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An expat’s guide to dealing with culture shock in China

Moving to a new country can be incredibly exciting. With a wealth of history and tradition behind the country, China is a wonderful place to call your new home. However, with so many cultural differences between China and the West, taking your new life by hand is a whole different story altogether. Of course, the best way to immerse yourself in Chinese culture is to strike up new friendships with the locals. However, reading up on the culture before you make the move can be just as good in minimizing culture shock. So, what should you be aware of before relocating there? In this Pacific Prime China article, we’ll discuss the top 7 tips on dealing with culture shock in China.

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What’s culture shock?

First things first, here’s a quick rundown of the definition. Whether it’s your first time moving to a new country or the tenth, culture shock is the sense of disorientation you feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life. Usually, immigration is the cause. However, it’s also possible to experience culture shock on a visit to a new country. You might grapple with feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and homesickness.

There are four stages of culture shock: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation. During the honeymoon stage, you are enthralled by all the exciting and different aspects of your new life. The negotiation stage leaves you anxious and disconnected as you realize that life in China is more difficult than you’ve previously imagined. Next comes the adjustment phase where you begin to get your bearings and are increasingly familiar with the local culture. Finally, you reach the adaptation stage. You are now comfortable in your new country and even have a new circle of friends and daily activities.

In the following section, we’ll give you tips on handling culture shock in China so you’ll ease into your new life.

1. Adapt to new social etiquettes

A new social environment comes with new social etiquettes. It’s going to take some trial-and-error before you can navigate smoothly through social situations. Here are a few practical tips. First of all, don’t suggest splitting the bill. Some Chinese locals may get offended as a result. As a Westerner, you may also be expected to pick up the tab. Westerners are seen as wealthy, and therefore, more capable of covering the bills in China.

Next, stock up on name cards! It’s common for locals to hand out name cards even in non-business settings. Prepare to make new friends and potentially new business partners. In terms of conversation topics, you steer clear of politics. Since the political situation in China is complicated, it is best to avoid this conversation topic.

2. Learn a few commonly-used words in Mandarin

Unless you live in a big city like Shanghai or Beijing, most locals don’t speak English. In the beginning, you might find yourself playing a game of charades just to get your point across. Your taxi driver may not recognize the name of your destination in English, and you don’t understand menus with no accompanying pictures of food at a restaurant.

Learning a couple of common words opens the door to greater understanding with the Chinese people. What’s more, they will also appreciate a “laowai” or a foreigner’s attempt to learn their language. Though different dialects are spoken all over China, 70% of Chinese will have learned Mandarin at school.

Taking local Mandarin lessons would be best, but what if you don’t have the time? Downloading a good translator app on your phone would be a fantastic alternative. This way, you’ll have great help navigating life in China.

Also, keep in mind that in China, the volume of conversations tends to be louder. This is by no means disrespect to anyone.

3. Keep in touch with your family and friends

Living overseas by yourself is a big change. You’re without family and your social circles back at home. With video-call, you can combat homesickness by chatting with your family and friends anytime. Also, it’s a good idea to keep up with websites and entertainment you frequent that has been a huge part of your life. For instance, destress with a Netflix session after work. Sticking with a familiar routine when you’re in an unfamiliar environment goes a long way in helping you acclimate to life in China.

4. Adjust your expectations

You’ll also have to adjust your standards of cleanliness. In China, it’s not uncommon to see people spit on the street, and cut in lines. This is mostly attributed to air pollution for the former, and overcrowdedness for the latter. Note that the Chinese government did have a campaign against spitting around the time of the 2008 Olympics.

There is also smog in the city sometimes. However, there are good days and bad days. On bad days, wear a mask when you head outside. You might also see squat toilets, which can be difficult to get used to. Remember to carry packs of tissue or even hand sanitizer in case they run out of supplies at public bathrooms.

5. Look both ways – repeatedly!

Here, don’t expect to see the pedestrian’s right of way mentality. To most expats, this can be a cause of great culture shock in China. Remember to look both ways when crossing the streets to make sure there is no incoming cars. Driving is a whole nother beast here.

6. Fight for your position

Elbows out to protect your position in the queue. Get comfortable with confrontation or avoid being in a hurry altogether. Alternatively, avoid peak hours: usually 8am to 9am in the morning, and starting from 6pm in the evening. Personal space means little in China, particularly during rush hours. Locals tend to push and shove both in lines and on public transit. Again, this might have to do with the overcrowded cities.

Traffic is one of the biggest complaints for expats living in China. Buses and trains tend to be overcrowded. Streets can be packed to the brim as well. After all, China is the country with the largest population in the world.

7. Learn to say no

Outside of big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, you might get stared and pointed at as a laowai. To take it a step further, locals might even ask to take a picture with you. This is especially the case if you are blond, and have blue eyes and fair skin. Similarly, the Chinese people might want to take pictures and play with your kids. They are usually well-meaning and curious. Still, you might feel uncomfortable. Politely thank them for their attention before turning them down. Make sure to explain the reasons behind this behavior to your kids, and teach your kids to politely turn them down if they feel uncomfortable.

Find the perfect insurance plan in China

Relocating to a new country is a huge life change. You have to adjust to a new environment, new social etiquettes and a new way of life. The least you could do is to streamline your health plan. At Pacific Prime China, we simplify insurance plans for you. We partner up with the biggest insurers in China for the most expat-friendly individual health insurance. Moving to China with your family? We also offer family health insurance.

Contact our team of expert insurance advisors today for free, impartial suggestions! We’re happy to find the perfect insurance solution for you.

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Disclaimer: Pacific Prime China solely represents, operates and manages locally regulated insurance products and services in the territory of PR China. Any references to Pacific Prime Global Company or Group, the international services, insurance products or otherwise stated written or verbally, is for introduction purposes about our overseas network only as each entity is fully independent.


Content Creator at Pacific Prime China
Serena is a content writer at Pacific Prime. She aims to demystify the world of insurance for readers with the latest updates, guides and articles on the blog. Serena believes in straight-forward and entertaining educational content.

Outside of work, Serena spends her time buried in books and dreaming of her next travel destination.