Friday, June 6, 2014

TRAVELING TO CHINA, or I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now

These are some reflections and tips regarding travel to China.  They are based on our recent experiences as first-time adoptive parents, and are intended for other first-time adoptive parents.  Read at your own risk!


It may seem odd to start out with this topic, but I think it's quite important.  Consider: you're traveling to a country on the other side of the world.  You're going to be tired and probably sore from the air travel.  You're going to be jet lagged like you've probably never been jet lagged before.  The food is unfamiliar; the air probably bad; the water highly dubious.  You'll be harried and harassed, having to constantly go-go-go from bus to meeting to taxi to office.  And, on top of all this, you'll be dealing with a child who is new to you, who may have health issues of his own, and who almost certainly will have some (ahem) psychological adjustments to make upon being handed over to his new parents.  You MUST keep your strength and spirits up, and that means taking good care of your health.  So...

--- Prepare to be your own doctor. If you even THINK you'll need a med, whether it be allergy pills, antibiotics, pills for motion sickness, laxatives, eye drops, or anything else, TAKE IT ALONG. We took along a Z-pack against getting a stomach bug, and this came in VERY handy not only for us but also for another person in our group when a respiratory infection started making the rounds. Consider your child in this, too: a bottle of children's ibuprofen or Orajel may be a godsend

--- It's possible to buy various OTC drugs in China, but consider that the labels will be... well... in Chinese. Further, some drugs that are OTC here may not be there, or may be much more expensive. Finally, the druggist may not speak English. Happily, our guide in Guangzhou was kind enough to get Chrystal some cough syrup; otherwise, she would have been out of luck

--- If you have food allergies or there are certain foods that you otherwise cannot eat, get a card to this effect printed up before you go to carry with you.  This is not a fool-proof plan (I collect that food allergies are not nearly as common in China as they are here and hence the card may bewilder the average waiter), but it's better than nothing

--- As soon as possible after you arrive, arrange with your guide to get a supply of bottled water.  We bought a case our first morning in Wuhan.  Not only did this save us from having to pay hotel rates, we had a reliable supply of water to stay hydrated and avoid potential stomach bugs from the local tap water

--- We took a supply of Emergen-C packets and probiotic tablets.  Maybe they helped; maybe not.  Nevertheless, I was glad to have them

--- We also took along a small stash of junk food: cereal bars, crackers, etc.  These were helpful on the plane and after we got our daughter

--- Consider something to help you sleep, whether it's an OTC sleeping drug or melatonin.  This is especially useful on the plane ride

--- Many parts of China and especially Guangzhou are very hot and humid. Zinc oxide ointment is helpful in case of chafing or prickly heat. In a pinch, diaper rash ointment works well (a friend of mine put me onto Boudreaux's Butt Paste, which he regards as indispensable when hiking. He's right)


--- While your hotel room and most airport bathrooms will have western-style toilets, you will very likely encounter the (in)famous squattie-pottie. This is, I believe, rather more of an issue for women than for men. All I can say is that baby wipes are NOT just for baby, practice deep knee bends, and good luck!


--- Be aware that the Chinese domestic airlines and trains have rather different rules regarding baggage than American airlines and trains.  Make sure that your bags meet those requirements well ahead of time so you can buy / borrow whatever you might need

--- Especially if you haven't done a lot of international travel, you may well find yourself handling your luggage rather more than you're used to due to customs, security, connections, etc.  Consider too that you'll have a child with you on the return trip.  In other words, travel as light as possible

--- I know, I know: I suggest that you travel as light as possible.  However, I'm also a big believer in redundancy: have two or more of critical items, especially medications, in different bags such that, it one is lost, you have a spare

--- Along the same lines, take duplicate copies of important paperwork (adoption forms, passports, visas, etc.).  Also, take electronic copies on your phone, tablet, laptop, etc.

--- You will come home with even more documents, especially a visa packet that you must turn over UNOPENED to ICE at your port of entry into the USA.  We were never told what would happen if the packet happened to be opened, though the word "Gitmo" was muttered... At any rate, a document organizer to keep these things in order and protected in your carry-on (do NOT put the visa packet into a checked bag!) is a good idea.  Oh, and in the event that one parent (Mama) has done most of the paperwork and the other (Baba) has no clue about it other than he's signed a lot of things over the past several months, it's really useful to go through the documents prior to leaving so that words and phrases like "I-800" and "National Visa Center" are not completely unfamiliar

--- Compression sacks are your friend. Yes, your clothes will get rather wrinkled, but it's possible to get quite a lot of clothes into a package that will fit into a medium-sized backpack.  Remember that, in addition to your clothes, toiletries, and other personal items, you'll be packing for your child AND taking along a number of gifts for various officials, so space (and weight) in your luggage will be at a premium.  Ditto on the return trip if you plan to buy gifts for the folks back home or future birthday presents for your child


--- Cotton is NOT your friend in China, especially in the summer. Lightweight athletic / hiking clothing (ESPECIALLY underwear) that is designed to wick away moisture from your skin and dry quickly is strongly recommended. Not only will you stay more comfortable, this sort of thing is easy to wash and drip-dry in your hotel room in a pinch

--- You will very likely go through clothes much faster there than you do at home because (depending on the time of year you travel and the city / province you are in) the air appallingly dirty. Therefore, it doesn't hurt to take along a little laundry detergent. Yes, the hotels we were in provided laundry service, but it was horribly expensive. Things are a bit different in Guangzhou because there are many shops on Shamian Island that provide inexpensive laundry services (though it may not be same-day), but we were fortunate that another family in our group brought along some little detergent packs and shared, so we were able to wash a few items in our hotel bath tub

--- We were told that we had to dress up a bit to go to the consulate.  We were the only people who did


--- Set up a VPN on all internet-capable devices before leaving the States, and ensure that they work and that you've got the passwords with you.  Otherwise, you may well run up against the various firewalls that the Chinese government has established.  Note that some VPN's seem to work better in some provinces than in others.  We used ExpressVPN in Wuhan and Guangzhou.  Panda Pow did not work for us, but other people have reported that it and Onavo worked great for them in other provinces.

--- Talk to your cellular provider about your devices and especially about the cost of "roaming" in China.  It can be very expensive for data plans.  They can be in excess of $21 for 100mb of data.  Although we did not use one, many people order a Panda phone to be picked up in Country.

--- Take along several power adapters (remember: NOT all in the same bag!)

--- Make sure you've got books, audio books, music, movies, games and other forms of entertainment both for you and for your child loaded up on your devices.  Trust me: you'll likely be spending A LOT of time in airport waiting areas, and a cartoon is a good way to distract a fractious child

--- Contact your credit card company(ies) and bank to make sure that they know you'll be overseas lest they suspend your account when they start to notice all these purchases in China!

--- Exchanging money wasn't a problem for us: the hotels provided that service.  Nevertheless, I suggest getting a few hundred yuan (aka RMB) before leaving the US.  Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, I always say

--- Do not count on being able to use credit cards in China.  I don't say you absolutely can't, but many places do not accept them

--- Check with your agency about how much cash to take and especially denominations.  The Chinese are apparently leery of the new US $100 bills; we took $50 bills

--- Tipping is not at all common in China, and there is no sales tax.  How nice to buy something and pay EXACTLY the price marked on the tag or menu!

--- Haggling and dickering IS common in China, especially on Shamian Island


--- As I've noted before, we found the Chinese we met to be very nice people: pleasant, friendly and helpful.  Depending on the province, many Chinese also speak at least a little English.  Finally, most signs that we saw (especially that most important one, "Toilet") were in English and Chinese.  However, it helps to know a few key words, phrases and characters (I found knowing simple numbers to be very useful).  Not only will this be of use to you, it also makes a good impression on them.  A basic Chinese language program is therefore a good investment in the months before your trip

--- Don't worry about money: the numbers printed on Chinese bank bills and coins are the same Arabic numbers used here: a 5 RMB bill has "5" printed on it, not "".  Ditto such things as floor numbers in elevators

And, last but not least...


--- Take along a few simple toys.  My wife bought stacking cups, and they worked quite well for us.  We were surprised to find that our daughter apparently had no idea what a stuffed animal was or how to play with it, so teddy bears and dolls MAY not be useful.  Ditto toys that require pushing buttons, turning knobs or the like.  (Note:  This may vary depending on the age of the child.  One fried adopted a 3 year old and she loved dolls.  It does appear to hold true to younger children.)

--- Prepare for gross errors in your child's size measurement, so having a few outfits (especially shoes) of different sizes is a good idea

--- Depending on your child's age and mobility, some way to carry him around other than your arms is dead useful. We had a baby carrier, but the stroller we bought (cheap) on Shamian Island was a godsend

--- Prepare yourself for the worst.  I saw children who FOR DAYS after "Gotcha" would scream at the sight of one or both parents; children who melted down for hours at the drop of a hat; children who were uncontrollable; children who were violent and / or destructive.  Yes, all those terrible behaviors that result from abandonment, institutionalization, and being thrust into the arms of new parents are real.  I found that it's one thing to know about them; it's quite another to see them "up close and VERY personal"


  1. Wow- thank you for the practical, tangible ideas/necessities. I have been trying to scale back the packing and wondering just which things I really need....sounds like we're paying for an extra back that piggybacks on our other luggage! ;)

    1. Thank you. I'm glad to know that this is of use to you.

      I'm a really big fan of compression sacks: it's astonishing how much one can get into them. Well worth the investment. Do NOT get the cheap Wally-world one, by the way: we did, and it busted the first time we used it.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to write this after your travel. So many great tips here. I am traveling late August (I hope) and hoping the weather will be a bit milder :)

    1. Thank you. Best of luck to you! The wait and the uncertainty is really frustrating, isn't it?