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Tips and "Lessons Learned"
for Adoptive Parents Traveling to China

Here are a few traveling tips and "lessons learned," for parents going to China to complete the adoption of a child. This is based on our trip to Beijing and Guangzhou in May 2005. Some of these points may not apply if you'll be visiting other areas as well. Also, this is not, by any means, a comprehensive list of things to bring on your trip or to do in preparing for it.

1. Every day while you're in China, jot down some notes about what you're experiencing. This will be very helpful in writing out your experiences later. So much will be happening that it will be easy to forget things, if you later try to remember more than one day in one sitting.

2. Learning some Mandarin phrases before the trip is helpful and fun, and it will contribute significantly to your appreciation of Chinese culture. But it is not as essential as we had believed before traveling. Shopkeepers and street vendors who frequently sell to foreigners speak enough English to negotiate prices. However, there was one occasion, at a shopping mall in Guangzhou, when I had to ask for the restroom in Mandarin.

3. The best chops in Guangzhou (and one of the nicest shopkeepers!) are at "Michael's Place," operated by Michael Lin. (A chop is a signature stamp, made of stone and used with red ink, carved to order with a person's name and usually some Chinese characters.) To get to Michael's Place, turn right as you leave the White Swan Hotel, and walk past Lucy's Bar and Café (a popular eatery among Westerners). Then turn right between the park and the tennis courts. Michael's Place is a small structure on the left side of the roadway, just a few dozen yards from the river.

4. Both our hotel in Beijing (a four-star that barely deserved it) and our hotel in Guangzhou (a five-star that richly deserved it) had electric-currency converters for the use of guests. (China uses 220 volts, whereas most U.S. items are made for 110 volts.) We did, however, have some trouble getting hotel staff to understand our requests for converters. You might consider bringing a picture of a converter to show to hotel staff (which you could get from the Internet).

5. The squat-style toilets are more common than we had believed before going to China. We saw them in perhaps half of the bathroom facilities that we visited, including those in the Guangzhou airport and the Civil Affairs Bureau in Guangzhou (where we got our baby). Here is a photograph of such a toilet, in the Civil Affairs Bureau (this restroom also had urinals, but it did not have Western-style toilets). We also appreciated the advice to "BYOP" (bring your own paper): carry a small roll of toilet paper everywhere you go. Of course, your hotel rooms will have Western-style toilets (and toilet paper!).

6. Carry your passport, traveler's checks, most of your cash, etc. in a pouch around your neck, and keep the pouch under your clothes when not in use (this is to thwart pickpockets). To prevent the items in the pouch from getting moist with sweat, put them in zip-lock plastic baggies inside the pouch. (Yes, Guangzhou really is very warm and humid. Even Beijing was quite warm in May.) By the way, both of our hotel rooms had the little private safes that you often see in the U.S.

7. China has a very serious problem with counterfeit currency. In our experience, the most common (perhaps the only?) counterfeit bills are the ¥100 bills, rather than the smaller denominations; at least those were the ones that the bank employee was especially careful to examine when we changed our remaining yuan back to U.S. dollars at the end of our trip. Watch out for the "switcharoo" trick described in our travel journal: You give the vendor a ¥100 note, then a moment later he shows you a ¥100 note with a small tear in one edge and asks you to give him an untorn bill instead. The torn bill will not be the same one that you gave him! By the same token, be very leery if a vendor seems eager to give you change for a large bill, rather than taking exact change.

8. Not being able to drink out of the faucets is a significant inconvenience, but bottled water (kuang4 shui3 in Mandarin) is available everywhere. For example, the 7-Eleven store about a half-block from the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou has large bottles of water (perhaps two liters) for 11.50 yuan apiece -- about US$1.39.

9. Both of our hotel rooms had a small water-boiler for the use of guests. You put in water from the faucet (perhaps half a liter) then engage a switch, and the water starts boiling fairly quickly. The unit shuts off automatically once the water has boiled long enough. This is helpful in preparing bottles for the baby (for which you need a little hot water in any event). But you shouldn't plan to rely on the boiler to avoid buying bottled water; the boiler is just too small, and the water takes too long to cool.

10. Keep a washcloth over the faucet in your hotel bathroom, as a reminder not to drink the water or use it for brushing teeth. (It's easy to forget!!)

11. We had heard that stomach troubles are very common among Western travelers in China; for example, we read one account saying that every family in one travel group had had a brief bout of diarrhea at some point while in China. But our experience was different: neither I nor my wife had any unusual intestinal trouble during our two-week stay. And I accidentally brushed my teeth with faucet water twice (but did not swallow, and rinsed my mouth out immediately with bottled water both times). Nor did we hear of any intestinal troubles among our group of thirteen families, except for some minor trouble on the part of one family who often ate separately from the rest of the group.

12. We found that some of the packing lists on the Internet are a bit more comprehensive than necessary. China is not the moon. If you run out of something like toothpaste, deodorant, or shampoo, the only concern is that you might not find your brand. But you will find Western-style versions of such things easily, and not just in stores that cater to Western visitors. For example, I had no trouble finding Colgate toothpaste in a shopping mall in Guangzhou, and at a very good price. (On the other hand, we do not know to what extent one can find Western-style medications in China. All of the packing lists suggest bringing your meds from home (ibuprofen, Immodium, etc.), and we followed that advice.)

13. If your baby is from Guangdong Province (so that you'll be staying in Guangzhou the entire time after getting her), you probably do not need to bring medications for scabies or lice. A number of the shops around the White Swan Hotel have "friendship" sections, where adoptive parents have left such medications for later travelers to use. The shopkeepers do not charge for these items. (Also, none of the thirteen babies in our travel group had scabies or lice.)

14. If you need to lighten your luggage, snacks and other foods might be a good place to start. Again, you're not going to the moon. For example, the 7-Eleven store near the White Swan had M&Ms, and a little food store a few blocks away had almonds, cashews, etc. in small packages. Similarly, my favorite breakfast food is oatmeal, and I saw it in two or three stores that did not particularly cater to Westerners. (I bought a couple of cans of oatmeal processed in Guangdong Province, and liked it better than Quaker!)

15. Speaking of food, our happiest food discovery in China was lychee fruit. The flesh is white, soft, juicy, and very sweet, with a hint of tartness. Unpealed, they are about the size of a walnut, with a rough reddish exterior. If you get an unpealed lychee, wash it thoroughly then peal it with your thumb as you would an orange. If ripe, it will peal easily. Fresh lychee in China was much better than "fresh" lychee from a grocery store in the U.S.

16. Now for some news that could change some of the foregoing: The U.S. Consulate's Web site reports that the Consulate moved to the TianHe District of Guangzhou on August 8, 2005. In May 2005, the Consulate was located about a five-minute walk from the White Swan Hotel on Shamian Island, and I understand that TianHe is about seven or eight miles away. Staying close to the Consulate is convenient, both because the parents have to go there to complete the adoptions, and because the guides have to go there on the day before to deliver the paperwork (at least that's how our agency did it). As of the end of August 2005, our adoption agency, A Helping Hand, was still using the White Swan and busing parents to the Consulate. Presumably, however, some agencies may choose to have their clients stay at other hotels, closer to the new location. I think that would be unfortunate, although I admit that I don't know the reasons for the Consulate's move. Shamian Island is quiet and pleasant, whereas the TianHe District is bustling and crowded. Having adoptive parents stay elsewhere would also devastate the shopkeepers and other business owners around the White Swan Hotel. On the plus side, TianHe is an up-and-coming financial district; there'd be plenty of shopping and dining options, and the hotels would be newer.

Enjoy your China trip! I wish I could go again!

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This page was last updated on September 19, 2007.