First-Timer’s Guide to China

Being a school social worker is AMAZING; however, you’re forced to only travel when school is not in session. That means traveling when prices are the highest and families are also traveling with their children. Therefore I was beyond excited for the opportunity to help chaperone a trip for 16 high school art students to visit their sister art school in Shanghai, China! We also visited Beijing and Suzhou!

Here’s a first-timer guide to China including an overview of the flight experience, essential items to pack, important cultural norms to consider, and must-do activities in each city:

The Flight Experience

I left out of Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, which is my favorite because of how small it is (making it easier to get to all the gates). We had one layover in Washington DC before arriving to our first destination, Beijing. In total, we were in the air for approximately 16 hours. The hardest part of the trip was coming home. There is a 12 hour time difference (east coast time) which makes it EXTREMELY hard to adjust. I recommend making sure you have nothing planned for the day after you return home.

Packing List

We all participated in several workshops about what to expect while in China. The first topic was dress attire. We traveled to China in April when the weather is absolutely beautiful. The air quality, which is an issue in the earlier months, started to clear up and the temperatures averaged between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit with a slight decline at night.


Sneakers and a windbreaker. These were the two most important items of clothing to pack. We did an immense amount of walking and due to extreme changes in elevation the windbreaker definitely came in handy.

Pro tip:

The bathroom are really more like holes in the floor. Be mindful of what you are packing to wear because some items of clothing are a little difficult to squat in (if you are not used to it).


Travel-size tissues. Make sure to pack travel size tissues because it is rare that a bathroom will have toilet paper.

Cipro. This is an antibiotic that treats infection and is definitely something you want to obtain from your doctor before traveling to China. The plumbing in China is extremely old and therefore drinking the tap water and even using the tap water to brush your teeth is not safe.

Snacks. The airlines will provide three meals during your flight. However, I recommend packing a lot of snacks because of the long travel time.

Cultural Norms & Other Important Considerations

Dinner is typically served on a lazy Susan allowing everyone to have access to the dishes. Do not stick your chopsticks in your rice!! That is a tradition that is usually done at a funeral ceremony. When you are finished with your meal, place your chopsticks across your plate.

Pro Tip:

It is a good idea to brush up on your chopsticks skills. There are only a handful of restaurants that will offer utensils other than chopsticks.

Another no no is pointing in public as it can be seen as very offensive. The local people are very friendly; however, it can be a little overwhelming. Americans are treated like celebrities!! We had our pictures taken both secretively and blatantly. At some attractions people lined up to take pictures with individuals in my group.

When you catch the paparazzi catching you!



As far as travel goes, because we traveled with a large group, we were able to rent a bus in each city. Catching a taxi in China is pretty hard. We literally had to place ourselves in front of the vehicle and jump in (unless you download an app they use to order taxis). Traveling by subway is an easier, yet more chaotic, form of transportation when in major cities.

Pro tip:

I highly suggest learning some of the important travel phrases in Madarin (the native language) as well as downloading Google Translate. It will make getting around a little easier.

Beijing (4 Days)


We stayed at the Jiangxi Grand Hotel which was specifically chosen because of its close proximity to a medical center. All of the hotels we stayed in supplied each room with two bottles of water every day.  

Must-See Places

  • The Great Wall of China

  • The Summer Palace

  • The Art of Cloisin Pottery

  • Jade Factory

  • 2008 Olympic Square

  • Tea House

  • The Forbidden City

  • Tiananmen Square


One of the most memorable dinners I had in Beijing was at a hot pot restaurant. Every table had a hot pot of simmering water and was given your choice of thinly sliced meat, with vegetables, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings, tofu, and seafood that is to be placed into the pot. Best part is you are able to create your own dipping sauce at the sauce station.

Shanghai (3 Days)

Our next stop was Shanghai. We took a five hour train ride on the bullet train, aka one of the fastest trains in the world. Although it was long, the ride provided amazing views of the countryside.


We stayed at Holiday Inn Shanghai Vista which was conveniently located in an area with a great deal of restaurants and shops.

Must-See Places

There are many attractions to see in Shanghai; however our main focus was on the sister school, the High School to Shanghai Theatre Academy. My top suggestions of places to go in Shanghai are the following:

  • Old Town Shanghai. Great place to stock up on souvenirs and get a glimpse of traditional life.

  • The Bund and Boardwalk. This is a mile stretch of boardwalk along the Huangpu River that has amazing views!!

  • Nanjing Road. The main shopping street of Shanghai that runs approximately 4 miles long.


Old Town Shanghai is also the area to get the BEST soup dumplings and sample some local Shanghainese style food. I was lucky enough to be invited out to dinner with some of the staff from the school.

Pro- tip:

When someone invites you to dinner they are usually going to pay for it and order everything.

With that said, I did not have a say in what was ordered but had to be polite and tried everything. They ordered several different Chinese traditional dishes; such as: sea cucumber soup, a whole glazed fish, lamb, quale eggs, chicken feet, dumplings, duck, and bullfrog.


At the end of every meal the waiters and waitresses bring out fruit. DO NOT EAT THE FRUIT. The fruit is washed in tap water, which we cannot drink. However, you can have tea because the water is boiled.

Suzhou (2 Days)

Jumping with the art students!


The last stretch of my trip was Suzhou. We stayed at the Suzhou Taiyang Plaza Hotel which, like the hotel in Shanghai, was conveniently located next to shops and restaurants. 

Must-See Places

  • Ancient Temple

  • Water Village

  • Suzhou Silk Museum

  • Pearl Factory

  • Ancient Gardens

Overall Reflection

China is filled with amazing experiences, different cultures, memorable views, and some of the kindest people you will ever meet…and I only scratched the surface!! Traveling to China was never on my bucket list; however, I cannot wait to use my ten year visa again. I am more than grateful that I was given the opportunity to immerse myself in such an amazing environment and enjoyed myself more than I thought I would!!


Ava Rowland

Ava is a school social worker with a passion for helping people and exploring different cultures. Traveling wasn't something she was always interested in, however after an AMAZING trip to Brazil in 2016, she hasn't stopped traveling since!