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Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

Jun 19, 2017 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang , Comments (2)     Add your comment Newsletter

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You came all the way to China but most of your friends are English speaking expats. The Chinese friends you have managed to make are either your students or people who wish they were your students. You eat at the same place every day, usually a Western cafe, and when you go out at night you usually end up drinking Gin and Tonics with a bunch of Italians, Slovenians and Australians. You might not live in an expat compound, but your neighbourhood is full of foreigners just the same. If you find yourself wondering how it is that you live in China but are still not at all in touch with the local culture, here are six tips that might help you “integrate” into Chinese society.

Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

1) Learn the local lingo

Learning to speak the language doesn’t just stop at Mandarin. Part of what makes the Chinese language unique is the fact that there are hundreds, even thousands, of local dialects spoken all over China. While Mandarin is of course the lingua franca throughout China, learning a bit of the local dialect spoken where you are can help you make great inroads into the local culture. Learn how to haggle with vendors in Changsha-hua or tell a cabbie your address in Kunminghua and you’re bound to make instant friends. What’s more, Chinese culture is extremely regionalist, and people closely identify with their hometowns and home language. Speaking a bit of the local dialect sends the message that you’re an insider, not just a guest passing through, and that you care enough about your adopted home to want to fit in with the locals.

Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

2) Eat like a local

Skip the cafes and big restaurants and try eating at some local dives, the hole-in-the-wall places where you can still get a good meal for under 20 RMB. If you make a certain place your regular haunt, you’re bound to become friendly with the “laoban” (boss) and you’ll probably start to recognize other regulars as well. Not only do the small back-alley places have some of the best food in town, the throngs of tourists tend to avoid them because of hygiene concerns. However, if a place has a regular crowd of people eating there, you generally do not have to worry about cleanliness. Claiming a small hole in the wall eatery as “yours,” a place where you can greet the boss by name and the staff knows just what you’re going to order, can help you feel like you’re really a part of a community.

Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

3) Travel like a local

Next time you’re planning a vacation, skip the plane tickets and travel by train. Trains are still the preferred method of travel in China, and the ever frugal Chinese often opt for the cheapest seats possible. Everyone should, at least once, try taking a long distance journey on a hard seat in China. It may be uncomfortable, but it’ll be the trip of a lifetime, and you’re sure to emerge with stories to tell. While soft sleeper is nice and comfortable, on a hard seat, sharing a table with a group of complete strangers, you will have a truly Chinese travel experience. Another travel experience not to be missed is the sleeper bus. While the sleeper bus is not really the place for making friends, no cultural immersion could be complete without a sleeper bus journey. Once you’ve braved the long distance hard seat and the sleeper bus you’ll have the confidence to handle just about any sort of travel China might throw at you and you’ll start to feel like you’re really getting the hang of this “China thing.”

4) Adopt a local family

Of course dating and marrying a Chinese person is probably the quickest and most effective way to throw yourself into Chinese culture, but even if you don’t have a family of your own, you will likely find friends or family willing to adopt you. Take your Chinese friends up on their invitations to their home village for Chinese New Year or Grave Sweeping day, and if you can’t find a family willing to adopt you, consider a homestay if you’re a student. Family is very important in Chinese culture and you will find that most Chinese families are eager to make you a part of theirs, even if they are a bit shy about approaching you at first. Let it be known that you’d really like to have a “Chinese family” and you’ll have so many offers that you’ll have to turn people down.

5) Live where the locals do

When you’re looking for your next apartment, avoid the expat compounds and the areas where the foreign students congregate, and try and find an apartment in an older complex or in a part of town where there are few foreigners. While it can be nice to have a lot of English speaking neighbours, in such places it can be easy to forget you’re in China and if your goal is to immerse yourself in Chinese culture, you’re not doing yourself any favours by surrounding yourself with foreigners. Plus, if you live in a modest apartment in a modest neighbourhood, you’ll find that the residents will embrace you after awhile, and you’ll make sincere Chinese friends who are interested in you because you’re their neighbour, not because you’re the ticket to free English lessons. The owner’s corner shop where you buy your daily pack of smokes or bottle of orange juice will come to know you, the guard at the gate will say hi when you enter, and your next door neighbour might even ask you over for dinner.

Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

6) Embrace the local scene

There’s a lot more to Chinese music than Jay Chou and Faye Wang. Most Westerners find typical Chinese pop music to be fairly unlistenable, but few know that the local music scene has everything you can find back home – rock to punk to metal to folk, Chinese music has it all these days. Scope out some local acts and you’re likely to meet not just fellow fans, but to learn more about contemporary Chinese culture. If you can play an instrument reasonably well, consider forming a band, or joining a Chinese band. Being part of the local scene will open whole new doors to you that you never even realized were closed. This doesn’t just apply to music either. If you’re an artist, connect with local Chinese artists, a filmmaker, with local filmmakers. Arts and music transcends language and cultural barriers, and the scene in modern China is (arguably) one of the most vibrant and interesting scenes in the world. If you can find a way to be a part of it, your time in China may go from ho-hum to something truly special. 

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Keywords: Tips to fit in China how not be outsider China tips for fitting in China how to integrate in China

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2 Comments ( Add your comment )


And despite all your efforts you will regulated as a second-class citizen through government policies which excessively punish and harrass you because you are an outsider...That's the truth of it and the locals know (when not flaunting) the high ground they leverage over you in china

Jun 19, 2017 20:57

You left out Step 7) Be yellow, because if you're the wrong race, no matter what you will do, you will never be accepted. If you aren't Han, or can't pass for Han, you'll always be an outsider, one of "Them". As long as Chinese consider race to be the deciding factor in whether someone is, or is not, Chinese, no amount of language skills, or cultural knowledge, will get you accepted.

Jun 23, 2017 23:06

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