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14 things to know before moving to China as an expat

Living in China was an amazing experience. Although we were quite happy most of the time, there are a few things I wish we had known before moving to China as an expat. So if you’re considering living in China, for example as an ESL teacher or to study Chinese, here are a few things you should know before making the move.

1. The majority of people speak very little English

Although this is true for a lot of countries, it is especially true for China. Even in big cities you’ll often have problems finding someone who speaks English. There are of course people in China who do speak English and speak it really well, but the majority don’t. So what does this mean for you, future (or current) expats of China? Keep calm and learn Chinese!

2. The work ethic may be very different than what you’re used to

Working and living in China is a great experience. But you should know that the work ethic may be very different to what it is like in your home country. China is huge, so obviously it is hard for us to talk about all of China. Instead, we can talk about our experience. We lived in Southern China, and we noticed that people are generally more relaxed about work related issues. So don’t be surprised when you hear that your colleague didn’t do her part of the job because she ‘had to rest’. Although this can be annoying, as it sometimes seems like nothing ever gets done, it can also be a good thing. You’re 10 minutes late? No big deal!

3. Air pollution really is an issue here

Again, China is a big country and this depends a lot on where you are in China and even where in a city you live. But where we were, air pollution was a huge issue. Cycling through town without a face mask? Opening the windows? Not possible, sir! We were unlucky enough to have had construction sites just popping up around us, so the air around our apartment got really bad after about a month from moving in. Then there is of course China’s usual pollution issue of cars and factories and who knows what else. It got so bad for me that we had to leave China after only six months. Of course there are things you can do about all of this, from wearing a face mask to getting an air purifier to moving out of big cities! Also, most people don’t react that strongly to the air pollution, but if you’re like me and have a history of respiratory diseases, keep this factor in mind when deciding to move to China as an expat!

Air Pollution in China: Wear a face mask

4. Open windows everywhere

Chinese people seem to have a thing for open windows. Someone once told, and I have no idea if this is actually true, that this is because they traditionally believe that it’s unhealthy to keep things locked inside that want to go outside. So, in our experience, windows are always open here, no matter what the weather is like. I remember sitting in Chinese class in a big winter jacket because my teacher wouldn’t close the window!

5. Children pee everywhere?

There’s probably the same reasoning behind this than the window thing. But it’s still a bit weird in the beginning. You’ll see kids just pee everywhere. Are you in a shopping mall and your grandchild needs to pee? No problem, hold it over a trash can! You’re in front of a public toilet? Why not just let your kid pee on the street!

6. People will stare at you

Imagine you’re sick. There’s no food in your house. You summon your last energy and make the trip to the local super market to get some instant noodles. And then it happens: they see you. „FOREIGNER!!!!!!!!!!!!!“ you hear a kid shout. They point at you. Sometimes they laugh. No! Why?! You just wanted to get some noodles without getting stared at. Not possible. (To be fair, you get used to it, and it doesn’t really bother us that much, but sometimes it is really annoying. When you’re sick or you’re having a bad day, the last thing you want is to be stared and pointed at)

7. Visas can get complicated

China keeps changing the rules and regulations for work permits. When you come here, check before if you can legally work here according to the latest laws. And be aware that some schools will lie to you about getting you a work permit. It might actually be a good idea to arrange employment and all things visa before coming here. Just to be sure. (Note: there’s no problem with finding a teaching job once you’re already in China and getting the right visa is also possible, but sometimes there are annoying complications.)

8. Come with money

It doesn’t matter whether you’re coming to China as a student or an expat looking for work – come with money. Even though you’ll find a job pretty quickly, and therefore will start getting money after about a month or so into your expat experience in China, you’ll need quite a bit in the beginning in order to get settled. It is not uncommon that you have to pay six months or a whole year’s rent upfront when moving into a new apartment – plus a safety deposit. You’ll also need to probably buy a few things like bedding or cuttlery – although these items are quite cheap, they do add up to a significant amount of money. And since you’re new in the country, you’re probably not an expert on how to get the cheapest deal on everything you buy…yet.

9. Don’t lose face!

Chinese people are generally very cautious about not losing face. And you’d be surprised at what actions will lead to the loss of face! Shouted at someone? Ooops, you just lost face! You dropped something? There goes your face – not literally of course, that would be weird. We noticed that this fear of losing face (i.e. looking bad in public) can sometimes lead to somewhat annoying situations and conflicts. For example, my co-workers would never admit that they’ve made a mistake (such as telling me the wrong time for a class they scheduled) and would just pretend they didn’t know anything – which lead to countless trips to empty classrooms that could have been avoided by simply saying ‘hey sorry, I made a mistake. Your class is tomorrow, not today’.

10. If you have big feet: come with shoes!

Will has really big feet. During our stay in China, he couldn’t find shoes that fit anywhere (luckily we bought a couple of pairs in Hong Kong before coming to China). I’m a European size 39, which is I think pretty average, and I had issues finding shoes in my size. However, I did eventually get lucky when we discovered an H&M in our city. So if you have big feet, and probably even if your feet are average sized: bring shoes for every occasion.Big feet - No Shoes

11. Don’t accept compliments

I had no idea about this one when we first came to China. When someone gives you a compliment, the polite thing to do is to deny it. “You’re very beautiful” – “Haha. No, that’s not true!” is a normal conversation here. I got so many funny looks after simply saying ‘Thanks’ after getting told I’m pretty.

12. Half the internet is blocked

You probably know about this already, but in case you don’t: The great Firewall of China blocks huge parts of the internet, including all of the most common Social Media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can of course still access the forbidden part of the internet, but you’ll have to purchase a VPN – which not only costs money, but also makes the connection sort of slow-ish. But hey, at least you can go on Facebook!

13. Fakes, Fakes! Fakes Everywhere!

China is famous for its fakes, but we weren’t aware of just how many things you can actually buy as a fake. I’m pretty sure my Samsung smartphone is a fake, as it doesn’t really..umm..function. In some places it’s actually hard to find the original. Not only will you be able to buy fake products, such as designer clothes or electronics, but there are even ‘fake’ cities and tourist attractions!

14. You’re gonna have an amazing time anyway

Sure, being an expat in China isn’t always easy. But it’s so worth it. We had an amazing time living here and if we could turn back time, we’d definitely do it again. To be honest, if it wasn’t for the pollution, we’d probably still be there. And let me tell you, the food is amazing. We had some of the best vegan food of our lives here in China. We met amazing people and trying to learn Chinese is absolutely fascinating! So if you get a chance to come to China: go for it! Whether it’s a semester abroad or you want to come to China as an expat, we can guarantee that you’ll have an amazing time!You will have a great time in China