Wondering what it’s like living in China? To say that moving from the US to China was a culture shock would be a massive understatement. No matter how much you prepare and try and inform yourself about a place, living there is a whole other ballgame.
I can feel my opinions of what is socially/morally/economically acceptable change as my experience in China continues. I definitely moved here with some preconceived notions – as I think we all do when we go somewhere new that we’ve only heard certain things about – but given time, I’ve come to embrace a lot of the quirks of living in China – even the ones that can be annoying and strange, to begin with.
Whether you’re moving to a small town in rural China or one of the colossal cities, there are a lot of cultural aspects that you need to get your head around pretty quickly.
There actually is a pretty big expat community in China. With a mix of other Asian nationalities like Koreans and Japanese, and plenty of Western expats like Brits, Germans, Americans, and more calling China home, you can quickly find other expats to help you through the culture shift.
Especially if you’re coming to China to teach English, ask around your school – many of the foreign teachers will have been in your shoes and get it!
So, there are obviously some massive differences in living in China like transportation, familial importance and hierarchy, food etiquette, and more. There’s a lot to consider, but here are 20 unique things that show what it’s like living in China on a more granular, day-to-day level.
Think of these as the social and cultural tips I wish I knew before I moved to China. Let’s dive in!
1. Hot Water is King
Okay, let’s start with a super basic bit of advice. In China, hot water has cured everything for generations and will continue to do so for hundreds of generations in the future. If you’re sick – have some hot water.
Had a bad day – have some water. Confused or unsure – hot water is going to provide all the clarity that you need to make decisions.
Whether it’s drinking it in the vast varieties of delicious Chinese teas, taking a long soak in the bath, or giving your face a good steam under a towel with a big bowl of piping hot water, there is nothing that this magical elixir cannot fix.
It’s the gospel in China, so don’t be surprised if a friend recommends it as a cure for whatever malady you’re facing.
2. There are indoor shoes and outdoor shoes.
This is a thing all across Asia, but it’s definitely a thing in China. Shoeless households are important, but you don’t want to get your feet dirty or cold by walking around the house barefoot either. You’re not a barbarian after all.
Enter indoor and outdoor shoes. You can opt for cozy slippers, easy slip-on shoes like sliders, flip flops, or even Crocs, or have dedicated inside trainers.
Leave your shoes at the door, no matter how long you’re staying at someone’s house. You might be dropping something off, having tea, and leaving. You might just be waiting for someone to put their coat on and shelter from the rain.
Either stay on the doormat or take your shoes off. Those are your options. Wearing outdoor shoes inside someone’s home is not an option.
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3. It is 100% acceptable to eat an entire meal out of a plastic bag.
This might sound like a weird take on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s spaghetti policy episode, but it’s real. A lot of vendors only do takeout food, even for hot noodles that are covered in sauce.
You can definitely be given noodles in a plastic bag to eat. It’s normally reinforced so it doesn’t split or leak but it’s a thing. Think of it like a cheaper takeout container.
Likewise, if you’re shopping for lunch in a market, everything you’ll be given is likely to be in a plastic bag due to being measured by weight. Want to snack on some strawberries? Plastic bag.
Want a small loaf of bread? Plastic bag? It’s definitely not a sustainable option, but it’s a thing in China, especially in the bigger cities with street food markets.
4. The party doesn’t REALLY start till 1 am.
Okay, so if you’re going out in China, you better have some stamina. Chinese people go hard!
If you’re trying to put a night out together with friends, don’t suggest hitting the bars at 9 pm, you’re going to be hitting the start of proper party time at around 1 am. And that’s just the start.
You’ll be partying for a few hours and coming home when others are heading out to work. It’s hardcore. Make sure you have an amazing hangover cure (hot water, anyone?), or have a completely clear schedule for the next day.
It does mean that you can get some amazing drunk food on the way home with hearty noodles, soups, meat, and more sizzling until late across the major cities and near the main bars and clubs.
5. If you’re sick, wear a mask. It’s only the polite thing to do since you’re a walking biohazard.
Right, this is even more of a thing since the pandemic, but China and many Asian countries were pro-mask for years before due to the SARS outbreak.
If you start to feel even a little bit ill or get a cold, you should wear a mask out in public. It’s literally the polite thing to do. No one wants your germs!
The best thing of course is to stay home, but if you need to go to work or go grocery shopping, you’ll need a mask. That way if you look rough or start coughing, you won’t get as many weird or worried looks from those around you.
Masks are regularly available and most Chinese institutions and homes will have a stack of them just like you’d have a supply of tissues or bandaids in your bathroom. It’s just a part of being sick.
6. If you need to spit, you probably should… indoors, outdoors, with your in-laws, with your employer, etc, etc. The world is fair game.
This is one that I definitely could’ve done with a head’s up about because if you don’t know about the spitting thing in China you end up thinking everyone is mad.
So, in public a lot of people will just spit on the sidewalk or into containers without any kind of shame or second thought. It definitely feels weird when you first start seeing it.
There are a few reasons why. With the higher pollution levels and the high smoking rates, people often have a bad taste in their mouth or extra phlegm or spit that they want to get out.
There’s also a theory about Chinese medicine saying you’re getting rid of extra fluid to balance your body, but whatever the reason, don’t be surprised if you see people young and old wildly spitting on the street. It’s fine.
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7. Street signs are optional. Traffic is based on the discrepancy of the traffic flow.
If you’ve ever lived in New York or London, you’ll be very familiar with the suggestion of traffic and street signs. Essentially, traffic around China depends on the flow. It does take going with the flow to a whole other level and it takes some getting used to for sure!
There are traffic lights and crossings that follow a red, orange, and green light system, but in terms of the right of way, it’s a lot trickier.
Cars can turn right even at a red light which makes jaywalking a bit confusing in China. If you can, travel around with a local until you get the hang of the traffic flow and rules in your local area.
8. Everyone has a price… even doctors.
Money talks in a big way which might surprise a lot of people. A lot of systems and people will say that they can’t help you or that what you’re asking is impossible until you offer money, gifts, or a favor. It’s a pretty common practice and the corruption vibes are real – especially in the healthcare industry!
You might think that doctors are moral people who will help patients regardless, but it’s been revealed time after time that doctors in China receive thousands of dollars worth of bribes and gifts each year.
One senior doctor who was taken to court actually received over $18m in cash, car parking spaces, properties, and more. It’s ridiculous!
9. Personal space is a luxury for rich people.
It’s no secret that especially in the cities, overpopulation is an issue in China. You end up living in small units in skyscrapers and often feel like you’re living on top of each other. It’s not ideal but the overall cost of living does tend to be cheaper than in the US.
If you want something with more space, especially outdoor space, you’re going to be paying top dollar to get it and often will have to live outside of the main part of the city. Space is a commodity in the big cities, and it’s one you have to pay a lot of money for.
Similarly, if you want personal space on your commute to work, you need a private car or taxi, because the sidewalks and public transport networks are jam-packed.
10. Ma, ma, and ma are all different things. Don’t be ignorant.
As both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages, the same word can mean completely different things depending on how you say it. It’s not easy to get the hang of at first, but you can always use the context around you to work out which version of ‘ma’ the person is wanting to use.
So with ‘ma’, it can mean mother, horse, hemp, to scold, or even just indicate a question. When you might be accidentally comparing a horse to someone’s mother you need to be very careful with your tone.
If you’re moving to China, make sure you learn at least the basics of either Mandarin or Cantonese depending on where you’re moving to, so that you can get by and not offend any locals!
11. Having your picture taken by/with strangers is a normal ordeal.
Your face is probably in the camera roll of at least a dozen Chinese people you’ve never met. This is not as weird as you think once you get past the first couple of times. As a Westerner, you’re in the minority, especially if you’re from a minority like Latino or African American.
So, you’re unique to a lot of Chinese people and they will just come up to you and ask for a selfie or picture. At first, you think that they’re mistaking you for a celebrity, but it happens with the majority of expats.
A lot of the time, people will ask before they point a giant camera or phone in your face, but if they don’t ask, you can definitely politely walk away and refuse. It’s definitely something I didn’t know about before I moved, and something that freaked me out for a while.
12. “404 Error” is the earthly devil manifestation.
Unlike the 404 error message in the West which is mostly just a site that’s broken or a page that’s been taken down, in China, the 404 error is everything that cannot be accessed from within a Chinese network.
Of course, you can use a VPN to bypass this and access sites that are banned by the state like Instagram or Google Maps.
Every time you see this message a little bit of you dies inside – yet another site that you can’t access while you’re in China, and there are a lot, especially if you’re looking for news or films. The censorship in China is very strict and is notorious all around the world.
By and large, there are Chinese alternatives to popular sites and apps, for example, WeChat is the Chinese answer to WhatsApp and is used by pretty much everyone.
13. “TIC” or “This Is China” is a perfectly acceptable answer to everything.
I feel like most countries have a similar saying or sentiment to shrug off weird or annoying things or processes that happen. TIC or This is China is the response you give when you don’t know why things are the way they are when something bad happens and when you see something super odd.
It’s a super versatile phrase that covers a multitude of scenarios.
It’s kind of like ‘It is what it is’ or a shrug that says, ‘Well what are you going to do?’. It’s a catch-all phrase that you’ll definitely hear a lot when you live in China and you’ll start saying it on the regular once you’ve experienced Chinese life for a while.
14. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong, and you need to accept that.
Again, this happens in a lot of different places, but it seems to take on a whole new meaning in China.
This might be because “This is China” or that the person in charge needs some kind of monetary motivation like in #8, but if there is something that can go wrong, it’s probably going to, and honestly there’s probably not a whole lot you can do about it.
A lot of annoyances in China are solved by accepting that this is the way it is and you’re not going to change it in a hurry. Accept it, take a breath, and move on. It’s all very zen.
15. “It is impossible…” because people don’t want to do it, not because anything can’t actually be accomplished. (See #8 for suggestions)
This is another instance of TIC in a big way. If someone says it is impossible, it’s rarely impossible, people just don’t want to do it. It happens a lot in workplaces and it’s normally a bribe is needed or other kind of motivation.
Think of it like when a contractor in the US gives you a load of excuses for why a certain deadline can’t be met – it’s not because they can’t do it, it’s because they don’t want to for the rate they’re being paid.
16. TaoBao is the online Chinese version of Costco… but better.
US and UK expats might miss a few different things when they’re in China, and one might be the megastore and general shopping mecca that is Costco. A traditional big box store, it has everything you could ever want from food to electricals to furniture to opticians and clothing.
Fortunately, China has its own answer to Costco in the form of TaoBao.
TaoBao is predominantly online with some stores opening up across Asia. It’s owned by Alibaba and was apparently the eighth most visited site in the world last year. That’s how popular it is. It has everything and you can get all your deals from the comfort of your own home.
17. Confrontation is immature.
Confrontation is not something that’s prevalent in Chinese society. Going face-to-face and calling people out is considered immature and a childish way of going about a problem.
Instead, you must run around a problem several times, pray it’ll eventually go away, and then eventually hire someone to deal with it so you don’t have to. After all, this is China.
Getting someone else to deal with the problem on your behalf, or accepting that this is the way that it is, is much more socially acceptable than confronting someone about it. It’s considered overly aggressive and something that just isn’t really done in China.
18. “mmhmm hao mmhhm hao mhhhm hao de hao de hao de” is a perfectly acceptable phone conversation.
Going back to the tonal nature of the Chinese languages, you can be seemingly saying the same word over and over again, when in actuality it’s something slightly different every time. For instance, ‘hao’ means good, but ‘hao de’ means okay.
So, this very samey conversation is the equivalent of checking in with a friend or loved one. It’s a common phone conversation, especially if someone is calling to double-check when you’re meeting or if they’re confirming something with you.
Both Mandarin and Cantonese have a lot of different common conversational phrases that look like this which can make it difficult initially to work out what people mean, especially if you’re not familiar with the different tonal sounds in your region yet.
19. A “line” or “queue” is a mythical western manifestation.
Having lived in the UK, I know all about the extensive queuing etiquette that’s common all over the West. There’s an order that is followed based on who arrived when, that’s how things work. It also stops congestion in inconvenient places. This is not a thing in China.
In China, there is just a point at which you should begin to crowd aggressively. Gathering in groups instead of queueing is a common sight, especially in the bigger cities or at food markets.
There’s no given order, and instead you just need to get the attention of the vendor. Of course, you should still let elders go first, but as far as “I was here first” goes, you’re out of luck!
20. You were once new in China and someone helped you establish yourself. Karma is real. Pay it forward.
The reality of moving to another country, especially one that has a completely different culture to your own is that it’s massively scary. For the first couple of months at least you’ll keep seeing and experiencing bizarre things that you soon learn are pretty normal in China.
It’s definitely a learning curve, so where you can, you should help other new expats find their way around life in China. That’s what I’m doing right now!
Be someone’s Yoda, guiding them through and really paying it forward. It’ll help them adapt to life in China a lot quicker and lessen a lot of that moving across-the-world stress.
Besides, helping others is really beneficial for your karma, and who doesn’t want to bank more good karma for future use? I know I do! Help others and it’ll come back around in spades.
So, moving to China can be a massive culture shock no matter where you’re moving from and how much of a seasoned traveler you are.
Every country has its quirks and traditions that seem so bizarre to an outsider, but you soon get used to the different things and processes and accept these unique practices for an integral part of modern Chinese culture that they are. After all, this is China!
Living in China was certainly an adjustment, but it definitely opened my eyes to a new way of living, and a new culture, and helped me become more independent.
I also met my husband in China and started a whole new phase of my life there, so I wouldn’t change it for the world! With so many expat roles, especially as English teachers, widely available in China, it’s well worth diving in and getting that life experience if you have the opportunity!