing, calculate how long it will take you to reach your next destination if the train travels 100 km per hour and has 6,000 people on it each of them carrying a bucket of 26 live crabs…) so that you’re not really focused on what you’re looking at.

Take a cold shower without getting cold


This is a practical skill that you will find useful in many parts of the world. The secret is to wash your hair and your body in two separate maneuvers. First assemble all your stuff, soap, shampoo, towel so that you don’t need fetch anything.  Then leave on your pants, and a tank top while you bend forward into the shower to wash your hair.  Wrap your clean hair in a towel and then undress and wash your body.  Not having wet hair dripping icy water down your back will keep you from getting that big chill.

And finally…


Travel means going places, which means you’re going to have to cross the street. Remain vigilant! Do not be sucked into a false sense of security based on the fact that:

  • The cars have a red light and you have a walk signal
  • You are surrounded by locals
  • You are currently waiting on a sidewalk

Look in every possible direction before setting forth.  Then keep looking as you walk across.

Your street-crossing savvy will be put to the test in Ho Chi Minh City.  Study a map and plan your time in the city to avoid crossing major thoroughfares as much as possible.  When the time comes and you have to cross take the following steps:

  • Stand on the corner and reflect on what a good life you’ve had, how lucky you’ve been to be able to travel this far
  • Make sure that you really are that keen on visiting that museum on the other side of the road
  • Pray to whomever or whatever you pray to.  I’m a confirmed atheist, but there’s a time and a place for everything.
  • Chin up and walk slowly forward.  Your pace should be crawling.  Snails whiz by. Turtles would leave you in the dust.  You are unhurried, poky, even sluggish. The slower you go, the more time you give the gazillion-and-one motorbikes to see you and go around.  Easy does it.
  • Enjoy the museum and take a taxi back to your hotel
3 replies
  1. Jonno
    Jonno says:

    Jennifer, I am very pleased you have got the hang of China and loved some of your descriptions and analogies = superb!

    I’d love to follow your writings and reproduce them on my website – which is a free resource for everything about China, cultural exchange, and understanding. Perhaps you would consider adding this to our ‘Letters From China’ section?

    For information, I am a Brit who has lived permanently in Guangdong for 7-years, so I sort of got the hang of it now hehe!

    We (China Expat’s) do have a twitter account, but as Twitter is currently banned by Beijing, I can’t add or moderate the feed – sorry guys and girls.

    Enjoy your travels

  2. Michael Falk
    Michael Falk says:

    Restrooms are certainly intimidating at times. I have not been to China yet but when I was in France the glorified hole in the floor was the scariest. After encountering this every outing left a question lingering in my head about what sort of restroom I would encounter. Would I have to pay? Another one is the outdoor pod style. This one u look to see if occupied by red or green dot near door. Put your change in and the door opens and once inside its a little confusing but I managed. I think you have 15 minutes to do your business before the door opens. ah,….potty talk


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.