If you're going to be working in Beijing, Shanghai or other first-tier city, you can track down any western item or any Western or international food that you crave. My advice applies to those of you travelling to a second- or third- tier city, such as Zibo, where I live. Having said that, I have only lived in and visited four provinces so I can't speak authoritatively about every province in China. Conditions and availability may vary:
It is not the case, as some older online info says, that you need to bring a year's supply of your own anti-antiperspirant, razors, toothpaste and toiletries. There's a staggering array of makeup, toiletries and moisturizers to choose from. Check out any department store or mall or try the chain store "Watson's." You can find familiar brands as well as experiment with domestic brands, such as jasmine flower flavor toothpaste. (One exception, discussed below, home hair dye kits.)
My top picks -- make room in your suitcase for these:
Big bath towel, bath sheet or beach towel: Asian towels tend to be small and skimpy. if you like having a big towel to wrap around you after a shower, bring one of your own. I have seen bigger towels in the better hotels, but not for purchase in the stores.
Tablet or digital reader: Bring a library in the palm of your hand. It's also easy to purchase and download books once you're in China.
Digital photo frame: Before coming to China, I scanned all of our old family photo albums and bought one of those digital photo frames for displaying pictures. Your temporary quarters will be a lot homier with one of these on your desk or bookcase. Incidentally, your new Chinese friends and students will be fascinated by your home photos so it's a great conversational ice-breaker.
Of course, your laptop could do the job of the above-two listed items. I brought my laptop from Canada and purchased a new power cord for it right after I landed in China. BTW, electronic items like laptops and cameras are not cheaper in China, in my experience.
After Bite. We found this stick of After Bite here in the stores, as you can see from the label, (above) but tuck a stick in your suitcase and you're ready to hit the ground running. In Shandong Province, the mosquitoes are tiny but they get the job done. Local remedies are also available.
Hand sanitizer. We always use a dab of gel hand sanitizer, or use a moist towelette, before eating, and we eat out a lot, so we always carry it with us. Moist towelettes are readily available here in little packages -- see the photo below -- but bottles of gel hand sanitizer are not as widely available, at least not around here.
Packets of Kleenex: These are readily available everywhere (see photos below) but bring a few so you have them for when you step off the plane. Ladies, you will absolutely need these and you will purchase them regularly in China because toilet paper is not always supplied in public and store washrooms and you need to carry your own.
Hair dye: If you color your hair, bring your own hair dye kits. Hair dye kits here are just not as good and there's a limited color choice available in kits and in salons. And unless you live in a big city, say goodbye to foils and highlights in the salon.
Then I spotted some in the coast city of Weihai, at a store selling South Korean goods and snapped them up. So they weren't easy to find.
If you've never used these before -- you just soak them in water and put them in a bag in the fridge, then when you go out, wear them around your neck. I don't care how it looks, it helps me cope with the heat. Yes, the back of your neck is always a little wet but in this humidity, all of you is a little wet.
Other personal must-haves: For me, decaffeinated Western (black) tea bags for the afternoon cup of tea. I have been gifted with lots of high-quality Chinese tea but old habits are hard to break; I prefer my cup of orange pekoe for the four o'clock tea break. We've also packed small jars of our favorite sweet pepper jelly. Another Westerner I know has brought boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese, though the space they take up in your suitcase doesn't justify it, IMHO. Certain herbs, like oregano and sage, are hard to find around here. But I would be careful about packing dried leafy substances. My bags were not checked at the airport but still I suggest you bring herbs in an an unopened jar or pouch from the store, don't bring them in a bulk store baggie with a twist tie, if you get my meaning. If you're a fan of ranch dressing or tacos, bring some packages of the dry powder sauce or dressing mix. Oh, and if you love walnuts and good quality chocolate, bring some. They're more expensive here. I think I'll talk about coffee in another post...
Prescription medication: Bring your own, especially if you want to be private about what medications you're taking. It's easy to buy many medications here without a prescription, such as medication for my low thyroid, but you won't be able to fill a prescription from your Western doctor for anti-depressants or ADHD without seeing a Chinese doctor. And there's a huge stigma here about mood disorders and mental health. And if you need to ask a Chinese colleague for help in getting medication, don't count on Western notions of privacy, either. Bring your meds in their original packaging.
Non-prescription: I also brought some packages of Neo Citran because that's my favorite cold remedy. And of course some anti-diarrhea medicine as a precaution. You can explore Chinese remedies for this and that one you're here, but you might as well come prepared for any sudden health problems. As with toiletries, the question is, do you have a favorite brand that you feel you can't do without?
Clothes and shoes. If you are a petite lady or an average size guy, you're in luck. You can shop in China. If you are plus size, then you need to bring clothes for all seasons. You can also use the services of a tailor once in China. It's very affordable. You can buy shoes when visiting the bigger cities. Also ask your Chinese colleagues to help you shop online -- larger sizes (up to a point and by up to a point I mean the equivalent of a size 18) are available online.
Little gifts to reciprocate the hospitality that will be shown to you. I've written about this elsewhere.
And, be sure to pack a determination to relax and enjoy the adventure.
I'll add to this list if I think of something else.... happy packing!