York English have been around for nearly 16 years, that’s a long time in a country like China which has changed so much in such a short amount of time. And China is a huge, diverse country – life in the countryside may seem like a different era to cosmopolitan city life, Shanghai may seem worlds away from smaller cities. But after 15 years, we feel we have acquired some knowledge on what life is like for our expats. We’ve created the ultimate guide on moving to China – what to expect, how to adapt, and the little quirks that make up daily life. At the end, things that can help you to adjust to your new life in the wonderful country that is: China.
Let’s get number one out there – spitting is a thing in China
You will most definitely hear, see and experience spitting, you may shudder and recoil, twist your face in disgust, or pretend you didn’t even hear that man violently spit right next to you. Do whatever coping method suits you best, but sadly you will still hear people spit.
Shop assistants can either be the best thing ever, or your worst nightmare
In China, customer service goes that extra mile with a chorus of ‘huan ying guang lin’ (welcome) when you enter a shop, to a shop assistant following you around as you wander the aisles. When this first happened to me I thought I must look like a shop lifter, because back home that is the only reason someone follows you around their shop. But here, a shop assistant that does not escort you around waiting to help in any way, is practising bad customer service. So either embrace it, or politely ignore it.
Chinese food – it’s not the same as back home, but often it’s way better!
The variety and flavours go further than my old, beloved local Chinese take away ever could!
Never leave your house
Of course we don’t mean this literally, but if you wanted to, you would never have to leave your house. Delivery is everything in China! Meals, groceries, freshly pressed juice, whatever you want! Yes, we know the shop is literally across the road, but they will still deliver.
Embrace your new found celebrity status!
As a ‘laowai’ (foreigner, but meant affectionately) you will get stared at, photographed, and asked rather personal questions about your marriage status. China is a very homogeneous country, and the people are very curious, therefore foreigners, particularly tall blonde or red-haired foreigners, are a novelty. This is becoming less of a thing in the cities as China modernises at a rapid rate, but it does still exist.
The sun is the enemy
For me, one of the strangest things in China was the amount of space I found in public areas in the summer. If they can help it, the Chinese generally stay out of the sun when it’s out in full force. This is mostly because you most definitely will sweat profusely, but also because they prefer to not get a tan. This means those parks and outdoor eating spaces are up for grabs, something back home I would have had to fight for. So sit in the sun and enjoy a drink, if you don’t mind a bit of sweat!
Squat toilets are real things
While you will be able to find Western toilets almost everywhere in the city, squat toilets are still very much alive. Embrace the squat, work those thighs.
The trains are pretty great
Fast, on time bullet trains for a fraction of the price in the West. Comfy and spacious, and that’s in 2nd class! The train network around China is extensive, you can get pretty much anywhere by train, no matter the distance!
Personal space becomes a thing you will remember fondly as a distant memory
The Personal Space, that unwritten rule, that invisible circle we place around ourselves that everyone at home just understands, does most definitely not exist in China. But I guess with so many people, that is a luxury they have forgone! Take it as a friendly gathering when you find yourself at a counter with a group of 6 others learning on it with you, just casually waiting their turn. If you find yourself looking suspiciously at the woman behind you who you think is sniffing your jacket, remember she is probably not doing anything of the sort.
This then comes to queue jumping. Let me give you the Chinese logic of a queue: If there is space in a queue (i.e. you are not breathing down the neck of the said person in front of you) then that is the place where someone will join the queue. Any space means someone is close by to fill it. And that is if there is even a queue to begin with!
Thank you, thank you, thank you
It is very common here to see people chuckle at your repeated thank you’s. As a Brit, my constant thank you’s get a little excessive even by Western standards. Your drink arrived at your table; thank you. Your meal arrived at your table; thank you; they cleared the plates away; thank you. This is often followed by giggles, and if their English is good enough, protestations that you don’t have to keep saying thank you. In China, no one is offended if they don’t even get one at all.
Naps are a daily essential
You know you’ve truly integrated into Chinese culture when you start bringing in your eye mask and head rest to work for nap time. I have witnessed Chinese colleagues bring full-on fold out beds and blankets to work in preparation for this ritualistic ceremony.
WeChat is everything
One of the first things every expat does upon landing in China, is download the app WeChat. It is used for almost everything here, from messaging friends, viewing a Facebook-like home feed, and paying for literally everything. Yes, I mean everything, even small street stalls, food, phone top ups, bills, public bicycles, taxis, movie tickets, the list goes on! You will say goodbye to physical cash and your wallet soon enough, your phone is all you need.
Street food won’t kill you
Honestly. And it’s so good and ridiculously cheap!
A VPN is really needed
China’s ban of things such as Facebook & Instagram, Google & Youtube and all the rest is not some tale you heard from conspiracy theorists. It’s real. So, if you want to stay active on your social media accounts, a free VPN won’t do a good job. Pay for one before you arrive and you’ll have steady access whenever you choose. We recommend Express or VYPR. However, using WeChat to video call home is definitely recommended as the signal will be way better than Skype or even FaceTime.
There are also certain topics that aren’t considered polite to talk about in public, namely a few major historical events……
Superstitions live on
Never give gifts of a watch or a clock as these are signs of death. Never give shoes as a gift as these are incredibly bad luck.
Always lay your chopsticks flat, never vertically stabbed into your rice, unless you want to signal that you want everyone else at the table to die.
The number 4 is deemed to be bad luck, so much so that some hotels won’t have a 4th floor! Stick to the numbers 6 and 8 instead, representing luck & wealth!
Slurp, and slurp some more
You and your Chinese friends have gone for lunch, and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by loud slurping from every angle. You look around and those noodles cannot be eaten without one big slurp. Do you say something? Do you join in? Slurping in China shows appreciation for your food, so my advice would be, if you can, slurp, and slurp some more!
What is also common in China is to have a side dish of complimentary watery soup rather than a drink. So you might as well slurp away on that too!
Here are some things to help you adjust better to life in China!
Discover the culture
From tai-chi to Taoism, calligraphy to Confucianism, Chinese opera to Buddhism, Chinese culture is so abundantly rich there is always something else to discover. Don’t be fooled by the designer shops and huge malls dotted around the cities, there are many temples and gardens to explore. One of the best places to experience Chinese culture is to visit the city parks. Chinese people of all ages love to spend time in the parks either playing cards, Mahjong or Chinese chess, doing their daily exercises, dancing in couples or groups, or singing traditional songs accompanied by traditional instruments such as the erhu.
Have we mentioned that China is huge? There are so many diverse landscapes, dialects, ethnicities and cultures in China, you can’t possibly come here and not see somewhere totally different from the region you find yourself in. You will come to understand and hopefully appreciate this country so much more in the process!
Read up on the history
China has gone through some dramatic cultural and economic changes in the past 80 years, although don’t ignore the rich history dating back 5000 years! Some knowledge on this, particularly recent history, may help you understand some of the cultural differences, particularly that of the older generation. The economic boom has seen a wider technological gap in generations than most countries have ever experienced, which makes China a very fascinating place to be. At one point you could be in the city centre, surrounded by skyscrapers and all the teenagers glued to their phones, and next minute an old man comes by dragging an old fashioned wooden cart carrying vegetables, even wearing the Asian conical hat (yes, you do still see these being worn!).
Learn the language
With free Mandarin lessons, we try to make it as easy as possible for you to learn the language. And this one is a given, the more you can communicate with the local people, the more you’re going to enjoy your time here. Even if you can only utter a few phrases, people will appreciate it and you’ll have smiles directed at you all around.
And last but not least, share dishes and go for group meals. Chinese food is at it’s best when it’s served in small dishes that everyone shares, normally on large circular table with a spinning glass centre so everyone can try everything. Food is an important part of Chinese culture, in particular with family and friends, so enjoy your time at meals sharing delicious dishes with friends from around the world!
We hope you’ve gained an insight into what life in China is like. And there will always be some things that don’t make sense, like why ATMs only give 100 RMB notes even though that’s far too big for most shops, or why babies never wear nappies but parents don’t have a concern holding them, and where is the refrigerated milk?!
China is so vast and ever changing, you can only ever truly understand it by coming here. We hire native English speaking teachers all year round, apply today and join our ever growing community of expats in China!