Tips on Adjusting to Living in China

If you’re an American moving to China, there are a few things you will want to learn before you go if you want the transition to be as smooth as a move to a country so different than our own can be.  These things will help with your transition and help you to gain the respect of your new countrymen, including those with whom you do business.

Learn the language


Learning Mandarin is a must if you want to begin assimilating to your new country.  Business associates and the many locals with whom you will interact will appreciate your effort to adopt their language.  Being able to communicate with locals in their native tongue can certainly make business relationships easier to establish and foster.  This applies to your professional relationships as well as interactions at markets, shops, etc.

Find other American expats

Finding other Americans living in China is another great way to smooth your transition.  In addition to speaking English (or helping you practice your Mandarin), fellow expats can walk you through some of the nuances of China’s culture, including the business culture.  Understanding things like China’s really long business dinners, appropriate gift giving, and the difference between trying to be an American living in China and an American trying to be Chinese can be invaluable.  Understanding local customs can help you avoid embarrassing situations or insulting your new associates, neighbors, or shopkeepers.  If you are making a genuine effort to adapt to your new culture, most locals will appreciate that and forgive mistakes, but having help from others who have been in your situation is always a plus.

In addition to helping with your transition, expats can help when you start feeling a bit homesick.  Diving into your new surroundings is great, but there is nothing wrong with wanting a little taste of America now and then.

Explore the local culture and cuisine

Man on tour

Be as adventurous as your schedule and budget allow.  Explore markets, restaurants, and attractions to get a better feel for your new neighborhood and its people.  Visit historic areas and landmarks to gain a better understanding of the long and storied history of your new country.  Check out fairs and festivals as these can be a terrific way of learning about local traditions, beliefs, and celebrations.  Start your exploration locally, but don’t limit yourself to your immediate area.  Do what you can to explore areas as far out as you can.  China is a huge country with thousands of years of history–take in as much of it as possible!  Here, again, speaking the language will only enhance the adventure.

When visiting restaurants, you should definitely venture out of your American comfort zone, but you might want to exercise some caution here.  Chinese restaurants boast many delicacies that go beyond Moo Goo Gai Pan.  Way beyond.  Some dishes include animals that you simply might not be comfortable eating, including rare or endangered species.  Always ask what it is before you order it.  Always.  It also helps if you speak Mandarin.  Something else you might notice in restaurants is the slurping.  Unlike here in America, slurping noodles is actually considered good manners and a compliment in China.

When it comes to shopping, haggling is acceptable, even expected, in smaller shops and with street vendors.  Spend time watching other shoppers to get an idea of how much haggling is acceptable without being disrespectful.  

Another part of the culture that’s worth mentioning is the “Squatty Potty.”  Though Western toilets are being found in more places, you’ll definitely want to do a bit of research on China’s more traditional and still very prevalent squat toilets.  

Understand your tax responsibilities

Make sure you understand what your obligations to Uncle Sam and your new country are in terms of taxes.  If your company is sending you to China to work, they should be able to help you navigate tax issues.

Moving to China can be an amazing experience.  Do it with an open mind and adventurous spirit, but with an understanding of the basics that can help you keep your sanity and improve your odds of assimilating with a minimum of stressful or embarrassing situations.