Oct 21, 2013 By Jefferson Mendoza , eChinacities.com

Stepping foot in a country with over 3,000 years of history is exciting yet daunting. Ideals of what you could do swirl in your head because you have read everything that you needed to know about China – a country that has become a competitive force at the international level ever since it opened its doors to the world in the early 1990s.

With her arms wide open, foreigners have made China their new adopted home – temporarily or for a longer term – because of opportunities. Foreigners near and far have come for various purposes: to study, to work or even to find love. Still, whether you like it or not, unexpected skills are learned and knowledge is gained even after moving to China.

skills gained in China
Photo: Richard.Asia

Let’s talk!

Whether you can speak null, a little bit or a lot of Chinese, communication is a skill that needs to be relearned at some point during one’s stay. Imagine having to find your way around with little spoken Chinese. In an unorganized city like Wuhan in the province of Hebei, Garic B. from the United States, came to China to study Chinese. When the school term had already started, Garic needed to sort out his immigration. But being a self-paid student at that time, not much help came from school officials so he had to complete all of his paper work by himself as well as looking for a place to stay. This experience didn’t deter him from leaving the country. However, it was the Wuhan customs that tested his resilience. “In Wuhan, I learned how to yell,” he said, recalling the times when people did not stand in line. “I had to learn to push my way around in the Wuhan dialect and to push my way to the front so that I can be heard.”

Hearing is one thing, yet understanding is another. “Communication is not just about speaking good English,” said British expat, James O’dowd and owner of Rebel Rebel, a café and bar in Guangzhou. Even after living in China for 12 years, spearheading a bar with local staff is learning how to balance his own culture with those who surround him. “The idea of explaining to somebody and believing that they understood everything you had said. You go away and come back the next day and then find out that they [the staff] didn’t understand. You realize that you have to be slower and to communicate clearly.”

“Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?”

Body language alone might not suffice when trying to communicate your intentions. Known for her short bop and her bubbly personality, Tiffy Li is Chinese and works for EF English First, a language training institute in Guangzhou. Relaying information between local staff and international teachers, for example, is an art for her. “Foreigners are usually more direct while Chinese people tend to be too indirect most of the time. I think communication, respect and understanding between each other are the key to improve understanding for both foreigners and Chinese.”

At present, the economic booms in the past have led the factories to flourish to a level where foreign talents have been needed. Such was the case for Graham C. from Ireland. Prior to living in Guangzhou, he went on business trips to Shanghai, Hangzhou and Dongguan as a furniture designer. This exposure to different Chinese cities encouraged him to take the ‘relax’ approach when dealing with local staff at the factories. “At the beginning, I had high levels of frustrations. During those moments, a lot of people would look at me and they would give me an objectionable smile. I would ask myself: ‘Why are they smiling at me? Why are you not helping me in moments of anger and impatience?’ When I realized that this anger or this impatience wasn’t helping me move forward, I took this relaxing approach,” he said. 

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…”

It is a shock to see so many people in first-tier cities in China where the city swells depending on a particular time of the year. China is not for everybody. Accepting that you will be staying here, even momentarily, is an adjustment phase.  “You choose to be here so get over it,” said Garic. “As a language student and being in a room with other foreign students who have their own businesses or have PhDs, it’s interesting to learn a language because you’re sent back to a kindergarten level very quickly. When we are discussing the color of your hair and that’s all you can say, it brings your walls down. You become vulnerable.”

Outside of China, Chinatowns have been the lifeblood of the Chinese culture, sharing their talents and their know-hows with the natives. This also applies to foreigners who wish to set up their own businesses in China. “We could bring a little bit of our culture. And bring it to the masses. So that’s a great way to set up a business because you’ve got skills and knowledge that a Chinese person wouldn’t necessarily have,” said O’dowd. These days, Rebel Rebel has been attracting more Chinese locals than before when it first opened a year ago. Many locals have enjoyed the British ambiance and it has stayed true to foreigners’ expectations regarding food, live music and customer service.

When you are in the product development industry such as in the case of Graham, pushing the creative process continues be a challenge for him. “By living here, I’m feeding a knowledge. In my project development department, I’m also giving them new ideas that they haven’t seen before. They see it as an added benefit from me. That they can reuse my knowledge later on in the future.”

This shared knowledge between foreigners and locals have led to lasting friendships for Li. Working for a foreign company has allowed her to be exposed to different cultures that her parents might not have had the chance while growing up. “My experience with one particular foreigner made us best friends because we can share our thoughts together,” she said.

Word on the street

Some other unexpected skills and knowledge people have gained after moving to China:

Renee M. – USA, formerly living Guangzhou, now in Turkey: “To get over myself; To accept things for what they are instead of being angry about what they’re not; How to laugh at others.”

James R. - Madagascar: “Having to adapt to the crowded metro since it’s always full; Making friendship with Chinese is difficult; Beers have lower alcohol percentage in China.”

Lisa May – Canada: “You can get by without knowing a lot of Chinese words; the use of body language can go far even when you can’t speak a lot of Chinese. I have seen people in smaller cities to be more willing to understand you; Chinese families have different expectations from Canadian families – the inner workings.”

Paul – Belgium: “Learning how to deal with cockroaches and how to get rid of them; to appreciate the Chinese’s way of thinking by listening and following every word without making too many interpretations.”

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Keywords: skills gained in China foreigners in China

12 Comments Add your comment



Arms wide open? Don't make me laugh.

Oct 21, 2013 09:14 Report Abuse



5 years, no chinese needed or wanted.... I only see it as another way of letting chinese people gaining another way to scam me, lie to me or just plain be rude to me.

Oct 21, 2013 19:43 Report Abuse



i have a trusted translator. So only have to talk to people that i need to in China. I would sooner leave a situation where i believed they were full of shit, than bother to dance around the truth. I am far to grumpy and cynical to play games anymore.... "China! It will turn you into an angry old man, telling kids to get off your front lawn."

Oct 22, 2013 17:03 Report Abuse



One of the worst "articles" I have ever read in my entire life! A bunch of baloney and I wanna puke right now. The fake journalist with the fake name cannot write. Probably cannot write even in his/her own native language - Chinese, perhaps. What a low, low stoop, editors and staff. Wumao, anyone? Cretins, shame on you for publishing such trash.

Oct 21, 2013 20:17 Report Abuse



It's only a small matter but Wuhan is in Hubei not Hebei.

Oct 21, 2013 20:48 Report Abuse



“In Wuhan, I learned how to yell,” he said, recalling the times when people did not stand in line. “I had to learn to push my way around in the Wuhan dialect and to push my way to the front so that I can be heard.” Hopefully he can unlearn all these when he leaves China and goes home, lest he ends up in a zoo, jail, lunatic asylum.....etc.

Oct 22, 2013 15:53 Report Abuse



Only skills I gained in China: chopsticks. Nothing behavioral though as the ones they have here aren't socially acceptable in most other societies.

Oct 25, 2013 16:51 Report Abuse



damn, you guys are so superior and so wise you can't learn anything anymore. If you are so amazingly smart, how come ya'll still small timers? Let's see, I go to a country and start bitching around, hmmm, does not make sense right? I'm glad Shanghai gets more competitive and screens out all the trashy foreigners that come here as the alleged entrepreneur and after a year of teaching English and some BS business they start to bitch about this and that. Greeeeaat, bla bla bla, you can tell this to some dumbass mofo.

Oct 26, 2013 00:00 Report Abuse



Sha bi

Oct 26, 2013 05:13 Report Abuse



On a personal level I'm fine with China, been here 3 years and so far so good. What I do have a problem with is, little Chinese key board heroes like "Guest2331884". Who have no willingness to accept their shortcomings and learn from them. Rather said person would throw a "BF" like the little t*** he or she is. With the same defense every single time, which goes somewhere along the lines of..."If you don't like China go back". Grow up man, get out of you're comfort zone. It's high time. And one thing that I learned in China is that people are generally racist and jump to stereotypes.

Oct 31, 2013 08:10 Report Abuse



I'd have to agree that the article is a biased, rosy-coloured view of reality. The only knowledge China has to impart is about Chinese culture. People in China all love to copy eachother, to make the group happy. From a large perspective, we can see how it's profitable for the government if all the people think with one common mind. But I definitely want my half-chinese son to *understand* (not just learn & copy) the values of creativity and individuality. I wan him to be brave, and care about more than just himself and his family. Because if nobody cares about society, then... you get China: Bourgeois middle-class mediocrity, everyone's simplemindedly greedy, cares too much about saving face, ashamed to work hard, clinging to their families, devoid of creativity or courage, a substandard knock-off of the real thing. everyone cares too much about saving face; people are ashamed to work hard. They brag about their powerful families abusing corrupt positions. It's stable, but hardly moral.

Oct 26, 2013 17:54 Report Abuse



Learning unexpected things from China? Well, if you don't already know (which you should), you can learn much by asking China's best and brightest ones WHY they are flogging abroad to study, and those who are studying there why they don't want to go back to China. Or, ask those who graduate from their best local universities who start applying for emigration as soon as their job in foreign companies in China gives them such an opportunity. It is a waste of time, however, to talk to the low lives who bark, scream and rot at the bottom of the China pit (you find a few here in this forum), as if if they bark enough they would get some "face", and those mainland Chinese who pee on their own buses, and in other countries where they travel to, be they in lifts (who apparently don't know that there is a security camera in a lift) or open public areas, manufacture fake food, shouting in public...etc. would stop doing those disgusting, disdainful deeds which the entire world is seeing. These low lives are destined to stay where they are, rot their life away inside the China hell. Brain drain, in short. These are exactly the kind of people China's best and brightest want to get away from --- having grown up with them, they know how low and incurable these low lives are...that's what they keep telling me anyway.

Oct 26, 2013 21:17 Report Abuse