Ash (Alexa) Anderson
Oct 31 · 16 min read

Tips for doing Research in China

The first time I went to China for research, ten years ago, I was so overwhelmed with things I didn’t understand that I spent lots of precious time with participants just getting explanations. Today, I have come to realize that part of my job when we are doing research in China is to help my clients understand enough that they don’t need to do anything like that. If you want to understand what’s going on when listening to your respondents, you need to understand a lot: history, culture, media, narratives — all those “webs of signification” in which and by which people make meaning in their lives. This is true everywhere, but China is so different from the rest of the world that research in China involves special learning and preparation.

In this article I aim to provide a very practical guide for anyone going to China for research purposes. First I will lay out a broad cultural overview, to provide the scaffolding that I hope will help you hold and give structure to your observations and interviews. (Obviously there is far more to Chinese culture than I could ever hope to explain here, but it is a start.) In the second half, I will provide a list of pro tips for the actual travel and on-the-ground work you will do as a researcher or observer traveling to China.

Let’s begin with an overview of some of the forces shaping the lives of Chinese people today.

A restaurant complex in a suburban area in Szechuan Province

Part One: A brief overview of Chinese culture today

China is on a very different developmental path than the West. It’s important to remember that China no longer considers itself any sort of communist republic. The new term for the Chinese form of government is “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” (If you read any Chinese newspapers in English translation while you’re there, look for this phrase to be repeated a hilarious number of times.) China’s new policies and their embrace of consumer capitalism has in fact brought billions out of poverty and ushered in a new era of Chinese prosperity. This is even more amazing when you consider how recent the Cultural Revolution really was.

It is also true that China is taking a long view of development, which is visible in the very structure of their cities. Chinese cities are of course fantastically dense, which is setting China up well to have a far more sustainable grid in the future than many countries that struggle to control sprawl. At the time of writing, 260 million people live in just 15 Chinese cities, each one of which has a higher population than any U.S. city. Most Chinese nationals live in a flat in a high-rise, which of course also impacts transportation. For instance, though many people could now afford cars, China has taken steps to limit the total number of license plates (and thus cars) available in the big cities (these limits are executed in different ways depending on the city). Almost everyone in China makes at least some portion of their weekly trips without using a car. Multi-modal trips are very common; people may walk to the train and bike from their stop to their work, and so on. But of course, traffic congestion is still a huge problem in every Chinese city. I highly recommend using the train system to get around, if you can: at busy times of the day, it can save you lots of time over using a cab!

Censorship is real. Despite the Great Firewall, American cell phones using American SIM cards and running on cellular data are usually able to access forbidden sites (Google, Facebook, gmail, etc.), and it is not illegal for you to access these sites (or at least, you won’t get in trouble for doing it). However, once you use an internet connection, it may be difficult to access, even with a VPN. Plan accordingly. (And do remember, the existence of the Firewall means GoogleMaps isn’t very good.)

It is also important to note that in China, there is no reason for people to talk about politics. There isn’t even any reason for news outlets to try to get people to talk about politics, since no one is trying to get more votes for their own side. You may notice that Chinese people do not know about Tiananmen Square, nor the plight of the Uyghers. A long time ago, I used to believe that was a terrible thing, but since then I’ve realized it’s not nearly so simple. Spend enough time in China, and you will begin to notice the insidiousness of the machinery that exists around all of us in the West, constantly spinning every event into fuel for the endless fire of two (or more) parties constantly trying to consume all possible people into their own side while spinning the other side as terrible/stupid/inhumane/etc. You will notice that Chinese families are never ripped apart down party lines.

The economic moment that China is in right now has a massive influence on the consumer behavior of Chinese people. I urge all my clients to remember that the Chinese government has a huge incentive to convince its citizens that earning and spending money is the way to experience freedom. Most of the world’s large economies went through some period of conspicuous consumption. The Gucci tennis shoes and Chanel bags and “BBA” cars (Benz, BMW, Audi — the standard of good cars — and remember that they cost almost double in China) that are now considered de rigeur can easily be traced back to China’s sincere desire that young Chinese citizens get “their turn.” In my professional opinion, this current need for luxury goods has nothing to do with anything innately Chinese. Millennials in America have redefined their relationship to luxury brands, having grown up on a steady diet of cynicism about money and workaholism as the best ways to experience happiness or fulfillment. Chinese people have not had much exposure to any such narratives, and given that the government has reason to continue limiting that exposure and in telling them the story that buying whatever you want is freedom, it may take a long time for cultural narratives to change. For now, Chinese cities are full of international luxury brands, Mazeratis are considered too common for the aspiring young man today, and the economy really is booming.

A flashy mall full of luxury brands

Additionally, the imbalance between the number of men and women has created a situation in which the entire family supporting a young man in China today will rally around him to ensure that he has everything he needs to woo a lady: a flat of his own, a car, and a good job. And to a Chinese family, investing in their child is basically the same as investing in their own retirement account — especially so if the child is a son, because traditionally it is the son’s parents who move in with the married couple after they have a child.

A quick note about children: the One Child Policy, though now over, had a huge impact on the way children are raised, much of which looks like it will continue despite the discontinuation of the policy. Specifically I mean that raising each child is considered incredibly important and is incredibly expensive. Children attend school and extra training for an incredible amount of their week; sometimes parents and school-aged children barely get to see each other. But that’s considered normal, because getting good scores and getting into a good university is the most important thing in a child’s life, and it will determine much of their future social capital and income.

Another thing my clients often don’t expect in China is the incredible faith in technology. Americans and Europeans are often very wary of unproven new technologies and need to be convinced before an interview about any such technology that we’re talking about a world in which you really can trust, e.g., an autonomous car. In China, no such explanation is necessary. People often say things like, “If the government allows us to buy it then it must be safe.” This doesn’t mean that they would not be angry if a product were released and then shown to be unsafe: on the contrary, most Chinese consumers today have very high standards (in many ways, though not in others). But it can change the way you approach the conversations.

I also want to mention just one way in which Chinese consumers seem to me not to have high standards: product lifespan. This is entirely reasonable, though, given Chinese culture, because in China today, things don’t necessarily need to last a long time. When you move to a nicer flat, you do not take your old appliances with you, you throw them away. Similarly, cars must legally be junked after 20 years. So longevity of these kinds of products is just not part of the purchase consideration process.

There are many topics that I think are interesting, but maybe not to everyone, so I will wrap up here. Again, this is only a very broad basis for understanding what you may see in China. There are infinitely more layers to this onion. In fact, China has become more and more fascinating to me over time. If you are planning to do research in China in the near future, I can recommend some books based on your areas of interest. One book that I love and which I find applicable to most design research projects is The Age of Ambition, by Evan Osnos.

A monk talking on a cell phone outside a convenience store, Chengdu

Part two: Pro tips for traveling to China

Arriving:

  • First, make sure you get your visa before you go!
  • Before you leave your home country, take a photo of the name of your (first) hotel in Chinese. As a backup, save the location on a map — not just in Google Maps, which of course is not reliable in China; consider saving an actual screenshot.
  • Remember to get yuan (RMB) before you leave the airport — either before you go, or when you land. You can use a debit card to do this at a machine, or you can bring cash and get it changed at one of those currency exchange stations. China mostly leapfrogged credit cards and went straight to electronic wallets. Most things are paid for through WeChat, but as a person without a Chinese bank account you are likely to be locked out of that system. As a result, you’re going to have to use cash a lot, definitely including for cabs.
  • If you want to take a cab from the airport: once you step outside of the building, you will see a place to queue to get a cab. Wait in that line, and you’re sure to get a real cab. Just don’t get in the car of any person who is standing around outside of a car who tells you they’ll take you.
  • Show the cab driver the name of the hotel in Chinese (as above: have it saved as a photo in your phone). Many hotels have Chinese names that sound a lot like their English names, so you can give them the destination in all 3 ways: show them the name in Chinese, say the name in English, and also show them the location on a map. This combo is sure to work, but if all else fails, call the hotel and hand your phone to the driver. Don’t worry, they will work with you to get you where you want to go. Westerners tip a lot more than Chinese people do.
  • Alternatively, you can arrange with the hotel to send a car to get you from the airport. It’s definitely more expensive, but then someone will come inside the airport and they will stand there with a sign with either your name on it or the name of the hotel. If you’re stressed about getting a cab then this is a good way to go.

For research visits with Chinese people in their homes:

  • Don’t dress too fancy. I like to stay casual to help put people at ease. As a woman, I do always make sure to cover my shoulders. (Likely you will encounter people who are wearing very casual clothes because that is extremely stylish right now, and fashion is extremely important to urban Chinese below a certain age.)
  • DO NOT wear clothes branded with your company’s logo! People in China are always curious who we are working for, and will try to deduce the answer. Don’t give it away!
  • On all in-home research days, be sure to wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Most Chinese people will want you to take your shoes off at the entryway, and when there are 5 of us fussing with laces it can cause a silly delay. They may offer you shoe bags that you can put over your shoes instead of taking your shoes off, but these can also be a bit loud and show up on the recordings. If you are visiting during a cold time of year, they will insist on shoe bags so your feet won’t be cold. If you do go the shoe bag route, keep your feet very still during the interview.
Uday using an impossibly tiny stool to put his shoes back on
  • Dress in layers. Much of northern China doesn’t have great A/C in the summer, and most of southern China doesn’t have heat in the winter.
  • If it is winter, even if you think it’s not going to be terribly cold, it can feel very, very cold inside when you are barefoot and people don’t have heat in their homes. Best if you can wear clothes inside that keep you warm, that are not super loud if you move around.
Winter clothes for pets in Beijing
  • In southern China, summer is the rainy season. Rain comes in torrential downpours. Check the weather, and be prepared! During this part of the year people often wear very casual clothes and always have umbrellas with them (the hotel will have umbrellas). Again, try not to wear clothes during the research visit part that will make loud noises if you move around (such as packable rain jackets).
Summer in Shenzhen: never go out without an umbrella!
  • In case you’ve heard conflicting information, the only thing that’s unsafe about Tier 1 cities’ water supply are microorganisms that are killed when the water is boiled — and Chinese people always boil their water before drinking it. So do use bottled water to brush your teeth, but don’t worry about avoiding ice in drinks and so on. All restaurants will serve you pre-boiled or otherwise treated water, and ice made in factories to be safe. (That doesn’t always mean that they will wash fresh vegetables in boiled water, so do be aware of that, but eating uncooked vegetables is quite uncommon in China.)
  • In people’s homes, they will likely offer either hot water or tea, or bottled water. It is polite to accept, though you don’t need to.
  • People’s homes are very small, and there is almost no culture of having over houseguests other than family in China. Please be prepared to sit on the floor if necessary, as people may not have enough chairs for everyone. In addition, many buildings do not have elevators. It is common to have to walk up several flights of stairs to get to participants’ flats.

Getting around:

  • Traffic on the roads can be very, very bad in Chinese cities. When it is possible to get somewhere using the subway, that is likely to be much faster, and it is extremely cheap and pretty easy to use, even if you do not speak Chinese. For our research visits — whether to people’s homes or to a facility — we will have our own hired car that will take us around and wait for us, so you only have to worry about transportation if you want to go somewhere on your own.
View of Shanghai from Shanghai Tower
  • Like the US, China’s cab system has been deeply impacted by the arrival of DiDi (which is basically Chinese Uber). Unfortunately, foreigners can’t use DiDi without a Chinese bank account or other form of government-approved collateral. Cabs still exist, and certainly the hotel will always be able to call one for you, but it has become more difficult to get around by cab than it used to be, so plan ahead if you’re going somewhere off the beaten path. The other problem is, now that everyone uses WeChat (sounds like “we-she”) to pay for everything electronically, cab drivers know if you can’t use WeChat that they can get away with gouging you because there’s no record of the cash payment. Stay alert to how the cab meter moves, how they make change for you, etc. and feel free to call them out if something is fishy. The good news is, even if they do scam you out of some money, this is very likely to be the worst thing anyone would do to you in China.
  • When a local person is part of your team, one of the best ways to get around is to have them call you a car using DiDi. This works almost the same as calling someone a Lyft or Uber in the US; they pay for it, and you can pay them back later.
  • If flying within China or on Chinese airlines, note that you cannot have any lithium batteries or power packs in checked luggage.
  • If taking the fast/bullet trains within China, remember to buy your train tickets a few days before your trip, as these trains often sell out.

Communication:

  • As stated above, despite the Great Firewall, American cell phones using American SIM cards and running on cellular data are usually able to access forbidden sites (Google, Facebook, gmail, etc.) and you won’t get in trouble for doing so. However, once you use an internet connection, it can be difficult to access these sites, even with a VPN. Plan accordingly. (And do remember, the existence of the Firewall means GoogleMaps isn’t very good.)
  • For communicating with locals, we always use the Chinese standard: WeChat. Feel free to download WeChat onto your phone if you want to be on the same channels, or if you need to watch your data usage and want to use wifi whenever possible, in which case you MUST use WeChat to communicate.

Other information:

  • Apart from cabbies who want to gouge you and water that has foreign bugs in it, and also the bad air, China is very safe. It is usually okay to walk by yourself basically anywhere, but obviously, trust your instincts.
A busy side street in Hong Kong
  • Many, many things are inside of Chinese malls. If you’re lost and just trying to find a quick bite to eat, consider stepping into a mall. They will have both really nice restaurants, and also quick bites just like the Food Courts we’re used to (but Chinese! and possibly confusing!)
  • Most Chinese restaurants don’t really understand food allergies and may put some ingredients (e.g. fish sauce) into *everything*, so if you have any allergies that can cause an anaphylactic reaction please be very careful. You will need to get instructions written out in Chinese and carry this with you wherever you go. That said… eating in China can be really fun. Our team prefers to eat Szechuan food, and we often look for Szechuan-style hotpot even in other provinces.
Szechuan style hot pot is great for groups — as long as you’re adventurous
  • If you want to go shopping, just remember that the prices on any branded goods will be much higher than what you would pay for the same thing in the US. There are many fascinating foods that are not expensive and that one is allowed to bring home, though you may want some guidance in choosing what to buy.

Notes about language:

  • You may notice some funny things about how translation happens between English and Chinese. If you’ve mostly done research in Western countries before, this may be frustrating, but try to be patient. The two languages are so fundamentally different that translation between them works differently than does translation between any two Indo-European languages. For example, Chinese has no verb tenses, and many many things are expressed using a kind of contextual metaphor. (For instance, the phrase “long time no see” is a direct translation of a Chinese way of saying “it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you!”)
  • This means that simultaneous translation is impossible English-Chinese. At Sonic Rim, we try to get respondents to pause between thoughts so the translator can keep up.
  • As another example, there is no word for “he” vs “she,” the third person pronoun is always “ta” which can mean he/she/it. Different translators handle this differently, but may use “it” to refer to a person or may start with one pronoun only to switch to the other when the gender becomes clear. This is not a sign of a bad translator!
A sign in Chinese and English
  • Cultural understandings around word use is different in China too; for instance, you may hear Chinese people referring to us as “foreigners” and to themselves as “yellow,” which is normal and accepted in China. (They may also say things about each other that would be rude in an American cultural context; you may hear a wife call her husband “fat” in front of him, etc.)
  • One thing to watch out for in product research: use of the word that translates to English as “convenient.” This word is used to represent many different ideas. Don’t let it go by without asking for clarification on in what way this thing is “convenient.”
  • The three most useful phrases, if you don’t know any other Chinese:
    thank you = xie xie, pronounced like “shee-eh shee” said quickly
    no (as in “I don’t want” that) = bu yao, “boo yow”
    goodbye = technically, zai jian, but most people will say “bye bye” to you!

Good luck, have fun!

Ash (Alexa) Anderson
Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade