Things To Know Before Moving As An Expat To China

Coming to China as a traveller is undoubtedly a superb experience. China is, after all, a huge country with many beautiful landscapes and a rich culture and history.

But if you’re coming to China as an expat, there are a few things you need to know.




Upon coming to China, I quickly realized that this country was going to be different. But I could’ve never imagined how different it would actually be.

Some things on this list you’d already expect, while some other things might actually surprise you. Here are some things to know before moving as an expat to China:

1. There is a countrywide lack of English

For the newly arrived, getting around in China can be a challenge. Especially if you don’t speak any Chinese. Indeed, finding someone who speaks English in China is like finding a needle in a haystack……a  1.5 billion people haystack. Signs in English are also limited to train stations and highway exits in big cities. The obvious way to get around this is to learn Chinese. But if you’re short on time or patience, apps such as Pleco or Google Translate will help you get through your day.

2. The constant spitting

Let’s get this one out of the way, shall we? There is no way to get around it, so let’s be painfully blunt. The Chinese spit….. everywhere. No, the entire country does not have a cold, or suffer from allergies, or have a communal symptom of phlegm (although at times I wonder). The sound will follow you everywhere. From a stroll down the street to the supermarket. And no, you won’t get used to it, but the sooner you accept that this “trend” is not going anywhere, the easier it’ll get.

3. Communication is often last minute

Before moving as an expat to China, I knew very little about the Chinese work ethic and what to expect in the work place. But after a month of living in China, I have learned that important things are very often communicated last minute. I was advised by my employer that I had to pass by the passport office for my residence visa 2 days before the start of October holiday, that is one day before my departure on vacation. I was lucky I had not yet purchased a train ticket, so I was able to delay my departure date. Also and very often; if you don’t ask, you often won’t get.

4. You have to apply for a residence permit

Upon arriving to China, you’ll have a period of 30 days to apply for a residence permit, because the visa you obtained back at home is only good for 30 days….I know, seriously! The process can be painful or painless depending on whether your employer assists you with the process. The office will take your passport for about a month and in exchange you will get a piece of paper to move around which no one will recognize (more on that on my next article).

5. Chinese students are amongst the most polite in the world

Yes they are! I currently teach university students, aged between 17 to 19 years of age. Let me tell you that these kids have manners!!! From handing a paper to you with both of their hands to saying good morning and good day in unison at the beginning and end of each class, I have rarely seen such mannered teenagers.

6. Chinese students do not ask questions

If you’re familiar with Chinese culture, this should not come as a surprise. No matter how many times you may ask your class if they have any questions…..the answer will always be the same: silence. The Chinese are taught from early childhood to respect their elders, and this respect also means to not question what an elder says. In class, this translates into a lack of questions during class time. Some students may come see you after class for clarification on something, but you can forget about students raising their hand in the middle of a class to ask you a question.

7. Don’t count on the internet

You may already know about the Great Firewall of China, but do you know how to get around it? Half of the internet is blocked in China, so unless you have a reliable VPN, you won’t be able to access websites like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. Check this article on how to get around the Great Firewall of China for more information on VPNs and more.

Websites censored by the Great Firewall of China

8. Different train classes for different budgets

If you don’t want to end up like me during my first train ride in China, do your research. China has a vast array of train classes for different budgets and traveller types. From the slow train to the fast train, from the hard seat to the soft seat, and from the hard sleeper to the soft sleeper, there is sure to be one type of ticket that fits your budget and your tolerance to discomfort. One thing: avoid the standing up ticket!

9. The Chinese love to pose for pictures…..with anything

More funny than anything else, anytime you’ll visit anything that resembles some sort of attraction, there will always be a Chinese local posing for a picture. Ladies love the peace-and-love sign, while guys look mostly serious when they pose. A statue? “I want a picture with it. A random wall? “I want a picture with it”. A foreigner? “I DEFINITELY want a picture with it”.

10. Beware of national holidays

With a booming economy, the Chinese have found their wanderlust and love to travel…..in masses. Think about it, a country of 1.5 billion people, all on holiday at the same time. Not only will prices increase everywhere, but it also means that trains, flights and hotels will be full, and the fact that you have a reservation at a hotel doesn’t mean that it’s for you. If you want to stay in China for the national holidays, book WAY in advance….and good luck!

train ride in China

11. At the restaurant, your waitress will always be by your side

Until you order… Yes, as soon as you get the menu, you’ll be expected to make a choice. And your waiter/waitress will remain by your side until you do. Learn how to say “give me two minutes please”, it will come in handy.

12. You will still have a great time

China is not an easy country to live in at times. In fact, it is one that offers challenges at almost every step. But China will charm you if you let it. Even with all its difficulties, China is worth visiting. Its landscape, its people, its food, they are all reasons to spend some time in this amazing land.

What are your thoughts on China? And on this list of things to know before moving as an expat to China?




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