Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/6/2008 1:14:15 PM ET 2008-08-06T17:14:15

Unless the International Olympic Committee acts fast and makes heaving overweight carry-on bags into overhead airplane bins an official Olympic sport, my chances of visiting Beijing this summer are nil.

But if committee members do finally come to their senses, I'm ready to go. I've been practicing my technique on plane trips with multiple connections. And I've been prepping for free time in Beijing by gathering advice on how to be a well-mannered traveler in China.

Here's what I found out:

A new meaning for spit and polish
With 50,000 visitors expected to arrive in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Games, it's no surprise that government officials have cleaned up the city and ordered citizens to be on their best behavior. By now, folks should know what that means. After all, as NBC news correspondent Mark Mullen noted in his World Blog, this past February the People's Republic introduced a "public civility campaign," complete with slogans and banners, aimed at getting citizens to stop spitting so much, to stop cutting in line and to stop doing other things that Mullen writes, "would not be good manners to describe."

Like what?
Most Olympic visitors will probably not want to know. Or need to. “Beijing is an international tourist destination with modern hotels, restaurants, bars/clubs and transportation, so it's not as scary a destination as many may make it out to be,” says John Campbell, a writer and music promoter who has lived in China for eight years. “In the Olympic areas, chances are that many visitors may not actually run into parts of the city untouched by the short-term cleanup” anyway.

That said, Campbell advises visitors to come prepared for “smelly and dirty bathrooms, restaurants that aren't spic and span, locals who may stare at foreigners, point at foreigners, and in some cases, request to touch a curly head of hair or a beard and don't see anything wrong with doing so; and fellow diners who talk loudly, drink loudly, slurp their soup and chew with their mouths open ...”

Frequent business traveler Vickie Nauman agrees. “Remember that China has been closed off from the rest of the world, so many common practices and customs make sense in China, but they may not make sense to you — at all.”

Slideshow: Postcards from China Her advice: “Have a sense of humor about these differences,” especially when it comes to spitting and toilets. “Ladies may need to squat because toilets are often in the ground. And those toilets may smell unlike anything you've experienced before. Bring small packs of tissues, because there's rarely toilet paper in the bathrooms.”

When it comes to spitting, says Nauman, “People have loud productive coughs and subsequent spitting. It is common to see men, women and even kids hocking one in the streets. Try to ignore it or it will aggravate you at every step.”

Vicky Collins, a freelance television producer on assignment in Beijing for the Olympics, says, “It is true that there's a lot of spitting going on. Today I applauded a man on the street who was practicing some martial arts with a type of spear.  He looked extremely pleased with my praise, gave me thumbs up then hawked a loogie.”

Stay safe: Watch out for topics and taxis
Bonnie Girard has lived in China for at least 21 years and is the President of China Channel Limited. She advises visitors to nix certain topics of conversation. “You risk putting your Chinese colleagues, friends, hosts or acquaintances into a sticky — if not risky — position if you try to force conversations about controversial political or religious issues. Don’t jeopardize someone else's freedom in the exercise of one's own.”

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Girard also encourages travelers to avoid sticky situations on the road: “China has one of the worst records in the world for fatalities per number of vehicles on the road. Your life is worth more than the embarrassment or the ‘face’ of a bad driver if you happen to be in a car with one. So if you are in a car with a bad driver, say that you have a heart problem or are sick and you need them to slow down and drive sanely. If language is an issue, use sign language. Ham it up.”

Bruce McIndoe, President of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, says things aren't any safer or easier for pedestrians. “Getting across the street is like the game ‘Frogger.’ When you go across the street, you're advancing lane by lane and trying to zigzag your way safely through traffic.” Accidents are so common that McIndoe urges travelers to bring along their own first aid kit and to check if their medical insurance offers coverage while in China. If it doesn't, he suggests buying a medical insurance policy for travelers. “People need to be psychologically prepared,” says MCindoe. “This is a rough and tumble, grimy environment. It's not like London or Washington, D.C. Beijing is congested, hot, and dirty. You have to adapt to that and live with that — and come prepared.”

Eat, slurp, and be messy
With more than 30,000 restaurants in the metropolitan Beijing area, visitors will find plenty of places to eat. But Erik Wolf of the International Culinary Tourism Association knows some Western visitors may be alarmed by sanitary conditions they encounter. “Restaurants in Western-style hotels won't be a problem, but in more authentic restaurants you might see dirty floors and tables.”

And once at the table, says Wolf, don't be surprised to see and hear people slurping their soup. “The Chinese people kind of lay their heads in the soup bowl. They bring the soup bowl up to their face and bring their heads to the soup bowl. It looked strange to me before someone explained to me what was going on, but it's to keep soup from splashing or splattering on their shirt.”

Wolf also says visitors should be ready to see bits of food being spit out at the table. “If I had a piece of meat in my mouth that was too grisly or a piece of vegetable that was too tough to eat, I might cover my mouth and remove it. In China, it gets spit right out and goes right on the table.”

And, Wolfe points out, “In China, they don't waste food. So every part of an animal gets used. It's a great way to do it, but that means people may end up eating some surprising things.”

Vicky Collins can attest to that. “In restaurants, waiters and waitresses arrive immediately and hover over you until you order. This can be disconcerting to westerners trying to slog their way through a menu they can't read that's full of unfamiliar foods. My friend and I ended up ordering donkey the other day — not our intention at all.”

Faced with a situation like that, Wolf says, “You just need to go with an open mind, and realize people eat differently and do things differently. If you think something looks yucky, just don't eat it.”

Just go with the flow
Exactly, says Jon Campbell of YGTwo Productions. While bathrooms and restaurants may seem dirty and the lines in Beijing may “resemble a swarm of bees rather than a march of ants, this is not to say that Beijing is a rude disgusting mess of humanity.” It's just different. "And to navigate through this difference requires taking a deep breath, and remembering that.”

Well, maybe not so different. Collins reports that at a live opera performance in Beijing she heard someone talking on their cell phone. As we all know, that happens here in America all the time.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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