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15 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Living in China as an American

Getting ready to live in China? Read about the 15 things a former ESL teacher thinks every American should know about living in China.

15 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Living in China as an American

When I prepared to hop on a plane to study abroad in Beijing, I scoured the internet for information and read just about every blog I could find. But, I still had so many questions!

Now as someone who has lived in China for over three years, I’ve built up a lot of knowledge along the way.

Here’s 15 things I wish someone had told me, before I made the big move!

1. Nobody hates you

Moving to China, I was very aware that there may be some animosity towards me as an American, especially since our leaders don't always see eye to eye. While sometimes I do hear negative comments about American politics and culture, these criticisms almost never come from people from China.

Whenever I mentioned I'm from the US, it would spark conversations about American pop culture or the NBA. They might ask what the average salary is back home, or how much it costs to buy a house per square meter. (If anyone has a good answer to that question, please let me know.)

Bottom line -- Nobody in China hates you for being American. However, it will be helpful to read up on common Chinese social customs before entering the country.

2. Chinese food in the US is great, but it’s even better in China!

15 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Living in China as an American: Chinese Food

Growing up, I was obsessed with Chinese food. Since I'm from Seattle, our Chinese food wasn't half-bad. But surprisingly, beef and broccoli, General Tso's chicken, and fortune cookies are nonexistent in China.

I was shocked to find eggplant and tofu as staples. I also had no idea there were so many regional cuisines: Sichuan, Yunnan, Beijing, Hunan, Xinjiang, Tibetan, Mongolian... I could go on and on.

Some of my favorite dishes in China are things I would have never eaten back home. For example, I fell in love with mapuo dofu, a soft tofu simmering in a spicy sauce with chili peppers that numb your tongue. Another favorite of mine was liang fen, a rice gelatin cut into bite-sized pieces covered in cilantro and fresh spices.

3. Surgical masks aren’t very effective for fighting pollution

When I moved to China four years ago, I had no idea what the pollution level was going to be like. Upon arriving in China, I was unsure of the best way to protect myself from the smog and air pollution. What mask do I use? Do I wear it everyday?

In China, it’s best to wear a mask everyday while outdoors. However, while disposable surgical masks are great for keeping yourself from getting sick on a crowded subway, they do not offer adequate protection from air pollution.

What do you need to protect yourself then? A gas mask? Well, while that's one option, I prefer the white 3M construction masks! They'll protect you from PM2.5, and you can buy them in bulk at Home Depot, Lowe's, or Amazon.

4. Air purifiers are a must-have

On days when the air is really polluted, it’s smart to stay indoors.

If you live and work in China, it's important to invest in a good air purifier for your office and apartment. This is where you're spending the majority of your time, and studies show that when it's polluted outside, it's usually just as polluted indoors.

5. WeChat is everything

Invest in an unlocked smartphone when you come to China because WeChat will become your life.

WeChat is similar to Whatsapp and is a very popular social messaging tool. In China, people actually don’t use regular text messages; they just use WeChat to text. WeChat has voice messaging, a ton of moving emojis, and you can even save your own gifs as stickers to use!

There’s also WeChat Wallet, where you can set up your bank card and transfer money to your friends with just a text message. Through the app, you can even buy plane and train tickets.

This is especially helpful if you aren’t carrying cash. Even the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant across the street from my apartment had a QR code that you can scan to pay with WeChat!

6. Hot tea isn't free at restaurants

15 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Living in China as an American: Tea isn't Free

I was absolutely shocked to find that free hot tea does not come with every meal in China, unlike Chinese restaurants here in the US.

Not only is tea rarely included, most restaurants don't even serve it! Even if tea is on the menu, usually the restaurant won't have it in stock. (I guess that should be another tip: not everything on the menu is actually available.)

So what do they give you instead of tea? Usually, most restaurants will serve hot boiled water, even in the summer! Be aware that most places won't automatically serve it to you, and you'll have to ask for it. If you want cold water, you'll need to purchase a water bottle instead.

I was also surprised to find how expensive tea is in China! While China is definitely the Mecca of tea, I wasn't expecting it to be so pricey.

You may be able to find affordable loose leaf tea options at the grocery store. If you visit a tea shop, you can do a tasting and buy tea in brick form. However, it will always be loose leaf and sipped without a strainer.

Bonus tip: If you're curious how to drink the tea without swallowing the leaves, use your teeth to block them!

7. Tampons are hard to find

If you need tampons while in China, you're best off bringing them from home.

While it is possible to find them online or in large stores, they'll be more expensive and your go-to brand may not be offered.

Finding pads is also difficult in China. Most of them are very large and aren't as sleek as brands like Always.

For me, I decided to avoid this problem altogether by purchasing a Diva Cup. It was one of the best expat decisions I have ever made!

8. Free VPNs will not cut it for internet usage

The first time I came to China, I used my university's free VPN to get around Chinese censorship. While it worked, my internet was ridiculously slow. Activities like streaming Netflix or uploading photos to Facebook was near impossible. When I returned a year later, I couldn't even get my free VPN to connect most of the time.

If you want to access sites and apps like Facebook, Google, Gmail, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, Tinder, and more, you'll need a VPN. The going rate tends to be about $50-$100 USD per year for a functioning VPN.

Living in China for over three years, I've become a VPN master. I've personally tested six VPNs, not including the free one from my university. While my favorites have changed over the years, here's a current list of the best VPNs on the market.

9. Fitted sheets are not popular

Over my lifetime I've become very accustomed to fitted sheets, and I was shocked to find that China does not share my love for a bottom sheet that doesn't move around while you're sleeping.

For me personally, the lack of fitted sheets bothered me so much, I actually packed a set with me from home. I'm sure you can also find them online or possibly at IKEA, but you will not find them in the grocery stores in China -- not even at Walmart, TESCO, and Carrefour! You've been warned.

10. You can't just "pick up” learning how to speak Chinese

15 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Living in China as an American: Chinese

While I first came to China to learn how to speak Chinese, I can't tell you how many expats I've met who think they can just pick up the language living abroad. Chinese is unlike any other language you've probably ever learned. The grammar is extremely different, the tones and pronunciation are quite difficult, and it may take you years of studying to even become proficient.

While you may be able to pick up some survival Chinese, if you want to actually be able to speak the language, you'll need to take a class. Don't worry though, there are plenty of affordable Mandarin classes and private tutors all over the country!

11. The government won't jail you on a whim

In the US, we hear so much about China's oppressive government and human rights abuse that most people (for example, my parents) are under the impression that the Chinese government may imprison you for even a minor transgression. I can tell you right now that as an expat, this will not happen to you.

The government couldn't care less that you have a VPN or that you say negative things about China on your personal blog. Unless you're The Guardian, New York Times, or BBC, the Chinese government doesn't really care what you write about, and frankly, most Chinese people are not reading things in English anyway.

Want to avoid getting arrested? Don't steal anything or get into a drunken bar fight. Don't stand in Tiananmen Square with a "Free Tibet" sign. Finally, don't forget to register at the police station every time you re-enter the country. This is coming from the girl who actually was arrested for not registering on time. (Oops.)

12. Coffee is expensive

While many of the foreign restaurants are only expensive by comparison, imported foods and coffee are much more expensive than they are back home. Thanks to China's tariffs, you can expect to pay up to two or three times the original price for items like coffee, cheese, peanut butter, and cereal. There's a reason why I pack a suitcase full of food and nice toiletries whenever I return from a visit home!

Coffee is also seen as a luxury in China, and many coffee shops price the drink accordingly. I was shocked to find that a tall latte at Starbucks costs around $4.40, which is a big step up from the $2.95 price tag I’m used to back home in Seattle. It's hard not to have sticker shock when you can buy an entire meal for half the price of your tiny latte.

13. BYOS: Bring Your Own Sunscreen

Sunscreen isn't too common in China. While I've eventually found it at certain stores, the bottle tends to be very small and is super pricey. Most people in China cover up to avoid the sun's harmful rays, but for those of you who like to wear tank tops and shorts without carrying around a sun umbrella, you may want to bring sunscreen from home.

14. Street food isn’t scary… it’s actually delicious and fresh!

15 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Living in China as an American: Street Food

While food safety can be a major issue in China, you can still eat street food without getting sick.

If there's a huge line, chances are not only is the food good, but it's also fresh. Don't be too worried about meat and seafood either. I've been living in China for three years, and the only time I was hospitalized with food poisoning was from a bacon cheeseburger.

That said, you can't drink the water. Seriously, even locals don't do it.

15. Don't flush your toilet paper

While I knew about squat toilets, no one ever told me not to flush my toilet paper. Next to every toilet you'll find a small basket where you can throw your paper. The pipe systems in China aren't equipped to handle non-organic waste, so you may find your toilet clogged if you try flushing your toilet paper one too many times.

Many public restrooms also don't have toilet paper or soap, so you'll probably want to bring some hand sanitizer from home and pick up a mini pack of tissues when you arrive.


While there are a lot of things I wish I knew before coming to China, I think the surprise of discovering new things every day has made my life here an adventure. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to arrive in China with an open mind. China is so large and complex, discovering new aspects of life and culture are just part of the fun!