I’ve been living in China ever since I graduated from university in 2016. At the age of 21 years old, I packed my bags and flew out to Chengdu.
From work life to language to culture, here are the 10 things I’ve learned after living in China for 3 years. About myself, China, and just life in general.
1. In China, WeChat is a Survival App
I seriously didn’t know how to live my life in China without WeChat. WeChat was such an integral part of my home, social, and work life that I actually miss it when I’m back in the states.
On the surface, you use it as a messaging app. But it is also functioning as my work email, is used for group chats for different activities, and is the main way I communicate with my students and their parents.
Beyond that, WeChat is also my wallet. I never had to carry cash because everyone from street vendors to 7-11s to high-end restaurants accepted WeChat Pay as currency. I’ve even gone on trips across the country forgetting my wallet at home and had no problem getting everything I needed without a single yuan or bank card.
You are even able to pay utility bills, phone bills, and rent this way if your landlord doesn’t mind. This all-consuming nature of WeChat has made it integral in any modern expat’s survival in China.
2. Cities are Developing at a Lightning Speed
Like WeChat, all modern technology, even city development is something that develops at such a rapid pace that some cities are barely recognizable from what they looked like five years ago.
When I moved to Chengdu, my coworkers said the three metro lines were fairly new. Now, there are at least ten lines in that very same city. For any of you that have dealt with old, run-down public transportation in the US, you probably can’t imagine this kind of growth. As these new lines are built, skyscrapers also pop up to accommodate new people.
Somehow, the cities seem to grow overnight. The standard of living for Chinese people is also improving at a speed that you can spot in your naked eyes.
Now, living in New York City, I balk at the dirty, old metro system, and get frustrated at establishments that still are cash-only, or take card but with a surcharge. This is something I dearly miss about China.
3. Cultures and Ideologies are Changing Rapidly
Young people today in China today have such a different perspective than their parents, even more so than I see in the US. Everything from wedding garb (white dresses are now incredibly commonplace) to Starbucks on every corner and even views on human rights.
I was ecstatic when I found out how many of my students are super LGBTQ+ friendly (or identify as part of the community themselves). This is compared to people just 10 or 20 years older, many of whom don’t have any understanding of these issues at all.
Living in China has given me a lot of hope as I’ve gotten to know what the youth of the country is like.
4. In Terms of Travel, I Was Just a Beginner
It’s a stereotype that Americans don’t travel much. Indeed, compared to people from other English speaking countries or elsewhere in Europe, we really don’t.
I certainly didn’t travel growing up. It’s not that I expected to meet only Americans in China, but considering how many of us there are, I was surprised to see so few. It was also unexpected that the largest subset of expats I encountered in China were Russians and South Africans.
I count myself lucky that I’ve found travel, as someone who is from a place where it isn’t revered as it should be. Now, being back here, I am hoping to make friends with other travelers, expats living in the US, or ex-expats back from their travels.
5. My Knowledge in Chinese Food Skyrocketed
I was never someone who thought General Tso’s was authentic Chinese food. But still, when I moved to Chengdu, everything was different.
As Sichuan became my home base in China, Sichuan food became comfort food. I loved learning about the cuisine and especially about how the unique local ingredients play a part. I will never again live in a kitchen that doesn’t have Sichuan peppercorns.
As someone who grew up without much spicy food in my life, it might be surprising that one of China’s spicier cuisines grew so close to my heart. But it somehow wove its way into my life, and now, even after leaving, Sichuan food still feels like home.
6. You’ll Start Speaking “Chinglish”
As an expat you get used to the cadence and style of “Chinglish”, and even if you don’t know Chinese well, you may start to adopt some Chinese grammar habits.
Admittedly, sometimes this is really useful when talking to students and coworkers who don’t have strong English. When I can speak English the way they do, it helps me get my point across. Obviously this isn’t a good plan when teaching English, but can still be useful in other contexts.
If you learn Chinese, it will actually help you understand these habits. I wanted to learn Chinese to get around more easily and make more local friends. But working in an education context made learning the language useful in ways I didn’t imagine.
For example, you will find that many people confuse pronouns, which is because the words for he, she, and it all sound the same in Chinese, even though they are written differently. I personally think this has made learning the language way more fun and useful!
7. I’ve Learnt to Let Go of the Small Stuff
I used to stress constantly, about everything. Being an expat in china made me realize I have to chill out a little because if I don’t recognize what’s happening and approach it in a new way, nothing gets solved.
Sometimes, people aren’t listening, or don’t understand me. That happens anywhere, but when you’re new and don’t speak the language, it happens more. I got kicked out of my apartment (the landlord sold it without me knowing), dealt with cockroaches (okay, everyone in the area does… it’s fine, they won’t kill me), overpaid for bills, and dealt with parent complaints at work.
Things were often way more stressful than I expected. I learned, and took with me, to be okay with the problems that come my way. I’ve already faced struggles moving to New York, and I’ve been stressed, but also able to tell myself it will be okay.
8. Anyone Can be an Entrepreneur
China is an amazing market to start a business – not because it will always be a success, but because the start-up costs can be lower, and after failure, there’s a new opportunity around the corner.
Locals and foreigners team up to start businesses all the time. People start education companies, yoga studios, restaurants, and more. I’ve seen businesses fold, just to be built up again in a new way. If you want to learn about and try being an entrepreneur in a relatively low stakes environment, China is the place.
That, in fact, is kind of what I’m doing now. I moved, but I still teach English online part-time, write part-time, and have several other sources of income as I build toward my loftier personal goals.
Ultimately, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in China is that it is possible to succeed.
9. The Pros and Cons of City Life in China
Many of the jobs for expats in China are in cities, which means there is a good chance you will find yourself enjoying the good and bad of city life in China.
If you find yourself stuck in a big, grey city, find the parks and local nature. Get out on your weekends and find nature, hiking paths, and bodies of water.
Usually, you will only need to go for an hour or two outside the city. Catch the natural beauty of China before mass urbanization wipes it out. Don’t miss out on the wonders of Jiuzhaigou and Yunnan if you’re in Western China. If you’re in a coastal city, get yourself to a waterfront and just read as you listen to the sounds of the water.
Having this kind of escape from reality and from the hustle and bustle of the cities is needed, and I feel like nature, no matter where it is, makes me feel like I’m home.
10. Traditional Chinese Medicine Has Huge Influence on People’s Everyday Life
To me the most fascinating part of this is how Traditional Chinese Medicine and eating habits influence everyday life. For example, some foods are hot and some are cold. This is about energy, not temperature. This means, if you eat too much of one or the other, your body won’t work properly.
My student once told me she can’t drink smoothies because they are bad for fertility! I’ll admit, this seemed crazy to me, but is an integral part of how many Chinese people see the world. Many people in China think they’ll get stomach upset if they eat lunch at 12:30 instead of 12:00. And it’s imperative to nap after lunch.
This is why many schools in China have a two-hour lunch break, from 12:00 to 2:00. And while workdays in most offices allow only one hour for lunch, it’s generally acceptable to nap at your desk from 1:00 to 2:00. This is an awesome bonus to working in China, definitely don’t miss out on nap time!
11. Don’t Forget the Lucky Numbers!
Religion doesn’t consume the Chinese consciousness in the way it does for other cultures.
While there are religious people in China, many people I have met don’t really believe in or follow any specific religion closely. But they do have a really prescriptive understanding of numbers and how that relates to luck and health.
For example, most of your Chinese friends avoid having a 4 in their phone number, because it is unlucky. If you don’t know the Wi-Fi password in a restaurant? Try 88888888 (eight eights). These things feel small but are pervasive in a way that luck doesn’t really command life in the western world.
3 Years Being an Expat
Ultimately, I’ve learned countless lessons while living in China about being an expat, Chinese culture, and have even gained insight into my own culture that I could only see from the outside looking in.
I consider myself immensely lucky to have had a chance to live and work in China for three years! If you ever find yourself there, I hope you can take something from what I’ve learned with you.