I don’t think it’s possible to fully be prepared for all the bizarre and beautiful things you’ll experience in China until you’re actually in China, but here’s a few tips I can give you to help if you come live here (or if you’re just curious what an American’s life in China looks like).
1. Get a VPN
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and anything with Google won’t be accessible without this handy little invention. A VPN, or virtual private network, will allow you to to get around the Chinese firewalls blocking these sites.
I used Express VPN for several years, a great service with awesome customer support for a decent price. It allowed me to put the VPN service on a computer and a phone device. There are tons of other VPN services, and you can even find apps for free. Astrill is the other really popular one you hear people using.
I recommend getting a VPN before coming to China, as once you arrive here it can be difficult to access websites or app stores to find good VPNs (not impossible, but more of a hassle for sure).
2. Stock Up On Beauty and Hygiene products
So, the following extra things to bring will depend on three things: your access to Taobao (the Chinese version of Amazon basically), what city you live in, and how particular you are with beauty products.
When I first moved to China, I lived in a small Chinese city and didn’t have access to online shopping in China. There were not many stores with international products like deodorant and tampons, so I used to stock up on those and other particular products I couldn’t find. This also goes for other beauty items if you need specific hair styling products/sprays/makeup.
Many Chinese products have bleaching agents in them because they want their skin to be lighter, so you have to be a little careful. Other than that, if you’re not picky don’t worry – you’ll be able to find Pantene, Dove, L’oreal, and Neutrogena, as well as other good Chinese brands.
In bigger cities – even second and third tier cities now – you can find beauty and health stores like Watson’s and Sephora that stock up on foreign products.
Other great non-beauty products to bring: Board games, English reading material, Photos of your family/friends to share with Chinese friends
3. Sturdy Shoes Are a Must
This sounds obvious but I have to mention this because Chinese shoe sizes are so SMALL! The biggest women’s shoe size I usually find in China is size 40, and my size of 8/8.5 translates to about size 41.
My friends had some luck shopping in the men’s shoes section when they really needed it, but it’s best to make sure you have sturdy shoes so you won’t be stressing to find boots when a pair of yours fall apart halfway through your time in China (like me). And if you’re walking a lot your shoes will get pretty dirty.
Again, sometimes Taobao works, but I usually like to buy shoes at home!
4. Cooking Ingredients
Chinese people cook with a variety of spices and ingredients, but there are just some things they just don’t use the way other countries might (like butter, cheeses, etc.). If you have favorite spices or sauces, bring those! Chinese people also don’t bake. Most people don’t even have an oven in their house, so muffin and cake pans are hard to find at stores. Taco seasoning and chocolate chips are among some things my friends and I brought/had shipped to us from home. While we have some stores in my city that import lots of foreign items like peanut butter, other American things are harder to find.
If you’re in a bigger city and have April Gourmet or Jenny Lou’s then you’ll have no problem finding all kinds of Western cooking ingredients.
5. Get Used To The Squatty
Squat toilets are the norm in China. If you’re lucky enough to find a public restroom when you’re walking around a city, or if you’re at a train or bus station, you’ll mostly likely find it’s a squatty one. These can range from various degrees of cleanliness so be prepared for anything. Also, you’ll want to carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you everywhere.
6. American Chinese Food Isn’t Real Chinese food
You probably already know this, but the two are really different. You won’t find General Tao’s chicken, egg rolls, or fortune cookies here. Food in China differs from province to province, some specializing in spicy food or sweeter food, but it is distinctly different from our Chinese food here in the U.S. I still love both Chinese and American Chinese food!
7. Not Everyone Eats Dog
“Did you eat dog?!” is one of the first questions people always ask me about China. (I haven’t, for the record.)
You’ll eat lots of strange things in China – duck blood, cow stomach, pig intestines, chicken feet – but dog isn’t a common thing.
I asked the same thing to my Chinese students and friends because I’m really curious if that’s just a stereotype we hear or if there’s a lot of truth behind it. Most of them told me they don’t eat dog. It used to be more common, especially in the southernmost region of China where they have a “dog” festival because they believe that eating dog keeps them warmer in the winter. Most Chinese people now think they should just be pets though, so don’t be worried you’re going to get offered dog.
8. Personal Space
It’s not really a thing in China. China has over a billion people, so anywhere you go – the grocery store, the bus, the train station, famous travel sites – there are going to be lines to wait in and people getting close and bumping into you. If you want to get your fruit weighed at the store, you have to be assertive and not afraid to invade other people’s space, too. When in China, do as the Chinese do.
9. Chinese People Are Friendly
Chinese people for the most part love meeting foreigners. In smaller cities, many people have never met or been friends with someone outside of China, so they’ll stare, point, ask for your picture, and sometimes want to become your new best friend. Some of my students had never had a foreign teacher before, so it was exciting to see their reactions on their first day of class. (If people have traveled or live in a bigger city this is not always the case because foreigners will be more common to see there.)
A few other things you’ll see, especially in smaller cities: lots of public loud spitting, babies wearing split pants and going to the bathroom on the street, and big rats running around. There’s never a dull day.
10. Be Open To Trying New Things
Eat the street food. Say yes to KTV Karaoke. Haggle with street vendors. Practice speaking Chinese even if you say the wrong thing. China is an awesome place for foreigners to live and offers many awesome opportunities to get out of your comfort zone!