A Foreigner Living in China: First Impressions

Living in a new country brings with it a whole set of differences from the food, the people and their culture, the politics, the currency, and well simply the time zone! When you couple that with working in a new country, you add the work ethic and culture or the way of doing business and in China it is unique. In the world of international ESL, there are additional nuances when working and living in a new country; those are: the transient nature of the industry, the young age of the average ESL teacher, and the oft times close proximity of not just working with but living rather closely to your coworkers.

First impressions for a lot of foreigners regarding infrastructure, food and eating, as well as surveillance around the cities are three areas that often seem to be a huge surprise when we first arrive here in China.


Infrastructure of Cities in China vs. Where you come from

When I arrived in China, to a very large city of 15 million in 2016 (it was expected to double within 5 years – wow), the mere size of the city was more than I’d ever experienced for living. Mostly I was struck by the comment from a local, “China is a developing country.” I was wowed, and the statement still holds true nearly 4 years later. Now Shanghai and Beijing, Tianjin and Guangzhou (the larger cities – yea, even more than 15 million) may be different, but the vast majority of other cities are indeed ‘developing’ in every single way. It is not unusual to be caught unawares and amazed at garbage in the streets, very poor air quality, the fact that water from your sink is not drinkable, also that you cannot flush toilet paper. There is also an incredible amount of construction of buildings, roads, and transportation (rail) in most cities (the race to keep up with the ever-growing population), and the debris and dumping seems unusually haphazard. Something important to point out is that China is truly an ancient country and most of the country has the well-built structures from thousands of years ago (picture the Great Wall, hanging temples, etc.) when well there was no plumbing or road finishing to the likes we have today. Motorized vehicles didn’t exist then and to still be able to walk the streets and touch these walls that people have for thousands of years is mind-blowingly amazing!


Different Strokes for Different Folks

My first experience eating in a small restaurant enjoying the yummiest rough chopped chicken dish was amazing. The food itself is still a most memorable and favorite dish of mine in Chinese cuisine, and likewise this first experience eating out is also memorable. First off, the obvious is that table condiments are different in China; you won’t find salt and pepper or napkins and flatware on tables, but you will find spicy pepper oil and vinegar, and soy and chopsticks. Also, most Chinese do not drink water or bevvies when eating. When they do drink, water is usually hot (never ever cold with ice). The Chinese also have a lovely and fun way of eating which is family style, meaning that all dishes are served to the group and everyone has their own bowl of rice and a bowl for soup, but otherwise everyone picks from the common plates (I actually love this way of eating a meal with a group). Big unsettling differences are that people in China tend to expel or spit out bones of fish or rough chopped meats and fowl onto the table into a big pile. In all fast food restaurants patrons do not clear tables so tables and the area around them is terribly dirty. Another difficult to adjust to practice is the clearing of one\’s nasal and throat by coughing up phlegm and spitting it out anywhere you happen to be (yes, elevator floors, shopping malls, everywhere). Once you live and experience the air quality in most cities, you get the why the people do this, but most foreigners never acquire the practice. Perhaps the most unsettling thing to see is people relieving themselves in public (both babies and adults) which is not uncommon in all cities; babies wear ‘split pants’ that make it easy for caregivers to help them cop a squat. So, this explains why the Chinese people remove their shoes and don house slippers before entering their homes.

Another oddity for me as a foreigner is that though it is 5 o’clock somewhere, good cocktails are hard to find, and so is clean water ice. In China there is a culture of copying everything or what is called counterfeiting. This is also true of alcohol. This is an important thing to be aware of because the chemicals used in counterfeit alcohol give you a helluva hangover, which is really almost a poisoning. Most of the ESL teachers coming to China are of newly drinking age and well party on dude but do it knowingly and safely. Beer in tin cans is a safe bet, and also drinking at reputable places (but the bartender could also be duped too, so beware). Also, drug use in any form is strictly against the law here in China (even the seemingly simple use of marijuana) and is a deportable offense and worse if you are caught giving drugs to someone else. If you are caught for such an offense your company will not be able to help you. So, moral of this story is just say no.


Peek-a-Boo I see (and hear) You

At first glance this seems unsettling for a foreigner, even though I will say this is a more common occurrence in the States and European cities than we want to admit, it is perhaps more covert there but here in China it is very obvious and standard in all cities and I feel sage and more secure. I figure it this way, on the off chance that if something were to happen to me, someone on the other side of those cameras could help me or find me. Most foreigners will say the same thing about feeling very safe on the streets of China due to all the surveillance.

Something that still takes some getting used to is censorship and observation of conversation on many tech applications like the commonly used WeChat or QQ. Also, public information, aka news sources, are government controlled so the information we receive may be edited in ways that could be limited. These situations have a tendency to curb the conversations you will have with your foreign friends and most certainly your local friends; Chinese people do not speak about politics or any touchy subject in public and if they do speak about these subjects in private the conversation is shallow at best. It is not all bad though, as there is a myriad of other things to talk about and to do with friends, but as a western foreigner this has taken some effort to get used to.


It is important to remember whenever you are a tourist or a short-term resident in a new country, you are a guest, a visitor. Be aware of local rules and laws and be polite, which means accepting that + these things, though unsettling for you, are just how they are here; let it go and move on with your day. Knowing these glaring differences in doing things here, come prepared to live and experience and to grow personally and professionally here in China. When you look beyond these things you will discover the riches of China and fall in love with her: the genuine and resilient people, the tenacity of her cities growing and maintaining ancient culture and practices, the unique and rich cuisine of every province, the awesome beauty of her countryside, and her incredible and ancient history absolutely everywhere! #Livin’aDreaminChina!



Teach English, travel and work abroad with EF English First


Susan is an American woman living a dream — a dream to live and work in community in different countries! Several years in to her journey, she has found her home-away-from-home, while learning more about herself, more about the world, and building bridges through common language as an ESL teacher with EF Kids and Teens in Taizhou, Zheijiang, China. #Livin’aDreamInChina!

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