Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Tips for China Newbies

My friend M, who I mentioned in an earlier post about our crazy trip to Sumatra, is moving to China! Her husband, who works for a large American company, got offered a two-year position in western China and they plan to make their big move next month. Sadly, they will be arriving around the same time I will be returning to the US, but I am no less excited for them.

If anyone can handle a move abroad, M can. She's traveled and lived in countless places. She even came to visit me in China back in 2006. The trip was plagued with various illnesses, horrendous toilets, and epic bus and train rides, yet she took it all in stride. Though there may be some hiccups along the way, I know she's in for a great time and adventure in China. 

M and me, Yunnan Province, 2006

Inspired by M and also by The Love Blender's excellent posts about living abroad (her advice on improving your social life, beating culture shock and staying healthy is spot on), I thought about what advice I'd give to anyone who is about to move to China. Take it or leave it, here are my two cents:

1. Study the language This one seems so obvious, but once you arrive in China you will quickly find many foreigners, some who have lived here for years, can barely speak the most basic phrases (you'll also meet those who have lived here for a year and can speak like a native). I made hardly any progress in learning the language my first year and even after a decade have not yet achieved fluency. You can absolutely get by knowing very little of the language and locals won't even fault you for it. But you are doing yourself a great disservice. Since improving my Mandarin, my world here has been opened up exponentially. I understand so much more about the culture, the people, and the food because I am able to speak and read Chinese. Don't put off learning, no matter how long you plan on being in country. Try to find a class or tutor as soon as possible so you can get off the ground running and establish good study habits. It is absolutely worth the time and trouble.

with my long-time friend, Apple
2. Make local friends In my experience, locals are very interested in foreigners and many would like to make foreign friends. Making friends with Chinese people isn't hard, but creating a true and lasting friendship may take some time. There can be a number of cultural and language barriers to overcome at first, but with some effort you can learn a lot from each other. I met some of my closest Chinese friends during my first year here. Throughout the years, they have helped me understand everything from Chinese pop culture to traditional medicine. I've taught them things such as English internet slang and how to bake chocolate chip cookies. Best of all, I feel like they know a side of me many of my friends back home don't, my "China side."

3. Network on WeChat I am not much for social media. I try to avoid Facebook and I haven't even dabbled into Snapchat or Twitter or whatever people are using these days. But I do use WeChat, which is probably the most popular way to connect with people in China these days. Connections in China are important, so this is a great way to network and organize all your contacts. WeChat allows you to post short messages with photos or share articles. You can also text or voice message and video chat. And it's free! I definitely recommend downloading it to your phone if you'll be living in China.

4. Learn how to use Taobao I can't believe I survived as long as I did without Taobao in my life. Taobao is a bit like Ebay, without the auctions. You have thousands of "stores" to shop at, most of them specializing in a certain type of product. Prices are very competitive and many sellers offer free shipping. You can find lots of import products too, some of them well-priced. I buy books, art supplies, trinkets, and even food on Taobao. I've had very few problems and usually when I have the seller has given me a refund. Taobao is almost entirely in Chinese and if you have any issues with the product or delivery you're obviously going to have to speak Chinese or find a Chinese friend or co-worker who can help you. I also recommend China's Amazon which is a little bit more foreigner friendly (there is an English language option on the site) and slightly more expensive. As for payment, sometimes cash on delivery is available, otherwise you'll have to have a Chinese bank card and get yourself setup online. Have a Chinese friend help you with this.

made possible by my oven
5. Get a VPN If you want to surf the web freely, get a VPN (virtual private network) BEFORE you arrive (you may not be able to access the site once in China). Most people know Facebook is blocked here, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Many blogs and western news sites are blocked or slow to load. Accessing Gmail will make you want to rip your hair out. The list of sites behind the great (fire) wall is long. Do yourself a favor and purchase a VPN. Yes, purchase. I am a cheapskate, but I've learned the hard way that free VPNs never last and aren't worth the frustration. I have used Atrill VPN for the past few years and they have great customer service and allow users to pick from a variety of servers. There are a number of other VPNs to pick from, but try to do some research into which one is right for you.

6. Make it feel like home This was one thing I failed to do when I first lived here. I figured I wouldn't be in China long, so I didn't want to spend money on anything. Specifically, I longed to have an oven, but it seemed like too frivolous of a purchase. I waited years before finally caving and it was one of the best purchases I ever made. It cost about 400 rmb and was worth every mao. You can't put a price on fresh baked focaccia or Black Magic Cake. Do yourself a favor and splurge on a few things to make your house (apartment) feel more like a home.

7. Get into a routine Your life may feel like it's been turned upside down and shaken when you first arrive, but before long you can establish a routine. While in China, I've always had an odd work schedule so this is one aspect of life I've struggled with. Try to set aside part of the day for exercising or studying Chinese. Try not to binge on too many late night sessions of Netflix (or beer). You'll get so much out of your time here if you get out and explore. Which leads me to. . .

me in Cambodia, 2007
8. Travel I've made it a point to travel as much as possible while living in China. I tried to live simply to save up for such trips, knowing that once I move back to the US my chances of returning to Asia for a vacation would be slim. At first I was nervous to travel on my own, but after a few months in China I took a week long solo trip to Guangxi Province and quickly overcame my fear. I went on to take numerous trips throughout China and neighboring countries. Use your vacation time and put aside some extra cash and JUST DO IT. Travel in China and particularly in Southeast Asia and India is very affordable and in many places tourism is developed enough that transport and accommodation is fairly straight forward.

Do you live abroad? Do you have any advice to add to the list?


Autumn said...

An excellent list! I would totally use it and be less terrified of traveling abroad.

Only we're not going anywhere.

Meg said...

Learning the language is a great one. I'm still SO FAR from fluent, or even competent, but as I learn new words and as my reading comprehension improves, my experiences here are deeper. I think a foreigner could manage on just a few phrases, especially in a city, because the Chinese don't expect a Westerner to speak Chinese. (It's a constant shock when I can manage a little chat in Chinese!) But I want to do more than just manage while I'm here.

rosieinbj said...

@Autumn, does your husband have any family he is in contact with from "the old country"? Would you ever take a trip?

@Meg, I definitely agree! Where I live, in a smallish city, hardly anyone speaks English. Even when I lived in Beijing, I was surprised at how poor locals spoken English was (considering how long many of them studied it). Knowing the language helps in so many ways.