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15 Expats Talk about Moving to China

Betsy Burlingame

Summary: Expats talks about the adjusting to China's squatty toilets, spittoons and small shoe sizes. But, these challenges are outweighed by the friendly Chinese people, affordable tailors on every corner and a surprising number of bakeries.

Chendu, China
Chendu, China

If you're moving to China, you may face significant culture shock. Read what 15 expats have to say about moving to China:

Culture Shock in China

"If you live in China for any length of time you will certainly have culture shock. Go with it and try and think positively. It helps to write a list before you leave your native country of why you're leaving. Refer to this when you feel down and irritated. Don't expect China to change according to your standards or way of thinking - it won't. Always praise China when you are with Chinese people, even if you don't mean it. Talk about how much you like the food, culture, history and people. NEVER talk about the government or politics. NEVER talk about religion. NEVER criticise China or the Chinese. Keep your views to yourself," advised an expat who moved to Beijing.

"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 one expat who moved to Dongguang, China.

"Quite significant. I found it hard to adapt to the food, but I soon managed to cook my own food, although it's hard to find all the ingredient in smaller cities like Nanchang. I also found it hard to bear people spitting on the streets, and I still do," mentioned another expat when asked about moving to China.

"I expected the people to stare, point and laugh. And that all happened. But I guess I enjoyed the attention. People are really friendly here. 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," commented one expat who made the move to China.

"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," remarked another expat in Beijing, China.

"I researched the culture and understood that it is apart of the whole experience," said another expat in China.

"I cannot say I experienced significant culture shock. I find the Chinese to be interested in Americans. They still vividly remember fighting the Japanese with support from America. Almost every day, I have Chinese people of various ages approach me and want to take a "selfie" with me. I meet people at restaurants who want to try out their English on me. I have people offer me fruit and water on the city buses," remarked another expat who made the move to China.

Visa & Immigration

Visit the Chinese Embassy's How to Apply for a Visa page to get an overview of the visa process. "Be careful about contracts and visas, make sure they are all legal and above board. English teachers are in great demand here so all you need to do is find a school and they will give you the letter of invitation with which to get your visa. There are so many opportunities in China to teach that you can afford to pick and choose," advised an expat in Beijing.

"I just came with a one year visa "invited" by a female friend I met on the Internet. That didn't work out, but got me into the country for one year," said one expat who moved to Nanning, Guangxi Provence, China.

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What to Bring When Moving to China (and what to leave behind)

"Once you arrive in China, have someone teach you how to use taobao or jd.com. You can find nearly anything you need if you can translate it to Chinese. If you shop in malls, some will have household items, but many malls will have items at elevated prices. In Beijing, believe it or not, I found some household items on the top floor or bookstores... both Wangfujing and Xidan. Also, any mall will have restaurants and everyday stores on the B1 floor. Sometimes you can find good grocery stores, as well as household items like, rice cookers, hot water pots, etc," advised one expat on the China forum.

"Wish I brought my dog, some clothes and photos. Wish I didn't bring some clothes, junk and more junk...," said one expat who moved to Beijing, China.

"Three things I wish I had brought 1. My own bed or a new American made King Size bed!!! My poor back may never forgive me for not doing so. Along with not knowing the meaning of safety and sanitation, the Chinese do not have a clue when it comes to making comfortable furniture.PS. Also the complete bedding for that bed. 2. Also, like the bed two very comfortable chairs(like a laz-y-boy) for the living room. Again, your body will appreciate you for doing so. 3. A mixer that has been wired for 220 volt. Can be done by companies in America that wire appliances for overseas living.The chinese do not use(yet) many of the appliances Americans are use to using in their kitchens. Three things I wish I had left at home. 1. At least 3/4's of my clothing (with the exception of underwear, jeans, and shoes) China is a nation of a zillion clothing shops and, also, excellent tailors and seamstresses that do not charge all that much to make good clothing. 2. My breadmaker. China now has lots of bakeries and while their pastries still leave something to be desired their many choices of breads will do just fine for your dinner table. 3. My fear of the Chinese people. I can honestly say that I have NOT had one single intimadating, fearful enounter or situation with any Chinese since moving here over two years ago. Frustrating and confusing at times,yes, but I have never felt threatened. In fact,sadly ironically, I have felt much safer here in China than I ever felt back in my good, ole USA," mentioned another expat when asked about moving to China.

"Three things I wish I had brought when moving to Beijing: My favorite hair products - American products are really expensive and sometimes impossible to find. Cocktail bitters - I come from a place where craft cocktails are all the rage. Finding anything but agnosta bitters is unheard of. My favorite chair - most everyone buys their furniture at IKEA, which is fine. But, if you want something different there aren't many places where you can walk in, try something and then go home with it any earlier than 6 weeks. Three things I didn't need to bring Any of my kitchen appliances - I knew my hairdryer didn't work but didn't think about anything else. You will have to have a converter to use with anything. Way easier to just buy a new appliance. High heel shoes - I sprained my ankle within 2 weeks of arriving. The sidewalks are uneven and horrible to walk on. I won't wear high heels ever in Beijing. Hard luggage - I've converted everything to soft so I can pack it away. It's hard to move at the airport true, but better than it taking up your living space," commented one expat who made the move to China.

"Men's Shoes in China: If you are a size 11 or larger you'll find it difficult to find quality men's shoes here. Over the counter medications in China: It's difficult to find simple brands that you know in Chinese shops like Pepto-Bismol, Nyquil, etc. If you have some brands that you rely on, bring those. I also recommend bringing a First Aid Kit as it is just a good idea to have on hand! VPN: Most Western Internet sites are blocked here. You want to pre-install a VPN on your computer and phone before you arrive in China. If you don't, the initial days here will be confusing," remarked another expat in Beijing , China.

"I would have brought more walking shoes, more over the counter medicines and more winter socks," said another expat in China.

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Advice for Newcomers to China

"China is more like the USA than a lot of Americans who have never been here would believe. Capitalism is rampant, so is hard work. Crime is very low. The people are very friendly and helpful. The police have helped my several times to find where I want to go, even telling me to follow them and they went out of their way to take me to the place I wanted to go," said an expat in Nanning.

"It can be a very easy life. If your company wanted to send you here for a while, it's not a terrible place to live. But don't come here unless you have a reason. Be prepared for heavy pollution, unpleasant weather, and little to do. Shopping is great and it's close to Beijing," explained an expat living in Tianjin.

"Be prepared to be bored. There is no social life unless you make your own. The hotels have some holiday buffets. There is shopping for those who like to bargain, but that includes every day things you need like fruit and vegetables also. The weather is warm most of the year," said one expat who moved to Zhuhai, China.

"Pick up copies of the "Redstar" magazine and "The Qingdao Expat." They will tell you where to meet other expats and what things are going on," mentioned another expat when asked about moving to China.

"Take some Chinese classes. It is so frustrating to live here without speaking basic Chinese. And learning to speak is actually quite easy. It's the writing and reading that makes everyone thing Chinese is impossible -- so learn some verbal chinese," commented one expat who made the move to China.

"I would suggest him / her to check http://www.MacauZhuhai.com which is the most reliable source of information about Zhuhai. And if she or he needed more information, than I would suggest to post a message in the MacauZhuhai.com Forum and get some advice from Foreign residents. Finally, I would say that although life isn't easy here, Zhuhai is a city that is improving by the day, and that most Foreigners living here quite enjoy it!," remarked another expat in Zhuhai, China.

"Pick up free copies of The Qingdao Expat (Crowne Plaza Business Office) and Redstar magazine (many locations)," said another expat in China.

"I would tell them a legendary Macanese saying: "In Macau there is a fountain, from which runs water charged with magical powers. Whoever drinks it will be bound to stay forever to the land of Macau, and thus, enable to leave its shores..."," remarked another expat who made the move to China.

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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: Feb 04, 2018

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