5 Things I’ve Learned After 3 Years Living in China

things I've learnt after living in China for 5 years

 “Written by Julz Goff, she worked and lived in China for 3 years. ”  

I’ve been living in China ever since I graduated from university in 2016. At 21 years old, I packed my bags and flew out to Chengdu. After two years living and working there, and one year in Shenzhen, I have learned an uncountable number of things I would have never known or even thought about before moving to China

From work life to language to culture, here are 5 of the things I learned about myself and China after living there for 3 years.

1. In China,  Social Media is Survival Media

In China,  Social Media is Survival Media

  • WeChat in an integral part of life in China 

I seriously don’t know what I would have done 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 like a messaging app. But it is also functions 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. 

I spent my time in China as a college counselor, not a teacher, so my relationships with my students were close, and mentor like, and it was commonplace for them to message me any time of day through WeChat. There aren’t taboos around students and teachers/counselors having this kind of social media contact in China, which can get interesting and uncomfortable when your students don’t think to block you from their posts.

It wasn’t uncommon to be scrolling through my feed and find the latest school drama, students drinking after school, or even provocative pictures that were really only meant for classmates.

The way that social media is integrated into everything from work to school makes it complicated in a way I would never have expected. 
  • WeChat is also your wallet

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, forgotten 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 utilities 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. Everything Spreads like Wildfire

In China Everything Spreads like Wildfire

  • Cities are developing at lightning speed

Like WeChat, all modern technology, pop culture, and 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 cultures and ideologies are also changing rapidly 

And like I said, everything spreads like wildfire. For a country which is so deeply proud of itself and its unity, the traditional ideals have changed so rapidly from one generation to the next. This is something which I was both surprised and delighted by.

The 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 are like. 

3. Learn Chinese, Because Your English Will Get Worse

Learn Chinese, Because Your English Will Get Worse

  • You’ll also speak “Chinglish”

Okay, this isn’t necessarily true. But most people I know have this experience. I spent all day, every day, for three years speaking primarily with non-native English speakers. While their levels varied widely, there are just some grammatical errors that most can’t get past.

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.

  • Teaching makes learning easier

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!

4. Leave the City More

Leave the City More while you are living in China

  • The pros and cons of working in a city in China

Many of the jobs for expats in china are in Chinese cities, which means there is a good chance you will find yourself enjoying the good and bad of city life in China.

I personally anticipated spending a lot of time in nature while I was in China, because it’s something I love. Then I ended up living in Chengdu, a city that isn’t particularly green, is landlocked, and has some of the worst pollution in the country.

What did this mean? I spent a lot of time hiding in my apartment from the gross, grey weather. I forgot about the few local parks that existed, and I longed for my beach vacation in Thailand.

  • There’s a lot to explore in China

I learned that it didn’t have to be that way though! If you find yourself stuck in a big, grey city, find the parks and local nature. Get out on your weekends and find the nature, hiking paths, and bodies of water.

Usually you will only need to go 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 on 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.  

5. Superstition Culture and Traditional Chinese Medicine Rule All

Superstition Culture and Traditional Chinese Medicine Rule All China

  • Chinese people are crazy about 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 really prescriptive understandings of superstition 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.

  • Traditional Chinese Medicine is a well-established system in China

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 work days 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!

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 on 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.

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