20 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Moving to China

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Things I Wish I’d Known Before Moving to China

I was lucky enough to call China home for five years, with my wife also having called the country home for half a decade. Between us, we’ve made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot about life in China. Rather than you having to fumble your way through your China move, we thought we’d share the twenty lessons we wish we’d known before moving to China.

When you first land a job teaching in China and make the decision to relocate halfway around the world, the whole thing can be a little daunting, even the simple process of understanding how to get a China work visa. If you aren’t sure where to start, services such as Career China will consult you during the process of securing work, setting up visas and housing, as well as insurance and banking support.

There’s a lot of information out there. Some of it is over-cautious and some of it is woefully optimistic, so I thought I’d share the things I wish I’d known before I crammed my life into 20kgs of checked luggage and moved to the massive, messy, fascinating, frustrating, brilliant place that is China.

20. Don’t overpack

The temptation is going to be there to pack ALL OF THE THINGS!

The prospect of condensing your earthly possessions into a carry-on bag and a checked bag is a stressful one, and knowing what to pack for China can be hard.

I’ve highlighted a few things below that you should definitely have on your packing list, but here are a few things you definitely don’t need.

What not to pack for China

  • Too many clothes: You can get new clothes so cheaply in China. If you’re arriving in summer, just pack summer clothes and one coat. You can pick the rest up once you get there.
  • Shoes: Even if you are the type of person who wants a million pairs, don’t waste space packing a whole bunch. You can get them in China.
  • Lonely Planet: If you’re anything like me, you won’t even open the damned thing once you get there. You’ll get plenty of tips from friends and locals.
  • Batteries: They have them there. It’s not Soviet Russia.
  • Drugs: This should be a no-brainer, but don’t bring narcotics. The Chinese government is incredibly strict on drug use.
  • Your predispositions: You might think you know what to expect in China, but nothing can fully prepare you. Come in with an open mind and you’ll have a remarkable time.

NOTE: My reader, Rory has kindly reminded me that it is incredibly difficult to get larger sized clothes in China. I’m not talking moo-moos – I’m talking t-shirts larger than a western medium and jeans larger than a western 32. You’ll definitely want to stock up or be prepared to pay a small fortune at foreign brands like H&M.

It’s also worth noting that China does not really cater to larger shoe sizes. As a size thirteen, I could not find my size in most stores.

What you should pack for China

  • Power adapters: China uses both the Type A and the Type I power outlet, so be sure to have one of each with you. Aussies – Type I is the same one we use.
  • A warm coat for winter: China can get insanely cold, and most structures south of the Yangtze aren’t insulated. You’re going to want a coat. Maybe even gloves and a winter hat, while you’re at it.
  • Medication: While you can get many medications in China, it’s considerably less stressful to have your essentials with you.I’d definitely recommend bringing a year’s supply of anti-diarrhea medication, Pepto Bismol, painkillers, cold & flu medication, and any prescription medication you need. Remember to bring your prescription with you in case you’re asked for it at customs.
  • Tampons: China is big on pads, but not so much on tampons. You might also want to consider grabbing a Diva Cup or THINX Period Panties to make life a little easier.
  • Deodorant: A lot of Chinese people don’t wear deodorant (they don’t need to, the lucky bastards), so even Lynx/Axe is overpriced. Consider bringing 2-3 cans to get you started.
  • Cosmetics: While China is definitely a place where cosmetics are readily available, the cost can be a bit prohibitive. Consider bringing your favorite brands from home.
  • A few tastes of home: You’ll doubtless run into homesickness. Consider bringing some photos, foods, and little trinkets from home to make the transition a little less stressful.

19. Contracts are a rough guideline and the word “holiday” is a loose term

You’ve doubtless heard horror stories about a poor laowai (foreigner) being mistreated and taken advantage of by their Chinese employer.

I’m not going to sugar coat it: there’s a chance you’ll run into your own headaches along the way.

The contract you sign with your employer won’t necessarily be honored 100% of the time, and you’re fighting a losing battle if you come in expecting western standards.

You will get asked to work on days your contract said you had off.

You will end up working an extra day to make up for the holiday.

You will end up teaching subjects or age groups you hadn’t intended to.

You will find little snares and pitfalls that make you want to pull your hair out.

It sounds frightening, but if you’re prepared to roll with the punches and take it for the experience it is, teaching in China can be incredibly rewarding.

You’ll look back on the misunderstandings and frustrations with wry amusement down the line.

teaching english in china
Image courtesy of Michael Davis-Burchat

18. Register at the police station

If you’re lucky, your school will do this for you, but it pays to know the law all the same.

Whenever you leave China, you’re required to present at the police station to inform them of your address.

Even if you’ve come back to the same apartment you left, you’re going to want to take in your lease, your passport, and your previous registration to alert the authorities as to your location.

Why is this necessary? God only knows.

police officer china
Image courtesy of Beijing Patrol

17. Find expat groups online

It doesn’t hurt to do your research before you move to China.

There are plenty of expat groups on Facebook dedicated to life in China or life in specific Chinese cities. My lovely wife, Richelle also runs the China Teach Abroad Community on Facebook.

You’ll also be able to find various clubs and societies that are looking for membership. 

I arrived in Nanjing back in 2012 with a cricket team already lined up and did the same thing in Beijing with a D&D game.

You might also want to consider checking out /r/China on Reddit.

16. Download Pleco

Chinese is a really tough language to learn, and even the most diligent student is going to come to China with gaps in their Mandarin.

Pleco is a fantastic free app that provides an English to Chinese dictionary you can use wherever you are.

Not only can you search in both languages, but it also has pronunciation guides and a handy demo you can use to play the word to your confused cab driver if need be.

china tourists

15. Do your housekeeping

In the frantic rush to get things ready for your new life behind the Great Firewall of China, it can be easy to forget about things you’re leaving behind.

Before you drop the match on that bridge that is your old life, make sure you’re not leaving anything important unmanaged.

  • Did you cancel your phone contract and switch off your utilities?
  • Have you paid all of your outstanding bills?
  • Are your driver’s license and passport up to date ahead of your trip?

It can be a real hassle trying to arrange these things from abroad, so be sure to do a thorough inventory ahead of your departure.

shanghai smog
Image courtesy of Lei Han

14. Be adventurous

China is nothing like what you’re used to and it’s certainly nothing like what the Western media portrays it is.

You can come here and have the best or worst year of your life, and a lot of that is going to come down to your attitude.

If you come into your experience with an open mind and a willingness to compromise, the sky is the limit.

However, if you come here expecting things to be exactly like they were at home or expecting China to bend to your expectations, you’re going to come away sorely disappointed.

13. Nobody respects personal space

You’re going to get jostled.

Strangers are going to stop dead in front of you and force you to sidestep them.

Some weirdo will almost certainly stand directly in front of you and take your photo without asking permission.

Coming to China from South Korea prepared me a little for the lack of personal space, but China is really a different animal in this regard.

It can be jarring at first, but you’ll soon be in the thick of it throwing elbows and shoving teenagers so you can get that last seat on the subway.

forbidden city beijing crowd
Image courtesy of Lain

12. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

The language barrier presents a huge hurdle for those first few weeks and months in China.

Don’t be too proud to ask your Chinese co-workers for a hand in doing the essentials like:

  • Opening a Chinese bank account;
  • Setting up your Chinese SIM;
  • Registering with the police;
  • Finding an apartment.

All of these things are made immensely easier by having a native speaker on hand to help with the translation.

Just don’t be one of those people who accept help, but don’t reciprocate.

A meal, a gift, or a thank you note is all it takes to reward a good Samaritan’s kind deed.

11. Download a food app

There are restaurants on almost every street in China, and I’d thoroughly recommend that you venture into them and see what you can find.

That being said, there are going to be days or nights where you are too tired, lazy, cold, or hot to want to go out on an adventure.

The good news? There are dozens of Chinese delivery apps specifically for ordering food directly to your home.

The bad news? They’re almost all in Chinese.

With a few notable exceptions (such as the McDonalds app – which is in English), you’re going to need some assistance in entering your address and connecting the app to your bank account.

Once that is done, you’re set for life.

No more pants for you, brother!

dining in china

10. Download Didi Chuxing

It can be frustrating getting a cab in China and as of 2016, Uber is no longer working on the mainland.

Thankfully, the Chinese equivalent, Didi Chuxing achieves the same thing and has finally been released in English!

You might not think you need a rideshare app, but trust me – you’re going to want it.

With more and more cabs switching to the Didi platform, you’ll have a nightmare trying to find a free cab without the app.

Note: You need a Chinese phone number to use Didi.

rickshaw china
Image courtesy of Thomas Depenbusch

9. Public transport is amazing

Most major Chinese cities have extensive bus and subway networks, and these are criminally cheap to use.

You can get almost anywhere in Beijing using the super-efficient (and English friendly) subway for less than $1 USD.

Buses can be a little bit harder to navigate without being able to read Chinese, but they’re even cheaper and cover a larger area.

While the cheap taxis are often going to be your first choice, you’ll save a fortune by using public transport whenever possible.

public transport china
Image courtesy of Tommy Armansyah

8. They’re not shouting at you

Cards on the table: I spent my first weeks in China sure that everybody hated me.

Chinese is an aggressive sounding language at the best of times, and when you combine this with the Chinese penchant for shouting everything at the top of your lungs – it sounds like everyone is the angriest person ever.

When you pick up a little of the language (or, like me, start dating somebody who speaks it), you’ll soon learn that the shouting directed at you is actually somebody asking where you’re from.

7. Alert your bank and know your bank card

The good news is that your Visa or Mastercard is likely to work all around China, but there are a few things you should know ahead of your trip:

Alert your bank

Don’t forget to tell your bank that you’ll be living in China. You don’t want them canceling your card.

Check which ATMs work

Not every Chinese ATM will accept your card, even if it has a big Visa symbol on the door.

As a rule of thumb, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China are a good bet.

ICBC is also a safe bet.

Keep an eye on your balance

Phishing and credit card fraud is on the rise in China.

While you don’t need to be paranoid to the point of fear, it pays to keep an eye on your bank statements to make sure there aren’t any mystery transactions.

My brother recently had $700 lifted from his account, and while he was able to get it back from the bank, it did take 3-4 weeks to reverse the transaction.

laughing child china
Image courtesy of M M

6. TaoBao is life

Taobao is going to be your new best friend.

A combination of eBay and online stores like Amazon, this Chinese juggernaut is your go-to place to buy everything.

While JD.com is better for electronics, you’ll find almost everything else you could ever want on Taobao.

From hobbies to furniture to removalists to clothes to toys to groceries, Taobao is a way of life in China.

While the site is in Chinese and requires a Chinese bank account to use, services like Taobaoring are available to do the heavy lifting for you.

5. Brace for culture shock

China can be a confronting place to live.

Between the nasty air pollution, the seething crowds, the constant noise, and the toddlers being dangled over garbage cans to relieve themselves – it’s a balls to the wall assault on your senses.

If you’re coming in with an ethnocentric, ‘my country is the right country’ mindset, you’re going to find China a really difficult adjustment.

China is at times the messiest, most chaotic, and most frustrating place you’re ever going to go, but that’s a huge part of its charm for me.

No day is every just another ‘ho-hum’ day in the office, and you’re always going to be seeing (and smelling) things that keep you on your toes.

Embrace the weirdness!

culture shock china
Image courtesy of Lei Han

4. Download WeChat

If Taobao is life. WeChat is oxygen.

What started as a relatively innocuous messaging app has become an essential part of the Chinese experience.

Part messaging app part food delivery app part Uber part Facebook and part mobile bank, WeChat is used in almost every facet of day to day life in China.

In an average day, I’ll use the app to text my girlfriend, exchange GIFs with my mates, pay for my taxi, order my lunch, map my route to the bar, and see what my friends are up to on their trip abroad.

“What’s your WeChat?” has replaced “Let me add you on Facebook” in the same way that it usurped, “Can I grab your number?” as the social norm.

3. Learn some of the language

There’s no sugar-coating the subject: Chinese is fucking hard.

While it’s never an easy task to learn a new language, Mandarin’s four tones can be a major hurdle for new language learners.

In three years in China, I’ve progressed from not knowing a word of Chinese to being barely able to scrape by day to day.

A big part of that is laziness on my part, but there’s no denying that it’s a substantially harder language to pick up than Spanish or Korean.

That being said, it really pays to learn more than just nihao before you get here.

Adventures Around Asia has a great guide on learning Mandarin Chinese. If you’re looking to take a language course, this review talks about Pimsleur’s subscription plan and weighs up the plusses and minuses of learning the language online.

great wall of china

2. Download a VPN

Chinese Internet censorship is no joke.

Here’s just a shortlist of the sites that are blocked or restricted in China:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • Google Drive
  • Gmail
  • Google
  • Certain Wikipedia pages
  • Pinterest
  • Dropbox
  • New York Times
  • The Pirate Bay
  • Bloomberg
  • Amnesty International

Thankfully, there’s a fairly easy way to get around Chinese internet censorship: buying a VPN.

Not any VPN service will do, so it’s a good idea to consult a guide on the Best VPN for China if you’re wanting to get the most bang for your buck.

1. Bring start-up cash

Your contract might mislead you a little on this front.

Technically, your employer should be paying for your flight to China and for your accommodation, but there’s one painful caveat:

This payment is usually a reimbursement

What that means is that you’ll come to China with a few thousand dollars in your pocket and soon find yourself scrounging between the proverbial sofa cushions looking for change so you can afford a bowl of ramen.

china hutong

Chinese Start-Up Costs

In addition to your flight and your visa, the biggest cost you’re likely to encounter is renting your apartment.

Many Chinese apartments take rental payments in either three month or six-month installments, which can be a pricey prospect once you add in an agency fee (one month’s rent) and a security deposit (one month’s rent).

When I broke my arm in Indonesia, the prospect of coming up with five months’ rent (totaling $3,000 AUD) was a terrifying one.

Then you add in other start-up costs like that first grocery shop, setting up your phone and internet, drinking with new friends etc. and it comes to be a very expensive first month.

The worst part? You’ll usually have to wait a month before your first pay check!

How Much Money Should I Bring to China?

Conservatively, I would say anything less than $2,500 AUD ($2,000 USD) is going to see you scrambling to make ends meet before your first pay comes in.

This is obviously a pretty hefty chunk of change, and not everyone has a nest-egg saved up ahead of their trip.

Your Say

What did you wish you’d known before you moved to China?

Do you have any burning questions about life in China you’ve been dying to ask? Fire away!

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