6 tips for traveling with kids in China
One big reason to take your kids to China: it may be the only place on earth where people think your rambunctious toddler is as adorable as you do.
Chinese people generally dote on children, which means you can drag your youngsters to swanky restaurants and hotels without staff rolling their eyes.
Nonetheless, be prepared for surprises -- like how everyone and their mother will want to pose for photos with your kid.
And what should you do if your child gets sick? What about the awful stories about poisoned baby formula?
Here are six tips on what to expect and how to cope.
1. Prepare in advance for medical issues
Many pharmacy staples that are easily available in your home town are tough to find in China, so pack accordingly.
Dr. Carenia J. Kuan, chief pediatrician at Parkway Health in Shanghai, recommends bringing oral hydrating salts or electrolyte solution, an anti-colic product, anti-itch cream, hydrocortisone cream, Benadryl syrup, and children’s sunblock and mosquito repellent.
Don’t forget enough medicine for existing conditions. Anti-fever medicine is widely available in China, but bring your favorite brand.
Check with your pediatrician or travel clinic to see if kids need extra vaccines or anti-malaria pills, depending on the exact destination.
For parents and children, Kuan strongly recommends shots for rabies and hepatitis A, which require advance planning.
Also note emergency contacts for a major hospital -- preferably an international one -- in each destination city.
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2. Squat and bear it
If you stay in the bubble of luxury hotels and restaurants in Shanghai or Beijing, you may never see a squat toilet.
Otherwise, don’t panic when the restroom door swings open and you spot the hole in the ground. Small children probably won’t care. Older kids might.
Squat toilets do have advantages. With no skin-on-porcelain contact, in theory they’re more sanitary (though perhaps not for your shoes).
Carry tissues, since many Chinese restrooms don’t have toilet paper. And don’t count on McDonald’s in times of need -- not all have bathrooms.
On a related note: disposable diapers used to be hard to find, but now many big-city supermarkets stock them (rural areas usually don't).
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3. It may be time to invest in a kid leash
That’s only partly a joke.
Traffic in China can be truly frightening. Previous horry stories include two-year-old Wang Yue getting run over by two vehicles at a market, with passers-by ignoring her plight. (People in China are often afraid to help accident victims for fear of being held liable.)
Chinese drivers don’t seem to follow clear rules. You never know when a silent electric scooter with its headlights off is going to zoom out of the dark and burn a red light.
Keep your toddler immobilized in a compact umbrella stroller that will be easy to bring into the subway and taxis. For infants, baby carriers are the simplest option.
Most taxis unfortunately don’t have seat belts, so there’s no point in bringing a car seat unless you hire a car and driver. Subway or walk are sometimes better options.
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4. Your kid might feel like Suri Cruise in a swarm of paparazzi
On our first night in Shanghai, our two-year-old started bopping to the music at a street festival. Immediately, 20 cooing grannies lunged at her, camera flashbulbs popping.
We had been forewarned, but still we were unprepared for the attention Caucasian kids can attract in China.
Notions of personal space are different than what you’re used to. Some people might even lift your toddler out of his stroller for a better look.
The reaction will be most intense in areas where international travelers are rare.
May-lee Chai, co-author of “China A to Z,” suggests “smiling politely but saying firmly, ‘Bu shu fu’ (不舒服), pronounced ‘boo shoo foo'.”
The easy-to-pronounce phrase “literally means ‘uncomfortable’ and can be used to mean the child is embarrassed or not feeling comfortable or is sick,” she says.
My daughter solved the issue herself. After spending time on a Chinese playground, she picked up the handy phrase “bu yao!” (不要 or ‘don’t want!’).
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5. Travel during Chinese holidays? Forget about it
China’s 1.3 billion people all seem to travel at the same time: during Lunar New Year every January or February, and during the National Day holiday in October.
Lines for tourist attractions can stretch on for hours. Train stations are a mess. Adults can deal with it, but children may not be able to.
“Your kids are going to go crazy, and you’ll go crazy too,” says Cristina Rueda, a mother of two who runs Shanghai’s Bumps & Babes parenting website.
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6. Don’t panic too much about the food -- but BYO baby formula
The news has been full of Chinese food scares, from steroid-laced meats to exploding watermelons.
The worst cases date to 2008, when at least six children died and several hundred thousands fell ill after drinking milk powder tainted with an industrial chemical.
Beijing United Family Hospital’s Dr. Alan Meese recommends that parents bring their own infant formula when traveling abroad anywhere, since switching brands needlessly can upset small tummies. But what happens if you lose your formula-stuffed suitcase?
Meese, an American-trained pediatrician who has been practicing in China for 10 years, says he has no problem with parents buying the international brands sold in China, such as Nestlé, Similac and Enfamil.
As for ordinary food, you can’t pack all your kids’ meals in your bags, so don’t stress too much.
Travelers’ diarrhea is a problem everywhere, not just in China. If you’re worried, avoid street food.
The good news is that most Chinese restaurants have kid-friendly choices. It's hard to go wrong with pork dumplings or fried rice.
Here’s an extra shout-out for dumpling restaurants: some of them will give kids a ball of dough to play with, keeping them out of trouble so you can enjoy the food.
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Originally published December 2011, updated August 2012
How do you find traveling with your children in China? Share us your tips and stories in the comments section below.