Life in China is like a lucid dream. At times, it’s so bizarre that you wonder if it’s even real. Stumbling upon a bag of live chickens in the trunk of a car, or a man slaughtering snakes on a street corner is half the fun.
But, preparing for life in China BEFORE you arrive may ease the blow of culture shock. I moved to China to teach English with absolutely no idea what to expect. When I arrived, it seemed like the closest thing to landing on another planet.
Life in China was an adventure every, single, day. Are you considering moving to China? Have you just landed a job as an ESL teacher?
Congrats! You’re in for a great time.
Want to know what you’re getting into before you hop on that flight? Here’s some insight on what it’s like living in China.
Life in China Means You’ll Need to Speak Some Mandarin
Even in the big cities, people in China don’t speak English often. If you want to eat, you’ll need to point at the photos on the menu, or learn to say a few dishes in Mandarin.
I ate stuffed buns for my first three days in China because all I had to do was point to them. Eventually, I learned how to say my favorite dishes, and stuck with them.
Getting around via taxi can be challenging unless you know how to say your address, street names, and buildings. Learning to say ‘stop here’ can be a huge help when you don’t exactly know the name of your destination.
And, the locals are going to want to chat with you. Learning some Mandarin can really help you make new friends and learn more about the culture.
There’s all sorts of language learning websites and apps, many of them free. Give one a try both before and during your time living in China.
Check out these apps and websites if you want to learn some Mandarin:
- Duolingo:This free website helps you learn through reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Play games, take quizzes and get reminders to study.
- Busuu:This app has got it all when it comes to language learning. The platform relies on users who are native speakers to help out others users. There are PDFs, flashcards, video units and more.
- Memrise: This app uses pictures and mnemonic devices to teach languages. It’s a total win for visual learners, and this is the app that I relied on the most while living in China.
- Living Language: You’ll need to pay for this course, but it’s the right choice if you want to take Mandarin seriously. It’s well structured, has cultural tips, interactive games, flashcards, and tutoring.
- Babbel: These short lessons start off slow and help you ease into learning. It focuses on conversational language which you can directly apply while living in China.
- Tandem: This app allows you to connect with native speakers. You essentially teach each other through messaging and video chats.
I won’t say that China smells. Let’s just say that it has a noticeably different scent than what you may be used to.
I never quite pinned it down, but I suspect that it’s a mixture of the durian fruit, raw meat, and a little bit of sewage.
Don’t be put off by the smell. It just takes some time to get used to. And, now that I don’t live in China anymore, I kind of miss it.
When I visit Chinatown in Philadelphia or NYC, I take a big whiff and reminisce on the good ole’ days teaching in China.
You’ll Need to Adapt to The Cultural Norms
In China, people act differently than what you may be used to. In fact, they may behave and interact with each other in ways that may seem downright wrong.
You might get angry that someone just stepped in front of you in the grocery line, or offended when someone hocks a giant loogie on the ground in front of you. But, in China, it happens all the time, and it’s totally normal.
People tend to talk loudly to one another, cough without covering their mouth, and throw trash on the ground when a bin is only inches away. Things like this may be directly against what you were taught as a kid, but it’s normal here.
Is it bad? Not necessarily. Chinese people may talk loud, but it’s often because they are having excited, passion-filled conversations. They may hock loogies because, ‘better out than in,” and the country employs street sweepers, which creates more jobs.
The cultural norms may absolutely baffle you, but you’ll enjoy your time more if you just accept and embrace them.
Not All of The Internet is Accessible
Chinese law inhibits the use of Google, Facebook, and a few other sites that you may be used to. It may be a bit of an inconvenience, but it can be fixed with the use of a VPN.
Standing for, ‘Virtual Private Network,’ a VPN will essentially use the internet as if you were in a country outside of China. This will allow you to catch up with your friends on Facebook and use your Gmail.
Note: Check out this great article that breaks down the best VPNs for China.
It’s Difficult to Find Products That You Normally Use And Clothes That Fit You
Shopping in China can be difficult for foreigners. Finding your usual deodorant, shampoo, body wash, and makeup isn’t likely. Body lotions and sunblock usually have skin whitener in them, and ladies, tampons are hard to come by.
If you are particular about the products you use, you may want to stock up before you move to China. Otherwise, you may have to ask your family send things from home, or make a run to Hong Kong.
Clothing can be difficult to fit into as well. Chinese sizes tend to run small, and if you aren’t petite, buying new clothes (especially bras) can be a bit of a nightmare. But, in most large cities, the shopping malls have stores like H&M and Zara, so you should be able to find something there.
The Traffic and Transportation Can be Hectic in China
You’ll notice a ton of motorbikes when living in China. The streets (and even the sidewalks, so watch out) are flooded with them.
It’s the easiest way to get around, and you’ll notice entire families crammed onto one (baby and all.) While the motorbikes seem to obey some kind of rules, it also looks like a free-for-all on the roads.
And, if you’re taking the buses in China, you may notice a mad dash to board. There won’t be any coherent line and people will push each other out of the way to get on. Be nice, but be a little aggressive or you won’t make it on the bus.
Eastern Medicine Comes First
Eastern medicine in the U.S is viewed as an alternative. In China, it’s the real deal. While I knew I would experience Eastern medicine in practice while living in China, I wasn’t really prepared for it.
When my co-worker had flu symptoms, the doctor told him it was because his jacket wasn’t big enough. He then give him a regime of powders to get better. Another one of my co-workers needed a root canal, and the doctor started drilling without numbing her first.
When I went to see a doctor for what felt like a chest infection, I was given six packets of powdered pills. The doctor told me that I had to take 12 in total, every day.
Ideas about health and wellness are VERY different in China and I never got fully used to it. I take health pretty seriously, so this was something I had to make peace with during my year there.
You’ll Need To Re-learn How to Use a Toilet
Squat toilets are the norm in China. While most modern homes have western toilets, majority of public spaces keep it traditional. The mall, the park, the restaurants, the clubs- squat toilets.
Some newcomers feel uncomfortable about squat toilets. Me, I embraced them and learned to love them. In fact, I wish we would switch to squat toilets in the U.S.
I feel like they are more sanitary because you don’t have to sit on anything or touch the flusher with your hand.
Learning how to use a squat toilet properly is the key to success. It actually took me about three months of living in China before I figured out that I was squatting all wrong.
I would stand upright and sort of stick my butt out and squat mid-air. This, is not the way to do it.
The proper way to use a squat toilet is to crouch down low; real low, like a Yogi squat. It feels great and you won’t have to worry about falling in.
Don’t be surprised if you find public squat toilets that don’t have any stalls. On a trip to Beijing, I found myself squatting next to complete strangers as I emptied out a few Tsingtaos.
And, sometimes, usually in public parks, you may come across a squat trough. It runs under all of the stalls in the bathroom. It’s kind of like a porta-potty but wide open and you can see as your stall neighbor’s pee floats down underneath your feet.
Oh, and one little tip-make sure to bring packets of tissues with you at all times. Most public bathrooms in China will not provide toilet paper. Bring your own if you don’t want to get stuck in a sticky situation.
You’ll Need to Forget Your Table Manners
Just like their social norms, the dining norms are shockingly different than what you’ve probably been taught.
Meals are shared, so expect giant plates of whatever it is that you order. If you’re a germaphobe, brace yourself, because most people stick their chopsticks right into the shared dishes.
Spitting out fish and chicken bones is normal and so is getting wildly drunk after taking one too many shots of beer.
Diners tend to cover the table in fish bones, clam shells, and whatever else they want to get out of the way. Dinners are lively, messy, and exciting events that you’ll learn to love once you get used to it.
People Will Probably Stare
There are some places in China (even big cities) where the local people don’t have many interactions with foreigners. So, sometimes, people will stare at you while you’re walking down the street, eating, or on the bus.
Don’t be surprised if you get pointed at, talked about, and laughed at. Be even less surprised if people start candidly snapping your photo. Some people will ask you to take a photo with them, others will want you to hold their baby. I’ve had both happen, many times.
It may make you really uncomfortable at first, but most of the time, the attention isn’t malicious. Some of the locals will be genuinely excited, surprised, and shocked when they see you.
Just be nice and try to understand. Plus, it’s a great way to practice your Mandarin and meet some new friends.
You’ll Never Look at Parks The Same Way Again
The public parks in China are absolutely buzzing with life. It’s a whole new experience to visit a park in China.
On any given day, at almost any hour, there are groups of people dancing, doing Tai Chi, painting, doing calligraphy, playing instruments, and battling each other in Majong.
There are groups of grandmothers sword dancing, conga lines, and couples practicing their ballroom dance moves.
You never know what you’ll see at the park, but it’s worth going to find out.
Life in China will be noticeably, beautifully, and sometimes painfully different. There will be parts of the lifestyle that you’ll love, and other parts that will make you want to pack up and move home.
It’s all part of the adventure, and honestly, why live in China if you don’t want to experience their culture?
Has anyone been to China before? What did I miss or get wrong? Please let me know in the comments.
And, if you know anyone who is preparing to live in China, please share this article with them. They’ll thank you (especially when they have some tissues for the public bathrooms.)
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