Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In
Jun 19, 2017 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang ,

You came all the way to China but most of your friends are English speaking expats. The Chinese friends you have managed to make are either your students or people who wish they were your students. You eat at the same place every day, usually a Western cafe, and when you go out at night you usually end up drinking Gin and Tonics with a bunch of Italians, Slovenians and Australians. You might not live in an expat compound, but your neighbourhood is full of foreigners just the same. If you find yourself wondering how it is that you live in China but are still not at all in touch with the local culture, here are six tips that might help you “integrate” into Chinese society.

Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

1) Learn the local lingo

Learning to speak the language doesn’t just stop at Mandarin. Part of what makes the Chinese language unique is the fact that there are hundreds, even thousands, of local dialects spoken all over China. While Mandarin is of course the lingua franca throughout China, learning a bit of the local dialect spoken where you are can help you make great inroads into the local culture. Learn how to haggle with vendors in Changsha-hua or tell a cabbie your address in Kunminghua and you’re bound to make instant friends. What’s more, Chinese culture is extremely regionalist, and people closely identify with their hometowns and home language. Speaking a bit of the local dialect sends the message that you’re an insider, not just a guest passing through, and that you care enough about your adopted home to want to fit in with the locals.

Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

2) Eat like a local

Skip the cafes and big restaurants and try eating at some local dives, the hole-in-the-wall places where you can still get a good meal for under 20 RMB. If you make a certain place your regular haunt, you’re bound to become friendly with the “laoban” (boss) and you’ll probably start to recognize other regulars as well. Not only do the small back-alley places have some of the best food in town, the throngs of tourists tend to avoid them because of hygiene concerns. However, if a place has a regular crowd of people eating there, you generally do not have to worry about cleanliness. Claiming a small hole in the wall eatery as “yours,” a place where you can greet the boss by name and the staff knows just what you’re going to order, can help you feel like you’re really a part of a community.

Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

3) Travel like a local

Next time you’re planning a vacation, skip the plane tickets and travel by train. Trains are still the preferred method of travel in China, and the ever frugal Chinese often opt for the cheapest seats possible. Everyone should, at least once, try taking a long distance journey on a hard seat in China. It may be uncomfortable, but it’ll be the trip of a lifetime, and you’re sure to emerge with stories to tell. While soft sleeper is nice and comfortable, on a hard seat, sharing a table with a group of complete strangers, you will have a truly Chinese travel experience. Another travel experience not to be missed is the sleeper bus. While the sleeper bus is not really the place for making friends, no cultural immersion could be complete without a sleeper bus journey. Once you’ve braved the long distance hard seat and the sleeper bus you’ll have the confidence to handle just about any sort of travel China might throw at you and you’ll start to feel like you’re really getting the hang of this “China thing.”

4) Adopt a local family

Of course dating and marrying a Chinese person is probably the quickest and most effective way to throw yourself into Chinese culture, but even if you don’t have a family of your own, you will likely find friends or family willing to adopt you. Take your Chinese friends up on their invitations to their home village for Chinese New Year or Grave Sweeping day, and if you can’t find a family willing to adopt you, consider a homestay if you’re a student. Family is very important in Chinese culture and you will find that most Chinese families are eager to make you a part of theirs, even if they are a bit shy about approaching you at first. Let it be known that you’d really like to have a “Chinese family” and you’ll have so many offers that you’ll have to turn people down.

5) Live where the locals do

When you’re looking for your next apartment, avoid the expat compounds and the areas where the foreign students congregate, and try and find an apartment in an older complex or in a part of town where there are few foreigners. While it can be nice to have a lot of English speaking neighbours, in such places it can be easy to forget you’re in China and if your goal is to immerse yourself in Chinese culture, you’re not doing yourself any favours by surrounding yourself with foreigners. Plus, if you live in a modest apartment in a modest neighbourhood, you’ll find that the residents will embrace you after awhile, and you’ll make sincere Chinese friends who are interested in you because you’re their neighbour, not because you’re the ticket to free English lessons. The owner’s corner shop where you buy your daily pack of smokes or bottle of orange juice will come to know you, the guard at the gate will say hi when you enter, and your next door neighbour might even ask you over for dinner.

Don’t Be an Outsider in China: Six Tips to Help You Fit In

6) Embrace the local scene

There’s a lot more to Chinese music than Jay Chou and Faye Wang. Most Westerners find typical Chinese pop music to be fairly unlistenable, but few know that the local music scene has everything you can find back home – rock to punk to metal to folk, Chinese music has it all these days. Scope out some local acts and you’re likely to meet not just fellow fans, but to learn more about contemporary Chinese culture. If you can play an instrument reasonably well, consider forming a band, or joining a Chinese band. Being part of the local scene will open whole new doors to you that you never even realized were closed. This doesn’t just apply to music either. If you’re an artist, connect with local Chinese artists, a filmmaker, with local filmmakers. Arts and music transcends language and cultural barriers, and the scene in modern China is (arguably) one of the most vibrant and interesting scenes in the world. If you can find a way to be a part of it, your time in China may go from ho-hum to something truly special. 

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Keywords: Tips to fit in China how not be outsider China tips for fitting in China how to integrate in China


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I live in a small town way up in the north of China where I am the only foreigner and there are no foreign products in the two supermarkets that exist there. Talk about living the 'Chinese experience'. I am willing to bet that the writer of this article may have done all the above suggestions but wouldn't be able to handle a year here much less the 2 that I have done. Then again for that matter neither could the majority of other Westerners here (judging from comments above)

Aug 10, 2018 16:15 Report Abuse



You left out Step 7) Be yellow, because if you're the wrong race, no matter what you will do, you will never be accepted. If you aren't Han, or can't pass for Han, you'll always be an outsider, one of "Them". As long as Chinese consider race to be the deciding factor in whether someone is, or is not, Chinese, no amount of language skills, or cultural knowledge, will get you accepted.

Jun 23, 2017 23:06 Report Abuse



And despite all your efforts you will regulated as a second-class citizen through government policies which excessively punish and harrass you because you are an outsider...That's the truth of it and the locals know (when not flaunting) the high ground they leverage over you in china

Jun 19, 2017 20:57 Report Abuse



a decent article: I'm stunned

Oct 27, 2015 06:19 Report Abuse



This started with ideas regarding ways one might fit in while in China. No demands, just suggestions. In my opinion there are as many ways to do this as there are people. Though the few that have commented on living in gated communities and not giving up the luxuries of home, you are maybe able to do that because your company pays for you to live there. Nothing wrong with that, but if you are in China teaching per say and you want to learn the language and culture, it is more affordable to live in an apartment where most middle class Chinese people live. It is a individual thing, what you are wanting to get out of living here. To some it is more about living like a local and to others it is about a comfortable place to live while working here. That's All.

Mar 11, 2015 10:36 Report Abuse



The author left out the only real way to not be an outsider. Be yellow, Han if possible. It's delusional to neglect how paramount race and ethnicity is in China. You can eat like the Chinese, live in China where the Chinese live, speak Chinese, practice the local customs, and hang out with Chinese, but the Chinese have an idea of what it means to "look Chinese" or "look foreign", and if you don't look the part, you're not Chinese. Ethnocentrism with Chinese characteristics.

Sep 04, 2013 10:44 Report Abuse



Wow you guys are pretty harsh to the writer. I don't think it's warranted. I've been in China for 4 months now and have traveled many cities. Some of the advice on this list is good and I think you guys get the gist of what he's saying... don't be on an expat island. Flamers gonna flame.

Sep 13, 2012 10:45 Report Abuse



Travel like locals do? I fly and I am usually the only white guy on the flight.
Live where locals do? I live in a high-end compound and it is full of Chinese.
Why one needs to rough it out to be more Chinese? Maybe this website is geared to english teachers?

Aug 30, 2012 07:19 Report Abuse




Oct 27, 2015 06:23 Report Abuse



I agree with what's has been said in here, I got married so i can jump in the Chinese culture. I eat noodles; I go into the dark alleys to find some delicious food all the time.
But my Chinese is still not so strong after 3 years. I wish Chinese can .
Enjoy ChinaActually give us Mandarin classes or talk to us in Chinese instead of always addressing us in English



Aug 29, 2012 21:40 Report Abuse



You don't share a cockroach nest with a squat toilet just to fit in if you have a chance to live in a nice apartment of your own.

You don't have to eat food of unknown origin at some "hole-in-the-wall" place just because it's cheap or just to fit in while you can get a good meal for a reasonable price in many places.

You don't travel in a hard seat just to fit in if you have a chance to take a sleeper or a plane.

You don't differentiate your friends as "Chinese" and/or "Foreign" - you hang out with the people you like regardless of their nationality.
How about being yourself in China?
That's the best way to fit in anywhere IMO.

All in all, the article is meh for the most part.

Aug 29, 2012 17:02 Report Abuse



"Don’t Be an Outsider in China"

when are you clowns in this country going to wake up to the fact it is the 21st Century.

Freedom of travel
Freedom of speech
Freedom of information

except in....China!

Aug 29, 2012 14:53 Report Abuse



"You came all the way to China but most of your friends are English speaking expats." english speaking immigrants, not expats. we are all immigrants and as guests we should respect local culure and rules and in turn we will be respected.

Aug 26, 2012 19:02 Report Abuse



For the author of this article:

the fact that there are "hundreds,even thousands" of local dialects does NOT make Chinese unique at all. Dialects exist almost everywhere, and some countries have as much variety in their dialects as China does, even though their size is much smaller (eg. Italy).

I'm betting this article was written by someone from a place like the US or Australia, where there aren't lots of mutually unintelligible dialects of English, because the country's history is too short for them to have developed.

Aug 25, 2012 14:41 Report Abuse


JAY (Just Another Yangguizi)

"Of course dating and marrying a Chinese person is probably the quickest and most effective way to throw yourself into Chinese culture..." If it's that quick, it's an effective way to have a real disaster.

To quote an old Norwegian billboard for condoms - "Think About It, Before You Throw Yourself Out In It."

Aug 25, 2012 14:39 Report Abuse



For the author of this article:

the fact that there are "hundreds,even thousands" of local dialects does NOT make Chinese unique at all. Dialects exist almost everywhere, and some countries have as much variety in their dialects as China does, even though their size is much smaller (eg. Italy).

I'm betting this article was written by someone from a place like the US or Australia, where there aren't lots of mutually unintelligible dialects of English, because the country's history is too short for them to have developed.

Aug 25, 2012 14:36 Report Abuse



Another cliche dominated article on this website. Why do the writers here feel that they can lump every expat into the one basket and suggest we are all the same. You say drinking with Australians but the Americans are the dominant expats here, probably an indication of the current economic state of that country.
Live in a local compound. Yes we all desire to live in an apartment with a squat toilet.
An article written by someone who does not spend most of their time in Beijing or Shanghai would be a refreshing change.

Aug 25, 2012 07:54 Report Abuse



I somewhat agree with Jessica in this article, that is stereotypically a rehash of her past articles with a lot of fluff lacking in substance. More specifically:

1) Learning and using, even a little Mandarin or local language, is a No-brainer in any country, including China.

2) While I agree the tastiest food can often be found in local restaurants ten times cheaper than the more expensive restaurants, there is one major problem for most expats. Without a Chinese spouse, Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend, Chinese friend(s), or the ability to speak or read Chinese, please tell me how can you select? These small restaurants typically have no English speaking staff, much less a menu in English. Many of the more expensive and comfortable Chinese restaurants may have some English speaking staff and a menu with Chinese/English and even a photo of the dish. Hygiene is NOT guaranteed anywhere and is always a concern for expats as well as Chinese. The number of people in a restaurant is not the benchmark for hygiene.

3) Sorry, this is pure BS. Why would anyone want to travel in the harshest conditions UNLESS you are forced to through lack of ticket availability or money? Do you really think the average Chinese person WANTS to be in a hard seat for a long train journey, or even a shorter one? I don’t think so. Why would you even remotely suggest to purposely making yourself uncomfortable or miserable on a long trip? If the “China experience” is your premise, then we could infer we should try living on the street for several days like a beggar and see how it feels. Maybe you should so you could write about this unusual experience which would be infinitely more interesting to read.

While public city buses may be necessary for an expat with limited funds, it just increases your chances for being the victim of petty theft. Long distance buses are possibly necessary to more remote areas outside a larger city and are not that bad depending on how much you spend.

4) While I agree the expat should accept most invitations to a Chinese friend’s home for meals or gatherings, it usually takes a few years in one city before you get such invitations. Chinese are NOT so quick or open to invite foreigners into their homes as if many Western people are, even after a first meeting. I cannot say about Beijing, but having lived in China more than five years in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and now Chengdu, I have NEVER had “More invitations than I can handle” even from best Chinese friends much less “Wanting to adopt me”. I think this is very misleading to any China newbie’s who this article seems to be oriented.

5) Avoid living where other expats do? Find an old apartment and live like a local? I live in one of the nicest places in Chengdu, but it is mostly upper class or even rich Chinese who live here. I am not one of the rich. What is wrong with having very good security, well-maintained gardens, nice elevators, no trash littering the hallways, regular trash pick-up, etc in a nice neighborhood IF you can afford it? Many restaurants, local markets, etc. recognize me after nearly four years. Did I need to go slumming? BTW, I’ve NEVER had a next door neighbor invite me for dinner in all these years. This is not because I’m unfriendly, it’s because China apartment life is not much different than in Western countries where neighbors rarely see each other, much less know each other. This is often true even when people live in a stand-alone house and often see each other cutting grass, working in the garden, etc. People typically get an apartment that fits their personal budget. I would rather pay a little more and feel comfortable in my home. You “Talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?” when it comes to where you live?

6) Connecting with the local scene is another NO-brainer, IF you want some further immersion in Chinese culture.

The bottom line is even foreigners married to a Chinese National will ALWAYS be an outsider or foreigner. There are just different degrees of how much of an outsider you are. Even those foreigners with permanent residency will always be foreigners in the eyes of Chinese.

You usually have well-written articles, however I will submit, like the old Wendy’s Hamburger commercial in the USA, “Where’s the beef?” I hope you can stop just churning-out these short articles to meet some quota that lack much substance. I believe you truly have the China experience and ability to give the readers more meaningful or useful information to enhance their life in China.

I don’t believe an expat has to “Go Native” to have a good China experience, nor should they just hang-out with other expats. Few of my friends are expats, but this doesn’t mean I’ve developed a taste for Baijiu even when forced to drink with Chinese friends or at business dinners. Given the choice, I’ll stick with my Jim Beam and Colas, Long Island Ice Teas, and beer when I drink. What’s wrong with that?

Aug 24, 2012 21:14 Report Abuse



some people just can't take it, or talk it, straight...

Oct 27, 2015 06:32 Report Abuse



One more thing:

I cannot stress this enough... GET A QQ ACCOUNT and sign in like you would facebook. EVERYONE from Hu Jintao to your kindergarten students has one.

Aug 24, 2012 19:44 Report Abuse



i have done all of them ...
still no effect ..

Feb 21, 2011 00:43 Report Abuse



Perhaps your heart isn't in it. Chinese people can often read you like a book, if you are not sincere, they know this, and will treat you accordingly!

Feb 21, 2011 15:53 Report Abuse



Yes, because chinese people are magic! -_-U

Feb 26, 2011 00:32 Report Abuse



some 大叔just shout to order his coffee without noticing there's a line of people queing for their cafe . . . . THATS VERY MAGIC TO ME!

Aug 30, 2012 19:05 Report Abuse


Very nice post, good luck! ;-)

Feb 16, 2011 20:17 Report Abuse