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Brief Advice for Overseas Students Attending Summer School in Suzhou


Robert D. Menhenett © 2007

July 2, 2007


The Current Situation in China

China is going through dramatic social changes, accompanied by rapid economic growth.  The "open door" policy is a fixed feature of the current Chinese landscape, and the results are everywhere evident.  Although the Chinese Government retains control of broad social planning, at the individual level, China is now very much a free market economy, as you will see everywhere around you during your visit to Suzhou.


Some 70% of China's 1.3 billion population live in rural areas.  In recent years a growing number of the rural population have begun to migrate to coastal areas and cities such as Suzhou, where employment opportunities are greater.   In response to this in-migration, the City of Suzhou has undertaken to absorb many of its new migrants into a massive public works program which is turning the entire outer city into a lovely and expansive public garden, to match in character the famous Suzhou Classical Gardens within.



Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China.  The romanized version of this is called "Pin Yin"  Most signs in Suzhou are written in both Chinese characters and Pin Yin, and, increasingly, in English.  Many people in Suzhou know some English, and increasing numbers are moderately fluent, especially in the hotels and larger department stores, and many small specialty shops.  However, it is advisable to carry come kind of phrasebook with you, so that you can interact successfully with people who speak no English at all. 

Although most Chinese are also fluent in Mandarin Chinese now, in many areas, such as Suzhou, a local dialect is also spoken.  So, the local Suzhounese many speak the Suzhou dialect with each other, while speaking Mandarin Chinese with outsiders.  If you listen carefully, you will be able to hear the difference.   Most Chinese people are friendly and helpful. 



The Chinese currency is called the "Yuan" or the "Renminbi" or RMB ("People's Currency).  You may also hear the term "kuai" (pronounced kwai).  At the current exchange rate, one United States Dollar is approximately equal to 7.6 Yuan.  Money can be exchanged at the airport on arrival, or at any of the  local banks thereafter.  Get at least Y300 to start, preferably in Y10 notes, for immediate incidentals.  China is still very much a cash economy, although credit cards are accepted in the larger hotels, restaurants and stores. 

Keep all records of any money exchanges, in case you meet problems when you later wish to convert some RMB back into your local currency.  Some ATMs will accept some international bank cards.  You will need to check with the associated Chinese bank about that.  Expect to pay cash for most things, and plan accordingly.



Tipping is virtually unknown inside  China, and especially in Suzhou.  Other than tour guides, if somebody wants a tip, he is trying to take advantage of you. 



Time:  Suzhou is 8 hours ahead of GMT.  As an example, the time difference between Suzhou and New York City is roughly 12 hours.  That is, when it is 9:00am in Suzhou, it is roughly 9:00pm in New York City, the night before.  Dates in Suzhou are therefore usually one day ahead of dates in the United States.  The time difference in Britain is roughly 7 or 8 hours.

Post: Airmail is reliable and takes about a week.  Just hand your addressed letters or post cards to the clerk at the post office, and he or she will show you the total cost.  Hand them the cash and you are done.  Large and small post offices are scattered throughout Suzhou.  Typically the outside is painted a kind of forest green, with the letters "China Post" in gold on the  outside sign.



Vaccinations:  Talk to your health care provider about recommended vaccinations, and get them well in advance of your trip.  Get the usual series of vaccinations.  Malaria is not considered a risk in the Suzhou area.

In Suzhou:  Common complaints are about gastric disorders.  Air pollution is common but not oppressive, and may cause extra problems for asthma suffers.  During some times of the  year, hay fever is a possibility.    Bring with you any medicines that you commonly use, including pain killers, antihistamines, etc.  Because intestinal problems are common throughout China, many travelers ask their doctor to write a prescription for Ciprofloxacin, also known as "Cipro."  We recommend that you do the same.  Bring the pills with you to China.  Another medicine that you might consider bringing would be a supply of "Pepto-Bismol" tablets or the generic equivalent.  Whenever you feel a bit queasy chew a couple of those tablets.  They seem to be effective against minor stomach disturbances.  Yogurt is also very popular amongst middle-class people in Suzhou, and is widely available in all the larger supermarkets.  Bring extra contact lenses and glasses.

DO NOT EVER drink the local tap water unless you know for a fact that it has been boiled!  Clean bottled water is freely available at minimal cost, everywhere.  Drink that instead.  Always wash your hands when coming in from outside, before ever handling any kind of food.  Peel everything that is peelable, including all fruits and vegetables.  You may wish to carry a small knife for the purpose.  In general, create a small first aid kit for yourself, and bring it with you to China.  Note also that it is essential to arrange adequate medical insurance for yourself prior to your departure for China.


Personal Safety

While Suzhou is a comparatively safe city, crime is on the increase.  Violent crime is rare, but pickpockets are active everywhere in the city at all times, especially on crowded city streets or on crammed public buses.  Many pickpockets are quite blatant, relying on the traditional Chinese fear of being involved, and will walk along on city streets behind women, openly trying to pick things out of their purses, ignoring onlookers.  If you zip your wallet securely into your backpack, then put the pack on your back and climb onto a city bus, do not expect your wallet to be in your backpack when you get off.  Local people will place their backpacks in the front, where their hands and eyes are on it all the time.  Some of the cleverer pickpockets have taken to using long tweezers to fish cellphones out of unwary people's pockets.  Bottom line: be very careful about anyone who is near you.


Traffic Hazards for Pedestrians

They habitually run red lights in Suzhou.  Expect the large city bus to run the light without any warning or sound and to turn to the right toward the group of pedestrians (including you) crossing the street.  The other pedestrians will be watching carefully for this behavior and will stop moving.  Don't continue walking into the side of the bus.  It hurts.  Always be extremely careful and look in all directions at all times.   Remember that traffic laws mean virtually nothing here.  All manner of vehicles (including automobiles, rickshaws, bicycles, carts, scooters, motorcycles) can be coming at you unexpectedly, literally from all directions, including directly behind you, down what you foolishly assumed was the sidewalk.  When walking, do not change directions suddenly.  You may cause some approaching driver to miscalculate.  When in doubt, stand still and look around first.



Summer weather in Suzhou is generally hot and humid, similar to Hong Kong or to Florida, with occasional cooler periods.  Pack shorts and sandals, and some mosquito repellent. It rains a lot during the Summer months (warm rains).  Bring a small folding  umbrella.  You may also want it when the sun shines.


What To Wear:

Chinese tend to dress informally.  Let your conscience be your guide, but try not to look like a total slob or jerk.  After all, you are a goodwill ambassador for your country.  Be neat and clean.  Trousers, shorts and slacks are perfectly acceptable for women.



The electrical supply in China is 220 volts, 50 cycles. 


Be careful about plugging any electrical equipment you brought with you from elsewhere.  Look at the label on the Power Adapter which accompanies your equipment,  This is the part you plug into the electrical wall socket.  If your Power Adapter’s label says 110 volts, DO NOT plug it into the Chinese electrical socket!  Get a small step-down transformer first which converts 220 volts to 110 volts, and use that to protect your equipment.  Such step-down transformers are widely available in the United States at, for example, Radio Shack, and at many locations in Suzhou.


However, maybe you do not need to worry.  Many Power Adapters are designed now to operate at both 110 VAC and also 220 VAC.  Again, check the label on your Power Adapter.  If your Power Adapter’s label says something like “100 – 240 volts,” then you are okay and can safely use that Power Adapter anywhere in the World, including China.


Concerning Chinese electrical wall sockets:  most wall sockets will contain a pattern of 5 holes:

(a)   2 parallel blade-like holes which will accept American-style electrical plugs, and

(b) a triangular pattern of 3 holes down below that.  The top and bottom voltages are exactly the same: 220 VAC.  That third hole on the bottom is for a ground.  If they fit, you can simultaneously plug a smaller Western plug into the top 2 holes and a larger Chinese plug into the bottom 3 holes.  In any case, the voltage is always the same: 220 VAC. 



Chinese people are avid photographers.  Generally, you are quite free to take photographs anywhere except the security areas of airports.  Most people enjoy being photographed, but permission should be sought before focusing closely on strangers. 

Western style photo processing is widely available in Suzhou, to Western standards (same equipment).  They will print from standard film or from digital images.  Look for the Kodak sign.  Camera film is sold widely.


What to Bring

Unusual small inexpensive gifts, such as postcards and pictures, representative of where you came from, are greatly appreciated.  It does not have  to be  expensive. 



Most stores in Suzhou are very well stocked now, just as in any other modern city.  The famous shopping streets in Suzhou are Guanqian Street, Shiquan Street, and Shantang Street.  Special markets also exist, such as the Birds and Flowers Market, Silk Market, Night Market.

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