There are some things they just can’t prepare you for. Whether it’s not being able to withdraw money from an ATM even though you confirmed with your bank THREE TIMES that yes your credit card would work in China, or being told your new job is a short train ride away from the city center when it’s actually more like two hours on a standing-room-only bus, the key to a pain-free China transition is flexibility and the ability to laugh at the inevitable roadblocks.
Before you relocate to China, pack some items with you that you can’t find in China, or else make your peace with living without them. Tuck a roll of large trash bags in your luggage– you can only find the smallest, flimsiest trash bags in China. Be ready to spend significantly more money if you desire Western amenities like pasta, cheese, and certain brands of food or shampoo. And use caution when buying beauty products– beware the bleaching agents in “brightening” or “whitening” lotions (even sunscreen!)
Are you ready to move to China, to dive into the culture and make the most of your bustling new environment? Before you rent an apartment in your new town of 8 million, stay a few nights in a hotel and go out walking the neighborhoods, scoping out the pros and cons of each apartment complex. I usually set aside three days to wander around the city, keeping an eye out for convenience stores, fruit stands, locksmiths, plumbing stores, etc. – one of the best things about China is how varied each block is; you can usually find a store specializing in exactly what you need within walking distance. Find a neighborhood with a gym, or a cute coffee shop, or a friendly neighborhood pub– having comfortable haunts near your apartment can transform your China experience.
No amount of reading can completely prepare you for relocating to China. Regardless of whether you’ve traveled extensively in the rest of the world, or even other SE Asian countries, travel to China is uniquely foreign. Prepare for stares while you shop for milk, walk to the park, or try to sit and enjoy an ice cream outside McDonalds. Usually the stares are not meant to be rude– you’ll notice groups of people gathering around construction sites too, just staring as one or two guys hack lethargically at the dirt and paving stones. So take the stares in stride. You may find yourself becoming so used to tuning them out that, on occasion, you actually walk past friends on the street without noticing them talking to you. Key to weathering the cultural chasm when you relocate is the ability to laugh at yourself, the willingness to make mistakes, and the desire to see the Chinese point of view before making a judgment.
How can you learn Chinese? It doesn’t hurt to understand a little bit of the language, either! At least the words you use on a daily basis to order food, hail a taxi, and pay for groceries. A good app to have on hand is Pleco, a useful Chinese-English dictionary with a handwriting feature so you can attempt to draw those characters when you don’t know the pronunciation. It has a scanning input feature, too, which can help on the fly in the grocery store. It can be tempting just to order Pizza Hut delivery to your apartment for every meal, but at least a few times a week walk around pointing at foods and trying mysteries from the window. If someone is eating something that looks good, ask them what it is. You may just discover some of the best-kept secret eats around town.
If you want to know how to learn Chinese, ask around near the International High Schools. Most cities have an English Corner, a weekly get-together where foreigners and locals come together to practice English and Chinese. Try it out – you may meet a best friend or a potential Mandarin tutor. And there are often one-off work opportunities to be had with a little networking, too. Who doesn’t want a chance to be the next foreigner game show star in Shanghai? Dive in to language practice, and you’ll find the cultural secrets of China start to open up to you.
Making the decision to move to China is an exciting, bold step. You will undoubtedly have awkward language misunderstandings; evenings spent wandering lost around your apartment complex without finding the gate, and mysterious food that turns out to be duck neck. But more likely than not, you will make new best friends, learn family dumpling recipes, and spend your free time awestruck at how welcoming and beautiful Chinese culture is. What a time to be alive!
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