In August 2015 I hopped off a plane in Changsha and was introduced to China for the first time.
I’ve spent the last three years learning about Chinese culture, making many Chinese (and foreign) friends, and traveling to some pretty incredible places. China has challenged me to step way outside my comfort zone, try some strange foods and drink lots of homemade rice wine, and explore small villages and big skyscraper cities alike.
Since August 2015 I’ve taught English to university students, kindergartners, professors working on doctorates, nurses and doctors in hospitals, and primary students in rural country schools.
Between teaching, traveling, and navigating every day life here, I’ve had some interesting, inspiring, and crazy experiences in China! Here are a few things I’ve learned from the last 3 years.
1. China Is Actually Highly Developed and Globalized
Before I came to China I pictured lots of small villages and walking miles to find any foreign shops (this was a very dramatic scene in my mind!). China is actually very advanced in terms of technology, apps, transportation (Chinese high speed trains are the BOMB), and the quality of life you can have.
China has some of the tallest buildings, best bike sharing systems, and most convenient public transportation in the world. You can find McDonald’s and Starbucks around every corner, and you’re never far from giant malls with all kinds of International Brands (unless you’re living in a small city…then that’s another story.)
2. Learning Chinese Isn’t As Hard As I Thought
You always hear Chinese is the most difficult language, but actually learning to speak basic Chinese isn’t terribly hard! You’re constantly surrounded by the language and will pick up little things in daily interactions with people. It’s actually fun to practice and local people will respect your efforts! With that said, I’m no Chinese expert but speak enough to get by, and learning Chinese characters is a bit harder 😉
3. Western and Eastern Cultures Have Different Values And That’s Okay
There are lots of differences between the East and West. China is more focused on the collective group than the individual, something I noticed especially as a teacher in the school environment.
Families might express love in different ways; instead of verbally speaking I love you, they might show it through actions. In a conversation about love and families, I asked my students if their parents say “I love you” to them. One student said, “No, but they will remind me to wear my coat and bring an umbrella if it’s raining, and they’ll ask me if I’ve eaten. This is how they express their love.”
This also goes for the Chinese work environment. When you work with Chinese colleagues, you might have different mindsets about how to accomplish a task, and that’s just how different cultures (and people!) work. Sometimes it means you have think creatively to solve problems and work hard to make sure your communication is clear.
4. Chinese Social Media Is Bomb
China has its own social media apps – the top app is Wechat and it’s amazing. Wechat is a lifeline in China…not just for me, or even other foreigners, but everyone in China. We use it to pay for bills, translate messages, add money to our phones, buy movie tickets, order taxis…the list goes on and on.
China also has their own Twitter (called Weibo) and many other fantastic apps. I’m currently obsessed with this Chinese app called Tik Tok where you can see funny Chinese video trends – if you follow me on Instagram I’ve started posting these videos on my stories. Which leads me to…
5. Chinese Music and Pop Culture are AWESOME
I never imagined I’d be listening to Chinese music and singing it at KTV, but there it is. I’m in love with a singer called Zhang Jie (never heard of him? I’ll tell you all about how I fell in love with a Chinese pop star) and love finding new Chinese songs to listen to.
Chinese TV shows are also quite funny. I’ve watched some TV shows, mostly dramatic rom-coms which are super popular (and nothing like American shows) and some reality shows (Chinese dating shows are the best!!)
6. Chinese People Will Stare And (Hopefully) You’ll Get Used To It
As a foreigner coming to a country where the majority of the population is Han Chinese, you’re going to stick out and be noticed.
I’ve never had so many eyes on me before coming to China. Be it teaching, performing in talent shows, or just walking home from the grocery store or gym, I’m constantly in the limelight.
In Hengyang, the first city I lived in, the total foreigner population was less than 100. Many people had never seen a foreigner before! Lots of people would sneak photos of me on the bus, peek into my shopping cart to see what the “foreigner” buys, or ask for a photo together. People aren’t intentionally trying to be rude or nosy, but seeing a foreigner is a novelty.
Even kids will walk straight up to you and take your photo.
Now that I live in Beijing, I experience this much less than when I lived in a smaller city, but it still happens when I go to touristy areas like Wangfujing Street or the Summer Palace where other Chinese tourists from other cities might be.
7. You Have To Be More Assertive
I’m not generally a very assertive person – I ‘m pretty non-confrontational, and if you knocked into me on the street I would probably apologize to you.
This doesn’t really fly in China – if you don’t get thicker skin here, China will chew you up and spit you out. I had to learn that if I needed help at the store or wanted to get the waiter’s attention at a restaurant I had to be more loud and follow what other Chinese people do.
Now I don’t hesitate – I’ll squeeze my way onto a crowded bus and loudly yell “Fuwuyuan!” in a restaurant, because that’s how you do it here.
*Note there is a difference between being assertive and being rude!
8. Patience and Flexibility Go A Long Way
On the other hand, there are times when you need to be patient. There are many cultural differences between China and the U.S. You have to handle a variety of situations, whether it is electricity shutting off, negotiating contracts and getting a work visa, or opening a new bank account and trying to buy train tickets. Lots of times people won’t speak English, or China has a different system for doing things. (Why can’t I transfer my money home like normal? It’s 2018!)
Flexibility and patience will take you far in China.
9. Chinese People Are Super Friendly And Hospitable
I have met some of the kindest and warmest people here, and I know I’m not alone!
Between my students, coworkers, Chinese friends, and even strangers, so many people have been so friendly and helpful. People have invited me out to dinner, helped me translate, answered my calls at all times when I needed help, and gave me advice and assistance with transitioning to new cities. The list goes on and on. Chinese people have gone above and beyond in helping me.
The couple I rented an apartment from in Guangzhou were incredibly kind and helpful! When a foreigner rents an apartment in China, it’s a bit more of a hassle – but they made it incredibly easy for me, took me to dinner several times, and brought me housewarming gifts when I moved in!
Lots of people have a negative idea about traveling to China and interacting with local people, but just like anywhere you travel in the world there will be people who try to take advantage of you or leave you with a bad experience. I promise if you invest some time in China and stay open to the experiences here you’ll be rewarded with kindness and open arms.
10. You Have To Adapt To A Variety of Living/Traveling Conditions
Traveling in China isn’t always easy. Just navigating a new city with limited Chinese can be a challenge, and then you add in squatty potties and hard beds, and that will toughen you up and prepare you for travel anywhere.
This is one of the bathrooms at the university I used to work at:
Living in China will toughen you up, too. You’ll learn to hang all your laundry up (they don’t use dryers in China). You’ll side step the guy spitting on the street. Tune out the lady loudly yelling on her phone on the bus next to you. Won’t blink twice at the baby peeing on road (most of the time). You’ll start drinking hot water and pick up other Chinese habits. I can use a squatty like a pro now. Hard beds are the usual. Bring it on! (But also a mattress topper is highly appreciated.)
11. Meiyou Weishenme
My students used to say this to me after I asked them why they do things a certain way in China: “meiyou weishenme.” It’s rough translation is “no why.”
Chinese people wear their coats until May even if it’s super hot outside because they have to follow the Lunar Calendar. Why? No why.
There are some Chinese traditions you just won’t understand and can’t be explained. Ask a Chinese friend about traditional rules a woman should follow during and after her pregnancy – it will blow your mind.
12. Chinese Food Is The Best
There are 8 different cuisines to try in China and they all have their own signature dishes that will blow your mind. You’ll get used to eating family-style and sharing lots of dishes. But be careful – Chinese food can also can be very oily and salty, and you learn you can’t eat rice all the time if you’re trying to stay fit.
13. Respect the Culture
I’ve met lots of foreigners in China, from just-arrived-in-China newbies up to 15-year expats and everything in between. There are so many interesting people from all over the world here! I really love hanging out with other foreigners, especially when they are open to new experiences, enjoy meeting Chinese people and learning Chinese, or just love living here as much as I do.
I’ve met a few foreigners, however, who are extremely rude to Chinese people, be it in restaurants or taxis or even meeting friends I’ve introduced them to. Even if there is a frustrating situation or you don’t understand everything about Chinese culture, there’s no need to be disrespectful to someone trying to help you. We live in China – their country!
14. Being Independent Rocks
I’ve faced lots of situations in China that I had to handle on my own. I came here right after I graduated from university, so there was a lot of “learning how to adult” going on, along with learning how to live in a foreign country. I’ve had to learn how to do so many things on my own in China – renting an apartment, arranging a new contract with schools, moving to new cities, etc. It’s not always easy, but I get a huge satisfaction out of accomplishing something on my own!
I also learned how to travel on my own – I had never really traveled alone before China, but recently I’ve traveled a lot on my own and found I absolutely love it. I enjoy the experience of planning a trip for myself, going wherever I want whenever I want, and meeting lots of local people or other travelers. I love the freedom and flexibility it gives me.
15. Say Yes to Everything & Embrace Spontaneity
China is going to throw some interesting situations at you. You’ll get offered weird food. Strangers will invite you to their home – or ask you to visit their hometown. You might be asked to join school performances or city events or be interviewed by a Chinese news station.
Some of my favorite memories have been times I just said yes to something I wasn’t sure about. Go on a date with a Chinese guy. Eat some duck blood. If Chinese people ask you to join their table at a bar, join in and learn to play the dice game (a great way to practice your Chinese numbers!). Heck, try some baijiu.
Safety first, of course! If you’re really feeling unsafe with a situation or person, use your best judgement. But don’t let your fear of the unfamiliar hold you back.
16. Your Students Will Change Your Life
I never imagined I’d be a university English teacher right after I graduated, but somehow it happened. Teaching 18 years olds when I was 22 not only built up my confidence, gave me lots of public speaking practice, and challenged me to be creative in lessons, but I also met some of the most interesting, caring, funny, and inspiring students. I built some relationships with students that now, even 3 years later, I still keep up with.
One of my students named Emily became one of my best friends in China!
My students have shown me a different side of China, something I wouldn’t have seen if I had just been passing through. I’ve had countless hot pot parties, celebrated Christmas and lots of birthdays, hiked mountains, made dumplings, and traveled to different cities with many of my university students.
My students have also asked me some funny questions and opened up to me about their boyfriends and girlfriends, their family life, and their hopes and dreams for the future – these relationships are so special to me.
The same goes for my kindergarten students – it was a totally different experience teaching 3-5 year olds instead of teaching 18-20 year olds, but it was an equally amazing and unforgettable experience. Teaching them for a year melted my heart into a giant puddle on the floor and I still haven’t mopped it up.
Three Amazing Years
It’s impossible to fully sum up China! China is old temples and shiny shopping malls, 5000 years of history and a giant global market, old traditions mixed with new technology. For me, China is also the 600+ students I taught, it’s late night spicy Hunan BBQ after a night out, it’s traveling and making friends from all around the world.
China is nothing like what I expected – to be honest the only way to understand China is to be here and experience it. Sometimes there are cultural differences and traditions you can’t figure out, but that’s part of what makes China so special.
The past 3 years have been so fantastic and I’m thankful to have experienced a small part of China! There’s still so much I don’t know about China – but I’m looking forward to learning more and soaking in as much as I can.
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