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Expats in China : 10 things you should know about living in China

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Like any country, living in China has its mix of highs and lows for the new expat.  Having the opportunity to be an expat in China is a very unique experience, and so Mark has put together ten things expats in China should know.

This article is written by Mark Angelides. Mark is a writer and educator who has lived in China for the last 8 years.

Aussie expats living in China

Expats in China: 10 Things You Should Know About Living in China

Like any country, China has its mix of highs and lows for the new expat. Understanding what some of these might be is essential knowledge in preparing yourself to be “the Successful Expat”. Having the right mindset and knowing what to expect before you arrive will ultimately make your experience living in China a better one. Here are just a few of the many things to consider when being an expat living  in China.

1. Bureaucracy is a day to day event

Be aware that the rules change often and the responsibility lies with you to deal with them. This is especially true of the visa situation.

If you are interested in working or living in China, and if you are not Chinese born, then you’ll need a visa. Currently there are Work visas (Z visa), Business visas (M visa) and Spousal visas available to the expat. There are a lot of hoops to jump through and not every government office will give you the same information. The most important thing to remember is: Do Not Get Angry. Getting worked up over the never ending bureaucracy will do you no good, and will in fact earn you a fair amount of resentment from people who could otherwise be in a position to help you.

The people who work in the local government bureaus do not make the rules; a friendly and calm approach will more often than not result in them going the extra mile for you. During the last 14 months, there have been three major overhauls of the visa system, get used to and be ready to roll with the blows.

2. Prepare to be inventive with your cooking

If you like eating out at restaurants, then living in the big cities in China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Qingdao) will be a true paradise for you. There are restaurants that have great tasting, good quality food from all areas of the globe. However, if you are living in a tier three or tier four city, you’re going to have to be pretty inventive in your culinary thinking.

Most of the smaller cities have in recent years started trying out Western foods, but this is still an incredibly limited range. You may find a KFC or two, the occasional McDonald’s, but not much else unless you can read enough Chinese to decipher a menu.

Home cooking is popular for expats in both large and small cities. This can be a great excuse for get-togethers and parties, especially if one of you has come across a much-coveted ingredient. The standard kitchen in China is not much to look at but mostly come equipped with running water and two gas burners at the minimum (often a microwave, too). The real challenge is finding ingredients.

Although every single supermarket will have at least two aisles of peanut oil and freeze-dried noodles, select “Western” foods are a little more difficult to come by (I spent my first three years here looking desperately for a block of cheese). Places like Shanghai have dedicated foreign food markets, but everywhere else requires a little more searching. Most expats living in China will end up using Taobao.com (the online marketplace for literally everything) to get hold of sorely missed ingredients.

3. Each province is something different

China is made up of 34 different parts (some provinces, some economic zones etc…) and each of which is radically different from the other. Depending on where you are based, the food, language, rules, cultural habits and even topics of conversation will all be completely different.

Each tiny village has its own special food and language peculiarities. Travelling from town to town may seem like one endless stream of countryside, but if you take the time to get to know people outside of the cities, you’ll find a truly rich heritage and some great characters.

Be prepared for your status as an expat to go through a lot of ups and downs. In small cities and towns, you may be the first foreign contact for many of the local folk and as such get ready for a lot of cheesy pictures. Whereas in larger cities with plenty of foreigners, you’ll be just as ignored and barged around as everyone else.

4. Transport options are better than you may think

Transport is something that China does extremely well considering the massive overcrowding. In both large and small cities, you’ll find buses, coaches, trains, taxis and tuk-tuks (3 wheeled cabins), all ready to get you where you’re going for a range of prices and comfort levels.

One rite of passage for expats living in China is the long-haul train journey. The comprehensive rail system covers the country in every direction and there are a number of ticket options available. Hard seaters, soft seaters, hard sleepers and soft sleepers; each with different comfort levels and price tags.

The hard sleeper is the preferred choice of most expats. A three layer bunk bed with a small shared table; lights out at 10 p.m. and a beer and noodles trolley making regular rounds. These are great for journeys up to about 30 hours.

5. Get ready for the festivals

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The Chinese love their festivals and take the cultural aspects very seriously. The main festival is Chinese New Year which falls around January or February each year depending on the lunar calendar.

During Chinese New Year, you can expect invites to family dinners, dumpling making sessions, giving and receiving of gifts (usually a food or alcohol product), and a lot of fireworks. If you are lucky enough to receive an invite to someone’s family home in a local village, take it and enjoy the unending train of food and drinks that will be heaped upon you. It’s a great opportunity to cement friendships, improve your Chinese and learn a little of the culture.

6. Strange working hours

Although the majority of city-based workers living in China will be regular 8 to 6 folk, the lunch breaks are quite different to our mainstream one hour snack grabs. Many office, factory, hospital and even school workers will take a two to three hour lunch that involves an afternoon nap or a booze fuelled six course meal.

In the major metropolitan cities, this is now frowned upon, but almost everywhere else it is really the norm. Don’t be surprised to hear your Chinese friends complaining that they didn’t get to sleep much at work so won’t be going out in the evening. Many companies have cots set aside for these naps, and school children are allotted time out of their day to put their heads down on the desks to have a relaxing midday snooze.

7. No matter how hard you study the language, some folk just won’t understand you

Chinese is a great language that can be fun to learn and a challenge to write, but no matter how good you get, you’ll still find people that just can’t grasp what you’re saying.

You should know that Chinese is not just one language. Moving beyond the main divisions of Mandarin and Cantonese, each province has its own dialect; and beyond this each town and village have their own linguistic differences in pronunciation and syntax.

On top of this, it’s worth remembering that each syllable can be pronounced with different tones which change the meaning of the word. Take the time to learn sentences that give your words context, and prepare for a bit of mime to really get your point across.

8. Dinner vs. Drinking culture

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Unless you’re hanging out with young cosmopolitan Chinese, odds are that the idea of “going for a beer” will be greeted with confusion. Most invitations are for dinner and these dinners involve a certain amount of ceremony.

The way most Chinese folk see it is that if you’re worth having a drink with, you’re worth having dinner with. The inviter is almost always the one who pays (although it is polite to offer profusely) and they will choose the restaurant and most of the dishes. Depending on the number of people going, there will be seating arrangements based on “importance” (not general importance, but importance during the meal); you should definitely thank your host if you are seated directly on their right.

There will undoubtedly be a lot of beer or baijiu (Chinese rice spirit, usually 40% alc. +) and drinking has some cultural rules attached. Try to remember that your host will have to keep drinking for as long as you do, so go easy on them.

9. Finding an apartment

Getting set up with an apartment (houses are few and far between) as an expat in China is actually very easy. There are many agents who will happily show you a string of apartments based on your requirements. There are however some differences depending on what type of city you’re in.

Large modern cities: In places like Shanghai and Beijing, you can expect to pay around 8,000 RMB per month for a one bedroom apartment near the city centre, these drop to 3,000 or so on the outskirts. If location is not too important, you can get larger apartments for the same price. Expect to pay three month upfront and a 35% fee to your realtor.

Small cities and towns: If you’re not based in one of the major hubs, renting an apartment is very, very cheap. With a little searching, you can get yourself a two or three bedroom apartment for around 15,000RMB for the whole year!

10. Clothes and shoes can be tricky

Unless you happen to be quite petite with dainty feet, you may find clothing a bit of an issue in most Chinese shops. Consider taking plenty shoes and socks with you if you have larger feet as your choices will be severely limited.

Also, Chinese bought shoes don’t tend to be great quality (even if you buy known brands); if you wear the same shoes on a regular basis, expect them to have a shelf life of about three to four months.

Australian expats living in China, expats in China
As with any major life change, acceptance is the key to happiness. Try to embrace your time as an expat in China for what it is: an opportunity to meet wonderful and interesting people in a new environment. The more you relax and accept there are aspects living in China that will cause you headaches, the better time you’ll have. Try not to fall into the expat trap of only engaging with foreigners and you’ll really make the most out of your time.


What are your experiences living in China?  Share your experience for other expats in the comments section below.

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