50 facts about life in China for those who dare to make the move

1. WeChat is everything in China.

You can pay your utilities, order food to be delivered, online shop, and call yourself a taxi within the app. You can also search for flats, transfer money to other bank accounts, and find other people who use WeChat using the 'shake' feature {which is creepy, best you Google it on your own rather than me having to try and explain it since I've not used it myself}. If you don't have WeChat in China, you have access to almost nothing. I only use the app to talk to select friends from outside of China {in case my other methods of getting on the web go bust} and my friends/work colleagues here inside mainland China. I literally don't know how you'd contact your Chinese homies without it. 

2. Just about everyone smokes

You're probably rolling your eyes at me and shaking your head thinking, "Yeah, Tara. You've been to Europe, you've seen mass groups of people smoking before." Imagine the scale of smoking in Europe magnified significantly. 300 million people in China smoke cigarettes {that's like everyone in America smoking}. Cab drivers smoke, mothers walking their children to school smoke, and even the hotel staff smokes. People will smoke in elevators with "NO SMOKING" signs clearly posted. 

3. Most people also spit

If you've never lived or travelled in Asia before, this might take some getting used to. Particularly at meal time. You're even likely to step in loogies at some point in time. Coming from Laos to China, I was still surprised by the amount of spitting. It's seen as a health standard, actually. Spitting out whatever is stuck in your throat is "better for you" than keeping it in." So, there you go. 

4. The language barrier is steep

Worse than any country I've been to {out of 42 now!}, and I mean that without an ounce of exaggeration. People genuinely want to learn English here to better their chances at international study and career opportunities, so you will find people who try their best. However, I suggest a.) learning as much Mandarin as possible and b.) having a local you trust to accompany you to set up your bank, SIM card, and a flat. Remember, you're in their country. Their rules, their language. Try. I know how unbelieveably difficult it is. The same word has four meanings based on the tone you say it in...I get it. But give it the old college try, aye? 

5. Plastic rules supreme, no matter where you shop

Even when I go buy my ginger at the local market, which comes in a netted bag, the teller then has to weigh it, wrap it in a plastic bag, and put a plastic sticker on it. Only then can I pay for it and put it in my reusable bag. Luckily, they do charge you for plastic bags at big chain stores {like Walmart or Watson's Pharmacy}, but living an eco-centred life in China is a constant uphill battle, even with planning. 


6. There is a list of taboo topics you should definitely be aware of

The one-child policy was repealed in 2015, but abortions and orphanages filled with children rejected by their parents due to disabilities is something that's prevalent. It's also something that isn't really spoken about. Taiwan and Tibet are also subjects that are best left as thoughts in the back of your head unless you know what you're talking about and who you're talking with.  

7. Some cities are more conservative than others

In Nanjing, people still have pretty conservative views and values. In a place like Shanghai, however, there's more Westernization. This comes as both a blessing {more recognized brands, easier shopping, less language obstacles}, and also a curse {the rapid loss of cultural identity}. 

8. The Great Chinese Firewall is alive and well

Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, What's App, Google, Snapchat, Twitter...they're all blocked here. Get yourself a VPN and install it before you arrive on Chinese soil if you want to stay connected with the world of social media. Note: Hong Kong lives outside the Firewall, so a VPN is not necessary. 

9. Brand names are everything here

Even a fake Gucci shirt is better than no Gucci shirt in China. With the rapid acquisition of wealth in the last few decades came the need to show status through as much consumption as possible. Thrift shopping isn't a thing here. Vintage is a marketing ploy. Off-brands are for those on a budget, which no one in China wants to be. 

10. Don't expect locals to look out for you automatically

1 billion people live in China. That means you are just another face in the street. You're just another someone doing something that no one cares to learn about. That doesn't mean that people are unkind, it just means people don't have the time to stop and give every lost foreigner directions or explain how the menu works. If you can't figure it out on your own, ask an expat friend-- they sympathize with your position and understand the major learning curve which exists. The Chinese friends I have made are immeasurably patient and generous. They have helped me set up my Chinese phone, decode notes left on my apartment door, and find vegetarian food at restaurants. Once locals see you're more than a wandering tourist, they will go out of their way to help you, but don't expect that kind of compassion right out of the gate. 


11. Pushing is an acceptable social practice

The city of Nanjing is small by Chinese standards, but almost 10 million people isn't small compared to other metropolises. Despite its population, it's actually less congested than I originally anticipated. Still,  you couldn't catch a bus, utilize the metro, or navigate a supermarket without pushing through people. Don't feel too rude, they'll set the pushing standard. They'll even cut you in line while you decide what to order. Ain't nobody got time for waiting in China. 

12. Tea or coffee, that is the question

Tea is a matter of historical pride, but modern China runs on coffee. There is a coffee shop on every corner. You can find lattes at Paris Baguette, Starbucks, Zoo Coffee, Costa Coffee, and other locally owned cafes on any given street. While there seems to be a lack of quality control {#coffeesnobforever}, moving to the land of tea doesn't mean you have to kick your espresso habit. However, the tea here is fantastic so give it a try. I've almost completely converted back to my British childhood ways. 

13. You'll pay for everything well in advance

Gym memberships are paid for a year at a time. You'll be expected to pay a deposit and 3 months' rent upfront upon finding a flat to live in. Most property management fees {garbage disposal, building security, etc.} are paid for a year. Luckily, compared to Western fees, you'll find it all very affordable. But I wish someone would have told me that my first month here would take a chunk out of my wallet before quickly rebuilding the travel bank back up. 

14. Drugstores in China are like libraries in London-- expect to spend a whole day browsing

I've found such strange, funny, incredible, wacky beauty products in China. Some I've tried, most I've just looked at in wonder. If you need a hair treatment, skin mask, or vitamin...go to the local drugstore and lose yourself for hours. 

15. Chinese take history seriously

The Chinese take extreme pride in their traditions and cultural identity having started 8,000 years ago. If you're an ancient history buff, China will keep you busy. 


16. Street style is to die for

The women here are on their game when it comes to self-expression by way of clothing. Some of the outfits I've seen are straight off Pinterest perfect. Others are wild and one-of-a-kind. You have to hone in on your personal style and really own it to fit in with the women of China. 

17. There are no rules of the road

Like most places in Asia, the only real rule for driving is "honk as loudly as you can and everything else will take care of itself." China is about as bad a driving situation as I've ever seen personally anywhere. The amount of traffic alone makes it terrifying. 

18. You'll need your people more than ever

I readily admit that I rely on my circle to remind me that love is the strongest force in existence. I don't mean this to sound sentimental or precious, I mean if you don't have some kind of support system, you best get yourself one. You're going to feel incredible emotional swings, bounces, and pulls. You're going to feel like a failure and a badass. Being filled with both self-love and outside love will help you power through days when nothing makes sense, the sky is extra smoggy, and your neighbour's chicken is super squawky. 

19. The visa process is difficult

Not everyone I know here has run into the issues that I did, but everyone seems to be in agreement that it's tough. We all seem to nod our heads in understanding that the Chinese government is particularly rigid about even the tiniest details. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. And be prepared to wait. 

20. Apartment hunting comes with all kinds of surprises

Like hidden fees, a steep deposit {I've heard you are unlikely to get back}, and cockroaches. Be specific about what you are looking for, what your budget is, and try negotiating. Most landlords want to work with a foreigner, as they are assumed to be more cleanly {particularly in the kitchen, as we don't cook with hot oil the way locals do}. I found a super clean, very affordable, "Western-style" {as they call it here} flat only a 15-minute walk from my work and a major metro line. Ask around and use WeChat groups to find flatmates if you don't want to live alone {though it. is. GLORIOUS.}


21. Passports are to be carried everywhere

You can be asked for your passport when buying your Chinese SIM card, at random Metro checkpoints, and when booking train tickets. If you don't feel safe keeping your passport book with you, I suggest you make a copy of your passport picture page and the page with your visa on it. 

22. Soft drinks are as cheap as water here

If you're into soft drinks, you'll be in Coca-Cola heaven. 

23. Speaking of water... it's a luxury

People will probably find it silly that I bring over water when I go to a friends' house the way most people would bring over beer or wine. I do it because water is a luxury in China. You have to buy water, lug it to your apartment, and repeat the process anytime you run out. Also, as someone striving for a waste-free life, I suggest getting reusable water bottles to be refilled at your place of employment or buying a filter to add to your flat's tap. 

24. Tea rooms sometimes double as brothels

If you get offered extra attention by women at a tea room, there is a high chance you will be offered a "happy ending" as the after tea palette cleanser, whether you are male or female. If you aren't into that kind of thing, simply stay in the tea room and don't follow the nice ladies into any private rooms. Say no, and if you feel discomfort, leave. They're doing they're jobs using the power of sexual persuasion, they mean no offense.

25. Your American and New Zealand chargers work in Chinese outlets

This has been mighty convenient for me. 


26. Bring toilet paper everywhere

Sure, you'll find public toilets {and free to use} at every turn, but I promise you they'll be squat loos without toilet paper. BYOTP. 

27. Hand-sanitizer should also be brought everywhere

If they aren't supplying toilet paper, you honestly think they're supplying hand soap and sinks? Come on, rookie. You're smarter than that. 

28. Taxis are inexpensive, but almost none of them take credit card

Bring cash or have your AliPay set up.  

29. Coffee culture does exist

There are some delicious cafes around Nanjing and Shanghai that I've scoped out and, while they could never rival the coffee culture that exists in Australia or New Zealand, you can find a mean cappuccino at The Fish Tank Cafe where they play First Aid Kit over the speakers at a volume that still allows you to write. 

30. Start times are more like suggestions

If an event starts at 9 a.m., you could probably get there at 9:30 a.m. and still be fine. I don't advise being late {it seems rude, aye?}, but know that the Chinese follow the Asian protocol for time, which is that it's flexible. 


31. Consumerism is King

People buy, buy, buy here. If something is broken, you buy a replacement. The idea you'd pay to have it fixed instead of buying new is absurd. The idea of saving your money for travel is pretty outside the box and the status that comes with name brands is very important. 

32.  You'll confuse the salespeople if you hesitate

Speaking of shopping...if you intend on making a big purchase {say, a gym membership}, know that the salespeople expect you to come in and buy. You wanting to hear a pitch and shop around is downright confusing. Wanting to see as many flats as possible before selecting where you'll live makes zero sense to a realtor. Second-guessing a triple-digit shoe purchase causes chaos in the store. Despite the confusion you cause, it's your money so walk away if it doesn't feel right. 

33. Security is high in the oddest of places

The security to get into my apartment complex seems severe. I laugh sometimes because it really feels like I live in a sort of compound. I swipe my electronic key to get into the gated community, then swipe it again to get into my building, and then a third time to take the elevator up to the 27th floor. I then have a key code to get into my flat. There are guards at every entry point {including Mushu, the door guard who is constantly watching Chinese soap operas}. The metro station and shopping centres also have this kind of high-alert security. Other places, however, where you think there'd be more need for this kind of safety network...like a bank...there's nothing. It's another unexplained Chinese mystery. 

34. Children rely heavily on their guardians to do everything for them

I've seen a 16-year-old boy getting spoonfed by his mother while playing on his phone before an English class. Chinese children {I've seen them as old as 10} don't take off their own coats, wipe their own runny noses, sharpen their own pencils. 

35. Brits and Americans are in high demand

There are jobs teaching, in finance and marketing, and in commercial production in China that are only offered to English speakers with British and American accents. 


36. Transferring money back stateside can be tricky

PayPal accounts, wire transfers, and having locals help you out are the best ways around the obstacle course that is Chinese banking. 

37. You'll see dogs and cats dressed to the nines

Dogs are a fashion statement in China. You'll see them in onesies like human infants. Honestly, this isn't the most shocking thing you'll see. Not by a long shot. 

38. Just because they call it a mattress doesn't mean it's a mattress

My flat came with a mattress. By that, I mean a fitted sheet stuffed with hay. Yeah, like what you feed horses. I quickly ran to IKEA to save my spin. 


Like other places in Asia, it's best to BYONBT or "bring your own non-bleach toiletries." Body soap, face cleanser, lotion...you name it and you'll find it made with whiteners. 

40. Water at restaurants will always be served warm

The Chinese believe warm water is the best way to fight sickness and helps with digestion. 


41. Get to the airport 3 hours early

More people means longer lines and frustrating delays. For international flights, give yourself 3 hours to make it through check-in and security. 

42. People are camera shy, but not shy with their cameras

I've had so many strangers take unsolicited photos of me in the most random situations {i.e. walking to work, grocery shopping, at dinner with friends}, but as soon as I try to take a street pic of men playing mahjong, I get a finger shaking in my face. The unspoken rule of Chinese photography is this: your consent isn't required, their's is. 

43. China has a pollution problem...

It's not as nasty as what I expected most days, but there have been specific times when I have felt pollution sickness on a very real, scary level. Sore throat, dry cough, itchy mouth. Respiratory health is nothing to take lightly! You can read my tips for saving your health while dealing with the pollution problem here. 

44. ...but they are also leaders in renewable energy initiatives

China recognizes that they are the world's factory. I've seen signs at cafes offering discounts to those who bring in their own bottles, signs on the Metro promoting recycling and consuming less, and commercials on electronic billboards explaining the government's efforts to switch to wind power. The Chinese continue to take steps towards renewable energy and a more sustainable future. 

45. Yeah, that's a banana

The Chinese love sugar. So much, that they often inject sugar-water into their fruit. You'll see strawberries larger than any you've ever seen, blueberries the size of your eyeballs, and bananas that look alarmingly malformed. I suggest looking for fruit at local markets instead of chain stores or searching for an organic store where there is a guarantee you're getting the best in unaltered fruit. 


46. Status is important

The Chinese only acquired wealth relatively recently. And...you could say they've gone a bit nuts with it all. Not only are they rapid consumers {as mentioned above}, but what they buy is important. You'll see Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Prada labels everywhere. But, don't be fooled! A lot of these articles of clothing are just incredibly good fakes. As long as you look rich, you are rich, ya dig?

47. China is not vegetarian-friendly

I'm always interested in which countries cater to a variety of dietary needs. As it turns out, despite what I thought I'd encounter in China {something similar to Laos, Vietnam, maybe even Malaysia??}, I could not have been more wrong. In China's acquisition of wealth and consequential focus on the showing of status, meat became a staple in the modern diet. The mentality is that if you don't eat meat, it's because you can't afford meat. Thus, finding veggie options when eating out can be an absolute chore. The upside? I cook more at home and I've learned quickly how to ask if something is vegetarian in Mandarin. Boom. Winning. 

48. Chinese women are badasses

I have a whole post coming about Chinese women because I owe them a massive apology. They are so much more than these submissive, ethereal creatures with perfect skin and tiny frames and I can't wait to share how incredible they are and all they've taught me soon. Until then, I'll share this: Chinese women have a serious sense of community. I walk to my corner shop for a snack and without hesitation, I'm handed the worker's baby to hold while she bags my things. I'm a woman, so it's assumed that I instinctively know how to hold a baby. I'm trusted purely because we're both women. Chinese women are remarkably open with other women in conversation because they understand that women experience the world differently from men, and they believe in sharing their feelings about those experiences openly with one another. I identify so deeply with this, and I've made some badass Chinese lady friends thanks to this philosophy of vulnerability being a strength. 

49. Most things are very anti-climatic

Businesses will promote events or products in such an over-the-top way that it's actually setting you up for a letdown. There are packages for crackers here called "Life Change Cracker"...they will not change your life. This applies to almost everything. There are events you'll hear about for months and then, on the day, you arrive at the venue and you realize that the marketing team really did their job well. This has made for many, many hilarious anecdotes and inside jokes for me and my friends. I'll leave it at that. 

50. "This is China"

There is an article I read before I moved to China that has stuck with me. It rings true in a lot of ways. New Zealand enveloped me, Laos cradled me. I took to the culture and I really felt like I could invest in those places. And I did invest in them, heavily.  China does not feel that way. The person I am doesn't naturally take to the ideologies, social behaviours, or culture in general. I find the language discouraging, though I am still trying to learn. I find the noise disturbing, though I'm at a point now where I block it out. All in all, I chalk it all up to the fact that I'll never be Chinese. Everything about it is foreign to me, and thus it won't ever be home like New Zealand or even Laos. But that's the beauty of China, isn't it? That it won't ever change, but it will change the way you see so much...