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Dealing with Culture Shock in China

Updated 15 Oct 2012

You can hardly open a magazine or newspaper these days without finding an article on the rise of China, so it’s not surprising the country attracts scores of expats looking to boost their international business bona fides or experience some of the most vibrant cities in the East. But China is, after all, on the other side of the world and possesses a distinct, centuries-old culture, so any new arrival will have to overcome a bit of culture shock.

Day-to-day realities in China

At first, simple tasks can consume an entire day: figuring out how to navigate stores, utilities, and other chores becomes more difficult than expected. Linking up with a community of expats helps. Check English-language magazines and websites such as The Beijinger or Shanghaiist (most big cities will have something) for events or enrol in a language school.

“The most difficult thing for me was the pollution,” says Wendy Chow, an Australian expat who’s lived in Beijing for almost five years with her husband and their two young children. After pollution, the next most frequent source of complaints is the traffic. Expect traffic jams in big cities and very, very crowded buses and trains. 

Chinese cities are busy and bustling. Despite initiatives to curb spitting and nose blowing the sidewalk, you’re likely to encounter that sort of behaviour on a regular basis. Even in nicer restaurants, bathrooms tend to feature squat toilets. The level of cleanliness can be difficult to adjust to, but if you can learn to appreciate China’s freewheeling ways, those concerns fade into the background.

Being a foreigner in China

As a foreigner—often referred to as laowai (“old foreigner”) in Mandarin—you’ll draw attention. In touristy areas, people may jack up prices or attempt all manner of scams (one of the most popular is luring foreigners to a teahouse to “practice English” and then leaving the visitor with a very expensive bill). Outside of big cities, expats often find that locals stare or ask to take photos with them, but the attention is generally positive.

“I moved to Tianjin and it was the best city to have as a first city,” remembers Australian Rhys O’Loughlin, now a Shanghai-based teacher and musician. “Nearly every time I went out, someone would invite me to their house to practice English and for some reason, their mum would want to cook for a foreigner. This made the transition a lot easier as I was having good conversations, practicing Mandarin, and really throwing myself right into the deep end, culture-wise.”

People who are ethnically Chinese but grew up elsewhere sometimes have it the hardest, since they “look Chinese” and are expected to be familiar with the language and culture. And while white skin can open doors (see the “rent a white guy” phenomenon), other races sometimes find that unpleasant stereotypes precede them.

The language barrier in China

Learning the basics of Mandarin is very helpful. Many taxi drivers and shop clerks don’t speak a word of English. You can get by with just English in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but your life will be limited: you’ll need to have addresses written out in characters before you set off and likely end up eating in expensive expat-oriented restaurants—or at McDonald’s.

Street signs are written in Chinese and pinyin (a Romanized version of Chinese), but shop signs are usually only in Chinese. The distinct system for naming roads and bridges takes some getting used to, and it can be hard to find an accurate map, says Ryan Phillips, an American who visited Shanghai on a librarian exchange, because construction happens at such a fast pace that resources quickly became outdated.

Even if you can only say a few words, the Chinese people you meet will appreciate your attempts to overcome the language barrier.

Socialising in China

Etiquette rules aren’t super-rigid in China, and there’s a lot of leeway given to foreigners.

Splitting the bill isn’t common—you might see two people physically jostling to determine who picks up the tab. Chinese friends may insist on paying for you, or in other cases, you may find that as the foreigner—therefore perceived as wealthy—you’re expected to pay.

At Chinese banquets, fiery white liquor called baijiu is often served as small shots. Although many expats find the substance undrinkable, when someone locks eyes with you and shouts "ganbei" (“dry the glass”), you’re expected to drink!

People pass out business cards all the time, even in social situations, so be sure to stock up on name cards before you go, or get some printed cheaply when you arrive. When someone offers you his or her card, accept it with both hands and then offer yours.

Issues for women in China

Women moving to China may find people are a bit bolder in asking about their marital status and having children. While foreign women are unlikely to face overt harassment and should find the country very safe, they may encounter a traditional mindset: “Sometimes at restaurants, I'd order beer for the table, and the waitstaff would bring glasses for only the men,” says Eveline Chao, who lived in China for five years and wrote Niubi! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. “When I asked them to bring me a beer glass too, they'd look confused, because some Chinese, especially more conservative Chinese from the countryside, don't expect women to drink alcohol.”

And the perception that foreign women are 'loose' can haunt women. “Chinese men do feel that Western women are much easier when it comes to bedding them and become possessive,” says Rhys. “If we are at a bar and a Chinese guy buys my Australian friend drinks and they dance, he then feels she owes him. I have had to break up Chinese guys who wouldn’t let go of my friends.”

In most of China, women should feel comfortable wearing the same clothes as in the West. However, in Xinjiang, with its large Muslim population, many local women cover their heads and arms, and it’s best to dress a little more conservatively.

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