When I first moved to China, I felt confident that I would be able to adjust to life there without much difficulty. I was a seasoned traveller with a fairly resilient character, so while I was aware it would be difficult in the beginning I imagined that I would quite quickly settle in to my new life. As it turned out, that was an optimistic view of my new life situation. In fact, I experienced a few unforeseen problems straight off the plane. In hindsight, a lot of the issues I encountered could have been avoided had I bothered to ask around. With that thought in mind, I decided to put together a list of ten key tips I would offer anyone thinking about moving to or newly arrived in China to make a smooth transition.
1. Technology is your friend and your enemy
An often exasperating part of life in China is the China firewall. The Chinese government restricts certain content from the internet and certain familiar search engines and websites cannot be accessed from within China, for example, Google, Facebook, BBC and many others. These are regular sources of information and social interaction for the majority of the Western world and suddenly being without them can be frustrating and leave you feeling isolated. I would suggest that you learn about VPNs (Virtual Proxy Network) before you move to China- there are a number of them on the market, (both free and for a fee) They basically work to mask your location and route your connection through a location outside of China (thereby allowing you access to those restricted sites). There are a number of local versions of the sites and these are worth familiarising yourself with at the very least to understand your Chinese peers better. Apps such as Pleco ( a free mandarin dictionary) bus and subway apps are also vital for getting around.
2. Embrace asking for and receiving help from others
For me, this was a big issue to overcome. I am very independent and like to think that I can handle any situation thrown at me. In truth, I probably could have managed, but in China, it takes a lot longer to accomplish. Especially if you do not speak much of the language, life can be very difficult to navigate in China without some kind of translator. Be willing to ask for and receive help for all kinds of situations and you will find life much easier.
3. Learn some Mandarin
Following on from the above point, if you want to have some independence, it is vital to know at least a little bit of the language. Simple, essential phrases such as, Where is the bank? ‘I don’t speak Mandarin’ can be helpful. Also conversational basics such as I am English, I work at X or some funny phrases will help immensely in making connections with Chinese people and making new friends. For instance you could try, ‘such as I came to China because I really love Chinese food with all my heart!’
4. Understand that there are long bureaucratic processes
China has the largest population on earth. As a result, there are bureaucratic processes for everything to manage a population of that magnitude and some of them may not make sense or seem very convoluted. Be prepared to be patient. What you would expect to take a short amount of time could take a while. Be prepared to feel frustrated. You may need to provide all kinds of paperwork that doesn’t necessarily seem relevant. Try to see the funny side and remember that this is all an experience to grow from.
5.Be openminded about a different culture with different cultural norms
I remember going out for lunch with one of my colleagues and I was so pleased to have found someone I was really getting along with and within minutes of ordering her soup noodles, she proceeded to slurp them into her mouth with a long, loud slurp. I was so shocked and put off, but I was later to discover that this is a very normal part of life. There are so many examples of this kind of cultural difference. Try to keep an open mind and remember that you may also have lots of habits that would seem equally odd, even offensive.
6.Get used to being considered an outsider
Wai guo ren- outside country person
A part of life in China, is that if you look different you will be stared at and even asked to be photographed. I remember I was on the underground with a friend who is black. The two women standing next to us were staring and staring and when they got up to leave one of them leaned over and rubbed her arm- apparently overcome by curiosity. My friend took this well, laughed and said, ‘it doesn’t rub off.’ People are very curious about anyone who is physically different. Keep it mind, that is rarely malicious.