10 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Arriving in China

Medical exams that turn into follow-up exams that need paperwork. Dental x-rays. Packing up your apartment. Putting your stuff in storage. Selling your bed. Quitting your job. Saying good bye to friends. A goodbye celebration with coworkers.  Arranging care for your dog. Forwarding your mail.

With so many things to get done before leaving for the Peace Corps, I didn’t have time to research what I needed to pack.  In between packing up my apartment and wrapping up my final projects at work, I also threw together a suitcase and a backpack full of stuff for China.  I felt like I packed well, but there were some things I never used and I realized that I packed far too much.

Throw out the PC China manual. Here’s the real deal on what you need to know to make sure you pack appropriately. 

1. The Dress Code isn’t what they say. The information from the PC was pretty strict about what was and wasn’t acceptable. Like a good student, I packed according to the dress code. This meant no shorts, no skirts above the knee and no low cut tops.  Then I arrived and saw what some of the other trainees were wearing.  I’m not sure we received the same information.

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My host mom occasionally wore tank tops but always with a sheer overlay.

It’s absolutely true that in conservative parts of China it’s uncommon (and generally unacceptable) for women to show cleavage. In fact, in my town women didn’t even wear v-neck shirts. They just didn’t exist. I had a few, but generally felt uncomfortable wearing them even though they weren’t low cut.  Is that over cautious?  Maybe, but I was doing my best to fit in and was really conscious of what other women were wearing.

It’s also true that most women, especially older women, don’t wear tank tops.  Shirts generally have sleeves or women wear small, lightweight cover-ups to hide their shoulders.  So, if you plan on bringing tanks, invest in one of these to make it modest enough for your community.

As for shorts, don’t be like me. Everyone wears them.  I was shocked to see my students wearing very short shorts.  They even wore them with black tights in the winter.

Keep the skirts professional, but they certainly don’t need to be below the knee.

2. Pack the things that you like to cook with the most. For me, this would have been spices. Once I got to site I realized that I didn’t have regular access to a grocery store (it was an hour away by bus) so I pretty much ate what was available at the local outdoor market. The only seasonings were fresh cilantro, green onions, lajiao, hua jiao, salt, pepper and cumin.  I missed basil and oregano badly.  I also missed lemon, which was only available in the summer, and lime which I never saw in China.

My first care package was stocked with spices, which were great to have.  I also requested lots of coffee and an over-the-cup brewing system. And, as a treat, my friends always sent dark chocolate since the good stuff was hard to find outside of major cities.

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My Christmas care package. Everything I needed to host Christmas dinner for my friends: spices, some packaged stuff that isn’t locally available and decorations

3. Skip the rain boots. I wore a pair of beautifully stripped yellow and blue LL Bean rain boots in the middle of a summer downpour and the reaction from my students was unbelievable.

“Teacher! Why are you wearing peasant boots?” As much as I tried to explain that these were trendy in New York and they’re not “peasant boots” they seemed to really distract my students.  I thought that the bright colors would be a hit, but they only saw them as something that was unacceptable in the classroom.  That, coupled with the incredible humidity during the rain, made me uncomfortable.  My shins sweat so much that I never wore them again.

Instead of packing something bulky, buy a pair of squishy, plastic shoes from the local market (think jelly shoes from the 80’s). Mine were silver, had sparkles, and cost me less than $2.

4. Gifts are a huge part of Chinese culture. Everyone constantly gives gifts. I never knew what was appropriate from China (which tea is nice enough for a gift?), so I wish I had more stuff from home to give.

I packed gifts for my host family, but didn’t anticipate how large the family would be (7 people: Mom, Dad, Aunt, cousin, older sister, baby sister, maid). I also needed to have gifts for my new colleagues and coworkers at site.  I had nice, engraved silver pens from my former workplace (which is also a well-known, Ivy League school) that were a huge hit.  I wish I had brought at least 10 of them.

Some other good ideas of culturally appropriate gifts are local foods from your hometown – think small bottles of maple syrup, hot sauce, salt-water taffy etc. Food is a very common gift in China.  Trinkets like key chains and magnets representing parts of your life are also good.  I liked giving out children’s books with basic English words and lots of illustrations for friends with babies. I gave scented lotions to teenage girls and they loved that too.  They kept saying “It smells like America!”

Bottom line, pack more gifts than you think you’ll need and save some for when you get so site.

5. Bring a few gift bags and cards. Maybe this is silly, but these take up absolutely no space, weigh very little, but will impress people. Gifts generally aren’t wrapped in China, which can be kind of odd. If someone purchases a really nice gift, like a set of expensive teas, it will usually come in a giant box that’s very elaborate yet not that beautiful. I loved giving gifts in bags from home. Even if it was very simple they appreciated the extra decoration.

I found stationary very hard to find.  I had some nice cards sent from home so that I could write thank you notes.  Again, it was something that isn’t common in China and people enjoyed because it seemed “so American”.

6. It’s absolutely culturally acceptable to wear the same outfit two or three days in a row. As long as it’s clean (no stains, no body odor) there’s no reason to change. I took a week-long Chinese course and my instructor showed up the first day wearing the most beautiful emerald green dress with jewel tone embellishments around the neck.  I remember the details of the dress well because she also wore it every day for the rest of the week.  Since it was the winter and she wasn’t sweating, there was no reason to change her outfit.

This might take a while to get used to, but once you do, it can be such a relief.  In the winter, since you have to wear your coat inside anyways (see #7) there’s really no reason to wear a new sweater every day.  Don’t pack 10 sweaters like I did. Instead, pack a few that can be layered easily and wear them repeatedly.  That’s what everyone around you will be doing.


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Cooking in my jacket and hoodie because it’s so cold inside

7. In the winter you will live in your jacket. You’ll teach in it. You’ll wear it around your home. You’ll cook in it. You’ll take it off briefly to shower put it right back on.

Had I known this, I would have packed fewer sweaters and brought one professional jacket to teach in and wear to nicer events (like dinner with my colleagues) and had one puffy jacket for everything else.  No one actually saw my clothes all winter long because it was always hidden under my jacket.

8. Chinese people dress up. It’s not uncommon to see women working in the fields wearing high heels. The vendors at the local market wear dresses.  My colleagues come to class wearing something that looks like what I wore to prom, but with more lace and frills.  Older men run errands in nice pants and a button down shirt.  I’m sure a part of it has to do with face and appearing to have money.  But, if you want to fit in, try to dress up a bit.

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Throwing shot put is no excuse to skip the heels and leather pants

One weekend my counterpart and I were asked to travel to Chengdu for a Peace Corps sponsored conference.  It’s a 5 hour bus ride, so I wore jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers and packed my professional clothes for the meeting the next day in a backpack. My bag also had toiletries, my pajamas and makeup.  My colleague arrived wearing a frilly dress and heels and carrying only her small purse- no change of clothes, toiletries or anything to wear at night.  She took one look at my outfit and said in disgust, “It looks like you’re going hiking.”  Cultural differences, baby!

9. The Peace Corps will give you Medical Kit on day one. It’s full of everything you could need from pain killers to Band Aids. They even provide sunscreen if you ask for it.  The only things not provided are vitamins (if you use them).  So no need to pack a month’s worth of Imodium.

10. Make sure your summer clothes are comfortable in a sauna.  Arriving in Chengdu in July, it’ll be 9 degrees with 80% humidity, so bring clothes that are breathable. Men will sweat through their dress shirts.  Try to find some short-sleeved ones.  Women should consider dresses or skirts because it’s so much more comfortable.  Whatever you do, don’t bring your cashmere sweater set for the summer.  Trust me.

Do you have questions about what to pack for your service?  Feel free to ask!