China Lite

As someone who’s taken up residence in China long-term, I’ve had quite a few visitors over the years. One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to do a little “visitor profiling” if you want your guest to have a good time. Two of my own personal “case studies”:

1. My sister Grace visited me in Hangzhou in 2001. I hadn’t been in China long, and had spent a lot more time studying Chinese than trying to get comfortable. I fed Grace the 5 RMB local cafeteria food I was used to eating. When we went from Hangzhou to Beijing, I screwed up on the sleeper “ticket upgrade,” so it was 17 hours on the train in hard seats. In Beijing, we went everywhere on foot, by subway, or by bus. Poor Grace didn’t adapt too well to Chinese food; I think she might have had western food a few times, but she also shed quite a few pounds during her two weeks in China.

2. My parents visited China in 2007. We toured West Lake in Hangzhou, and went on a Bund cruise in Shanghai. We flew to Beijing and saw the sights there, assisted by a driver. We took the cable car up to the top of the Great Wall. We sampled the local food everywhere, while also getting some western food when it felt “necessary.” My parents had a very pleasant stay (but probably didn’t lose any weight).

Fortunately, by the time my parents had visited, I was a bit more compassionate about the needs of my less hardcore visitors (and had had a chance to practice this “kinder, gentler version of China” when my other sister Amy visited in 2004). Grace actually had a really good attitude about the whole ordeal, though. She felt that she had had a taste of “the real China,” and referred to what my sister Amy had experienced as “China Lite.”

China Lite

I’m not trying to be a China snob here; this “China Lite” concept is useful. With my parents planning another visit, I’m working on perfecting the China Lite experience (without resorting to a tour group, if possible). While the whole “Real China” vs. “China Lite” thing is more of a continuum than a black or white issue, I’ve found it useful to compare the two.

Real China China Lite
Stay in hostels, crash at friends’ places, or even do some kind of homestay Stay in nice hotels or service apartments
All Chinese food, and the more street food the better Chinese food is fine as long as it’s not too weird; some western food (even KFC) is needed to buffer all that Chinese food
Baijiu (that Chinese white grain alcohol) isn’t so bad… Tsingtao is exotic enough when it comes to alcohol
As much Chinese language as possible; gotta put that phrasebook to use and communicate with the locals English if possible; translations if not
Travel by bus, train, and bike (with the people) is great Airplane preferred for long trips; other forms of transportation need to provide appropriate personal space
Pack your own TP, and study the proper squatting position in advance Never stray too far from a western-style toilet
China is big, and you don’t have much time to soak it all in, so pack that itinerary tight! China is tiring; plan the itinerary carefully and leave sufficient down time
Consider the whole trip to be “off the grid” or at least “off the beaten path” with just the occasional internet cafe Plan for internet needs, and provide a cell phone for your visitors if possible (the cost of the SIM card and phone service is negligible in China)

Got any tips to add the the list?

Some visitors are looking for “the real China,” where others are hoping to enjoy “China Lite.” They’re both here, but it’s best to be clear on what your visitors are after.

Other takes on “China Lite”:

China Lite in the New York Times
China Lite on globorati
CNYE in China Lite by Ryan McLaughlin


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Definitely depends on who’s coming and where you’re planning to travel. If you’re really going to be going off the beaten track, or if you’re on an extremely tight budget, then sure, go for “Real China” — but if all you’re doing is visiting Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou, then there’s not really any reason to rough it deliberately unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys bragging about how you once spent 36 hours in a standing-room-only train car packed to the brim with livestock, uphill in the snow both ways.

    Not to say that people should insulate themselves from reality, or do the standard gift-shop and Peking Opera tour, but a lot of the time when I hear people talking about “the real China” and what a wonderfully horrible time they had, there seems to be more than a little bit of one-upsmanship about it: “I had a crappier, and therefore more authentic, and therefore better time than you did.”

  2. Couldn’t agree with Brendan’s comment more.

    I think the catch-22 about the “real China” vs. “China Lite” paths is that with the first you have a rough time, eat food not fit for most people’s dogs, but you meet some of the most authentic and genuine people — and what you take from those meetings can be much more valuable than the “safer” path loaded with touts, cheats and people looking to scrape a few fen from the foreigners.

    John, I can wholly relate to your tales of visitors and the need to do a bit of “profiling” beforehand. Ultimately I think a successful visit from friends or family is one that has them going away with a positive, yet realistic view of China. I don’t travel the same way I did when I was 25, why would I expect my parents to want to travel that way when they are 55 or 65.

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  4. We’ve had a number of visitors, and most were definitely China light. One complication we’ve had is visitors who had special dietary needs. My mom was on a gluten and dairy free diet, and one of my cousins couldn’t have MSG! They were here together, so that made for some interesting meal challenges. America seems to be full of people who have special dietary needs.

  5. It’s interesting that, generally speaking, backpackers seem much more open to the “Real China” experience than many young Chinese people I meet. Several times, I’ve been in a group where the Chinese (usually girls) are saying “Let’s get a taxi” and the western guys are saying “C’mon it’s only 5kms, let’s walk!”.

    So, for my visitors, I simply ask myself “Are they the backpacking type?” to decide whether to give them “Real China”.

  6. Great post.
    I get a number of visitors from the US, and one of the rules I stick to is bringing them only to street vendors or little restaurants that I have ate at before. Food poisoning can completely ruin a trip for even the hardiest of backpackers, although the resulting hospital experience sure feels like the real China.
    I also try to read up on locations myself so that we can avoid the tourist packages that drag you through the gift shops. This takes some work, but avoids a lot of the needlessly long days.
    For China Lite needs I also try to work in a number of museum stops, for the occasional AC break. Museums will also usually let you check a bag at the front desk which gives backpackers a nice break.
    If you do enough planning the China lite trip can feel like the real deal for them if you get them out of the big cities.

  7. Regardless of what we call the categories, there definitely are different ‘chinas’ and visitors’ tolerance levels for each will definitely vary! I give my visitors (younger sister, parents) as much of John’s “real China” as each can handle… and wore them right out. But it was good: they didn’t go back to Canada regretting that they’d turned down any opportunities they should have taken — they know they had all the China they could handle in one trip. (My mom did barf her guts out in a van in Zhengzhou, be getting on an overnight hard sleeper back to Tianjin, though.)

    I can imagine some Chinese friends and coworkers objecting to the “China Lite” label because it implies that the richer, more developed China is “less Chinese” than the poorer, dirtier, less mianzi, “Real China”. They partially have a case, imo, but only partially.

    Definitively Western things aside (KFC, sit-down toilets, etc.), I think what’s left of John’s “China Lite”, that is, the more developed China, is still legitimately part of the real China. But if visitors want to get a general picture of China they need to see a little ‘China Lite’ and some “real China”. Both are parts of the real China, but what John’s calling “real China” is maybe more accurately thought of as “majority China”. “Real China” works fine, I guess, for causal conversation.

  8. Real nice post John, thanks. We have had visitors every month this year, and more coming over the next two months. Broadly speaking I agree with your categories, very helpful. But our biggest challenge was Chinese friends from Shanghai! They definitely wanted China Lite (minus the language thing) and I wanted to show them ‘real China’. They won of course. As intimated by some others above I find that my foreign friends are often more adventurous than the Chinese. Every meal was a semi-crisis.
    But even for foreign friends, the food has been the biggest issue. My ‘food experience’ plans have all proved too ambitious in practice.

  9. I usually fall back on the ‘bourgeois-real’ China compromise — Jetta sedans, ladies playing guzheng in office penthouse restaurants, etc. Nor, when my Chinese friends come to the U.S., do I take them to visit dilapidated Appalachian villages by Greyhound.

  10. Adam makes a very good point about taking Chinese visitors to “dilapidated Appalachian villages by Greyhound” when they visit the states. It’s true what Ryan said was the most important thing being that people come away from the visit with positive memories, but (hopefully) a realistic view of China.
    Really, another big difference between my visit and that of our parents’ was that I visited in 2001, and we spent the majority of the time in Hangzhou. 6 years made a huge difference in the Chinese being more used to Western tourists, and, when our parents were there, the majority of the time was spent in Shanghai. So, naturally, the experience would be way different just because Shanghai is much more influenced by the West.
    I’m sure the next time we’re in China will have an even more marked difference – at least for me – because China has hosted the Olympics, and I’m sure that’s made a huge impact on China – at least how Westerners would perceive it. I think John even said that the government was encouraging people not to spit or something. That’s some real China! 🙂
    I think one of the things I like most about traveling is seeing what is unique about the culture you’re visiting. In China, the food is very unique. Just because I didn’t like the food doesn’t mean I didn’t want to at least be exposed to it.
    John, don’t forget the night we spent in the train station (as opposed to getting a hotel in order to save money 🙂

    • Good points. The Expo made a big difference in Shanghai too. The whole city got a makeover for it.

      Man, I can’t believe I forgot about the incident at the Shanghai train station! We didn’t actually stay the whole night, though, right? As I recall we got on a super-slow train at like 1:30am, and arrived in Hangzhou at like 5:30am.

      Probably the most memorable moment of that trip was the phone call on my cell phone from a freaked-out Dad in the middle of the night telling us about the September 11th attack. We were in a hotel in Beijing at the time.

  11. My parents and in-laws are supposed to come visit us sometime this fall. I’ve been trying to figure out where to take them and how to get them there without too much insanity. I want them to see a little of what I would consider the “Real China”, but I don’t want them to be so uncomfortable that they end up hating this place. I would like for once, when I tell them a China story, for them to truly understand what I am talking about.

    My Dad has breathing problems, so I don’t know if he’ll even make it. I don’t want him dying on me here(or anywhere for that matter). My mother and my in-laws aren’t world travelers, so making the trip here is a feat itself. I seriously doubt they can squat – my mom has had two knee surgeries. And it doesn’t help that their bladders are getting old and can’t wait very long between stops.

    I am pretty certain that I will need a vacation when they leave.

    • When my parents visited, they were quite interested in seeing real China but they’re older (unless they’re reading this, in which case, Dad, you’re young and fit!) so I made plans for a China tour that wasn’t too physically strenuous. Lots of cabs, a nice Western hotel, etc., even though they were pretty great about eating street food, shout-bargaining, dirt, etc. and really wanted to see Chinese life.

    • PS I just caught the part where you said “in-laws” — are you hosting your parents and Phil’s at the same time?

  12. Real China: Speak Chinese to Chinese people in China

    China Lite: Speak English and have a Chinese language expert translate Chinese to English

  13. Oh, I meant to add two of my favorite things while I was in China – from 2 different trips. The first was when John and I went to an art museum in Beijing and we met a photographer whose work was on display. His subjects were mainly western Chinese in the country. His work was phenomenal! The other experience I enjoyed tremendously was when my sister in law took us to one of her favorite places – they had artwork on display, and I think it became a club at night. But I loved that place, and it was made more special because it had some significance to my sister in law. I think if you take your visitors somewhere where they can experience something of China that has some significance to you, then it helps them to connect with your experience there.

  14. So far the only people that have come to visit me are my parents, so I’m all about the China Lite experience. (I mean, they’re in their 60’s and 70’s so you know…)

    Actually I use their visits as an opportunity to western-out myself a little as well. I live in the “boonies” with no real western food or amenities so when they come we usually end up spending time in a big city and I make sure to go to a burger joint and maybe buy a sandwich or two and if I’m really lucky talk my parents into buying me some haagen dazs ice cream! (I’m only a teacher and therefore can’t afford it on my own!)

    But of course they eat plenty of chinese food, get their picture taken by plenty of chinese people and see lots of “strange” things. Overall I think they feel like they’ve had the “real chinese” experience and I feel like I had a western holiday. Win-win!

  15. I could not agree more. The first time I had visitors, I wanted to show them the “real” China, just as I had experienced it on my trips alone: Even in Beijing and Shanghai, we only took the bus or the subway, had only cheap Chinese food, long distance travel was by train, etc. They still say they loved it and praise me for showing them, but they haven’t returned for another visit after many years. Frankly, by now I don’t think “China Lite” is any less real than “real China”. At least, most of my Chinese colleagues and friends would never travel or eat like we did on that first trip. I think it’s rather a student’s experience vs. a working professional’s experience. It took me some time to figure that out, though.

  16. 黄建才 Says: July 10, 2011 at 10:46 am

    i dont get people who come to shanghai from abroad and spend all their time in element fresh and starbucks, just doesnt seem like a special experience to me.

  17. […] China Lite (2011) […]

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