How to survive as an expat in China

Published:  18 Jun at 6 PM
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Tagged: USA, South Africa, China, Jobs
Undoubtedly, China is becoming more Westernised year by year, but even for expats in it for the long-haul, there’s much about their lifestyle that’s simply bizarre.

Even simple tasks such as stocking up on Western favourites from your nearest supermarket can be fraught with disappointment once you see empty shelves where there were cans of cream of tomato soup and other absolute necessities. Coming back next week doesn’t help, as this and many other non-Chinese taste products simply disappear, never to be seen again. Stranger still, if the item you want doesn’t have a bar code, you’ll not be able to buy it. Ever. It’s not just supermarkets which frustrate expats almost beyond bearing, as much-loved local restaurants can disappear just as fast, usually via a ‘closed for renovations’ sign.

Expats in China believe the lowest form of life on the planet is the taxi driver – the one who, like all the others, is ‘out for lunch’ according to a little yellow sign on his cab. In reality, lunch has nothing to do with this infuriating habit, as the driver simply doesn’t want to pick anyone up at this time. Overcharging, picking up other passengers and cramming them in the back seat with you and getting lost are all ways to drive a foreigner mad and make the driver’s day. One of the hardest things to get used to for newly arrived expats in China is the fact that wherever they go they’ll be gawked at. Chinese adults stare, their kids take pics, as do some adults, and it takes time to realise you actually are a curiosity for most Chinese. Getting over it by getting used to it is the only answer.

In China, ‘manners’ as Westerners know them don’t exist. No ‘please’, no ‘thank you’, not even an ‘excuse me’ and definitely no queues, just a rush to get to the supermarket till faster than you. The only way out is to adopt this Chinese habit and go for it. You’re probably larger than the average Chinese, giving an advantage when pushing and shoving. One battle you won’t win is when your waitress tells you you’ve made all the wrong food choices. You won’t win because she’s right! On the whole, the Chinese don’t mean to be difficult or unhelpful - they’re just trying to focus on their own goals in a heavily populated land.

Learning Standard Chinese is a must, as is being very careful where you use it. In a crowded bar, your new skill will attract the attention of a table-full of drunks desperate to practice their English and have you do the same with your Chinese. If you’re feeling communicative, that’s fine, but if you’re not it’s hell on earth as they won’t leave you alone for hours. Worse still, you’ve to learn to cope with the expat community in all its varied forms, many of which are weird at best and unacceptable at worst. Know-it-alls, hardline right-wingers from the USA’s rust belt brought up to hate immigrants, professional alcoholics who’ve married the wrong Chinese girl and other nutjobs all test your patience until you remember you actually like living and working in China and aren’t going to let anyone spoil it for you.
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