Your first few months as an expat in China can be overwhelming. They’ll be plenty of culture shock, a ton of life admin to sort out and even more to simply be learned about your new home. Whether you’re only in China for a semester or are likely to stay for several years, here are some ways to make your first few months in China easier.
Find other expats
As much as we encourage you to make Chinese friends, you’ll probably want to meet others in the same boat as you, or ones a bit farther down the river, when you first arrive in China. Making contact with other expats will make your transition into China a bit easier, even if you don’t end up being best buddies.
In the country’s larger cities you won’t have much trouble finding a local expat network to plug into. Simply go to the most popular Western bar and start pimping yourself out. If you’re moving to a smaller city, however, you might have to work a little harder.
Hopefully you’ll have a job already set up and perhaps they’ll be at least one other expat working there. You should take advantage of such connections, even if this person isn’t the sort you’d usually hang out with at home. It’s amazing how a simple sharing of culture in a foreign place can make friends out of people who are polar opposites. Even if you don’t become friends, another expat who’s been on the scene longer than you will be invaluable when you first arrive.
Failing this, look online for groups for expats in your area or even just China expats in general. You can get a lot of questions answered very quickly this way and many online communities hold regular IRL meetups.
Find your ‘third place’
A “third place” is somewhere other than your home or workplace that you can escape to. It might be a bar around the corner, a cafe, or a bookshop. Wherever it is, make it a place where you feel comfortable if you start to feel lonely or overwhelmed (because you will). If possible, learn the names of the people who work there and tell them your name; take a hint from Cheers and never underestimate how powerful it can be to walk into a place where everybody knows your name.
In the same vein, find a couple of local Chinese restaurants you like and some comfort dishes on their menus. Westerner-friendly staples you’re likely to find on most menus include Kungpao chicken (宫保鸡丁, Gōng bǎo jī dīng), dumplings (饺子, Jiǎozi) and sweet and sour pork (糖 醋 里脊, Táng cù lǐji). If you live near a wet market, frequent a few of the stalls that seem to offer good produce at good prices. The locals who work at these establishments will soon recognize you and no doubt give you some bonus extras for your returning custom. All of these things will help you to feel like part of the community.
Make your favorite Western meals
There’s nothing quite like a taste of home when you’re in a new place, and good Western food can sometimes be hard to find in China. If you’re not an experienced cook, it might take a couple of tries to get your favorite dishes right, especially if you’re still getting accustomed to your Chinese kitchen and Chinese supermarkets.
Search in cookbooks or online for simple recipes that will bring you comfort and make you feel at home. It also doesn’t hurt to cook a big batch and freeze the remainder into portions so you can dig one out quickly when you’re pushed for time.
Give your address to your family
Receiving a care package from back home can be a godsend in your first few months in China. Although you can get most Western products here now, you may find some things, such as chocolate, aren’t quite the same. And sometimes it’s just nice to have something from home you can put your hands on.
Be aware, however, that mail can take a long time to arrive from abroad and that a small percentage of your parcels may end up getting lost in customs or elsewhere along the way. You may want to tell your family to send anything sentimental or expensive by courier. The fact that the post can be a bit hit and miss here, however, makes it even sweeter when you do get something.
Do a bit of sightseeing
China is an amazing place to visit, but often we forget this when we’re busy settling into a new city and a new job. If you have some time during your first few months in China, pick a tourist attraction that you know is going to be awe-inspiring, but be sure to go early in the morning or on a weekday to beat the crowds. Without too much effort on your part, this will remind you of the fantastic breadth of history that exists in China and may make you more appreciative to be here.
Whatever you end up doing during your first few months in China, make sure that you take some time to breathe. You’re embarking on a crazy new journey, so remember to slow down and appreciate the process.
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