THE MOMENT the immigration officer opened my passport, I knew China would be a unique experience.
She stared at me suspiciously for a minute or two, before calling over two security men, who took me aside and began drilling me with questions.
“What is your full name? Where are you originally from? Is this really your passport? What’s the purpose of your visit?”
The prospect of being denied entry made me slightly hysterical — mainly because the pork dumplings here were rumoured to be bloody excellent.
Eventually I was let through, but this experience was just one of many bizarre things I would discover in the Middle Kingdom — which, by the way, easily remains one of my favourite countries to date.
While the number of Australian tourists visiting China has risen notably over the past decade, it’s still not nearly as popular a destination as Indonesia, Thailand or the United States.
If it’s on your bucket list — and it damn well should be — here are ten of the most bizarre things you can expect to see.
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU
Over the past few years, it’s been reported China is building a “Big Brother” style social credit system, in which every citizen’s day-to-day life is acutely monitored and scored, impacting home loans and job prospects. A “digital totalitarian state”, as The Economist put it late last year.
While navigating the country, this didn’t surprise me. Security is super tight. Every metro station — even the deserted ones — is manned at all times and treated like airport security; you must empty your pockets, put your bags through an x-ray machine, and receive a semi-erotic pat-down with a metal detector.
Police can and will request your ID at random on the street. You’re only allowed one SIM card per mobile phone, which is registered on a national database. If you work in a sensitive profession, like a foreign government or media outlet, spontaneous interrogations aren’t unheard of. And yep, they’ve probably seen your nudes.
NOBODY CARRIES CASH OR CARDS
At least, nobody under 30. Seriously, the country’s incredible technological advancement puts Australia to shame.
I went to a bar in Dali with some new local friends and requested a menu. Everyone laughed at me. Each table has its own unique barcode that you scan using WeChat, the country’s main networking app (kind of like Facebook, Instagram, Uber and Apple Pay rolled into one). This pulls up the entire menu on your phone — complete with prices and pictures — through which you place your order.
When your food arrives, you simply scan the barcode again to pay. No tree-killing paper bills. Just watch your battery life.
SPITTING IS THE NORM
Older locals in China spit. A lot. Not a few meek inconspicuous millilitres of saliva — the perpetrators loudly, passionately “Hoiiiiiik!” up big globs of phlegm and “Pppfffhhh!” them out wherever it’s convenient. On the street. On restaurant floors. Train stations. Buses. Casinos.
It’s an age-old practice believed to carry health benefits — no doubt influenced by a population with over 350 million smokers. Your involuntary facial spasm of disgust will achieve nothing. Gotta get that gunk out, y’know?
LIFE BECOMES A PHOTOSHOOT
In the West, photos taken without permission are frowned upon and can even hold legal consequences. In China, no such rule exists. If you’re a foreigner — even of Chinese heritage — expect to be stared at and photographed everywhere.
From shopping malls to the subway to restaurants, people would not-so-subtly sneak pictures of me on their phones or DSLRs, then smile half-guiltily when I stared in acknowledgment.
No one asks for permission — nor, evidently, is it viewed as an invasion of privacy. In the end, you may as well just gaze deeply down that lens like you’re Heidi Klum.
THERE’S AN APP FOR BASICALLY EVERYTHING
Ride-sharing, online shopping and food deliveries? Yawn. So 2012. But get this: Didi Kuaidi, China’s version of Uber, offers a “designated driver” service for drunk motorists who can’t drive home.
The driver will cycle a fold-up bike to the gutter you’re throwing up into, pop the bike into your boot, drive you to your house in your vehicle, and then cycle off on the bike while you pass out safely in bed. Lifesavers. Literally.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT PUTS AUSTRALIA TO SHAME
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s difficult to get around China. Yes, most signs are in Chinese characters, and no, most people don’t speak fluent English. Despite this, I travelled exclusively by public transport, on buses, trains and the intercity high-speed rail, with the greatest of ease.
Just one journey on the light rail — your chair comfortably reclined as a waitress offers you coffee and snacks — will have you reflecting on Sydney’s pitiful Cityrail with an almost smug sense of loathing.
COMMUNAL ACTIVITIES ARE ALL THE RAGE
You’re taking an innocent stroll down a quiet street — then BAM! A group of one hundred elderly Chinese women are performing a perfectly-choreographed dance together. Or singing old Chinese songs in a twelve-part harmony.
It’s like large-scale busking without a purpose — they’re not doing it for money, or even for the benefit of onlookers. To this day, I don’t know why they do it. Not a single local I asked could tell me. But it’s pretty cute.
THE GOVERNMENT FIREWALL IS WEAKER THAN YOU THINK
China’s notorious “Great Firewall” blocks many sites westerners frequently use — Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Gmail and several major western news outlets. The day before arriving, I dramatically messaged all my friends: “I will be uncontactable for the next 30 days! Do not panic. If I survive, I shall speak to you in a month!” Two days later, I was tweeting again.
The government’s firewall is rather overstated — a working VPN in China is literally a free app download away. Almost every Chinese millennial I met uses one, and every hostel I stayed in had two separate Wi-Fi networks; the standard one, and a secret “anti-firewall” network for western sites. The government occasionally swoops in to shut these down for special occasions, but the bans rarely last long.
PREPARE TO BE MONEY-SHAMED
On my first day in Shenzhen, I gave a 50 yuan note (AU$10) to a waitress. To my surprise she held it up to the light, shook her head, returned it and requested another. Counterfeit bills are so common in China that most establishments run larger notes through a special verification machine.
Taxi drivers have allegedly made a scam out of this — they’ll take your “real” 100 yuan (AU$20) note, subtly pocket it, then return a “fake” but near-identical note to you, and ask for another.
If you’re gullible enough, they’ll do this over and over again, putting you out 200 yuan (AU$40) every time. As a customer, it’s standard practice to request a new note if yours feels a bit flimsy.
NO, YOU WON’T ACCIDENTALLY ORDER DOG MEAT
Ah, the greatest myth of all. The controversial Yulin Dog Meat Festival has contributed to a crude stereotype associating Chinese menus with dog meat. In reality, you’re highly unlikely to consume it unless you specifically look for it.
The meat is considered a delicacy that’s much more expensive than pork or chicken, and it’s largely contained to specific regions.
China currently has the world’s third-largest pet economy, and a Horizon study last year found that 69.5 per cent had never eaten dog, while over half of its 1.37 billion population want sales to be nationally outlawed. So if the thought makes you squeamish, fear not. Most of the locals are with you on that one.