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Expat China: 10 Tips for Living in China

By Betsy Burlingame

Summary: Expats living in China find learning Mandarin a big challenge, but most say that learning even a little is very worthwhile. They also agree that the spitting, squat toilets and Chinese culture take some getting used to. Expats share their tips and experiences living in China.

Expat China - 10 Tips for Living in China

Foreigners in China

Your interactions with the Chinese people will vary greatly from one part of China to another. In big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, foreigners are the norm and you'll rarely get a second glance. In other areas, you'll feel the curious stares and have trouble if you haven't learned the language.

"I have not seen many differences but people seem accepting of them. There are some Muslim people that come from NW China here, that sell food of their culture mostly mutton barbecue and a style of stretched noodles. I don't see many other foreigners, and so I get the typical OMG Foreigner! stares, but most people say hello and the stares are not staring down a foreigner as if how dare you be here, but more in awe of actually seeing a foreigner. I have had people join me while eating to say hello etc. so very friendly to foreigners here," said one expat living in Xiangfan, China.

"Dongguan citizens seem very accepting of differences. There are people from all walks of life and all religions. Smile -- although some Chinese are wary of foreigners most will say "Ni Hao" (hello) if you speak with a smile," advised one expat in China. An expat living in Qingdao said, "Qingdao people are very open and friendly but also relatively traditional. They are always willing to help or chat, and will often offer assistance if they see you struggling with something. But watch your own valuables on the bus! As far as diversity, there is a huge foreign population in Qingdao given its importance for trade and shipping, and many more foreigners visit every year as tourists. The Korean community alone is estimated to number over 100,000. Foreigners do not often get funny looks from locals."

"Part of the secret of the success of the city is that in the past 40 years it underwent rapid development, meaning that most people who live in Zhuhai aren't really FROM Zhuhai. When you have a city where the majority of people are 'outsiders' it makes everyone a little more respectful of the fact that they are honoured guests in this city," said another expat.

Culture Shock

One expat in China confessed, "things that shocked me at first were: people spitting out bones from chicken and fish onto the tables in restaurants, babies pooping on the sidewalk, guys peeing in public, no toilet paper in any of the bathrooms, toilet stalls with no doors, squat toilets, tough looking guys walking down the street singing backstreet boy songs out loud, the list goes on, but what's to expect."

"It was only significant in the cultural habits e.g. men spitting and sometimes even women spitting...the treatment of animals....remembering that China is a patriarchal society, but that in most cases, the women of the family still hold a lot of power..it's just not shown...," said an expat living in Dongguang. Another expat said, "eating was an issue. Different food and different lifestyle changed food habits. All Croats in my experience, lost weight. For me, it was lack of familiar food, that caused me not to eat. SAFETY issues with food is a huge issue. Proper cleaning and refrigeration are to blame."

"We went out to dinner with a large group of friends and family. The man who invited us, American, wanted to split the bill at the end of the night. This is NEVER done in China. I told him this, but he didn't listen. He insisted that we calculate the bill at the table and came up with what he thought everyone should put in. From that day on he was branded a cheapskate and shunned by almost everyone. The word spreads quickly in China and in a few days all of the extended families and friends turned a cold shoulder to him in every way. In China the one who invites, or even suggests, going to a restaurant pays the entire bill, the wives of girlfriends will scrutinize it for any possible errors. It should be paid with no fanfare once the women OK the amount," explained an expat in China.

Respect for Elders

"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," explained one expat.

Restrictions on Foreigners in China

"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. There are definitely a 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. 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," explained an expat living in Beijing.

Schools in China

Expats have reviewed numerous schools in China including Shanghai American School, South Lake International School in Wuhan, QSI International School in Shenzhen and others. At Dulwich College Beijing there are efforts being made on the special education front. One mom said, "my main interest has been in special needs education, particularly for a child with autism. Dulwich took over the independent school at the end of last year and are working on integration within the mainstream school. There is considerable good will and enthusiasm to include these children in the school, and the administration are taking the initiative seriously and putting time and effort into the longer term planning for this." At QSI Chengdu positive changes have been recently made. One parent said, "I would absolutely recommend QSI in Chengdu. There were several changes in administration a few years ago, which has led to a structured, stable, positive school climate. Teachers are excellent, school morale is positive, and consistency of education and expectations is exemplary."

Learning Mandarin

"I bought a translation guide before leaving. After a few weeks of being in China, I managed to pick up a basic Mandarin vocabulary. It's surprising how little you need to learn to be able to still accomplish so much. I was able to travel everywhere, go shopping, ask directions, meet and greet new people, just with about 20 terms. Being polite, though, gets you a long way in the communication field," said one expat in Beijing. In his article, Learning Chinese in Shanghai, Alex Phillips wrote, "I would like to say that Chinese is a notoriously difficult language to learn. I did benefit from already having firm grasp of the Japanese language, particularly with comprehension of Chinese Characters. However, I found it very tough going and the slow progression was sometimes quite disheartening. My advice is to persist with language, practise is the key to learning Chinese; use it to speak to as many people as you can. Being able to speak the language can differentiate yourself from tourists and with it comes numerous benefits."

Moving to China

"Get a good relocation company to help you look and negotiate for you. Everything in China is up for negotiation! Make sure your company is allowing you enough housing money per month to get you a good place to live. And, make sure you detail and negotiate EVERYTHING you want the place to have BEFORE you seal the deal and move into the place. When your contract for the house is up for renewal that is the time the owner will make other changes you need or forgot to ask for intitally to keep you in the place for another go round," advised an expat living in Tainjin. Another expat described a typical apartment, "I live on the 23rd floor of what is known as a fully-serviced apt building. Fully serviced means that they provide housekeeping six days a week. My apt is a modest sized three bedroom/two bath place. No dishwasher or garbage disposal but does have access to western TV programming which is banned to the Chinese locals. Like most Chinese made buildings, this place while only five years old is already showing signs of falling apart."

Bringing a Dog to China

"In Beijing municipality (within the Fourth Ring Road), owners must register their pet with the government. Only one dog, 35cm tall or smaller, is allowed per household (with the exception of guide dogs). You must posses a Z-visa in order to import one pet. In addition, all vaccination requirements and restrictions of China's Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau must be followed. Upon arrival, pets are given a brief health exam," explained an expat in Beijing. Another veterinarian elaborated on the topic of bringing pets to China, "China is a country where they have strong laws that they enforce firmly, and whilst I may not agree with their methods of enforcement as long as pet owners satisfy the regulations then they will not fall foul of the authorities. Each province has their own regulations; in Beijing import quarantine is 4 weeks, in Shanghai its 7 days. In Beijing vets that have government approval can give the Rabies vaccination but in Shanghai only the government vets can give this vaccination."

Job Opportunities in China

"The main industries are tourism and trade, with trade offering a variety of work opportunities to anyone interested in factory management, product sourcing, marketing and business services. Many foreigners come directly from their home country with pre-arranged employment in these fields. Another large portion of the foreign community come to Qingdao to teach English (and most, including this writer, find it to be a positive experience) or learn Chinese, and move from those fields to more regular employment if and when they so desire. Participation in community events like those promoted through redSTAR is a great way to find new job opportunities once you are in Qingdao," explained one expat working in Manila.

There are many jobs available teaching English to adults and children. In his article, Want to Teach in China? What You Need to Do, Brett Isis talks about how to prepare to teach in China and describes the type of visa needed to teach in China.

Medical Care in China

A woman who had a baby in Shanghai said, "I went to Shanghai East International/Private Clinic in Pudong. I had a wonderful experience! I chose a British doctor (Dr. Mahad) and all my wishes and requests were full field. I had a natural birth with a epidural. 10 hours labor. The staff was great! Spoke English very well. I was treated like I was in 5 star hotel."

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About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Some of Betsy's more popular articles include 6 Best Places to Live in Costa Rica, 12 Things to Know Before Moving to The Dominican Republic and 7 Tips for Obtaining Residence in Italy. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

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First Published: Jan 25, 2014

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