(Mind-Blowing) Words of Wisdom - Life Advice from a China Expat Sage

(Mind-Blowing) Words of Wisdom - Life Advice from a China Expat Sage
Mar 01, 2014 By Matt Poulter , eChinacities.com

(Mind-Blowing) Words of Wisdom - Life Advice from a China Expat Sage
Photo: beijingtoday.com.cn

Over its millennia of history the Chinese language has accrued a vast array of chengyus and proverbs, written down by Confucian scholars, Buddhist monks, warrior generals and even emperors, pontificating on everything from sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, to the meaning of life itself. Some of these have withstood the test of time, '千里之行始于足下' (A thousand 'mile' journey begins with a single step), while others make use of analogy or metaphoric imagery that seems more obscure in the context of modern life, '守株待兔' (Waiting by the tree stump for a rabbit to come and hit it). Having recently celebrated five years in the Middle Kingdom – a feat logically granting an expat automatic sage-status in all China-related matters – I thought it only right and proper that I join this pantheon of respected Chinese figures and set down a new generation of wise sayings, relevant and helpful for an expat's life in modern China...     

1) Only the fool follows the green man blindly (Be careful at pedestrian crossings)
Pedestrian crossings in China are often the worst places to cross the road, lulling you into a false sense of security only for a car to jump a red light and miss your nose by inches. Beware of crossing a road in China as traffic laws are often flouted.

2) Beauty is on the outside, not the inside (Don't pick apart your leftover dumpling)
Jiaozi are a cheap delicious snack food beloved by foreign Chinese language students all across China. But don't be tempted to dissect any of these innocent looking pastries as the insides are likely to permanently ruin your appetite.

3) Beware the silent two wheeled monster (Be careful of electric bikes)
Silent but deadly, colliding with or being side-swiped by one of China's millions of electric bikes is no fun at all. Worse, two wheels in China often seems to equate to a licence to completely disregard all traffic laws, so pay attention to electric bikes cruising the wrong way up a road or jumping on to the pavement.    

4) The wise man runs on rubber (Treadmill, not parks)
As a gym hater it was a difficult choice, but after being repeatedly garrotted by trailing kite strings, countless collisions with octogenarian tai chi practitioners waving around mid pathway, and the general dodgems of young children, dogs, eager English students and street vendors, it was finally time to give up the parks and pay for the privilege of running hamster-style on a rotating piece of rubber indoors. If you enjoy exercise, get a gym membership early on in your stay.  

5) The silver screen leads to anger and frustration (It's a cinema, but not as you know it)
Standards of viewing etiquette are not the same in China so expect ringing mobile phones, lively conversations, comings and goings, seat kicking and munching. Lots of munching. Better options are to find a reliable dealer of good quality cheap DVDs or to watch movies off sites such as Youku or PPTV. 

6) Passport! Passport! Passport! (You'll need your passport)
The danger of petty theft on the streets of China is fairly high, which makes carrying a passport around seem like a very bad idea. But to book a train ticket, check in to a hotel, change money, send or receive money, open any form of account, sign any form of contract, and countless other mundane tasks, you will need it. What's more, PRC law states that you should carry your passport on your person at all times and cities such as Guangzhou enforce this with frequent police street-side inspections and fines for those who don't. To avoid frequent frustration, it is better to just carry your passport with you always, or at the very least keep a coloured photocopy of the passport photo page and your visa folded in your wallet.     

7) The key to a happy heart is through your ears (Buy a good set of headphones)
Of course cultural immersion is a good thing, but everyone needs the occasional break from it. One tried and tested tactic is to cancel out noise with other noise and to invest in a good set of headphones to play specially tailored 'occupational playlists'. I find Ride of the Valkyries is always good for bus journeys, enough to drown out the screeching brakes and the constant thundering of the announcement system while remaining the perfect dramatic complement to the view of city chaos out the window. Meanwhile, the soundtrack to La Traviata has let me once again enjoy my favourite local Cantonese noodle restaurant, sitting right amidst the slurpings, burpings and throat clearings while happily eating and doing the same.  

8) The spice of life leads to ruin (Go easy on the spice)
I never was a 'yi dian dian lajiao' man, but take it from me: unless you have conditioned your insides by growing up scoffing vast amounts of chilli from a young age, Chinese chilli and its variants will eventually land you with digestive problems.    

9) One 'zhege', One 'nage' (Beware the filled pause)
Any foreigner with better Mandarin skills than my own influent stuttering turns me green. Especially those who have 'only been learning a year' (Really? Really?).
But the indiscriminate use of the verbal filler 'zhege' or 'na ge' does not make a better Mandarin speaker. On all but the most fluent of foreign Mandarin speakers it sounds contrived and silly. GOT IT? 

10) Don't turn into a smug China know-it-all (Don't turn into a smug China know-it-all)
So you're a chicken foot-eating, fluent Mandarin-speaking old China hand – but you still don't know it all. China is an enormous, complicated, constantly evolving mass of a country and pretending you know everything there is to know is just setting yourself up to look like a fool.  

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Keywords: living in China things not to do in China expat advice China Chinese life advice


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death to all scooter scum!

Jun 08, 2016 05:45 Report Abuse



Still a useful article.

Sep 05, 2014 18:37 Report Abuse



In 10 years I've been to 36 cities in China on my own and got robbed in only two railway stations: Guangzhou North and Shanghai North. "He who wears backpack frontwards doesn't get robbed at train stations." The only habit I just cannot get used to is the multi-tasking by clerks. I was booking a hotel in Dalian and a young woman casually walked up to the one clerk on the counter and fully expected to have her room renewed. And the clerk did it while she was running to the photocopier with my passport. I was paying for the room in advance and didn't notice she had written it up for today so when I came in the next day they wanted more money for a room I never slept in. Now, during a money transaction, I pull away from the counter and take my papers with me until the intruder is served. I was waiting in line to pass through into Hong Kong when a self-important businessman strode to the head to the line. A Hong Kong border official belted out loudly "You with the suitcase, get to the end of the line or I will send you back to the mainland where you came from!" He looked as shocked as the Jewish official who arrived in Auschwitz who was rifle-butted in War & Remembrance.I was standing at the lights near YHA's hostel in Sydney and saw a young woman plugged into her music so I made no effort. The one next to her was Chinese so I started a conversation with her and we chatted all the way to the airport and she waved good-bye at the domestic terminal. I tend not to disturb plugged in people. The most nourishing food in Sydney was Chinese around $10 AUD. My students through the years spend hours reciting their textbooks but usually don't take notes. Strange. I do my fake volcanic eruption when I read a student composition to the class and the phrase "every coin has two sides" appears. I edited a Chinese colleague's paper on a novel and she tried this strategy of sitting on the fence midway through and her argument went to mush. I would not have lived anywhere else for those 10 years.

Mar 07, 2014 21:56 Report Abuse



I don't know why I like this, but I do. Thanks!

Sep 03, 2014 22:01 Report Abuse



better advise: now your homes economy is picking up, its a damn good time to head back. no good reason to be in china any more.

Mar 03, 2014 03:48 Report Abuse



Thanks! Funny, original approach to 'living in China' advice.

Mar 01, 2014 00:44 Report Abuse



I don't use headphones, I run through the park, I eat jiaozi, baozi, noodles, street food, spicey food, my eyes and ears are wide open. I've been choked, pushed, hit, walked through the funkiest parts of town, and I'm still alive. Some foreigners live in the laowai bubble. Some swim in the ocean. There's a lot of China out there. Ignore the bubble. Live a little! Buy an electric bike, or a non-electric bike, join the madness. It's exhilirating! Learn Chinese! It only takes 5 or 10 years! Or you can buy the bubble. My only advice on what NOT to do: don't drink the baijiu. Chemically, it's a lot like moonshine, with 'almost acceptable levels of methanol'.

May 24, 2012 18:45 Report Abuse



WOw. you accept being treated like crap? You are a true Chinese then. But one thing, you need to stop having any opinion because that might break harmony and told "if you don't like it go home".... No i don't live in a Laowai bubble, I live in a respect others and things around bubble.

Mar 01, 2014 18:24 Report Abuse



My advice on the other hand is to try the Baijiu, Sichuan is famous for spicy food, and the worlds largest producer of spirits (Wuliangye). This is not a coincidence. Decent baijiu is a nice accompaniment to spicy food. In my opinion the best accompaniment, although cold watery beer is ok as well. Fortunate then that baijiu and cold watery beer are both available at most sichuan restaurants.

May 28, 2014 15:25 Report Abuse



Who said I accepted anything? You just imagined something that I never said or intended to say. Your reply is confusing at best since it is barely and vaguely related to anything I said. I respect others and things around the bubble...I think I do, at least if I could figure out what that actually means. I was only saying 'enjoy what's in China to enjoy, and don't worry about the small stuff'. How you got anything else out of it than that is a good implication of your inability to duplicate what another is saying. A 'true Chinese'???? WTF?

Sep 03, 2014 21:59 Report Abuse



Enjoy the methanol, you can have it. Sichuan food? The only thing better is Hunan food!

Sep 03, 2014 21:59 Report Abuse



Big fail on #6. Most people accept color photocopies of said passport in my experience. Copy the current visa page, copy the title page (the one with the photo), and your worries are over.

Hell, in most cases, they simply ask for the number, which I have memorized. So I have often just rolled on by without it.. If they can look you up in the database, it checks; if it checks, you can go.

Never, never carry around your passport on a daily basis.

May 24, 2012 16:27 Report Abuse


Stacks McGuigan

Ive learned to ignore all comments now as they're level is usually of the pre-pubescent male variety.

Anyhoo, Id just like to point oot that point two Jaoizi/dumplings are in fact made from decent meat and veg. How dare the writer make assertions against the greatest ever food creation in the middle kingdom like that!!!! in the past year along ive made tens of thousands of them in the restaurant i work at in jing-an. I tell you, compare a dumpling to a western style sausage and you're talkin offal versus prime cuts. furthermore there isnt a veg in sight in the sausage. dumplings are blessed not only with veg but herbs and spices too, and theyre steamed - not fried. ever wondered why chinese live longer and look thinner than westerners? yeah, dumplings (and rice)

man, why am i even commenting here and contributing to this moronic discussion...

May 24, 2012 06:34 Report Abuse



I don't know how you can compare a dumpling to a sausage. They really have nothing in common except for the fact that they hold something inside. So it is like saying that if you are a medical family doctor you should work on my teeth now too because you both went to medical school. If you want to compare something like a dumpling you have to compare it to a perogie. Perogies have vegetables, spices and baccon bits or whatever can be added. I love both the dumpling and the perogie, the versatility of both and do not believe one to be greater than the other. Why settle for one when you can have both?

May 31, 2012 07:49 Report Abuse



No idea where you saw that the Chinese live longer than Westerners, the top 10 countries with the longest life expectancy are: Monaco, Japan, Andorra, Singapore, San Marino, Iceland, Italy, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. As for China, it stand at the 97th place, behind countries such as Argentina who is a huge meat eater, Vietnam where they are poorer than China, Cuba where the people are supposedly starving, France who eat smelly cheese, Turkey who is also a big meat eater, and most Eastern Europe where the food suck. Source : Wikipedia

Mar 05, 2014 18:07 Report Abuse



Lol, you've lived here for five years... you haven't lived my son! I got side swiped by an electric bike (by the way they don't need licences for, hence they don't follow any rules), this bike intern crashed into a bus, which also then swerved into an on coming bus, blocked a major road in my town and caused a massiVe pile up which in turn took 3 hours to clear up... I in turn picked myself up brushed myself off, shouted Ben dan at the fool under the bus somewhere and got the hell out of there, no way was I going to be a foreigner at the center of the towns biggest bus accident, I high tailed it out of there, walked round the corner and got the hell out of there!

That is only one of the modest stories... and i agree with bearded guy (if you were ever in guangzhou then we've probably met - I probably have a picture of you with a cat on your head - if your not, then there's another guy out there who is just like you!) oh and to add to the chaos of my Chinese travels so far, I got to close for comfort with the criminal under world in China to... I made my peace with them and got out of there before they change their mind (I thought they were going to take my shoes to - and it was January) and running, what the hell's that?! it's cheaper to go for a massage skip the odd meal and find yourself a Chinese girlfriend or two. They'll wear you the hell out... I took one surfing, she never mentioned she couldn't swim... she loved it so much having a white guy splashing around after her she went back out again! They are dog barking crazy! Love it... I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. My friend I came out with has just got his driving licence so we've been getting out on the roads to, you wait til you reach the country side, they have freeways that go from 8 lanes down to one in less than 10 meters (Wenzhou area)! And bicycles, say no more... i've been run over by my own students enough times, they hurt too... that's all i'm saying, and all so that they could just wave and say hello :P What a life! Zhe Shi Zhongguo!

May 23, 2012 07:18 Report Abuse


beard guy

nah, never been there :P i live in wenzhou tho... and i'm so happy to hear you don't need a license for those electric bikes, i'm going to have to get one!
-hve not been here long. but i know once I FINALLY catch up with the chinese night life i'm going to have heaps of fun
.......no one in my school will take me out :(

May 23, 2012 20:35 Report Abuse



Sounds like ten ways to avoid being in China while actually being in China. Why bother being here if all you want to do is avoid being here?

May 22, 2012 19:34 Report Abuse



gee..yea, who wouldn't want to be smacked by an electric bike and get the real china experience...

Sep 28, 2012 16:46 Report Abuse



That's called being a Western male laowai for you

Mar 01, 2014 11:12 Report Abuse



Nicely worded article that covers pretty well the things that piss you off in China. Wearing headphones? Never thought of that and as well as muting those mentioned sounds it might help me miss the never ending 'hello" thrown at you from various tables when eating out at restaurants.
I ride a bicycle to add to the daily danger of going anywhere and apart from the usual obstacles of potholes, cars coming at you on your side of the street, vehicles stopping in front of you unexpectedly and ogling beautiful women there is the added, but puzzling, danger of steering around pedestrians who walk on the roadway and not the sidewalks. Then again, when you see the condition of the footpaths you can understand the citizens' desire to avoid serious injury.

May 22, 2012 14:47 Report Abuse


beard guy

are you serious? random hellos entertain the crap out of me! they already want to be your friend coz your white. from just a single hello (in several different cases), i've got meals paid for me, heavily drunk, and a 3 day fling..... i actually look for opertunities to say hello :D

May 23, 2012 04:15 Report Abuse



A simple Hello got me a 1 night stand!

May 25, 2012 21:51 Report Abuse



a simple hello cost me 2000rmb for nothing

Mar 03, 2014 20:35 Report Abuse