China – one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the world’s most populated country, and a country often misunderstood by expats.
Some laws in China are often skirted or completely ignored, bribery is the quickest way to a Visa or Passport, and you can get just about anything (quicker) with money.
So how is life for expats there? I’ll tell you a bit about my own story below.
A little story
After getting my first comfortable cushy job after graduating college in 2009, I did what any logical 20-something would do: quit my job and moved to China. I was getting a bit tired of the "corporate" scene, knew I wasn’t working at my dream job, and decided I was too young to get bogged down living a boring life. My first impression of the country after touching down in the airport was interesting – I paid about triple the price for my taxi (I only spoke basic Chinese from night classes I was taking while working).
And once I got a temporary hostel, I walked around the city and realized that almost nobody speaks English, especially not the taxi drivers.
Most young students will try and speak English with you, and some of them are pretty decent, but the vast majority of the country can’t communicate with you if you don’t speak Chinese.
Next, there was the crazy juxtaposition of new and old: The $500 million dollar Olympic stadium is a 30 second walk away from dozens of Hutongs (the traditional four-walled houses you see in kung fu movies) and curious locals that would stare at you as you passed by.
Last, you immediately notice the effects of a country that banned much of the immigration/emigration during its cultural revolution. Depending on where you are in Beijing (Or the entire country) people curiously come up to you and often stare, take pictures with you, or attempt to talk to you, regardless of whether or not they speak English.
China has a rich culture filled with some of the oldest, deepest history in the world. But sometimes it leads to a tough expat experience due to the cultural differences.
Biggest Sources of Culture Shock
Getting an unusual amount of attention.
It’s extremely common to have locals stop and try to talk with you – in Chinese or English. This effect is exaggerated the more rural you get in China, but it’s even very common in the big international cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Locals will often try to stop and take pictures with you as well – sometimes asking for permission, and other times just sneakily snapping pictures.
B. Personal space
It has been well studied that westerners and easterners vary in their "perception" of personal space. In a subway in Beijing, for example, it’s not uncommon to have half a dozen people brushing up directly against you, or for people not to yield when you’re passing through a doorway. Crowds of people sometimes seem oblivious to each other.
C. The concept of mianzi – face
Face is an incredibly important Chinese (& Asian) concept. Essentially, looking good, credible, professional is important – and helping others avoid embarrassment or shame is incredibly important. As a result, people will sometimes agree to arrangements that they had no real intention of following through on. If you ask someone to meet-up, they will sometimes say yes but won’t show up. Westerners may view this as "flaky" but in reality it’s giving you face – avoiding an awkward or embarrassing confrontation for you where you might feel uncomfortable by them having said no.
D. Lack of "directness"
Closely tied in with the concept of "face" is the sort of circular way that business or social dealings can occur. Westerners might find a business associate nodding "yes" in agreement, but later find that the business deal fell through or the proposal wasn’t accepted. This is similar to the concept of face – avoiding an awkward or potentially embarrassing situation for your guest by "agreeing." Sometimes they will appear to agree, when in reality, they were just trying to avoid embarrassment for your sake.
Resources and Tips for expats
E. The Beijinger: http://www.thebeijinger.com/
The Beijinger is a local’s guide to Beijing. It has classified ads, event listings, a forum, and a way to find apartments and other crucial resources for expat life.
What’s Your Next Adventure? Please email Zira Skeats on firstname.lastname@example.org