What should you know before coming to China? I could share my own thoughts – and I will – but I’d also like to get a few of my friends involved. The best answer to this question comes from those who have either lived or traveled extensively through China. Here is a collection of wisdom and advice about what you should consider before traveling to China.
It goes without saying that culture shock is unavoidable no matter what country you visit. China is no different. There are also universal tips for traveling abroad that apply to most any country in the world (i.e. don’t drink the tap water).
But what about China specifically? Are there things you should know before moving to the “Middle Kingdom”?
Allow me to introduce a few China-based bloggers, teachers, travelers, students, academics, and folks in travel business. They’ve graciously shared with me what they wish they knew before coming to China.
And if you’re looking for even more practical advice, make sure you download the free 44 China tips to save you time and money. Tens of thousands of travelers have already downloaded the PDF booklet and I’ve received numerous comments saying things like “I had never thought about some of this stuff…thanks!”
For now, though, we’re going to focus on the advice of these 8 China experts.
What Do You Wish You Would Have Known Before Coming to China?
Here are some great tidbits from a few China experts, as well as my own thoughts edited in for your enjoyment 😉
“Something I wish I knew before I came to China is that Chinese kids aren’t as well-regimented and nicely behaved as the media would have you believe! If you want to come to China to teach, you have to remember that kids will be kids (energetic, playful, excitable) whatever the nationality.”
Josh says: I completely agree. To be clear…that’s not a bad thing! If you’re going to teach in China, you’ll still have to work on classroom management.
“Oh also bring tissues with you if you are out and about. Most Chinese toilets don’t stock toilet paper so like a boy scout you should always be prepared!”
Josh says: Oh man…that’s a big one. It’s one of the secret China travel tips that I’ve shared in my 44 things you MUST know before traveling to China.
Author of Parsley & Coriander: Life in China
“Health insurance is essential. During the first year, we lived here without any insurance. Later I discovered this is irresponsible: in China, if something happens and you need to go to the hospital, you have to pay everything by yourself.”
Josh says: Very true. That’s why I always recommend people find good travel insurance before coming to China.
“I wish I knew that I didn’t have to bring my colander from Italy. Here you can find everything (and more) on Taobao, and the best thing you can do to make your life more convenient is to learn how to use it!”
“I wish I knew that I had to become a super tech girl: here in China, you use your phone for everything, from calling a taxi to ordering dinner or grocery shopping. So, come equipped with a smartphone and a good knowledge of it.”
Contributor to Chinese-Breeze.com
“I wish I knew that an intensive language study abroad program over the course of 2 months would not make me fluent in Chinese. Becoming in fluent in Chinese would take years of dedication and immersion in China.”
“It would have also been nice to know about English teaching options. I started out at a training center, which was a far different experience than teaching at a high school, which I preferred most. Do lots of research on the schools located where you want to live and the experience you can expect working at each one.”
Josh says: Agreed. If you want to learn more, check out our 5 steps to getting a good job teaching English in China.
“Be sure to also have health insurance. One of my students got seriously injured slicing her foot on AC unit boarding a train and needed stitches and ultimately had to leave our study abroad program.”
Retiring Foreign Investor
“If investing or starting a business in China, take the time to visit the target area at different times. What is the need of that area? Does your business meet that need? Observe the habits of the locals and do not depend on interviews with the people (especially with a translator), as they will only tell you what they think you want to hear.”
“Second, know that whatever you are told you need to invest for that business, it will probably be double that amount. This has nothing to do with bribes and everything to do with delays. What may take you days to accomplish in your home country takes weeks or months to do in China.”
“Third, focus on the long term. The day to day might make you crazy, but the long term will show results. Be fluid in your expectations as you will have to adjust frequently due to cultural differences and rapidly changing rules and regulations.”
Josh says: These are all great tips for doing business in China! I know from experience that it’s not easy 🙂
“I wish I had learned some Chinese. I couldn’t speak a word when I arrived and even a limited vocabulary would have helped in order to buy things and get around easier.”
Josh says: YES! The good news is that it’s not as hard as it first seems. Check out all these great tools to help you learn Chinese.
“I also wish I had known about how incredible the west of China is. It took me a few years to make it there and it is without doubt the most spectacular part of the country – particularly the mountains in the far west in Xinjiang.”
Josh says: So…I admit I’m a bit biased here. I’ve lived in Xinjiang for 10 years and I LOVE it!
“Other than that, I wish I had known how friendly people were and that I had nothing to fear. Everywhere I went people helped me, welcomed me, and talked to me. China is awesome.”
PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge
“As an American, I tended to subscribe to the notion of “pure friendship”, founded on a theoretical “no strings attached” relational basis. In this “pure friendship”, friendship is a gift, and a gift that we give free of obligation and reciprocation. But in China, this is often not the case.
Overt giving and obligatory reciprocation is a significant and necessary ritualized aspect of trust-building in China. Moreover, the cycle of reciprocal gift giving helps to build and solidify long term affective relations. It is also important to note that gifts are not always of monetary value.
On more than one occasion I’ve heard fellow expats discussing how people tried to “buy” their friendship, “bribe” them for favors etc. In most cases these are simply part and parcel of a complex Chinese social network of social production and reproduction – a network in which you, the foreigner, have been invited to participate.”
Josh says: Interesting observation. It can be hard to know what to give, though, which is why I’ve written up some ideas on gifts to give people in China.
Former English Teacher in China
“You will know which students want to learn and which don’t really quickly. Figure out what inspires them to become better, or if they don’t care, to start caring. Give your students a vision for where English language can take them.”
“Don’t bring too much. You can live with less than you think you
need. Only bring one large suitcase and a carry-on of items from home.
If you are really tall, buy your clothes and shoes at home because
buying clothes locally is almost impossible.
Invite local friends over to make dumplings or you will be missing out.
Josh says: Ha! As a guy who is 6’2″ (188 cm), I can empathize with Luke here. It’s virtually impossible for me to find pants or shoes that fit me well. I almost always buy those items in the US and either ship or transport them to China.
Of course, this list of “What I wish I knew before traveling to China” wouldn’t really be complete without me putting in my two cents. So here goes.
I wish I had given myself permission from the beginning to say “no”. The moment I landed in China, I was being asked to do any and everything – judging competitions, teaching my neighbor’s kid English, joining an expat group, etc. At first I didn’t want to disappoint anybody so I agreed to everything. That pretty much drove me insane. Learn to say ‘no’.
I also wish I had known that China’s power structure rewards those who are persistent. Any low-level worker you come in contact with is probably going to tell you they can’t do what you’re asking them to do. Persistence will reveal that they either don’t want to do it or they’re too lazy to ask their boss. Keep at it!
Final Thoughts | What to Know Before Coming to China?
The more you people you chat with who have been to China, the better prepared you will be for your trip/move. Join Facebook and other social media groups that are focused on traveling in China to ask members what they wish they knew prior to coming to China.
Is there anything we did not cover about what you should know before coming to China? Let us know in the comments. If you are a seasoned China hand or explorer, feel free to also share your experience on what you wish you had known before traveling to China in the comments.