Before moving to China, I received advice from colleagues who had traveled to China on business or vacation. Most of them echoed similar sentiments, sadly not many of them positive.
Since I’d never ventured to Zhōngguó (中国), which directly translates to “middle country,” I had no reason to distrust their advice. However, I had a feeling that China was being unfairly represented. I mean, don’t all countries have their problems? Considering I’d just spent six years in Saudi Arabia, I figured I could deal with whatever culture shock awaited.
Now, after living in Shanghai for six months, it is pretty clear that nearly all the “advice” I received before moving here was utter garbage. Here is the bad advice I received before moving to China.
The food in China sucks
Since food is one of my hobbies, this terrified me. Thankfully, the food here does not suck. In fact, China has one of the most diverse cuisines on the planet! If I wanted to write about the food in detail, I would need another blog.
Another thing many people have asked is if they eat dogs, cats, insects, or other “weird” foods. Although I view it as a slightly loaded question, I will clarify that there is no Fluffy or Lassie on any menus I’ve seen!
Perhaps, there is a grain of truth to the common belief that cats and dogs are freely consumed in China (some provinces do have it within their history due to geographical isolation and extreme weather conditions) but it isn’t really a common practice in modern China.
Food is a part of all cultures. As an expat, I’ve learned that every culture is “weird” when viewed from the outside. My American habit of drinking iced coffee in the morning is considered “weird” and even unhealthy by some of my colleagues! Every culture does things differently, so it is important to keep an open mind.
With an open heart (and stomach), I’ve tried many new foods here, and most were exquisitely delicious! In addition, the variety of halal (حلال) food available is beyond imagination. Of China‘s 55 officially recognized minority peoples, ten groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim.
Add in the international options such as American, British, Lebanese, Moroccan, French, Italian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, and Thai (to name a few), and I’ve got a packed schedule of taste-tasting ahead!
They don’t speak English in China
The frequency of English speakers I’ve encountered in China has been significantly lower than in Saudi. However, despite my atrocious 汉语 (language of the Han), I’ve made my way around this city (and a few others) quite nicely.
That being said, I don’t see the lack of conveniently available English speakers in a country that isn’t my own as a problem. Since I’m the stranger, traveler, guest, and wayfarer, it is my duty to close the communication gap. Language programs like Verbling – where you’re matched for video lessons with a native language speaker – are a great way to get up to speed.
We’re about halfway through our first level of private Mandarin instruction: I’m in awe of the language. Our language instructor, Simon, carefully explains each part of the character’s derivation and history.
Chinese people are rude
Since parameters of rudeness are usually cultural, I found this pretty suspect.
How can you apply such a descriptor to an entire nation?
I’m not denying that cultural misunderstandings can lead to some discomfort for travelers and expats. One of the struggles of living in Saudi Arabia was dealing with things that I considered rude – pushing in crowds, butting in line (jumping the queue for my UK pals), asking personal questions, and commenting on a person’s figure. But these were all outweighed by the “Arab hospitality,” generosity, low cost of living, high salaries, etc. And it is impossible to live anywhere without rudeness, whether intentional or accidental.
I guess what I’m saying is, no, Chinese people aren’t rude. Chinese people are, however, not shy about their bodily functions. Burping, farting, spitting in public are normal, I even have a pregnant colleague that vomits into the trash can by her desk with the same nonchalance as throwing a napkin away. Nevertheless, in my days here, I’ve experienced nothing but generosity, respect, kindness, and dare I say love.
You won’t find a job if you don’t speak Chinese
Well if you don’t speak a word of Mandarin, you can always be an English teacher, right? Just kidding! The Chinese value teachers and want the best and most qualified for their students. You can’t just walk in and teach English (although there are a variety of programs to help teachers). However, China is full of economic opportunity for professionals and skilled workers.
Due to the visa regulations in China, you do need to prove that you are competent and skilled. You will have to submit work experience letters, degree verification (there are four levels and all have to be done in your home country), health certificates, criminal background checks, etc.
China has a booming economy and has a lot of citizens to choose from. China’s work permit process requires stringent credential verification, as well as points for language/experience. At the same time, it is a booming economy and native English speakers are needed for many jobs, particularly creative ones/for global companies. I think it is very similar to any other job market. If you have marketable skills, you don’t need to worry. Also, China is friendly to foreign-owned businesses (unlike Saudi Arabia), so many foreigners also relocate to open/run their own businesses.
There is quite a language barrier in working environments though, particularly local companies. Mandarin lessons are often subsidized by employers since it is vital to doing business here. Working without any Mandarin is possible, but not sustainable or ideal. It isn’t difficult to find a job without knowing Mandarin, but it is difficult to thrive in one.
It’s impossible to learn Mandarin because it’s so difficult
Okay, Mandarin is difficult, but there are such things as books, teachers, academies, lessons, and hard work! I don’t think anything is impossible unless you refuse to try.
Isn’t a challenge exciting? (Cries softly into my Mandarin textbook).
You won’t be able to save money
Shanghai is very expensive, but the salaries and income tax are comparable to the United States. I’m a firm believer that it’s always possible to save, as long as you practice the proper financial habits.
Expats are in unique (usually profitable) financial situations. Expat packages can be quite generous worldwide: usually, companies accommodate “Western” standards of living for their foreign employees. However, China is a little bit different, for a variety of reasons on which I can speculate.
At the end of the day, it comes down to the choices you make with your wallet. Shanghai has a lot of cheap and free entertainment options, public parks, and nature spots, and it costs less than a dollar to get most places around the city via metro. Rent is quite high in major cities, but most everything is inexpensive; food, clothing, transportation, and entertainment. Budgeting might take some effort, but your savings account will thank you!
My first six months in Shanghai have left me wondering why in the world I never considered moving here in the first place! Shanghai has both Western and Eastern “flavor” and can feel like a small town at times, despite housing 24 million people! I can’t wait to share the rest of my journey with you insha’Allah.
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What have you heard about living and working in China? Happy to answer any questions you may have! And if you’ve been to China, please share your experience with me!