Only the Patient Expat Shall Pass: Rites of Passage in China

Only the Patient Expat Shall Pass: Rites of Passage in China
Jun 08, 2016 By Michael Evans ,

Settling into expat life in China can feel like an initiation to a secret society, involving strange and at times elaborate rites of passage. These are the experiences that separate the novice from the seasoned veteran. Sometimes painful, sometimes enjoyable, the expat who successfully passes each test finds him or herself one step closer to being able to confidently and truthfully answer "yes" to any inquisitive local who asks, "Have you adjusted to China?"

1) Taking the "Big Squat"
One of the first and most jarring differences encountered between China and the land you call home is the squat toilet, a literal chasm between the world you grew up in and the one you live in now.

Many expats wonder aloud how locals are able to balance just right on such a daunting device. The intricate interplay of footing, bending, and the complete lack of toilet paper (and occasionally, stall doors) can give anyone a headache. But many may not realise that avoiding the squat toilet requires far more elaborate acrobatics, obsessively watching their water intake and constantly referring back to mental maps pegged with the nearest McDonalds or luxury hotel.

The true challenge of the squat toilet is a mental one: recognising that the stress of trying to avoid the inevitable is just not worth it. So just relax, and save that anxiety for facing the next challenge…

2) Digging in to street food
Food is nearly everywhere in China, but in the minds of many expats, the vast majority of it is best kept at a distance. A quick glance at the street side stalls carefully reassembled every morning shows a decidedly unappetising sight: battered metal carts blackened with soot and grease, parked next to puddles whose smell can be questionable at best. Even Chinese friends often warn against eating street food, suggesting the shrink-wrapped safety of a nearby restaurant instead.

But those same Chinese friends are spending their warm summer nights squatting on the pavement with a beer in one hand and a chuan'r skewer in the other. Eating street food and joining the millions of Chinese sharing it all around you lets you experience local culture as it is actually lived, and maybe even make a new friend or two. And if they're still alive (and enjoying it!) even after braving the risk of cardboard baozi or mystery meat, chances are you'll be just fine, too.  But for the times when something does go awry, it's still smart to keep a well-stocked medicine cabinet and the name of the nearest pharmacy.

3) Making peace with Western fast food
Expats in China have a strange and often conflicted relationship with fast food. Some view McDonald's golden arches and Colonel Sanders' warm smile as beacons of civilization in the midst of chaotic darkness, and cling to them as the last tenuous connection to home. Others shun fast food like the plague, viewing a single step over the freshly-mopped threshold as a betrayal of the adventurous spirit and cultural authenticity they came to China to pursue. 

But a truly seasoned expat gradually comes to see the foolishness of either extreme. Things that were once foreign and fearsome come to lose their power. He or she may notice that most of the other faces in the KFC are Chinese, and that the taro pie and congee on the menu reveal this place to be just as local and "authentic" as the neighbourhood jianbing stand. The familiar storefronts once viewed as holy or horrifying become just another part of the landscape. If a veteran expat finds him or herself drawn to fast food chains, it may be for the same reasons many Chinese keep coming back: high standards of hygiene (in both the food and the facilities), free wifi, and 24-7 opening hours that provide a free (if awkward) place to sleep when rooms and time are tight.

4) Taking the train, the hard way
One of the best parts of living in China is the chance to travel, and generally speaking, travelling means taking the train. Seats and beds typically come in either the hard (yìng, ) or soft (ruǎn,软) varieties: the names are self-explanatory and the best choice seems self-evident. Choosing a comfortable berth on a long journey looks like a no-brainer, especially during holidays, when China's legendary crowds stuff themselves into narrow train carriages for the obligatory journey home.

But for the real Chinese experience, book the hard seat and dive right in. Perhaps nothing else in China is quite as Chinese as a crowd. Sure, many expats may complain, or have even heard their native colleagues grumble that "there are too many people in China." But a crowded train car offers a slice of life rarely available on solid ground. Even with just a smattering of phrasebook Chinese, an intrepid tourist can meet a wide range of fascinating and friendly people from all over the country and all walks of life. And as an added bonus, it's a good way to save a few Yuan for when you actually get to where you want to go.

5) Rolling with the punches
Even seasoned globetrotters will quickly find that China is a country of surprises. Schedules and timetables suddenly change without explanation, while a favourite restaurant that's booming one day has vanished without a trace the next week. A friend invites you to a birthday party an hour before it starts, then sends a text message calling the whole thing off as you're about to arrive. It may seem at times that not only is preparedness not a virtue in China, it's not even a concept.

Such sudden and abrupt changes can be one of the most frustrating aspects of life in China, but coming to terms with this unavoidable part of life is more than worthwhile. An expat who has learned to take things as they come – and always have a backup plan – finds him or herself enjoying life in the here and now, open to new adventures (and misadventures) that make their time in China truly memorable, and provide them with an arsenal of stories for the folks back home.

6) The final challenge: dinner with the family
An invitation to a family dinner is both the ultimate cultural experience and the ultimate test of expat endurance. Whether invited by a long-time girlfriend, kind-hearted co-worker, or even an unusually friendly stranger, an invitation to dinner at a Chinese household is an inevitable step on the path of expat life. The invitation can be a real thrill: a sign that you have at last "arrived", been accepted as an insider, and are about to step inside the much-vaunted Chinese family, bedrock of a 5,000 year old society and civilization.

But while some expats may be a bit anxious about meeting new, unfamiliar people and customs, few are truly prepared for the challenges they are about to face. The daunting challenges of nearly every one of the above rites of passage are compressed into one event (and often, into one tiny apartment). Once inside, the expat is confronted with mysterious foods, suffocating (if friendly) relatives; and a never-ending stream of baijiu, cigarettes and conversation in incomprehensible dialects.

But the key to not only surviving but mastering this final challenge are the same tools that will help pass through every "rite of passage" as a China expat: understanding, patience (not only towards others, but occasionally towards yourself as well), and the realisation that even if worst comes to worst, tomorrow is another adventure.

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Keywords: rites of passage China foreigners living in China expat veteran in China difficulties in living in China adapting to Chinese culture


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Try driving in China.

Jan 12, 2017 23:17 Report Abuse


Well written

Jul 06, 2016 12:27 Report Abuse


I like this article. well written and so "real".

Jun 16, 2016 08:05 Report Abuse


When locals stop calling you laowai because they see you everyday...every month..every year...

Jun 12, 2016 07:54 Report Abuse


Fun article to read.Different points of view from the comments, also a good read. I've come to China 9 times, the last time was in 2012 and I haven't left. Obviously, I love China very much -

Jun 12, 2016 07:42 Report Abuse


Haha think I'm mostly there

Jun 09, 2016 05:15 Report Abuse


Hard seat is a premium. How about no seat without getting an explanation (in Shanghai of all places) and realizing you'll have to stand for hours? :o

Jun 09, 2016 03:18 Report Abuse


Wow, a 2nd repost! Scraping the bottom of the barrel now! Maybe you should get a new intern to write more generic articles for you?

Jun 08, 2016 17:45 Report Abuse


The public toilet that is, at best disgusting, and at worst, utterly revolting. Eating insects Sitting in the crying baby section/spoiled brat section/people who haven't showered in a year section on any bus, train or subway.

Jun 12, 2013 14:10 Report Abuse


I do go hard sleeper as my wife's preference. However, if you have the 'brown rain' or hell even a solid trying to escape, using the toilet on the train is horrible. the floor is soaked with urine where people have missed, there is no where clean to hold to prevent your self from falling over (and on a train, its easy to do... hell on solid ground I still need somewhere to hold to prevent my self from tipping over). My last experience was a 22 hour K train ride. hard sleeper. I was dealing with my latest bout of food poisoning and it was a very bad experience. luckily coming back was much easier, just me on my own, so I took my motorbike on the back roads. It took allot longer and cost more but my god it was worth it.

Jun 06, 2013 23:05 Report Abuse


This article is older than Echinacities!!!!

Jun 05, 2013 03:15 Report Abuse


13david, is 16 weeks a record for not using a squat toilet (really) ? Not even close; I have been here a year and have never used one for anything except taking a piss. I would have to bet that there are people who have been here several years and never used one. That one in the picture is nothing like a normal (disgustingly filthy) Chinese toilet so using it is maybe ok, but generally I would rather squat in some bushes rather than use the average Chinese restroom. Could I use one? Sure I could and perhaps someday I will, but it won’t be anytime soon. I have yet to figure out how in the hell the average woman (Chinese or Western) uses one with the clothes that they often wear. How would you like to try it wearing a pair of 3 inch heels, pantyhose, underwear, a skirt/dress; all the while caring a purse and shopping bags? Now think of trying it with no heels and 8 months pregnant !!! I asked my girlfriend about it and she gestured that you pretty sometimes have to put your hand on the floor and push yourself back up while pregnant. Now isn’t that a lovely thought. I would have to think that if you had a case of really bad food poisoning you could easily end up needing to whip (you know what ) off the back of your legs, pants, or whatever else it gets on. The only other thing on this list that troubles me is that the “lack of planning and organization”. I have never seen anything like it, nor can I understand it.

Jun 03, 2013 22:10 Report Abuse


Just an opening gambit. Love China, shame about the toilets.

Jun 04, 2013 10:32 Report Abuse


I was afraid of using a squat toilet at first, but after using one I became a big fan of them.. Everything just slides out without any effort at all! Only thing I don't like is that my legs die if I have to spend more than a few minutes squatting.

Jun 02, 2013 21:15 Report Abuse


I'm amazed at the comments and some people's unwillingness to try and adapt. The trains are absolutely fine, albeit they are a shock to the system. Street food is a staple in Wuhan, I know people who refuse to try it and I don't understand the fear behind it. If you don't like chicken feet eat something you do like. It's not exactly rocket science.

Jun 02, 2013 11:53 Report Abuse


The fear involves parasites, food poison, or any variation thereof. It seems like an even risk/reward at best.

Jun 12, 2016 22:10 Report Abuse


Well said.

Jun 05, 2013 08:56 Report Abuse


Why are all these articles based on a cynic, negative and poor point of view about China? Are you that simple to not appreciate interesting things that don't bother but teach you, and make you feel good? And then write about them? Hey, sorry man, but it seems you are always like crying. Once here, try to adapt, it seems you're fine anyway, considering you've not left. So tell the people about what makes you stay, that might be much more interesting (or not necessarily).

Jun 01, 2013 22:40 Report Abuse


Because they are funny, new fish. That's why. You don't like it, don't read it.

Jun 20, 2013 11:11 Report Abuse


Yes that Squat toilet looks unused. I have managed to spend 16 weeks in China without using one . Is that a record? It's essential to get all your business over before you leave the hotel. My Chinese wfe and I have a standard argument over the "squat". She argues that it is hygenic. Not having to sit where others have sat before is, she says , infinitely more hygenic. She relates a story of a new sit down "civilised" public toilet as I call them being installed , but taken away when a woman trying to squat on it fell off and broke her leg. Street food no problem. It's a risk anywhere in the world, but you just have to try it. Getting the occasional shits is par for the course. If you aren't lucky enough to have a chinese wife, a few tips. Check out the kitchens,and the state of the hands of the vendor, for a start. Trains , no problem although I have only used then in Shenzhen. Very clean and modern. So long as you develop a strong set of elbows. Foreign junk food chains.Avoid them like the plague here in Oz. Same in China. Saw an interesting sight in a Haagen Daz ice cream parlour[ not truelly junk} I would argue, a young Chinese guy with Nike Runners ,Adidas tee shirt, Levi jeans and a Nike bag. Should be a law against that sort of thing. Will meet my wifes parents next year. Her father said marrying a westerner would never work. Should be an interesting meeting.

Jun 01, 2013 14:54 Report Abuse


Same here, I haven't used a squatty since I came here in September last year. Just a matter of good bladder training I guess. However on occasion I am in need of a Number 1 at the University where I work, here the unspoken rule is touch nothing except your Johnson. Elbow your way into the stall etc. On a separate note, what about the toilets that cannot handle a Number 2 bulk delivery? If like me, you tend to drop something resembling King Kong's finger it tends to linger at the back of the pan just under the waterline. Usually results in giving it a damn good thrashing to hasten its imminent water based demise.

Jun 08, 2016 11:27 Report Abuse


eating dinner at a chinese family's house is one of my favorite things to do in china its banquets thats the challenge with too much drink and smoke. but dinner with locals at thier home is a great experience you will be lucky to have here!!!

May 31, 2013 12:18 Report Abuse


Living in a foreign country means soaking up culture and practices, but tha doesnt mean we have to participate in everything. Sorry but the squatter is not for me.

May 31, 2013 12:07 Report Abuse


because of differen nations, it is really not easy to become an inside people in china, the same like chinese on abrod, we will be diffcult to became inside also, but foods is a quick way to introduce each other cultures, if u can cook one dish chinese foods, they will be amazing to u.
we are teaching chinese foods like fried pork buns, street foods and sichuan foods, feel free to leave message to me.

Jun 24, 2012 19:19 Report Abuse


Very good list and I suppose I've had some success with the list of challenges. I would have to clarify something though - the photo shows us a sparkling clean squat toilet. I believe most westerners could actually overcome the actual 'physics' but it's the feces, spit, urine and you did mention quite likely lack of privacy (for you and/or the guy beside you) that terrorizes us.
Street meat is good challenge but what thwarts me isn't the horrifying array of intestines or chicken feet. A westerner could choose a non-threatening piece of meat. The problem (as you mention here) is whether or not I need to spend the next 10 days with a bacterial infection when my body simply cannot tolerate what most Chinese can.
Personally, I thought super-crowded 'hard seat' train rides were crazy fun for the first 20 minutes.
I do believe the invitation to the home is the ultimate challenge (or can be) for most North Americans anyways. We come from a culture that tends to be sensitive to a foreign visitor and feel obligated to try and set our customs and culture 'around theirs'. Maybe being 'overly-sensitive'. We even hear stories of a disappointed Chinese exchange student after his Host Family went to elaborate lengths to create an authentic Chinese meal so he would 'feel at home'. The student actually wanted western meals.
But Chinese (typically) don't have that perception or cultural considerations (not a bad thing) and I found that the western might even expect to be teased and embarrassed at how strange and uncomfortable or 'naive' they are. Look - he doesn't even know how to eat chicken feet! You don't like it? How fussy! Do you starve to death then? Quite a challenge.
But i had to laugh at the bizarro KFC and McDonalds. Yes, I too found myself very confused as to what the heck I had ordered. Why was my orange pop hot? Is this shrimp in my chicken burger? What is going on??

Jun 18, 2012 13:07 Report Abuse