So, you’re moving to China. Whether taking up a teaching position, a university course or getting involved in trade, we all come here with our preconceptions of what to expect. But nothing can really prepare you for what you’ll actually find on the ground when you arrive in the Middle Kingdom. Here are 10 things you should know before moving to China.
Living in a country other than China, when you think of Chinese food, you probably think of beef and broccoli, chicken chow mein, spring rolls and fortune cookies. But the Chinese food you’re used to back home is a world away from the food you’ll actually find in China. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find any of these dishes in a restaurant here.
Real Chinese food is, for one thing, much more varied and intense. Expect more spice, more bone, more fat. The cuisine in China is all-round a lot rawer than the Westernised fare we get back home, but if you can get past that initial shock, there’s a world of amazing cuisines waiting for you. I’ll be honest, some of it is weird as hell, but most is so good you’ll forget all about the prawn toast and chop suey of home.
While living in China, therefore, take the opportunity to try quintessential regional fare, such as the Cantonese breakfast of dim sum, the lamb barbecue dishes of Xinjiang and the unmistakable numbing spice of a Sichuan hot pot. And that’s just for starters!
The Chinese work hard and play hard, so it’s no surprise that the country has a 24/7 mentality. It’s not uncommon for adults to work late into the evening and on weekends, while many students have school on Saturdays and fill their free time with extracurricular classes.
Shopping malls and restaurants stay open until as late as 10pm and the street-side barbecue stalls don’t shut up shop until the early hours of the morning. Nightclubs stay open until 4, 5, and even 6am, while some expat pubs operate on a “when the last customer leaves” closing policy. Meanwhile, many fast food restaurants don’t close at all, and you’ll always find a McDonalds or KFC open in any major Chinese city.
If Sunday is a day of rest, then someone forgot to tell the Chinese, because there’s little difference in business operating hours. All in all, China feels like a 24/7 society. The major cities stay lit to the point of insomnia, and no matter the time of day, something is happening somewhere.
Countries the world over are moving towards a cashless system, but few are embracing it as quickly or as wholeheartedly as China. This phenomenon has arrived predominantly through WeChat Pay, the payment system of China’s answer to WhatsApp.
In just a few years, WeChat Pay has gone from a curious novelty feature on WeChat to the main form of payment for most businesses and individuals across the nation. It’s used to split bills at restaurants, pay phone bills, pay suppliers, book holidays and pretty much anything else you can think of. Even beggars have been known to accept donations over WeChat!
It’s rare for people in China to carry much cash on them nowadays, and it’s actually hard to get by without WeChat Pay (or AliPay). So, if you are moving to China, get your account set up as soon as possible.
As a foreigner moving to China, you’re always going to run into some potential headaches when it comes to the language barrier, cultural differences and the sheer size and scale of the country. But once you get to grips with the basics, you'll find China is actually an extremely convenient place to live.
You can pay for anything using your phone (see above); businesses are open at all hours (see farther above); you can order a car to take you anywhere with a few clicks of an app; and you can scan a QR code and gain access to a bicycle for next to nothing.
On top of this, you can order all sorts of food at all hours from third-party delivery apps and purchase anything you can imagine on TaoBao, which makes Amazon look like the local grocery store. And when your deliveries arrive, there’s no concern about being in to receive the package. You can pick it up from the automatic collection boxes that can be found at most apartment complexes.
Say what you will about China, but how many other countries offer that level of convenience?
There was a time when China was a pretty cheap place for a foreigner to live. You could enjoy a high standard of living and still save a healthy amount each month. Expat living has become increasingly expensive in the last few years, however, particularly in the top-tier cities.
To rent a decent two or three bedroom apartment in the most popular areas in a first-tier city can be upwards of RMB20,000; a cocktail at a swanky bar can be north of RMB100; while a pint of craft beer at an expat pub can be RMB60 or even RMB70. A bill at a Western restaurant could end up more than RMB500. Before you run to the hills though, consider the following:
It’s still possible to save money in China if you’re happy living like a local, at least some of the time. If you stay away from the expat hubs or share with others you can get a good deal on rent. If you don’t mind drinking Tsingtao, a night out is still likely to be cheaper than back home. If you eat at local hole-in-the-wall restaurants, you can get a meal for RMB15-20 or less.
So, be warned: if you want to live like an expat in China, it’s going to cost you, probably more than you expected. But if you’re willing to live more like a local, China is still a very affordable place to be based.
When traveling around China, be it for work or for pleasure, you usually have the option of going by plane or by high-speed train. While there are a whole host of domestic airlines flying routes all over China, these internal flights are notorious for running late.
The high-speed train network, however, is a great alternative to flying. The trains are modern, cheap, clean, fast (reaching speeds of 400kph) and, most importantly, always on time. The quality of the train service in China puts many Western countries to shame, and the network is growing every year.
The image of modern China most commonly portrayed to the outside world is one irrevocably touched by industrialisation. It's one of mammoth factories and white-collar workers crammed into subway trains below a sprawling metropolis of skyscrapers.
But away from the industrial hubs, the majority of China’s natural beauty remains untouched. Think Zhangjiajie, which inspired the world of Pandora in the movie Avatar; think the gorgeously splendid rice fields of Yuanyang; think Guilin; think Lijiang; think Tibet; think the beaches of Sanya and the lakes of Hangzhou. The list goes on.
In most cultures, it’s not really appropriate to talk about money. Talk of salary, bonuses, rent, school fees, hospital bills and the like are all considered private affairs, usually only discussed among immediate family, if at all.
Well, China must have missed the memo on that one, because discussions about money are well and truly fair game here. It’s very common to be asked how much you make, if you get a bonus and how much rent you pay. In fact, it’s sometimes one of the first questions Chinese people ask foreigners.
So, be prepared. You don’t need to reveal such private information if you don’t want to, but understand that your interrogator is not being rude.
In the West, we often think of Karaoke as the favorite pastime of the Japanese. But while the Japanese may have invented Karaoke and certainly do love to sing a song or two, it’s in China where its popularity has grown out of all proportion.
In most countries, the average person probably goes through their entire life without ever singing in front of a group of people. In China, many locals do it on a regular basis.
As you get to make local friends in China, don’t be surprised if you find yourself invited to Karaoke, known here as KTV. There’s no need to get all nervous about performing or to spend time in the shower rehearsing for your big show. Think of going to KTV as more like playing pool in a bar with friends. In the same way, KTV is just the vehicle for socialising.
So go belt out your best Michael Jackson impression or try your hand at a Cantonese ballad. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of beer and bai jiu on hand for Dutch courage.
In some Karaoke and even work dinner scenarios, drinking bai jiu is a big part of the evening. Bai jiu is known as Chinese rice wine, but don’t fall into the trap thinking it’s similar to Japanese sake or even Korean soju. This stuff is much, much meaner.
As a rule, it's better to avoid this potent spirit altogether. Although some locals might insist that you drink, and even feign offense when you finally refuse, it's completely acceptable for you to gan bei (toast) with beer or another alcohol instead. Don’t be tricked into thinking it’s culturally insensitive not to drink bai jiu. You’ll regret it in the morning!
What else should newbies know before coming to China? Tell us in the comments section below…
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Overall a very good article and I agree with these points. In smaller cities, many restaurants close surprisingly early and some even close for an afternoon break (which surprised me more) but it seems there is always late night BBQ to be found late. Also, for men it is hard to get decent clothes here unless you like tight clothes with very short sleeves. I weight less than 70 kg and am the height of an average Chinese male and still can't find loose fitting clothes (especially trousers) with elbow length sleeves. Make sure to bring a lot of clothes from your home country and shop during holidays in your country. Good shoes are possible to get but not as cheap as in the USA (despite being made in China). Karaoke is quite fun but I am a bad singer and usually just sang one song (a foreigner needs to at least sing one song in good fun). 'Take me to your heart' is a good choice. Most Chinese people know it and it is quite easy to sing.
Dec 13, 2018 13:32 Report Abuse
I actually found that many places I like to go to are actually closed earlier than expected. While I agree they have a 24/7 mentality, when 5pm rolls around they go home from work just like any other country. They also start the day earlier than normal to get all the sun. So, keep that in mind. As for trains trumping planes, I would say highway buses are the best between close cities, and then planes. Trains are extremely crowded, and you have to get tickets well in advance. With buses, you just show up and within the hour the bus fills up and everyone goes. It's a lot easier than planes or trains which require passport checks, luggage checks, and waiting for hours with nothing to do. With buses you can shop nearby before the bus leaves. And as a bonus for those that travel longer distances, buses stop, trains and planes don't.
Dec 13, 2018 11:30 Report Abuse
Agree with buses. The passport control is annoying for trains although fairly fast. Waiting in line for tickets is sometimes time consuming. Avoid buses on Sunday nights between certain places though when traffic is heavy. Train tickets are often hard to get-that is a good point. China still can't meet demand for trains and they desperately need to add even more capacity.
Dec 13, 2018 13:39 Report Abuse