Advice for the Expat in China
-- By Saud Inam, MAIS (Cohort 8 Alumnus) [edited by MAIS Staff]
1. Learn About the City You're Going to
This is pretty important for any trip you take, but probably even more so when it comes to China. China is a large country with many provinces, and each city and province has its unique culture and lifestyle. Most important are where the local expat restaurants are, bus stops, metro/subway lines, street names, housing, hospitals, and religious institutions.
It’d also be good to read up more about the history too. A great resource for this is Lonely Planet.
2. Learn Survival Chinese
The biggest mistake you can make is to not know a country’s language before coming to it. In other countries where English is far more common you’d be okay, but in China few, if any, people speak English. It’s important to learn survival Chinese at least and continue to add to your vocabulary and even take Chinese classes while in China.
Chinese is a tone-based language and doesn’t have an alphabet. It’s based off of tones and characters. Don’t bother learning the Chinese characters first, but focus more on pronunciation and spoken Chinese. Learning survival Chinese will help you avoid getting lost, frustrated, cheated, or taken advantage of in China.
Once you have mastered basic Mandarin, focus your studies on professional language. Most language schools have specially designed courses for business Mandarin, or you could ask your tutor or language exchange partner to concentrate on this field.
3. Get a VPN!
If you want to be connected to your friends and family back home (and improve your internet speed), get a VPN. A VPN will allow you to access usually blocked sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Highly recommend getting Astrill. It’s only $70 a year and is stable and reliable.
4. Register with the US Consulate in Shanghai
Register with the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai to receive updates on any issues affecting American citizens.
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a secure online travel registration website which will allow you, as an American citizen, to record foreign trip and residence information that the Department of State can use to communicate with you and assist you in case of an emergency.”
5. Bring Any Medication You Take Regularly
Be prepared and bring a significant amount of medicine you take to China. If you are able, bring enough medication for one year.
6. Find Your Place of Worship
This goes with #1, but this will help you keep grounded and give you a foundation to keep yourself from feeling homesick, keep you spiritually fresh and even give you an opportunity to become a part of a new community and make new friends!
7. Research and Learn How to Use Transportation Options
Learn how to use local transportation be it the bus system, metro/subway, or even look into purchasing a scooter or bicycle. If you do buy a bike or a scooter be sure to purchase a helmet and be careful when riding/driving around China. China’s traffic is dangerous and drivers usually never follow traffic laws or speed limits.
8. Find Local Restaurants and Hangouts
It’s important to find local style restaurants and hangout places so you feel more connected to the community and experience delicious new foods! Take these opportunities to build your network of friends and contacts as well.
9. This Isn't America! It's China!
Be prepared to experience a totally different mindset, culture, and lifestyle. As much as there is bureaucracy, there are a lot of things that seem like chaos to an outsider. You’re going to have to learn to adapt and learn the ways of the locals as you go!
10. University Students are Different in Their Social Status
Well you may say: “This is true of American university students too,” but the truth is Chinese university students for the most part have had different socialization opportunities in China due to the academic pressure put on them at a young age to excel. University is the usually the first time they’re able to be free to make independent decisions and learn to be on their own.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule for ALL Chinese university students, but it’s pretty much common in China.
11. Carry Your Camera Everywhere!
You’re going to see some amazing tourist sites in China, but also will see some spontaneous events, places, or images that are extremely funny and interesting. Take time to create memories!
12. Don't Get Ripped Off!
American and foreigners in general are seen as extremely wealthy and some storekeepers will take advantage of this and try to hike up prices because you’re foreigner and American… and hey all Americans are extremely wealthy right? When you do shop go with a friend who speaks Chinese so you can ensure you’re not getting taken advantage of. Also, bargain hard, don’t be shy or meek when you bargain.
13. Try to Network and Truly Experience China
Too often expats either live in China or visit China and hang out with solely expats and never learn the language or learn about the culture or history of China. This is pretty much a lost opportunity. Help yourself learn more about a very complex and diverse culture and people by exploring China, meeting people, visiting places that aren’t really tourist attractions. Look at all of your time in China as a learning opportunity!
14. Open a Chinese Bank Account
The most reliable banks in China are ICBC and Hua Xia banks. You can use Hua Xia banks to send money back home. All you need to do is set up a bank account with them, give the swift code, and pay a minimal fee to send money back home.
15. China is Not Credit Card Friendly!
When you do get a bank account in China, it’s important that you get an ATM Card/Debit Card. You should withdraw cash to ensure you always have cash on hand. Many restaurants, shops, and supermarkets only take cash.
It’s pretty cheap to fly around in China, but if possible, take the fast train in China—it’s must cheaper, clean and efficient.
If flight tickets are expensive try searching Spring Airlines or by specific airline companies’ names, they may be cheaper. Traveling regionally is pretty cheap and the best place to fly to is Kuala Lumpur. If you fly out of Kuala Lumpur’s airport flights can be fairly cheap. In addition to that most neighboring countries close to China don’t require visas, which is great. You can check about the visa processes at the U.S. State Department website.
When traveling within China you'll need your U.S. Passport to book tickets and even hotel rooms, so keep it on hand at all times and keep it safe.
17. Be Prepared to be Stared at... A lot!
You’ll notice when you’re walking around that you’ll be stared at as if you’re Bigfoot and you may become self-conscious, but keep calm and carry on!
18. Be Careful with Personal Belongings
When coming to China, keep a track of all your personal belongings and ensure they’re safe. To avoid being pick-pocketed or losing your wallet, purse or cell phone—purchase a cheap cell phone in China and also a wallet/purse too and put only the bare essentials in it
Pollution can be a major problem in China and you should take precautions to protect yourself. You should purchase a facial mask and wear it on the really polluted days. You can check the pollution levels at this site.
As for water pollution, try to purchase bottled water or get a water filter from a local store.