Dragons, chopsticks, fish balls, tofu… No matter what comes to mind when you think of China, it’s bound to be exotic, or at least mind-boggling to a certain degree. At any rate, to most of us, travelling to China is a leap into the great unknown.
That’s what attracted me about China. Unlike the USA and most other places I’ve been to, China seemed like a whole other world. And I won’t lie, most of the time, it is. From melon-on-a-stick stands to squat toilets, at times it can all be a bit overwhelming, so bringing the right luggage for your year abroad can clear some of the worries you may have.
Be sure to keep in mind that China is bigger than the USA, so needless to say, it’s a pretty huge country. I live in Xi’an, Shaanxi, which is roughly located near the center of China, so depending on whether you’re headed to the North or South, you way want to reconsider what clothes to pack.
Even though the weight limit at Hainan Airlines is 50 kg for students, I only brought thirty, to make sure I have plenty of space for souvenirs. Remember that China is relatively cheap, and as long as you avoid the Western stores and restaurants, you can find clothes and food for a fraction of what you would pay for them at home.
I am going to be honest with you, there is little to no chance of blending in with the locals. No matter what you wear, if you don’t look Chinese, heads are bound to turn when you walk by, especially if you have blonde hair and fair skin. That being said, as far as wardrobe goes, most things fly here in China. Sequin, studs, platform sneakers… Young Chinese women wear whatever they feel like, and often the rule is: the flashier, the better.
3 cardigans (or more) – Layers! Layers are your friend! It makes it much easier to mix and match outfits if you bring a few cardigans with you. Plus, if you do want to make an attempt at blending in: Chinese women often wear cardigans or light sweaters when it’s sunny outside because they want to avoid a tan at all costs.
2 long sleeved shirts – Need I reiterate? LAYERS.
7 tops – I find seven a good number because it means that worst case you can easily go a week without having to do any laundry. If you share a washing machine with an entire floor of other people, not having to fight over it every other day can be a blessing. T-shirts and tank tops don’t take up a whole lot of space, and Chinese people aren’t all that keen on regular looking shirts. However, it might be fun to stock up on shirts and sweaters with bad English slogans. My best finds so far are ‘Get Me Drunk and Enjoy the Show’ and ‘The Scent of Sexy’.
1 or 2 pairs of jeans – Jeans are essential to any packing list. Easy to combine, and appropriate for most climates.
2 to 4 dresses or skirts/shorts – I arrived in summer when it was scorching hot and was more than thankful for the skirts I brought. In general most girls and women here will tend to wear skirts and dresses that go lower than the knee, but the more fashionable women will opt for shorter skirts and shorts, be it with nude tights underneath.
Leggings and/or tights – These can easily turn any skirt or dress into a winter outfit.
1 warm sweater – Of course, if you arrive in winter you may want to bring more. Chinese cities have a lot of markets and street vendors, and a lot of them sell sweaters. I don’t know why, women here just tend to have a thing for sweaters. You can find ’em in all colors and sizes, and they’re dirt cheap. So save yourself the luggage space for more important items.
Underwear and socks – Face it, you can’t pack a year’s worth of socks. Like with the tops, I packed a week’s supply, plus some fancy stockings and leg warmers for when it gets colder. I like socks. You can find socks everywhere, but the underwear here is very tiny. So, unless you have the waistline of a twelve year old, you may want to pack enough underwear to last you for up to two weeks.
Bras – Chinese women have a thing for push-up bras: the pushier, the better. So if that’s not your cup of tea, pack those bras.
White items – In a lot of Chinese cities, smog can be a real issue. Try to avoid wearing white clothes, as they will quickly become dirty because of the pollution.
Jumpsuits – I know, I know, jumpsuits can be very cute. But I’m sure you’ve heard of the infamous squat toilets. They’re going to be a pain, especially the first few times around, and jumpsuits will only make it worse.
Shoes here are very cheap, and you can find cheap knockoffs of all the big brands, but if you’re a size 7 or up, boy, you’re going to have a bad time when shopping for shoes in China. On top of that, most women wear high heels or platform sneakers to add a few inches, so if you’re tall and don’t want to appear any taller, this could be an issue.
1 pair of flip-flops – You won’t see many of these worn in the streets, but it’s handy to have a pair to wear inside the dorms or when you need to make a quick run to the campus supermarket.
1 pair of comfortable sneakers – For everyday use, sightseeing etc.
1 pair of boots – For a night on the town, or for when it gets colder paired with some boot socks.
1 pair of running shoes (optional) – I packed mine, along with a runner’s outfit, but I have to admit I have yet to use them. Because of the air pollution I haven’t exactly felt like going for anything more than a power walk.
I like to pack my toiletries at the end, and use them to fill up whatever space I have left. I am what they call a goo hoarder, and so I often pack creams and lotions that I really don’t need. Using this method I really have to decide what is essential and what isn’t.
Depending on how long you’ll be staying in China, you might want to consider how many toiletries you’ll pack. A good thing to keep in mind to figure this one out is knowing that a lot of Chinese products are different from Western products. For example, many skincare products contain what they call whitening agents. Whether these lotions and creams are actually able to remove the tan you’ve worked so long to obtain, I don’t know. But I do know it’s hard to find a skincare product that doesn’t say it whitens skin. So keep that in mind when deciding to pack your expensive night cream, or to just buy some when you’re over here.
Shampoo and conditioner – Pack a good conditioner. Don’t ask me how, but my hair has been much dryer since I got here.
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Hairbrush or comb
Hair clips and hair ties
Tampons/Diva cup – Tampons aren’t easy to find here in China. So unless you’re okay with switching to pads for a while, be sure to pack enough to last you throughout your trip. Personally, I have been using a Diva Cup for two months now, and it has been a life-saver. Be sure to check it out if you don’t feel like packing that much tampons.
Contrary to popular belief, China isn’t a good country for buying electronics. Cameras and laptops are just as expensive here as they are in any other country, and if you do find a cheaper version, there’s a high risk of it being fake. Be especially wary of the fake Apple stores, which look exactly like regular Apple stores, and sells iPhones and other electronics for the same price, but of lesser quality.
Laptop – Most campuses will offer computers and internet access, but it may still be a good idea to have your own laptop, if only to store your photos and watch a movie every now and then.
Mobile phone – You can bring your own, or buy one here. The cheapest ones are under $20.
iPod – When I feel homesick, I like to listen to music that reminds me of Belgium. Most of it is awful, but it fills me with just the right amount of nostalgia to get me through the day.
Adapter – Chinese plugs use 220V. European devices will work just fine. For other countries you may need an adapter.
Dictionary – I pray someone has already explained to you how Chinese dictionaries work. If not, good luck, you brave, brave soul. Nevertheless, bring a pocket bilingual dictionary and take it with you the first few weeks. You’re going to be happy you did when you go to a restaurant and the menu DOES NOT have pictures of the food.
Sheets/Sleeping bag – I took the oldest sheets I could find at home and packed them for college. Odds are you won’t get the chance to go out and buy some the first few days. Plus it’s nice to fall asleep in a bed that still smells like home while you’re getting settled in. Bring ones you don’t use anymore and leave them behind so you have some extra luggage space when you come home.
Towels – I only packed one large towel and a small one, and I have regretted not bringing more. Large towels are difficult to come by, and I have already purchased two extra small ones.
Toilet paper – Don’t get me wrong, you can easily purchase these for a bargain in nearly every Chinese supermarket. But you don’t know when you’ll first see one, and most restrooms won’t have any toilet paper for you to use. Chinese restrooms are enough of a challenge on their own, so toilet paper is another worry you can do without. (And remember, toilet paper goes in the trash can, don’t flush it!)
Mosquito repellent – Especially when travelling through the more southern regions of China, where mosquitoes can carry diseases such as malaria and Japanese encephalitis.
First-aid kit – Be sure to bring medicine that treats diarrhea, nausea and headaches, and keep the first in your purse/pocket at all times. Bad food can hit you quick, and it can hit you hard. Don’t be that person stuck in a squat toilet, weeping, calling their friends to find them more toilet paper.
Ear plugs and/or noise cancelling headphones – I brought both, and have been glad I did on numerous occasions. Truth is, public transportation can be pretty loud, if not because of your fellow bus passengers, then because of all the honking and shrieking. Here in Xi’an at least, the buses are very old, and so they tend to make a lot of noise when they come to a halt.
About the author: Jentl Van Gossem is a Belgian twenty something student majoring in English and Chinese, and currently attending Northwest University in Xi’an, China. In the past she has studied abroad in Texas, and has hiked the Camino Francés in Spain. You can follow her adventures in China on her blog Dragons And Tofu.
*All images except for title image are by Jentl Van Gossem.