For many Westerners, China can often appear to be a vast, inscrutable nation with an ancient past and a very modern future. The first big wave of Western expats started to make their way over to China about 20 years ago, and these veterans of life in China have started to develop some very helpful tips on how to survive in China as a foreigner. What follows is a look at some of the key tips to getting along in China and making the most of your stay there.
Tip #1: Learn as much Chinese language as you can before making a long trip
In order to really appreciate the local culture and meet as many Chinese people from every walk of life, you have to know the language. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to learn basic Chinese before you even arrive overseas. For example, Western expats typically use websites like ChinesePod.com to pick up some useful phrases and helpful expressions. Chances are, your landlord won’t speak English, and basically no taxi drivers will speak English, so you need to be prepared ahead of time. At the very least, invest in a helpful phrasebook.
Tip #2: Understand the value of your foreign passport
One of the first tips you’ll learn about thriving in China is protecting your passport wherever you go. Your Western passport is arguably one of the most important things you will own when you live in China. According to expats who have learned the hard way, the street value of a U.S. passport these days is anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000.
And, unlike Western nations, where you rarely if ever need your passport, your passport is vital on a daily basis in China. If you are booking a hotel or train, traveling between cities, or just interacting with a local Chinese bank, you will almost always need to show your passport. Most experienced China travelers keep multiple photocopies with them at all times, and know exactly who to contact if they lose their passport in China.
Tip #3: Be willing to experiment with food options in China (but not too much)
One of the real pleasures of living in China is the sheer variety of foods that you will encounter. Almost every city has a large local market, and most people don’t hesitate to eat food right on the street from local vendors. However, this presents its share of challenges for any Westerner because you do not always know what is going into your food. Stories are legion about “lamb meat” actually being rat meat, and about recycled garbage showing up in meals.
And there’s one other fact about life in China that might strike a Westerner as being a bit odd, and that’s the real safety issue of cooking oils used in China. As much as 30 percent of all cooking oil used in restaurants is not olive oil or vegetable oil; instead, it is something known as “ditch oil.” To be charitable, this is reused oil that could be from just about anywhere.
Thus, taking these two facts into account, many experienced travelers advise avoiding all meat while in China, and strictly controlling how much of their food is cooked in oil. You can still shop at the local market, of course, but mostly focus on fruits and vegetables that you recognize. And only eat at restaurants that you trust.
Tip #4: Be prepared for a lot of curious locals
Westerners in China are still somewhat of a rarity, so if you have classic Western features — such as blue eyes, light hair and fair skin — be prepared for a lot of curiosity. Sometimes, it can feel flattering, because there is still a certain amount of prestige associated with hanging out with Westerners. But it can also be a bit stifling — some expats report being mobbed by photo takers, almost to the point where they feel like they are celebrities and every Chinese local with a camera is trying to take their photo.
Tip #5: Pack enough warm clothing for a surprisingly cold Chinese winter
When people think about the coldest nations in the world, China is usually not at the top of the list. However, many northern Chinese cities get very cold during the winter, and most Western expats find that they have significantly under-packed. That leaves them scrambling for the right warm clothing at a time when most quality goods from the West are still very over-priced.
And one more factor at work here is the fact that many Chinese buildings are not properly insulated in the first place. Buildings are not heated to the same warmth as in Europe and North America, and the poor insulation only compounds this problem. Sooner or later, you might even have to buy a portable electric heater.
Tip #6: Get ready for culture shock when interacting with local Chinese
Many of the stereotypes of Chinese people are, however uncomfortable it might be to admit, largely true. Coming face-to-face with these stereotypes while in China can cause culture shock. For example, many Westerners will joke about the rudeness, selfishness and just plain ignorance of many people they encounter.
But you have to see the big picture here. Remember: China has had a very turbulent past, and that has led to a lot of behaviors that many in the West might perceive as just “bad manners.” Examples include people pushing in lines very aggressively, being dishonest when engaging in basic transactions, and even random people (including old women) screaming at you if you’ve done something wrong.
That being said, China is a wonderfully complex and diverse country and one that has a lot to offer even the most jaded traveler. Whether you are traveling to China for an extended vacation or moving there permanently for work or school, it certainly pays to have advance knowledge of what to expect and how to get by. Using these six tips above, you will be well positioned to survive — and even thrive — in China as a foreigner.