China offers expats a whole new world of opportunities to explore, but with those opportunities come a whole new set of challenges. The Chinese way of life, corporate culture, and environmental conditions can catch many new residents of China unaware and make transitioning into life here difficult. However, preparation is half the battle. Today, I’m going to take you through eight of the most common challenges every expat in China will face.
Source: Christian Erfurt
One of the most useful tools for any expat in a new country is undoubtedly the internet, but as you probably already know, it can be difficult to navigate in China. Google is blocked and Chinese search engines like Baidu are virtually useless for searches in English. That pretty much just leaves Bing and Yahoo for English-language search engines, both of which are just the worst. In addition, the vast majority of foreign social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, are banned, and even the foreign websites that remain accessible in China often have their services slowed to encourage the use of local alternatives.
Accessing Chinese sites can be a pain for many expats, too, as the majority of the most useful Chinese websites, such as Taobao and JD.com, have spotty English translations and site versions (if they have them at all), which can make finding what you want a headache if you don’t read Chinese.
The Great Firewall can of course be circumnavigated with a VPN, but these technically illegal apps cannot be purchased in Chinese app stores and are subject to crackdowns and spotty service. Unfortunately, dealing with internet issues is just a part of daily life for expats in China.
Although things are rapidly improving, China still suffers with a very well documented pollution problem. As the world’s biggest coal consumer, China regularly sees air pollution levels several times higher than the WHO-designated safe level, especially during the colder winter months. As a result, most expats in China invest in air purifiers for their homes and wear masks outside when the levels are particularly high. While the really bad days are getting less and less frequent, air pollution is still a big challenge for expats in China.
The tap water in China is also not recommended for drinking. While many locals simply boil the water before consuming it, this does nothing to remove the harmful heavy metals. You’ll therefore need to purchase a water filtration system for your home or order in bottled watered. If opting for the latter, it’s best to take advantage of the water delivery services that are available in all major cities. These companies deliver and then collect your empty multi-liter bottles so you’re not contributing to plastic waste, which is another major environmental problem in China, especially since the rise of waimai food deliveries.
Many job adverts in China promise a decent amount of vacation days in a bid to woo prospective foreign employees. Around two weeks off a year sounds fair, until you realize that they’re only giving you the federally mandated Chinese holidays. Indeed, most employees in China can expect just five additional vacation days a year within their first 10 years at any company. This sucks for a variety of reasons.
First, the Chinese public holidays are scattered throughout the year in one or two-day chunks, with the exception of Spring Festival and Golden Week. Second, this system means that you only have vacation when 1.4 billion Chinese people also have vacation. Ticket prices skyrocket, travel becomes congested on an unimaginable scale, and anything cool in China will be completely mobbed for the duration. Travel to other countries is doable but still more expensive and requires advance planning of about half a year and careful maneuvering to avoid getting caught in massive delays. Third, it’s common practice for employees in China to have to work weekends as “make up days” either before or after a national holiday. While this seems completely unfair and counterintuitive, the purpose of this is so extra days can be added onto shorter holidays to give a longer string of break days in a row, even though the total amount of days off has not changed. This is all well and good apart from the fact that every office in the country is doing the same thing, so transport and beauty spots are just as congested on the added days as they are on the official holidays. Plus, after a break where you couldn’t go anywhere and do anything, you have to work a six or seven-day week to make up for it.
Unfortunately, there’s no real way around this unless you find the holy grail of companies that allows you to work the Chinese holidays and take your vacation at other times. The Chinese government tries to ensure that companies don’t do this, however, by legally requiring them to pay triple their normal hourly rate if they force/allow employees to work on national holidays. Most companies, being evil soulless entities fueled by employee despair, therefore, will be very reluctant to let you work during the public leave days and take the days off in lieu at another time.
Chinese labor laws technically provide paid sick leave in the form of a percentage of your daily salary (depending on how long you’ve been with a company) as long as you can provide a note from a doctor. I say technically because, while this is the letter of the law, in reality, sick leave is much more elusive for expat workers for a long list of reasons.
First, most expats in China work as teachers, which makes finding substitutes for them when they’re ill difficult if not impossible. As a result, your school will want you to come in regardless of how many fluids are leaking out of you. Second, most foreigners can’t speak Chinese fluently so find navigating a local hospital more difficult and stressful than it’s worth for a sick note. Most expat workers also lack private health insurance, so they won’t bother subjecting themselves to the trials of China’s public health system unless they’re in serious danger.
Consequently, when foreigners in China take sick leave, they often go unpaid. One obvious solution to this is to purchase your own private health insurance, or better yet, insist on a policy as part of your contract negotiations.
Coming to China with zero Chinese language skills as an adult is probably the biggest challenge any expat will face. Adults usually find everything about learning Chinese hard, from the characters, to the tones, to the sheer unwieldy nature of the vocabulary. You might also find that you have to fight Chinese people, who in turn want to practice their English, to speak Mandarin with you, especially at the beginning when your Chinese undoubtedly sucks. Even if you find someone considerate enough to speak with you, you might run into another problem: they’re not actually speaking Mandarin.
Mandarin was created in the early days of modern China as a universal dialect. As it is based on the northeastern dialects of China centered around the Beijing area, very few people speak it as their first language and not everyone even understands it. Old people can rarely speak it well, preferring to converse in one of China’s countless and wildly varying dialects instead. Even young people in major metropolitan areas like Shanghai or Guangzhou often speak bastardized versions of Mandarin with heavy accents. As a result, expats who have spent years learning Chinese still often struggle to understand and be understood.
There’s no easy way to learn Chinese, but the foreigners that tend to master it quickest are those that undergo intensive and immersive learning experiences. If you surround yourself with other foreigners and Chinese people who speak English, there’s little incentive to learn. If you’re the only foreigner in a village full of non-English speakers, meanwhile, you’ll pick things up much more quickly out of necessity.
Many small countries operate under a terrible and inefficient bureaucracy, so imagine how bad it is in a country of 1.4 billion people. While national laws are the same throughout the country, their enforcement, particularly when it comes to the bureaucracy foreigners face when living in China, differs wildly between provinces and even individual cities.
Take spousal visas, for example. Some cities require minimal paperwork, depending on your nationality, while others might require applicants to show they have at least USD10,000 in their bank account as insurance against them working illegally. The difficulty of your life as an expat in China can depend entirely on where you’re from and where you find yourself in the country.
This varying enforcement of the rules can make finding resources, such as expat advice or information on regulations, difficult or near-impossible. What’s true in Shanghai may not be true in Chengdu. In addition, regulations and laws are constantly changing (just like everything in China), which means you can be turned away at your local government office, despite having prepared everything perfectly, just because a small procedure has changed.
The only way to try and overcome this challenge is to keep yourself as informed as possible on the regulations, your rights and any changes to the system. Also, don’t forget to expect the unexpected.
One of the first things newbie expats will notice on arrival in China is the stark departure from the habits and manners they’re accustomed to. It’s not uncommon to see people spitting or clearing their noses footballer-style on the streets here, while chewed up bones will be spat directly from the mouth onto plates in restaurants (and that’s considered polite). For a generally conservative society, you might also be surprised to be confronted with a lot of full frontal and unashamed nudity in gym changing rooms. While they wouldn’t dream of touching the floor with their bear feet, Chinese people have no qualms about sitting on the changing room bench with their bare backside or even blow-drying their short and curlies in full view. When waiting at the checkout in a shop or boarding public transport, you’re also likely to find that queuing is a concept only loosely adhered to, especially among the older generation. Don’t be surprised or angered when a little old lady happily jostles you out of the way and takes your place. That’s just how it goes here.
While all this may take a little getting used to, it’s important to understand that such practices are not generally considered rude by Chinese people. What’s more, there are many habits we have, such as blowing our noses into tissues and eating certain foods with our hands, that Chinese people find equally unsavory and perplexing. You’ll probably never stop wincing when some dude hocks up a loogie on the pavement beside you, but try to accept that different countries have different standards… and leave it at that.
The world as it stands today is a shifting seething pool of change. One day your country might have a good relationship with China, and the next you might be slapping a 200% tariff on each other’s exports. This can have serious consequences for expats in a country as nationalistic as China. You can easily find yourself a target of discrimination at the hands of local agencies and populations in a place where legal protections for foreign residents are almost non-existent. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that international relations can massively affect your daily life as an expat in China.
Again, there’s really not a lot your can do about this other than to be well informed and well prepared. Always have a Plan B for if things go belly-up, especially if you have family and/or pets to consider. It also goes without saying that you should lead a squeaky-clean existence during your time in China, as it’s now not all that uncommon for foreigners to be arrested and used as political pawns.
Should any of these challenges stop you from coming to China? Absolutely not. But having a clear understanding of some of the difficulties you might face in your life here will make your transition far easier. What other challenges have you faced as an expat in China? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Keywords: expat in China
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