How to Survive Living in China as an Expat

22 May 2013

China; the beautiful country with thousands of years of history that seems to still be exoticized in Western media. Indeed, China is portrayed from crippled communist nation to thriving economical power. Such a dynamic country can hardly be comprised in a couple words so I think that's where many expats falter. They just don't have any realistic ideas for how to live in China or what to expect.

So, here are my four simple truths/skills you should embrace now in order to make the best of your time abroad in China and not end up hating this country.

Learn how to haggle and avoid being scammed
Haggling is a huge part of Chinese culture that is often confusing to Westerners. As an American, I'm used to walking into a store and either paying the price on the item or going elsewhere to look for a better deal. Markets, however, are much more popular in China and usually will not have any set price on things. As a foreigner get to know what prices should be like in the area you're living in. People tend to hike the prices up when they see a foreign face. Paying 30 RMB (5 USD) for a souvenir might not seem like much to your wallet but that actually is a huge bonus to a vendor. It's only fair that you pay the actual cost of the item.

While mentioning being cheated on prices, I should add that the number one place you will probably get ripped off is in taxi cabs- especially in tourist areas. Always make sure that your driver turns on the meter first or else they'll charge you what ever they want once you get to your destination. If your driver refuses to turn on the meter, get out and find another cab. Trust me, there are plenty at all hours of the day!

You're going to stick out
If you've ever wondered how movie stars feel, going to China just might be your opportunity. In a first tier city like Beijing or Shanghai it's not as likely but in a second tier city, such as Wuhan, it's pretty much guaranteed people will stare at you wherever you go. Walking to and from work I'd hear people talking loudly in Chinese (because there's no way that brown girl understands Chinese!), "Hey, look, a foreigner!" "Where do you think she's from?"

Every single day I heard at least one comment pointing out the fact that I wasn't Chinese. And to a certain extent it's sort of fun. You get treated like a celebrity when you go to bars and people stop and ask to take pictures with you. However, after a while it does get tiring. Being made into "the other" starts to wear on you as you try to incorporate yourself into this country. I think the time people started taking pictures of me at the zoo was one of the most sickening/infuriating moments of my life. When dealing with this just take a breath and try not to take it personally.

Some things just  weren't made big enough for us...

Accept it- this isn't [insert home country]
This is one of the things I saw most of my co-workers struggling with during the summer I lived in China. People go into China thinking a) things are going to be just as developed and pretty much like home or b) it's some mystical land like the kung fu movies. Both ideas are, sadly, wrong. China is an amazing country but don't project your fantasies onto it because you will be disappointed.

Children piss in the street. There are no lines for anything and people simply shove their way to the front. Old men hock loogies and spit no matter where they are. Accept the fact that China is a different country with a different culture and stop holding it to the standards of your home nation. Once you do this you will be able to enjoy the country much more.

Be prepared
Did you know that Chinese restrooms almost never have toilet paper and that it's your duty to bring it with you to the stall? Did you know it's unhealthy to eat fruit unless you skin it first? Researching a bit beforehand about life in China will make your life easier rather than learning by error. Following my former point, being prepared and learning as much as you can about living in a foreign country is the best way to set up realistic goals for your time abroad. Google for a couple hours and you'll be amazed what things you learn that you had never even considered would be an issue.

Ringing the bell at Yellow Crane Tower
In closing I'd just like to say that, though I may seem to come off generally negative about China, I absolutely loved this country. I have so many fond memories of Wuhan and definitely have plans to go back one day. I write this piece today as a 'worst case scenario' caution to help those who may not know what to expect. For every negative thing I listed there are so many positive and amazing things you will experience!

Do you have any tips for expats in China?

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  1. "don't project your fantasies onto it because you will be disappointed."

    Too true. Albeit I've never actually been to China or lived abroad I do think this is pretty solid advice for anyone even travelling somewhere for any amount of time really.

    1. Yeah, I learned this lesson the hard way when I studied abroad in France. I was all ready for my European, fairy tale adventure and I was very let down. Realistic standards are necessary!

  2. I agree with K about the best advice that you gave is not to have too many high expectations about a foreign country. I also liked the advice that you shouldn't hold onto the living standards of your own country or you'll be disappointed.

    1. Thanks Carlyn. I think one of the best qualities for a traveler is to have very low standards- then everything is awesome! Haha!

  3. every time i go back to Taiwan with my mom, she is a haggling machine! i tried it once but it looks like i haven't inherited that certain skill...

    1. I agree, it's so hard- especially when you don't really know the value of something. I was told that you should take what ever price they offer first and cut that in half, and then haggle from there.