In August 2017 I hopped off a plane in Changsha and was introduced to China for the first time.
I’ve spent the last five years learning about Chinese culture, making many Chinese (and foreign) friends, and traveling to some pretty incredible places. China has challenged me to step way outside my comfort zone, try some strange foods and drink lots of homemade rice wine, and explore small villages and big skyscraper cities alike.
Since August 2017 I’ve taught English to university students, kindergartners, professors working on doctorates, nurses and doctors in hospitals, and primary students in rural country schools.
Between teaching, traveling, and navigating every day life here, I’ve had some interesting, inspiring, and crazy experiences in China!
Here are a few things I’ve learned from the last 5 years.
1. Learning Chinese Isn’t As Hard As I Thought
You always hear Chinese is the most difficult language, but actually learning to speak basic Chinese isn’t terribly hard! You’re constantly surrounded by the language and will pick up little things in daily interactions with people. It’s actually fun to practice and local people will respect your efforts! With that said, I’m no Chinese expert but speak enough to get by, and learning Chinese characters is a bit harder
2. Western and Eastern Cultures Have Different Values And That’s Okay
There are lots of differences between the East and West. China is more focused on the collective group than the individual, something I noticed especially as a teacher in the school environment.
Families might express love in different ways; instead of verbally speaking I love you, they might show it through actions. In a conversation about love and families, I asked my students if their parents say “I love you” to them. One student said, “No, but they will remind me to wear my coat and bring an umbrella if it’s raining, and they’ll ask me if I’ve eaten. This is how they express their love.”
This also goes for the Chinese work environment. When you work with Chinese colleagues, you might have different mindsets about how to accomplish a task, and that’s just how different cultures (and people!) work. Sometimes it means you have think creatively to solve problems and work hard to make sure your communication is clear.
3. Chinese People Will Stare And (Hopefully) You’ll Get Used To It
As a foreigner coming to a country where the majority of the population is Han Chinese, you’re going to stick out and be noticed.
I’ve never had so many eyes on me before coming to China. Be it teaching, performing in talent shows, or just walking home from the grocery store or gym, I’m constantly in the limelight.
In Hengyang, the first city I lived in, the total foreigner population was less than 100. Many people had never seen a foreigner before! Lots of people would sneak photos of me on the bus, peek into my shopping cart to see what the “foreigner” buys, or ask for a photo together. People aren’t intentionally trying to be rude or nosy, but seeing a foreigner is a novelty.
Even kids will walk straight up to you and take your photo.
Now that I live in Beijing, I experience this much less than when I lived in a smaller city, but it still happens when I go to touristy areas like Wangfujing Street or the Summer Palace where other Chinese tourists from other cities might be.
4. You Have To Be More Assertive
I’m not generally a very assertive person – I ‘m pretty non-confrontational, and if you knocked into me on the street I would probably apologize to you.
This doesn’t really fly in China – if you don’t get thicker skin here, China will chew you up and spit you out. I had to learn that if I needed help at the store or wanted to get the waiter’s attention at a restaurant I had to be more loud and follow what other Chinese people do.
Now I don’t hesitate – I’ll squeeze my way onto a crowded bus and loudly yell “Fuwuyuan!” in a restaurant, because that’s how you do it here.
*Note there is a difference between being assertive and being rude!
5. Patience and Flexibility Go A Long Way
On the other hand, there are times when you need to be patient. There are many cultural differences between China and the U.S. You have to handle a variety of situations, whether it is electricity shutting off, negotiating contracts and getting a work visa, or opening a new bank account and trying to buy train tickets. Lots of times people won’t speak English, or China has a different system for doing things.
Flexibility and patience will take you far in China.