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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Beijing, China

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Beijing

Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?

No, I am of Asian decent and have had friends that are from Beijing prior to living in Beijing.

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

Many young college students speak English as well as Mandarin and some other native dialects. I did not learn Mandarin nor do I want to learn Mandarin.

As an Asian American, most Chinese thought I was Chinese and tried to speak Chinese with me. Once they find out I'm American, they are in disbelief and tried to yell Chinese at me as if I will understand them if they yell at me.

Most cannot understand that Americans consist of Europeans Americans and other ethnicities. I'm treated better and they are more understanding of my confusion when they finally believe that I'm American.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

I was not concerned about the culture shock as I am of Asian decent. I vowed to have an open mind and thought I was prepared for any difference.

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How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

I took for granted the ease of which we did business in the US. China is a cash culture and there is not much security in doing business. They want cash / ATM when purchasing over the internet. There is not much English in commerce over the internet/ when traveling so we constantly had to call for translation help from our friends.

Things you think are common sense are not necessarily so in Beijing. There are money conversion restrictions on foreigners "Laowei" so we called on several of our Chinese friends who simply showed their Chinese ID and easily exchanged our RMB back to US dollars.

It's definitely double standards. The Chinese have less restrictions than we do. In order for us to live in Beijing, we had to register to with local police. For us to travel, we had to stay in hotels that would register us with the police. It's easier that way. If we decided to stay overnight at a friend's house, we would need to find the local police station and get our friend's help to register us at the police station. For this reason, we were never able to be house guests.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

Yes, we did go through the honeymoon stage where we sent home various pictures and talk about the differences in the culture. We learned to appreciate the differences and found this to be very educational.

In traveling around independently, we understood our inability to speak the native language was a huge restriction but it was not a problem. This was a price we knew we had to pay in living abroad.

As we came closer to going home (after about living in Beijing for 9 months), we were ready to go home. We knew there were major culture differences but we really appreciated the freedom and mutual respect we had for one another in the US. The Chinese do not trust their government and any public discussions of this is forbidden. We practice political, commerce and religious freedom in the US. The Chinese have none of this.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

I found myself to be more appreciative of the US and the freedom we possess. We may not all agree; as a matter of fact, we normally DO NOT all agree. In the US, we welcome different opinions and ideas. It is OK to be different and unique. This is not the case in China. The more we learned, the more sad we became for the Chinese people. Many work very hard and were extremely kind to us. Many treated us like family. We love them and wish we could give them what we have in the US. Unfortunately, many are trapped in a country of inequality and they will never go beyond limits that are imposed on them unless they work for the government. The government controls everything.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

The Chinese had a great desire to care for their family. The parents retire at about 55 (women) and 60 (men). They care for the grandchild and live with their children. They feel a sense of duty to care for their parents and the grandparents feel that it is their job to care for the grandchildren. It is also a law that the children care for the parents. The government can garner part of the childrens' wage to care for the parents if the children are negligent in their care for the parents.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

There is no transparency and consistency in how things are done in China. We cannot make any sense in how they operate in the university (we work in the university), government (the Chinese call this the "Black Box" since no one understands how officials are selected), banks (answers differ based on who you talk to). It all depends on your relationships (otherwise called "Guanxi". The stronger the relationship you have to someone that have strong connections, the better you have in getting things done. This certainly builds inequality, sometimes it helps us.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

You should ask some of the most basic questions in trying to get things done and ask it twice and possibly to two different people to make sure they are correct. This is due to some communication gap and them not wanting to tell us "no". To save face, they will always say "yes" even if it is "no". For example, we brought some money to China and asked them to convert our US dollar to the Chinese RMB and deposit the money into our savings account that we recently opened up at a Chinese bank (we did this through one of the bank employees that spoke English). We left town thinking that we were able to pull additional cash from another province. We left to go to another province and discovered that we could not pull cash out from the local ATM. We went into a branch of the same same bank and were told that we had no money. In pushing the issue, we discovered that in fact we did have our money deposited but that the money was never converted so we did not have access to the money. We asked the bank to convert the money but they could not do so. We were told that the only bank that could convert the money was the bank that we originally worked with in Beijing. Apparently, each province controls their own clients' money even if you can withdraw RMB from any ATM from all over China. Your money conversion can only be done at the bank at where you deposit your dollars. Also, the Chinese employers who were our employer did not pay us prior to leaving for the 9-day holiday. We had no RMB in our account (due to the holiday break) and we had no access to our dollars that were sitting in our account. Luckily, we had enough money to last us for another 2 days before the school paid us. It was a very nerve racking experience.

Make sure to convert your dollars to rmb as soon as you can and make sure to have enough rmb cash with you.

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Get a Quote Call  

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Join our China forum to meet other people living in Beijing, China.

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Help other expats and newcomers by answering questions about the challenges and adventures of living in Beijing.

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