What's it like living in China as a foreigner?
Eric Miller, Ph.D. in Cultural anthropology, research professor and applied anthropologist
I've lived in China about 8 years across 25 years in 6 cities in 1 village. What it is like to be a foreigner living in China has certainly changed over time and is a lot different in Beijing than in a village in Shandong Province. Even in a city like Beijing, there is a big difference between living in an expat community verses living in and among the Chinese.
There are also lots of aspects of how I feel living in China, such as how people treat me, what the living conditions are like and so on. I will highlight just a few key points:
As a foreigner, I am usually treated as an honored guest. This is less true than it used to be years ago, but still, people tend to go out of their way to make sure I have a good seat, something to drink, and so on. Once, it meant that I won a rigged lottery drawing (or at least I am pretty sure they rigged it so the only foreigner in the room won.) On a visit to the Great Hall of the People, we got to bypass the lines and wander around the main hall freely while the people had to wait in a long line, and then were cordoned off behind velvet ropes. Still, there are days when it would be nice to just blend in, but that is unlikely in China.
Sometimes people heap all of their frustration with the U.S. on me. One guy launches on a tirade about the U.S. involvement in the Korean War every time he gets a little drunk. On a couple of occasions, a person spit disgustedly in my direction and wagged an accusing finger at me for no obvious reason other than that I was foreign. Once a group of us had some bricks thrown at us. These kinds of things are very rare, but there are people out there who don't like foreigners.
I feel like a rock star. Decades ago, a friend and I sat down on a bench at a beach, and people started to gather standing and squatting in front of the bench just looking at us. By the time we left, there with 50 people there. We once went to the Beijing zoo. People starting looking at us instead of the animals. Everywhere we went, people would call out 'lao wai' or 'foreigner' or shout 'hello'. There is a lot less of that now, but especially in smaller towns, it still happens. I recently visited Japan and a girl shouted out 'hello' at me. Yep, turned out she was Chinese.
At tourist places, it is still pretty common to have people come up and ask to take a picture with me. It's not that I'm famous, just that I'm white. Somewhere in China, a child is growing up with a picture in an album of me, random white guy, holding him on Tiananmen Square.
I''ve been on TV. I've been in the paper. There was a documentary about me. Friends have been plastered all over town in ad campaigns or become TV and movie stars. Sometimes I feel like a dancing monkey, but it's been fun, too.
I feel a bit misunderstood and a bit used. It is also less true than it used to be, but people tend to see foreigners as rich and as a means to get abroad. As students, we weren't so rich, but compared to the people around us, we still really were pretty well-off. Students used to come and ask if we could put up $10,000 as some sort of security they needed (or thought they needed) to apply for a visa to go to the U.S. This wasn't all bad. We could saunter into any fancy hotel in worn jeans and tattered Tshirts and use the restroom and hang out in the lobby like we belonged there. Nowadays, lots of Chinese drive cars I could never afford, so people see us as less wealthy in comparison.
Until the mid-1990s. Foreigners generally had to pay more for train tickets and entrance tickets. That always made us feel bad, though with our student ID we could sometimes get the Chinese price. We also had a different currency that we received when exchanging dollars that we were supposed to use. Every day, every transaction, we were reminded that we were outsiders and expected to pay more. Fortunately, these things have changed. It is still possible, however, to show up at a hotel and have them say foreigners aren't allowed to stay.
I feel fascinated. In part because of the above and impart because China is changing so fast, I also find life really interesting here. I get to meet interesting people all the time, and just the pace of change and uncertainty about how things will unfold makes living in China really really interesting.
I feel like it is hard to breathe and a little scared of the food. The air is often pretty bad in the cities, and there are lots of horror stories about unclean or poisonous food. This has gotten worse, but the air in the cities was really bad 25 years ago, too.
I feel annoyed. Again, it used to be worse, but China has been a developing country during some of my time here. Buying train tickets, getting on a bus all used to be pitched battles with unruly crowds all trying to get to the front at once. Things don't always work well, bureaucrats can be obstinate. Taxi drivers can be wonderful or they can be deceitful cheats, depending on the time and place. Even as things become much easier to manage, I find that I am less tolerant when I do encounter things that don't work well.
Sometimes I feel amused. Maybe this is insulting, but I hope not. I think Americans can be amusing when seen by outsiders, too. In part, how we survived the rather intense challenges of navigating day to day life humor was one way we dealt with it. What can you do when you are in Walmart and a child is taking a leak on the floor in front of you? Laugh it off! Also, I continue to enjoy the English translations and translations we see around the country. It's fun. So above the urinal, there might be a sign, "!" I am the best, indeed. Ha.
People of other races have different issues in China, and I am sure it is harder than for a white guy. For Asians, there can be a lot less tolerance when they don't speak Chinese well or don't follow the rules. Chinese really never expect me to understand social rules, and I get a pass for doing things wrong, or even offensive. What do I know? I'm a barbarian after all. Of course people who look more Chinese, they have the possibility of blending in.
For black people, they also stand out and get lots of attention, but tend to face more negative attitudes than white people. It can be tough.
Having lived in China over this span of time, though, I am very aware of how much things are improving, and over all, how very quickly things in China change.
Rod L'Huillier, Lived and studied in China for 6 years
It depends on how long you will live there. Many foreigners simply go there , do their job, drink and play, make loads of mistakes, then go home and be civil people.
That’s a shame. There is a lot to learn and understand while living in China.
But, for first time visitors it can be really tough. The cultural change is huge, and it’s all about simple daily life activities that are just so different.
You were brought up in a particular way, with particular customs and now, you are about to enter a world where everything is done differently. It can really get stressful, depending on how you manage it and accept different things.
Many foreigners arrive and complain about uncivilized people, people pushing into lines, having to line up for hours, rubbish on the street, poor hygiene, bizarre food, on and on and on. It’s just different. It’s not worse or better, it’s just different.
Instead, just open your eyes. Learn about their way of life, their values, their struggles, and their beliefs. Then, it becomes fascinating. If you take the correct attitude, you can achieve many amazing things during your time there. Personal growth, new knowledge, new skills, new friends and more.
I think it’s essential to have some good Chinese friends, they will help you get started and help you to understand how things work, you can help them learn English or other skills. Or shout them dinner often :)
You will need some good friends to help you from getting caught up in shitty situations, such as bad relationships and terrible employers. They can also teach you how to negotiate for what you want, and how to deal with conflict. Some people find it easy, some people need some help, I have seen so many foreigners yelling and screaming in frustration that things are not going their way. It’s the worst path to take and things will simply get more troublesome.
In the end the experience you have is your choice. You can have any experience you want. China is just China.
Kedar Badve, Student at Auckland University of technology
I haven't lived in China. But if I live I would love to know Chinese culture. As a foreigner I would love to travel various places in China. I would be always excited about Chinese food . As a foreigner I would be happy to stay in China for long time.
Billy Hughes, lives in China (2012-present)
Great, superb, lovely! Especially now it is springtime.
There are halfwits, cretins, knobbers and balloons - just like back home, but I like it here and it has many decent and nice people
Vammo, Lived in China on and off for 15 years
hurts a lot cos you see people being shitty to each other.
better in some ways than living in your home country because your income relative to the cost of living will be higher.
people are nice to you. the ratio of nice to racial abuse is 100:1, so its easy to suck up. relatively.
you will never be chinese. you could live here for 20 years and still be an outsider.
Matthew Massee, works at China
Are you “white” or “black”?
You will be discriminated as either “good” or “bad”.
Therefore, your experience will be “good” or “bad”.
If you have high education, such as in science/engineering, you may do well regardless of color. But the police won’t know your pedigree initially, so good luck!
Ray Comeau, A decade in China, interest in geopolitics
Brief background: I have worked in lot of environments and travelled to approx. 20 countries before I came to China in early 2,000’s. from then on I came to China every 6 months until 2009. Became more or less full time in 2010. Given my prior experiences, I knew I could live anywhere, it is just a matter a being flexible to your situation. China for me was not challenge; except language at first and some cuisines.
The point being no matter what I or anyone else may describe what it is like to live here; there are a lot of foreigners who are unable to live in China because the culture, food, thinking processes, etc are so foreign to some people they are unable to forget how they were culturally taught how to perceive things. Moving on …….
Lets begin with the stereotyping issues of China …… There are very few restrictions on foreigners. As a foreigner I can travel anywhere in China, except a few places that could have restrictive travel due to unsafe conditions - floods, earthquakes, a few places known for civil unrest in the hinterlands, or areas of important military bases.
As a foreigner I must register with the local PSB where I live. I only need to revisit them whenever I get a new Visa or a new passport. I can renew visa and passport within China.
To work you need a proper “work visa” to be legal. Working with a tourist or student or temporary resident visa is illegal and you are endanger of being deported and refused future visa’s. People come to be “English teachers” (please no more there are too many already) will be offered jobs to teach illegally. 90% will be cheated because the employer who is employing you illegally, knows you cannot report it the police because you will deported or heavily fined.
There are white collar scams in China. The Chinese girlfriend always needing money, is the most popular played on foreign men. They are very successful, because foreign men are very gullible.
Beyond all the above there are very few laws geared to foreigners.
As a foreigner I can travel where ever, live anywhere in the country, buy a mobile phone, rent or buy an apartment, operate a business, go to university, get a driver’s licence, buy a vehicle, install internet and cable TV in my apartment, open a bank account, transfer money into and out of China, etc etc. In the major cities you can order satellite TV packages in multiple languages; otherwise the 200 cable TV channels are in Chinese.
Even behind the great fire wall (GFW) you can visit most websites around the world. It is estimated some 3,000 sites are blocked, mostly porn, sites deemed anti-Chinese, a number of western social media sites and Some like YouTube. All Google sites are generally blocked, but Yahoo and other search engines are OK.
In any city there are more stores and restaurants per capita then just about anywhere else on earth. Nearly all restaurant serve beer, fruit wine or liquor.
I have never been cheated taking a proper taxi in any city in China. I have never been in danger of being attacked or mugged in China. Even in the hinterlands and back country. It is safer then North America, UK and most of Europe. Women can walk home at night without fear. Crime is mostly pick-pockets, break-ins, theft.
Most people do not speak English, except in major transportation centres, high end hotels and shopping malls where foreigners frequent. If you can’t speak the language, get someone to write down what you want. Same applies for doctors. Except for Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and some tier 2 cities; it could be difficult to find an english speaking doctor.
There are western “style” stores Walmart, Carrefour, etc but they sell very limited western goods and food. KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds everywhere; but most food is adjusted to the Chinese taste.
Finding large clothes& shoes in China is a big challenge. All the XL,XXL etc sizes are exported. You will not meet a lot of foreigners in China, so you need to be comfortable among the locals.
The majority of ex-pats living in China last 3 years or less.