A Foreigner’s Guide To Living In China

Let’s say you unexpectedly move to China. I know that’s kind of far-fetched but that’s what makes it unexpected right? I won’t go into the circumstances that lead me, a clueless white girl who is STILL struggling to learn Spanish after like 10 years, to end up living on a college campus in Xi’an, China (okay, it was a boy, it’s always a boy) but basically I was totally shocked by my own circumstances.

So, you find yourself similarly transported to China. To say that you may experience some culture shock is a massive understatement. In my estimation moving to China, particularly anywhere outside of cosmopolitan Shanghai or Beijing, is akin to moving to another planet. All of a sudden every day things become totally incomprehensible: just going to the grocery store or the bank becomes a massive adventure.

I think everybody’s China adventure is a little different, but here’s a starter course on what you can expect when you make your home on the metaphorical moon.

You will be a celebrity. China is not really known for its ethnic diversity (my city of nine million was 99.97% Han Chinese). If you resemble anything besides a native Chinese person, get ready to stand out like an ostrich walking down the street. If you happen to be pale with blonde hair like myself, the distinction is even greater.

People are going to take your picture. At first you may not notice it because they can be pretty sneaky, but once you catch on it’s hard to miss. You will be ambushed by shy teenage paparazzi. The brave ones may even ask to pose with you. Once a family asked me to hold their baby for a portrait. What are they doing with these pictures? I never really found out.

You will have to answer a lot of questions As you might have guessed, people are really curious about foreigners, so be prepared to give your very important opinion on just about anything under the sun. A sampling:

– Does everyone in the US have a gun?

– Do all Americans have tattoos?

– Have you ever been to Disney World?

– Is America just like on Friends?

– Why aren’t you married?

– When are you getting married?

– Really, can you just get married already?

Your lungs will hate you. If you decide to live in a big city, or down-wind of a big city, kiss the ability to take full breaths goodbye. The air quality in China is as bad as you’ve heard — maybe worse. You know when it’s really foggy outside and you can’t see five feet in front of you? This is common on a bad air day in China, except it’s not fog, it’s poison. So since breathing is kind of an essential process, you’ll just have to give in to the inevitable shortening of your life-span. If you’re anything like me you’ll develop a suspicious cancerous sounding cough for months that magically disappears almost immediately after you leave the country.

In China, you are already an old maid. If you are over the age of 24 and unmarried by choice, you do not make sense in China. Even though the women there are smart, beautiful and well-educated, the most important goal for many of them is to land a guy and have a smart, beautiful Chinese baby. My (fairly new, like less than a year) boyfriend and I were the subject of many pointed looks and questions about exactly when and where we would be tying the knot (“Do it here!” one student breathlessly exclaimed, another suggested their home in Inner Mongolia).

Once, in a fit of culture-blindness, I told a group of students that we weren’t getting married because we were still too young. At 26. They just shook their heads like “what’s that silly blonde ostrich saying now?”

Chinese food is even better than you can imagine. Everyone loves take-out Chinese food, but the stuff you get at home barely even resembles the real stuff. Legit Chinese food is fresh and diverse and even though you won’t know what 90% of it is it won’t stop you from stuffing it in your face as fast as your chopsticks can move. Seriously, I have traveled all over the world and nothing on earth even compares to the deliciousness of real Chinese food. I don’t know how they do it but Chinese chefs can make a plain plate of cucumbers taste like a delicacy.

Also, there are thousands of different dishes to try, and eating out is exponentially cheaper than trying to cook at home (if your apartment even had a kitchen, which it doesn’t).

By the way, you can’t be a vegetarian in China. I mean I guess you could if you spoke Chinese, but good luck trying to explain yourself when literally everything is fried in pig fat.

You will have to adjust your standards of cleanliness. I’m going to tell you a true story that will probably make you want to die: one day my boyfriend and I were eating at a restaurant when a very sickly looking waiter leaned over and vomited all over the floor. That’s not the gross part yet guys, after he finished getting sick everywhere, he grabbed a mop, mopped it up and WENT BACK TO WORK. Nobody in the restaurant batted an eye and after a while, neither did I. It’s just kind of the way things are, and it’s better to just not think about it.

This doesn’t just apply to the food either. In my town, public trash cans were not a thing that existed, people just threw their rubbish into the nearest bush or gutter. And the spitting — I still hear the spitting sometimes, in my nightmares.

Things are not going to make sense, accept it. There are so many things about China that I never figured out: why do the ATMs only give out 100 RMB notes when nobody will cash more than a 20?Why don’t they refrigerate milk? If Chinese babies don’t wear diapers, how do parents keep from getting surprise pooped on every day?

Eventually you just have to embrace the chaos. Embrace the congestion and the bad air quality and embrace the guy on the street selling scorpions on a stick (well, maybe not literally). You won’t know what’s going on but really, it’s okay.  It’s zen.

It’s really hard to summarize China in any neat way — it’s so enormous and so different and so many things happened that I STILL don’t understand. One thing it never is though, is boring. TC mark

image – Shutterstock


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  • Rachael

    Can you make a part 2? I love living vicariously through other people’s international travels. I’m stuck in Dallas for the time being…

    • minicardi


    • Ga

      Please do say more!! So fascinating!!

    • Jye

      Ironically.. I am too stuck in Dallas. I’m Chinese and have been to China plenty and sometimes, I’m still shocked by the things I see. Also, I love living through the eyes of foreigners to my ever-shocking culture, because I am more numb to certain things than most.

    • jane

      YES! I love reading about everyones adventures. Also, is it bad that I am dying to go to China primarily for the being a celebrity part? FAMOUS4LYF

    • Mika

      check out matadornetwork.com

  • http://cmsaunders.wordpress.com cmsaunders

    Haha! Great blog! And wholly accurate. I am a Welsh guy who has been living in China for over 5 years now, also teaching. I still hate having my picture taken 80 times a day but its a small price to pay. Xi’an is a beautiful city!

  • CL

    so interesting!

  • Eva

    this is HILARIOUS! i’m 100% Chinese and was born in China, moved to US when i was 2 and have NEVER been back to visit yet! it’s been 19 years !!! my mom, dad, and brother all have been… but the timing just never worked out for me. i’m literally the only Chinese person i know who has never been back yet. it’s so strange…. i have no memories of it at all, but i still feel as if i know everything you’re talking about lol

  • Tina

    This is super great!!!
    My cousin from China says that they say if you leave China, you won’t get sick for 2 years because the air quality is so different, but the minute you go back after a long period of time you will get sick again.
    Super looking forward to hearing more about your travels!

    PS. My cousin also says that to the youths of China, the daisy represents a butthole. So if you go, don’t give anybody daisies!


    Wonderful, wonderful, love your writing.

    • http://tiny-nest.blogspot.com Becky

      Agreed, this was really entertaining! My boyfriend and I leave in 2 weeks to teach in a rural town in Henan province in China, so we’re prepping ourselves for all of these strange experiences!

  • http://twitter.com/nwilliard Nicholas Williard (@nwilliard)

    I’m living in China now and was considering submitting an article on my observations on Chinese culture. It’s funny, many of my thoughts were exactly the same as yours.

  • http://poliperspective.wordpress.com Polina

    I’ve lived in China for a whole year and can totally relate to what you have written:) though i’d name the article “there’s no guide to living in China. Just accept it!”:)

  • http://gravatar.com/kissdyslexic Candis Jean

    “And the spitting — I still hear the spitting sometimes, in my nightmares.”

    More please. This article was fantastic.

  • seashells

    oh my god, i DIED at “what’s that silly blonde ostrich saying now?”

  • N.F.

    AHH I just got back from an extended stay in China and all this is so very true. Wonderful article, made me laugh!

  • Leighton R

    Which part of China did you visit? Apparently your experiences and mine have been very different.

  • Kims

    haha YES! This sums up everything I know/love/hate about China.

  • Marc

    LOL yeah…especially that whole getting married thingy…I’ve been here in Xi’An for a year now.

  • M

    Hahahaha, I’m a Chinese by ethnicity but Singaporean by nationality. Recently ended my 6 months stay in China. And boy, this is SO true. And regarding standard of hygienes, you HAVE to mention the public toilets. I once saw an old lady pooping in a toilet cubicle without a door, in a shopping mall… Unfortunately this image will stay with me forever.

  • ymartin14

    the guns question! and the pictures! as a black american, i got more than my share of weird looks and hair touchings. i don’t know if i could do that for more than 2 months…

  • http://gravatar.com/eschob liz

    I’ve been living in South Korea for 2 years and you pretty much described my life too! The picture taking happens pretty much everyday even though I live just outside of Seoul. And the spitting (shudder). Living in Asia definitely feels like another planet, but it’s not so bad. ;)

  • Claire

    this is soo accurate, i’m an american but ethnically chinese and mongolian, and my relatives are mostly all from inner mongolia. the reason why they don’t refrigerate their milk, i’m pretty sure, is because it’s all made from condensed milk; at least that’s definitely what it tastes like

  • Dean Luther

    Very well written. I cried for three months after having to leave China because of a family medical emergency back in the U.S. I missed it so much and after nine months back home, I still miss it.
    I treasure my photos and memories from China.

  • jjj

    I just got back from beijing and I love you. Yes, people sneakily approached me from behind to take pictures with me and giggle and touch my tattoos. Yes, I got the sinus infection from hell. Yes, I am 26 entire years old…

  • franneh

    i love love love this. great piece. thanks! :)

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