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

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

About four and a half years ago, I hopped on a plane to study abroad in Beijing. While I scoured the internet for information and read just about every blog I could find, I still had so many questions! Well, as someone who has now been living in China for three full years, today I'm going to give you the advice I wish someone told me.

Here are the fifteen things I really wish I knew before moving to China:

1. Nobody Hates You

Let's be honest, most educated Americans realize that we're not the most loved country on the planet. Not everyone thinks we're "Number One."

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 Chinese people.

Whenever I say I'm from the US, most Chinese people exclaim "Oh, America is good. Very developed!" They may also yell "Obama!" or talk about 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.)

Chinese people don't hate you for being American, so don't go sewing maple leaves onto your backpack; most Chinese people won't know it symbolizes Canada anyway. It may be helpful to read up on common Chinese social customs, though.

2. Our "Chinese Food" Is Not Even Close

living abroad in China

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, mapuo dofu, a soft tofu simmering in a spicy sauce with chili peppers that numb your tongue. Or how about liang fen, a rice gelatin cut into bite-sized pieces covered in cilantro and fresh spices.

Who knew so many of my favorite dishes in China would end up being vegetarian? But let's be honest, the best mapuo dofu has ground beef sprinkled on top.

3. Surgical Masks Don't Do Anything

When I moved to China four years ago, I had no idea what the pollution level was. None of us had apps on our phones, and we didn't wear masks either. Thankfully, most of us are a little more educated nowadays. However, the Western media and even the Chinese government have done a horrible job teaching people how to protect themselves.

When you see images of very polluted days in China, they're often accompanied by photos of people in surgical masks. While these masks are great for keeping yourself from getting sick on a crowded subway, they will not work for the pollution at all. Seriously, don't bother buying them.

What do you need to protect yourself then? A gas mask? Well, that's one option, but 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 More Important

The media emphasizes wearing a mask outside, but let's be honest, if it's really polluted, you're probably staying indoors. If you live and work in China, it's way more 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. Yuck.

5. WeChat is Everything

Invest in an unlocked smartphone when you come to China because WeChat is your life. WeChat is the Chinese version of Whatsapp, but that’s just the beginning. Chinese people actually don’t use regular text messages; they just use WeChat to text. WeChat also has voice messaging, a ridiculous amount of moving emojis, and you can even save your own gifs as stickers to use!

WeChat also has a social media element that has become the Chinese mobile version of Facebook. You can also download WeChat on your computer and use it like AIM, or send actual documents as attachments. Don't forget WeChat Wallet, where you can set up your bank card and transfer money to your friends with just a text message. You can even buy plane and train tickets on the app!

Don’t have any cash on you? Even the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant across the street from my apartment has a QR code that you can scan to pay with WeChat. Yep… they don’t take Chinese credit or debit cards, but they have their own QR code so you can pay with your phone.

6. Tea Isn't Free

living abroad in China

I was absolutely shocked to find that free tea does not come with every meal in China. 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 #6.5: 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 cheap loose leaf tea at the grocery store, but Chinese people head straight to the tea store for the best stuff. You can do a tasting and buy tea in brick form. It will always be loose leaf and sipped without a strainer.

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

Ladies, if you want tampons in China, you're best off bringing them from home along with some other packing essentials. While you can find them online and in some large stores, they'll be more expensive and your go-to brand may not be offered. Pads are also a nuisance 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 and 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

I never really thought twice about my sheets. While I like to sleep with soft and comfortable blankets, my bottom sheet never concerned me all that much. Well, 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.

The lack of fitted sheets bothered me so much, I actually brought a set with me from America this year. I'm sure you can also find them online or possibly at IKEA, but you will not find them in the grocery store: not even at Walmart, TESCO, and Carrefour! You've been warned.

10. You Can't Just "Pick Up Chinese"

learn Chinese in China

While I first came to China to learn 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 so difficult, and it will take you years of study to 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.

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 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.

You may also find the term "whitening" on your sunscreen along with most facial moisturizers. While at first, I was very nervous about the product bleaching my skin, I eventually learned that "whitening" is either code for "contains SPF" or the product acts as a mild exfoliate akin to anti-aging spot removal creams in the West.

14. Street Food Won't Kill You

living abroad in China

While food safety is 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. Chinese pipes aren't equipped to handle non-organic waste, so you may find your toilet clogged if you try flushing your 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!

Explore gap years in China.

Photo credit: dave.see, Michael.Camilleri, lydia_x_liu, HBarrison.
Photo of Richelle Gamlam

Traveler, blogger and serial expat, Richelle has been living and working in China for the last four years. From high school English teacher to college admissions consultant, Richelle has tried her hand at many different jobs in China. She spends all of her vacation days traveling Asia off the beaten path, and in her spare time, she loves to scuba dive, salsa dance and try weird foods no one else will eat. For more of Richelle's crazy misadventures, check out her blog Adventures Around Asia.

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