I'm moving to China next Wednesday. General advice?

Well, it’s pretty much all there in the subject line. I’m moving to China on the 31st of July. I’ll be in Beijing for a month in a teacher training program, then on to Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) to start a one-year contract at a high school teaching English.

About me, I just graduated college three months ago, degree in Philosophy and Spanish. I’ve never been to China before, and I know zero Mandarin.

So any advice? My goals while I am there are to get a working ability to converse in Mandarin, make friends and learn about what life is like far, far away from America. Oh, and not to end up in a foreign prison. Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

Be very careful about the water. Drink only bottled water, or water that you have boiled for at least 5 to 10 minutes. Use bottled water to brush your teeth, and be careful not to get water in your mouth when you shower. You can eat cooked vegetables in restaurants, but don’t eat raw fruits or vegetables unless you wash them yourself in purified water. You may want to take a water filter, but be sure to pack it carefully so it doesn’t break.

I have a friend who has adopted three children from China, and this is the advice she gives. She says that many, if not most, vegetables are fertilised with human waste, which spreads various diseases. Giardia (sp?) is very common, even in large city water supplies. The last trip over, she got giardia from brushing her teeth in tap water, and her two daughters got very very sick from eating watermelon.

So be careful!

Don’t forget your toothbrush!

Sorry, that’s about as helpful as I can get here. Have fun. :slight_smile:


Despite living in HK for a short time I have never been to Shenzhen, but I have lived in Beijing. Communication is going to be a big problem, obviously. Even if you weren’t starting from zero, you will run into a million mealy-mouthed accents in Beijing. You can probably forget about being able to do much by yourself within a month. I would say… Get used to being stared at or talked down to. Most people don’t mean you any harm or disrespect, they’re just curious. And you better get make some friends who can speak Chinese, because you’re going to be SOL trying to do things in English most places. And bring Chinese friends with you if you want to buy something significant that you’ll be haggling over. They start high with everybody, but naturally they start especially high for foreigners. Sometimes they soften up slightly if you speak Chinese, but obviously that doesn’t help you. Again, they don’t really do it maliciously, so try not to get pissed off when they say “next time come alone!” That’s how they make money, after all. And don’t go to touristy areas or highly-competitive markets alone unless you want to be mobbed and/or ripped off.

I don’t know about speaking Mandarin in Shenzhen. The only person I’ve known from there spoke Cantonse (I think as her first language) but also fluent Mandarin; I’m not sure if that’s because she was studying in Beijing or if that’s par for the course. Either way, I would expect quite a mix there. If anyone speaks Chinese to you, though, it’s going to be Mandarin. You might have better luck with English there given its proximity to HK, but I’m not sure. I can’t give you much advice about Shenzhen, but it does have a pretty seedy reputation, so I would say watch out for scams and shoddy goods. Either place should be pretty much physically safe, though.

Personally, I’ve never had a problem brushing my teeth with tapwater. It’s not like you’re swallowing a lot.

I’m curious about the program you’re on. I myself will also be out of college soon, with plans to teach in HK as a foothold for indefinite residence. I, on the other hand, will be getting a degree in Chinese, which should be a plus. Are you TEFL certified? I was thinking about doing a correspondence course to get certified in order to be a little more competitive.

Oh yeah… Maybe I got special treatment (especially in HK) because I can communicate passably in both dialects, but I think that if you’re generally friendly and polite people will be be the same to you. People are hardly out to get Americans there, and even those who might have stereotypes about you will generally chance their tune if you just act nice instead of like the stereotypical “ugly American.”

Did you like, kill a man in a former life?

Are you talking to me? If so, I don’t get it.

Diletante, congratulations and good luck! I think you’ll probably have a great time there. If you’re there a full year, you’ll meet your goals of learning about another culture and picking up enough Chinese to converse with the locals.

Ditto what The Punkyova said about the water. Everything! Only drink bottled; and don’t consume the tap water through unnoticed means – brushing your teeth, opening your mouth in the shower, washing vegetables, washing dishes, etc.

Also, prepare to have your pockets picked. Non-violent theft is very, very prevalent. You’re not going to get mugged at gunpoint; but you will get your pocket picked on the bus, your bike stolen even when locked to a guardrail, and anything left unattended or not locked down will disappear.

I would suggest as a counter measure to pick-pocketing that you leave you wallet with your drivers licence, credit cards, and all the other difficult-to-replace items at home (you’re apartment in China, that is). You won’t need them for daily living there. You won’t even need to carry your passport with you once you get settled in. What will work for identification is to make a photocopy of your passport identification page (trim it down to size), and carry that in a cheap little wallet that you don’t mind if you lose. Then if it gets stolen, you just buy another wallet, make another photocopy, and your back in business with a minimum of fuss. The photocopy ID will even work in banks for cashing checks.

There are very few times that you’ll need the actual passport. One will be when your destination school applies to get you a work permit. Another will be if you ever visit one the several US Consulates or Embassies. (Once you get to China, visit the US Embassy and register your presence. Tell them how long you’ll be in China, where you will be working, how they can get hold of you if necessary.) (The Embassy or consulate is also where you’ll go to get a replacement passport if somehow your original gets lost or stolen.)

Another thing is to brace yourself to be overcharged whenever you buy anything. It is standard business practice to charge foreigners more than the locals. Don’t take this personally; it’s nothing against you. It’s just the accepted practice. Once you’re able to talk to the merchant in Chinese, you’ll get a better price than if you only use English and gestures; but you’ll still pay a bit more than a local would. One way around this is to have a Chinese friend buy things for you. If you use this method, you can’t be present when your friend makes the purchase. Because if the merchant sees you standing nearby waiting to take the product from your friend, then your friend won’t get a good price either; they’ll be charged almost as much as you. Just count on this happening for the entire time you’re there, and shrug it off.

A big problem you will need to be aware of, but won’t be able to do much about, is that you WILL experience culture shock. This will happen sometime during your first month or so there. It can manifest itself in many different ways. But, unfortunately, when you’re in it, you will not be objective enough to recognize it. You’re friends will begin telling you that you’re acting improper in a certain regard (whatever it is), but you are going to be unwilling to accept their advice. Just do the best you can to trust your friends, don’t make any momentous decisions, and know that in a few weeks you’ll be in a clearer state of mind and will be able to see what your friends have been trying to tell you.

One common way that culture shock will manifest itself is to develop a strong attachment to a member of the opposite sex. You might even think of getting married. Stifle this impulse if at all possible. If you still feel the same a few months later, fine. But don’t make such a heavy commitment as a result of culture shock or homesickness. Another way it may manifest itself is that you may begin disliking everything about China – the people, the food, the customs, etc. Again, just tolerate it a little while longer and the feeling will pass. There are many other things that you may feel besides these, but they vary from person to person.

There are many aspects about the Chinese culture that are going to be different than what you’re used to. Just remember, you’re not in America; you’re in THEIR country. It will be important that you not take the attitude that “the American way” is the “best” way. Our way is best for us, but their way is best for them.

The Chinese have a concept that we don’t use much in America, and that is “saving face”. It is extremely important that the other person be able to keep his respect and dignity in the eyes of others. Therefore, they do not often enter into direct conflicts. If they have a disagreement with you, they may first try to discuss the matter with you in roundabout terms. If that doesn’t work, they will explain their problem to a friend and the friend will approach you and try to mediate. They will go to great lengths to avoid a head-on confrontation. This may at times be frustrating to you. You may feel, “If you want to tell me something, just come out and say it to my face”. No. They won’t do that. It’s not their way. Remember, you have to adapt to their way, not them to yours.

The Chinese also use the word “Yes” differently than we do. There are two big ways in which their use differs from ours. First, if you make a request of an individual, their response will always be “yes”, even if they really mean “no”. This is related to the saving face mentioned earlier. It can lead to misunderstandings and situations where you think everyone around you is a liar. But you need to be alert to cues they’re giving that let you know what they really mean; cues like tone of voice, hesitation, gestures, body language, etc.

A second big difference in the use of “yes” is in response to a negative question. This is something that will take you all year to get used to. If you ask a question in a negative form, then when you are expecting a “yes”, you’ll get a “no”, and vice versa. For example, if you ask, “Didn’t you do your homework?” An American student who didn’t do it would say, “No, (I didn’t do it).” A Chinese student who didn’t do it would say, “Yes, (you are correct that I didn’t do it).” The American is addressing the subject of your question – was the homework done; the Chinese is addressing the correctness of your question – am I correct in assuming that you didn’t do the homework.

Another custom that you should know is that they are big on giving gifts. These are signs of respect and indicate that they value the relationship between you and them. But there will be an expectation of something in return; perhaps not a present, but at least a good relationship. While it is impolite to refuse a gift, it will bring a need for reciprocation of some kind. Beware of a student who knows he is failing your class who brings a gift near the end of the term; he will expect you to then pass him. In that case, it is best to find some way to not accept the gift. But when doing so remember the “all important rule” about saving face. If you refuse his gift bruskly, you will have insulted him. You will need to find a way to turn down the gift such that the person walks away still feeling good.

There are many, many more things to tell. But that will be a big part of your fun there – learning all about the differences between East and West. By the end of your year, you will feel that their culture is the exact opposite of ours in more respects than can be counted.

Again, good luck. You’re starting an adventure that you’ll never forget.
(Sorry about the book-length reply.)

"Our way is best for us, but their way is best for them.

Not to hijack, but that’s a really wishy washy statement.

I’m not saying the American way is the “best” way but you’re talking about a Communist country in which the people are not even free to speak their minds. How is that “best” for them?

On the subject of theft… Sort of yes, sort of no. I had a nice new bike ripped off in the space of about 15 minutes in a busy, public place during broad daylight. I also new someone who had their apartment cleaned out. But I can’t see getting your pocket picked unless you’re extremely careless and look extremely rich. Some people where money belt that go under their shirts; personally, I find this totally unnecessary, uncomfortable, and embarrassing. Just keep your wallet in your front pocket and if you carry a bag, let it rest over your pocket, especially in tight spots like buses. If you use some common sense and don’t do things that’ll make you a target (be seen with expensive goods, flash a lot of money, give people a chance to case your place) you should be okay.

Good GOD, what’s wrong with my brain? Why am I studying Chinese when I can’t even write in English? Bad spelling ahoy!

"Our way is best for us, but their way is best for them.

Not to hijack, but that’s a really wishy washy statement.

I’m not saying the American way is the “best” way but you’re talking about a Communist country in which the people are not even free to speak their minds. How is that “best” for them?

"Our way is best for us, but their way is best for them.

Not to hijack, but that’s a really wishy washy statement.

I’m not saying the American way is the “best” way but you’re talking about a Communist country in which the people are not even free to speak their minds. How is that “best” for them?

Yikes!!! Triple post!

So sorry!!! I have no idea how it happened 20 minutes after I first posted!!!

If you don’t want to hijack, why is it posted three times? Also, now that I remember who you are, I’m not surprised that China freaks you out. China has its problems, but rumors of its being a repressive dictatorship in which common people are brutally repressed every day have been greatly exaggerrated.

Oops, now I look like a jerk. Also, that was a cheap shot considering how nutty the board is sometimes, sorry.

Presumably, you will not abandoned on your own, right? You’ll be with a group of other foreigners in a training course for the 1st month, and at your assignment in Shenzhen, either there will be other foreign teachers, or someone to look after you. So, #1, no need to get worked up about getting lost, jailed, etc.

#2, don’t get paranoid about the water, brushing teeth, human fertilizer on veggies, etc etc etc. If the place was that filthy (like it is rural areas), people would be dying all over. Obviously, be sensible.

#3 Shenzhen is charmless and tawdry, and a hotbed of corruption and crime. But you will be at a fancy private school (I bet) and given secure housing, etc. Pickpockets (especially kids - the police chain them to railings to keep them under control) are all over, but you just have to be sensible. Actual violence, especially against foreigners, is pretty rare.

#4 You’re not the Marco Polo of English teachers - thousands have been there and done what you’re doing. All survived. Occasional weekends in Hong Kong might help - email me in advance and I’ll point you to stores with US goods, westerners’ hangouts, etc, if necessary.


Hemlock, what’s your take on home security in HK? I would think it’d be better than in Beijing, but considering what happened to some people I know I wouldn’t want to take chances. Presumably if you’ve got barred windows and one of those heavy metal doors you should be be more or less okay unless somebody good has specfically targetted you, right?

I lived in Korea for 6 years, but the same advice goes for China. I only spent a month in China, and I travelled mostly by hard sleeper class on the trains, but I never had any problem with theft, nor did any of the other travelers I met. Italy, though…

Everything YiBiYuan said was spot on, especially the warning about saving face. East Asian cultures are very non-confrontational, and getting angry is a major cultural taboo.

You’re going to have culture shock:

  1. This culture is so enlightened
  2. This country sucks!
  3. Some of this country’s customs are irritating, but I can cope.
  4. There’s a great little place on Jiangwomen Lu that serves some excellent baozi, but watch out for the pickpockets.

If you can be flexible and willing to open yourself up to see things from the local perspective, you’ll do just fine.

The average HK home is on the 10th-30th floor and it’s therefore pretty challenging to get in through the window. Windows are generally barred (to keep people/things IN as much as out), though mine aren’t. Most apartments have heavy metal doors, though again I don’t bother. Most blocks have OK security (though - again - I live in a relatively small old block with no security guard). The fact is, the crime rate here is extremely low, and home security (like street crime) is the last thing I worry about. HK must be safer than any other city of its size.

There are burglaries in remote areas where people live in real houses (not apartment blocks) and where illegal immigrants sneak in. Also, illegal immigrant burglars target homes on The Peak - where the ultra-rich live.