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Moving to China to Live, Settle and Work: Experiencing Immersion

Note: For part 1 of this 2-part series, see Moving to China to Work or Live: Basic Considerations.

A women with bamboo sitting in front of a temple in China
Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

As a foreigner in China you will be scrutinized by everyone around you, especially if you live in the small hinterland cities where foreigners are rare. Therefore you have to be mindful of your demeanor and appearance: in other words, you need to behave in a way that allows you to blend in and get approving appraisals from the local community. If you make some social blunders or display attitudes that grate with social or moral norms, you will be excused to some extent on the basis that as a foreigner you do not know that you are acting impertinently. Yet this forgiveness is only as generous as the social distances of your social relations; in other words, a girlfriend or a friend will forgive you at first during the tentative first steps of a relationship, but the goodwill will evaporate if you continue to make the same blunders or if you refuse to learn. In small gestures, the forgiveness will be more generous—for example, no one is going to hold it against you if you toast your senior or superior (which could be your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s father) and you fail to position your glass at a lower level then his when you clink the glasses. On the other hand, bear in mind that if you get social gestures right then it works in your favor: if you do get a small gesture like positioning a glass in cheering someone right, your companions will see that you are not one of those clumsy or arrogant westerners. And you will win respect.

Cultural Immersion in China

A lot has been written about the importance of "face" in China (as well as in other east Asian culture), and I won’t repeat the same here. Do bear in mind that if you cause someone to lose face, it might cost you a prospective job or sour an evolving friendship. At the same time, however, do not be overcautious; when it comes to loss of face, much depends on the level of friendship or social occasion and the circumstances.

Perhaps one of the largest cultural differences is the high estimation of family; this includes the hierarchies that exist in families, and the fact that siblings are expected to look after their parents in old age. Individualism has not arrived in China; family is very important. Seniorities and hierarchies are respected: for example, a younger brother is supposed to take advice or counsel from his older brother, even in old age. You should bear this in mind, and if a friend or a girlfriend says that he can’t do such and such because his parents don’t like it, do not jump in to say that what the elder generation say is irrelevant. For the Chinese, what the older members of the family say is relevant, and your friend or girlfriend would think that you’re the one who’s irrelevant with your crass foreign disrespect.  

Politeness is also important, and Chinese people don’t like people who become angry or argumentative. Chinese people in fact bottle up emotions; you might be drinking with a friend whose business is facing financial ruin, but the chances are that he won’t speak about it and won’t show it. Appearances in China are projected in a positive and proper manner, and this also applies to physical appearance and apparel. Your outward appearance should be impeccable: ensure that you are clean shaven, have fingernails cut back, and that your clothes are clean and ironed and suitable for the occasion (it is alright to wear faded jeans to go to a club or bar, but put on neutral and darkish ironed pants for a work-related meeting or for going to a government department; red is symbolic of prosperity in China, but red pants will not impress anyone).

At the beginning you should err on the side of caution, and follow what others are doing. Then, if you keep your eyes open, after a few months these cultural nuances become second nature.

Eating Food the Chinese Way

The food in China is so strange for a Westerner that it deserves special mention. There are many surprises in store; to start with, Chinese people eat virtually all parts of the animal or bird, and they do so with chopsticks in most cases (sometimes hands are used). For example, an entire duck or chicken is chopped in bits and everything thrown in the pot and then served on the table. Then you have to separate the meat from the bone and spit out the bones—it is this process that leads to Chinese to leave a mess on the table afterwards. Same applies to small fishes; the first is served whole and then you have to separate the flesh from the bones. It is not easy at first, and neither is it easy to eat 3-feet-long noodles without the noodles swinging and spluttering oil and sauce on your clothes, or to learn the art of holding the rice bowl close to your mouth and hurling grains of rice into your mouth. (Many westerners on holiday conclude that Chinese are dirty because they leave a mess on the table after eating, but the westerners who live in China will soon find out that they will be leaving the larger mess.)

There is no way around it; you have to get used to eating Chinese food the Chinese way. And the sooner you learn the better, as it would put strain on your social relationships if your friends have to repeatedly go without the food they would truly wish to eat in order to satisfy your whims and fussiness. There is another benefit: if you display familiarity and gusto for Chinese food, your social groups will respect you that much more.

Noodles drying in China
Noodles drying. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

Social Relationships

When you are out drinking or eating with friends or colleagues or acquaintances, people would consider it strange if you expect the bill to be shared. In these social outings, one person steps forward to settle the entire bill. Normally, several people vie for the bill, and even people who have a low earning power insist on paying the bill. Having said this, there are also other norms that apply in who will settle the bill: the person who does the inviting is tacitly taking responsibility for the bill. And the member of the group who is the richest in most cases is expected to pay, and in most cases he would initiate the "invitation." Never, by the way, think that a girl can pay the bill; girls only pay in China in the company of other girls. In any mixed group, it is the men that pay and there is no deviation whatsoever from this rule (at least except in some circles in the westernized coast cities). It follows that your girlfriend also would not pay.

This kind of behavior—as well as the Chinese’ effort to dress nicely and behave appropriately—might fool you for a long time. You might even start to imagine that cities in China are affluent. But that is only a façade. The fact is that most Chinese people are still poor, and even the educated middle classes in the modern coastal cities earn salaries that makes you wonder how they can pay a mortgage and still have some money left for going out. (Only people who have successful businesses, or rich parents, are well off in China.) It’s essential to gauge these socio-economic issues accurately as society does not exist in limbo, and you can make many blunders unless you recognize the economic and social context of Chinese society—and therefore the conduct of your friends and your boyfriend or girlfriend. Hence consider the situation of most Chinese—low salaries, and most have little social benefits (no or meager pension, no unemployment support, no free hospital)—and this will help you understand the social and economic complexities that your friends would have to grapple with. It will also help you understand that your salary would be among the best that can be had, and your friends know this (if you think you have to be careful on your salary, imagine how much more frugality most Chinese have to exercise).  

Social contracts or expectation can become tricky to deal with in relationships. Yes, your girlfriend might like you or love you and think you’re attractive, but unless she is more wealthy than you, then a large reason why she would be with you may be, in my experience, is because as a foreigner you are perceived to have all or some of these qualities:

  • Novel and sophisticated,
  • Well off financially
  • More fair to women
  • Resourceful and hard-working,
  • A way to go away to a Western country

Do remember that as a prospective husband, you are generally expected to be the girl’s provider; you are even expected, once you marry, to shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that her parents are financially taken care of in old age. If you think this is callous, put yourself in the shoes of a girl hailing from a poor family, with no education and limited prospects for work—then you begin to understand that the only chance she has of economical and social advancement is to attach herself to a man who has money. Bear all of this in mind; ignorance will not cushion bitter estrangements later on. And do not gloss over the potential difficulties that these different ways of seeing can stir up. (If you are a woman, all of this would in theory apply in reverse—your Chinese boyfriend or husband would traditionally be expected to take care of your material needs, although for any career-minded Western woman matters are not likely to play out in this manner.)

Many Chinese people do not normally make plans for social meetings far in advance. If someone is going to invite you for dinner, then in most cases you  will get a call one or two hours before dinner is due, and the same applies for other meetings such as drinking in a bar. Get used to it, for if you call someone and invite them to dinner for the following week, the reply is likely to be, "Then you can call me next week."

Business Relationships

Friendships and networking are business lubricants in China (as everywhere else, but more so in China). If you want to do a business or if you want to suggest a project to an entrepreneur (for example, a new branch of a shop or small restaurant in your city, or a listings magazine), then having the right contacts and friends is half of the struggle. Sure, you still need to have a good idea, and no one is going to work with you unless you have a good idea, but having a contact who puts in a word for you means that the person you will see will be predisposed to trust you and listen with interest on the basis that you are the friend of a friend.

Being the friend of a friend also gives you the opportunity to invite the person you want to see socially. This is how friends talk in China, and how business friends do business; in fact, most business ideas and deals are clinched over a social occasion. The occasion is mostly a dinner, or at least tea in a teahouse, or a game of cards. In these social occasions, you might actually discuss many things and little business, but the point is that you lay the ground for a business idea to blossom (then you get down to the details later).  

You might be wondering at this stage why I am talking about business in China, as you might not think in your wildest dreams that you would end up doing business in China. But your thinking will start changing after some time in China. That is because China offers business opportunities in small niche operations; after all, the country is developing very fast, and there are many niches for business startups, especially in the second and third tier cities in the hinterland. There are many stories of young Westerners who moved to China to teach English, and then end up running their own business a few years down the line.  

Parting Words of Advice

China is not monolithic, it is a large and varied country and some of the observations I make here are, by nature, generalizations that do not apply in every region. It is also a very fast-evolving country, politically and culturally with many contrasts between between the traditional and the modern. Many young people in big cities have a westernized perspective, but most also know how to deal in the traditional ways, and they are consequently able to avoid friction in most any social situation. You should strive to learn enough to do the same. To start with, try to free yourself of the modes of thinking that you may have become accustomed to back home; avoid hasty assumptions and judgments, which could often turn to be partly misguided in China. The key is to always have an open mind. After all, you have likely moved to a foreign country to learn something that you do not already know.

Related Topics
Living in China: Articles and Resources
Teaching English in China: Articles and Resources
Related Articles
Keeping Face in China
Culture Shock in China

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