Packing can be the most exciting and most painful part of any journey. This page exists in an effort to make it, at least in part, a bit simpler to decide what you need to bring with you, and what can be got without too much effort once you’ve arrived in China.
This is by no means a final or definitive list. We understand the dynamic nature of information, and as such, will attempt to keep this as up-to-date as we can. (last updated October 2014)
The information also doesn’t all apply to those tourists or visitors who plan to spend the majority of their time in China completely surrounded by the Western-mimicking parts of Shanghai or Beijing. These are major international cities, and though still very “Chinese” in a lot of ways, they cater quite well to Western needs.
English literature can be a challenge to locate in China. This isn’t to say that it isn’t around; it’s simply just not always easy to find in any amount of variety. Essentially, the only outlets that carry books in English are the chain bookstores and a handful of niche cafe/bookshops in the larger urban centres.
In the likes of Beijing, Shanghai and some other major cities, you will be able to find a healthy selection of the latest bestsellers – but if you want specific reading from a particular author or genre, this should be the first thing on your list of things to bring with you. It should be mentioned that success with online services such as Amazon.com and Better World Books is not perfect, but available. You have to put your trust in the Chinese postal service though, and we’ve had more than one book never arrive.
Two decent sources for ordering English books online domestically are Amazon.cn, and Blue Fountain. Amazon.cn, in particular, has increased the number of English-language books considerably over the last several years; and while much of the interface is now available in English, much of the ordering and payment process is still in Chinese.
Herbs & Spices
Access to herbs and spices not common in Chinese cooking can be extremely hit and miss at local supermarkets. We recommend you bring a supply of the ones you like to cook with (basil, thyme, oregano, cinnamon, etc.) as they are light-weight and easily transported. Once you get the lay of the land you may be able to dig up a local bulk supplier (look for your city’s “restaurant goods” street) or track down a seller on Taobao — or do what we do, grow your own!
This may seem a little silly, and perhaps a little obvious. However, you will often be asked about your hometown, your family and generally about the country you’re from. This is especially true if you are teaching ESL, but is equally true of new friends, colleagues, classmates; and if nothing else, it may be the comfort you need when you start to feel homesick.
Of course there’s no shortage of clothing in China, and most of what you’re wearing at the moment may be experiencing a homecoming when you get here, but one of the downsides of having a still-growing middle-class population is that the clothing availability mirrors this fact of demographics.
There are lots of ultra-cheap clothes that might not fall apart before you get out of the shop with them, and there is a healthy collection of boutiques selling outrageously priced clothing to the upper-crust. Should you, like most of us, fall in the middle, you may wish to bring an assortment of clothes that you know fit, are comfortable, and are durable.
Another thing that can be a problem is size. If you are a bit husky or rather tall you will definitely want to devote as much luggage space as possible to clothes in your size. The same can be said about shoes (most retailers don’t stock over size 44EUR/10US), undergarments and socks.
Though you can get quite a lot of prescription medication OTC in China without too much fuss, you may want to bring along some basic name-brand pharmaceuticals. NyQuil, stronger Tylenols, gut blockers, tenser bandages, Neosporin and anything else that could slip in your suitcase without taking up too much space is luggage real-estate well spent.
You’ll be able to find a small variety of pitstick, but if you have a preference of brand or scent you’re not likely to find it in China. While deodorant is becoming more popular, usage has a way to go yet, quickly illustrated on any cramped bus ride. A few extra sticks in your bag might not last you the duration of your stay in China, but it’s sure to give you (and those around you) a bit of breathing room to find a source after you arrive.
Have no worries about toothpaste or a brush to stick it on, most major brands (Oral B, Colgate) are represented here in the Mainland at even the smallest supermarkets. Mouthwash is sometimes more difficult, but generally largely available in the bigger stores. Dental floss is not as easy to find, and for the space it takes up, we recommend you throw a spool or two in your bag.
It’s available, but if you are hooked on a certain smell, bring it along. You’ll run into a number of street vendors selling all the top name brands for extremely discounted prices — but if you want to smell of more than rubbing alcohol, best to avoid these.
You can’t throw a stone in most supermarkets without hitting six or seven xiao jie‘s eager to tout the latest whitening cream or wrinkle remover. Our (all male) experience is pretty limited, but we would put cosmetics in the same category as some of the other items above — you’re likely to be able to find it, but for the amount of space it takes up, bring a short-term supply with you to be sure.
While in larger cities you’ll be able to find tampons, readers have commented that Chinese-made tampons can be irritating. Like many things on this list, once you’re settled you’ll discover better supply lines to the things you need through other expats where you live, but we’d suggest that if you use tampons, you may want to bring a box or two with you until you’re established here.