When Eden Collinsworth moved to China to write a guidebook on Western etiquette for Chinese businessmen, it’s safe to say that she encountered some cultural differences (like the time when a man asked how much she cost). In fact, there was enough material for another book, I Stand Corrected: How Teaching Western Manners in China Became its Own Unforgettable Lesson, which hits shelves October 7. In this humorous memoir, the former media exec and business consultant sheds light on her time living abroad. Here, she shares some of her experiences, tips for traveling in China, and more.
What are your top tips for Americans traveling in China?
Relatively little English is spoken outside Western hotels, universities, and city offices—which makes taking taxis a bit of a gamble. Always carry a cell phone to contact the person at your destination who can instruct the driver where to go and how to get there. Also, stay alert crossing the streets. Beijing alone grants 10,000 new license plates a month, but a drastically smaller number of those new car owners actually know how to drive.
What was the funniest cultural misunderstanding you experienced?
Having decided to move to Beijing to write a guide for Chinese on Western etiquette, I rented a furnished apartment on the fourth floor of a residential building. Upon my arrival—suitcases in-hand—I took the elevator up and down several times looking in vain for the fourth floor. It didn’t exist. “Dangerous to have a fourth floor,” I was told. In China, superstition holds sway; the word for four sounds too much like the word for death.
Are there any hidden gems that a traveler should put on their radar?
What is left of the old China can be found in the dwindling labyrinths of narrow streets, known as hutongs, which are often overshadowed by the modernity of Chinese cities. They’re formed by rows of siheyuans, or courtyard residences, some dating from the 15th century and featuring beautifully carved roof beams and intricately painted pillars.
Describe the best meal you had while living in China.
I’ve eaten unbelievably exotic foods in China, including snakehead soup and duck feet. My most memorable meal was on Christmas day and was decidedly un-Christmas-like: tender pieces of white crab in light, clear soup; emerald-green Chinese broccoli with wedges of roasted garlic; steamed pork dumplings dipped in soy sauce and vinegar; and a succulent duck, its parchment-thin skin cooked to the perfect state of crispness.
Any advice on seeking out the best restaurants?
Those who really want genuine Chinese food should avoid restaurants that tend to be well known. Once a restaurant attains a reputation, it's not uncommon for its owner to sell it to a local government official or businessman who closes it, renovates it, re-opens it, and charges double the price using lesser quality ingredients. Better to wander through the hutongs and have whatever the locals are eating outdoors.
What is a stereotype Americans have about the Chinese that you can dispel?
Generally speaking, the Chinese are friendly and helpful, particularly outside of the cosmopolitan areas. That said, it is standard practice for locals to attempt to charge more money to a foreigner for virtually everything. They believe Westerners can afford it—and they don’t perceive minor swindling to be the same kind of personal affront Westerns do.
Brooke Porter Katz is an Associate Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @brookeporter1.