In 2004, I spent a year living in China. Before leaving the States, I prepared for the experience by learning about twenty words in Mandarin, practicing basic chopstickery, and reading approximately a dozen books about China: its culture, its people, its history. Don't get me wrong: this three-pronged approach stood me in good stead. For about the first week. The longer I stayed in the country, the more items I added to my mental list of Things Nobody Told Me About Ahead of Time.
How to Prepare for a Visit to China:
1. Pack light. The Chinese typically re-wear the same outfit multiple days on end before changing to another one. So if you're only planning a short visit, know that only three or four outfits will suffice. Toward the end of my time in Asia, I took a two-week jaunt from Shanghai to Hong Kong to Thailand and back just toting a Jansport backpack.
2. Abandon the notion of personal space. It doesn't exist in China. With a population of 1.3 billion, there just isn't room for it.
There aren't so much lines as there are scrums. People don't go one-to-a-step on escalators. The elevator isn't full until the bell rings and people have to get off before it will operate. That's the baseline.
Not only the population density but also the culture of the people precludes any right you may feel that you have to personal space. As a foreigner who both looks and smells unique, you will lose track of the number of times that you will be smelled, patted, or otherwise touched while on public transit (besides all of the pushing, shoving, and elbowing that takes place merely as a matter of course). None of this is offensive or threatening in any way. It's just something you will get used to.
3. Give up the notion that you will understand anything that is going on. And I'm not just talking about the signs, which in themselves are delightful.
I'm talking about seeing people riding the bus downtown in flannel pajamas at four o'clock in the afternoon. Someone following you down the street shouting abuse at you for no apparent reason. A mother holding her toddler over the trash can at McDonald's so that the baby can poop directly into it.
I'm talking about the doubtful English-translations menus, on which you might see such tasty options as "beer fish with fungus and pee sauce" or "big bowl noodle pig bowel." (A hint about ordering in Chinese restaurants: it's better not to know what you're eating. Trust me. It won't matter what it's made of: it will be delicious.)
And then there are the inherent paradoxes in the culture, something I gave up trying to figure out. For example, no one has ever been able to explain to me how the Chinese can both be so indirect and that they feel it's rude and hurtful to refuse an invitation to dinner (meaning that it's more polite to accept and then just not show up) but at the same time be, on occasion, so cuttingly direct that it beggars belief. For example, it's not considered rude to say "You know, you're very ugly," to a classmate, or to ask (as I was asked many times), "Why don't you get married? Does nobody ever ask you?"
I'm also talking about traffic patterns which actually defy description. Rules of the road are optional, cars park in the bus lanes, taxis go up on the sidewalks, drivers beep more than they accelerate, and motorcycles and bicycles go everywhere, carrying up to four people. Pedestrians assume that if they don't bother to look both ways, they will have the right of way... and drivers respect this unwritten rule. China is that kind of place.
4. Leave your nose at home and have an extra set of lungs on hand. Combine China's pollution issues with the 1.3 billion people living in close proximity to one another, and you have a recipe for a fairly fragrant brew. Concerning pollution, most of the Westerners whom I knew in China exhibited upper respiratory issues within a few weeks of moving over. I myself was plagued with a hacking cough for the first six weeks of my stay.
A friend of mine went so far as to suspect that the pollution was tearing apart the mucus membranes of her nose. When we would come back from a day spent downtown, she would have another friend of ours check the insides of her nostrils with a flashlight to see if they had begun to exhibit signs of decay. China just does that sort of thing to people.
Which brings me to my next point.
5. Know that staying for long periods of time in China will do unexpected things to your psyche. As evidence, I offer the following snapshots, all taken past the mid-way point of my year.
During the first half of the year, all of my photos are snapshots of me smiling happily while sightseeing with friends and students. The second half of the year is a mostly-inexplicable mishmash of confusing images. My journal is no better. Most of the entries revolve around my obsessive cravings for Western food, a remarkably cogent chronicle of our attempts to lob pieces of fruit into a nearby open sewer from our sixth-floor window, and a particularly rambling entry detailing the concern that, having duct-taped the windows shut in order to keep some of the heat inside of our (non-insulated, cement block) building, we were all going to die in a fire started by one of these really dangerous electric water bottles that we plugged in nightly and stuffed into our beds.
Ah, China. What adventure you brought to my life.
6. Accentuate the positive. This is just a good life rule. Being in China might seem ridiculously confusing and marginally frustrating at times, but for every difficulty, there were many boons.
For one, being a foreigner in China sometimes feels like being a celebrity.
Also, if you take the time to make friends, you will find the Chinese to be warm, caring, and hospitable. (Except the ones that will occasionally follow you down the street shouting abuse at you for no apparent reason.)
After a year in China, I came home speaking more Mandarin than when I'd left, practicing some amazing chopstickery, and reading even more books in an attempt to understand just what made the country tick. I'm still trying.
For further study, I recommend works by Peter Hessler, J. Maarten Troost, and Paul Theroux.