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If you’re for whatever reason heading to China or, like so many expats, are in fact a teacher newly there, acting as fresh fodder for agents to tear apart and schools to order in (refer to image), you’ll be needing the Clueless in Asia guide on top tips for surviving as an expat in China. Why? Because despite what you think, you’re probably not as ready as you’d like others to believe you are, with your cargo trousers, bumbag and mosquito spray; this guide will make you not only survive China but thrive in China.
If you haven’t already, get yourself the mobile app, ‘Weixin’ (pronounced, ‘way-shin’), or as it’s more commonly known among people outside of China, ‘WeChat’. Do be sure to get the mainland version and not the ‘free peoples of the world’ version, as you won’t have access to some important functions as shown below.
Every single person in China (basically correct) uses this app for first and foremost, messaging, be it voice messaging (which you’ll soon get used to) and of course, text messaging. Wechat will also enable you to purchase movie tickets, make QR Code payments, book and pay for taxis and allow you to transfer funds from banks or to friends; it also allows you to give Red Packets (红包; red packets are monetary gifts which are given during holidays to friends or relatives in China).
Why is it important? WeChat is the backbone of China’s communication, you’ll find that every aspect of dialogue that isn’t face to face will be WeChat, forget emails, no one’s doing that, instead, get used to the fact that if you want to say anything or contact anyone, no matter how official or casual, be it governmental, shops, restaurants or your broadband provider, you’ll be instant messaging with them all. It couldn’t be more convenient and the best bit is that it’s free, meaning you can bombard whoever with whatever at no cost of your own, and not worry at all as to why a company would offer you all these services free of charge.
‘Yang Cheng Tong’, as it’s known in Guangzhou, is an absolute must-have, as a metro card can get you from one side of the city to the next, super fast and super cheap. The metro, however, is very crowded and olid. If you don’t know what olid means then wait until you’re on the metro, take the deepest inhale through your nose you ever did take and you’ll soon see what olid means when the person’s hair in front of you sucks up into your nostrils where your nose will filter lice and their eggs.
What’re the best times to travel? There aren’t any, but there are less crowded times, such as between 11:00-15:00 during weekdays with the busiest times from, 6:30 to 8:30. To top up your card head over to any convenience store, thrash your card in the servers face and say, “yi bai” (pronounced e-buy) which means, “please top up my card by 100rmb please“, except without all the common courtesy that you might find elsewhere. Alternatively, simply head to your local metro and inquire with staff about what other cards they have on offer.
Opinions are divided on this, but personally, I avoid street food at all costs; there are no hygiene precautions in place whatsoever, resulting in possible food poisoning and it was reported that there is a 38% chance that your street food, is, in fact, rat or mouse! Can you really feel confident with a mere 62% chance that what you’re eating is what you think it is? I freak out when advertisements promote, “now 100% beef“…now?!
In my niggling little head, 100% of street food in China is poisonous and will kill me dead immediately, there’s no way I’m gobbling up unknown, ‘meat’ that’s been stored in a blue plastic unrefrigerated drum, which might I add seems never to be covered despite the streets being alive with confident crawling roaches and rats. It’s important to note that this does not apply to street markets, but instead to street barbeques that can be found setting up later on in the evening. What’s the difference? Well, they look less like a market and more like a homeless gang cooking a dog over a petrol fueled flame.
If you’re a male from Britain and are afraid of using an umbrella because it apparently and most fascinatingly makes you, “homosexual“, then fear no more from those knuckle-dragging, no neck, ‘larger drinkers’ who shame you. Of course, the umbrellas purpose is to keep you dry from the freak typhoon weather of China, but the truth is, you’ll probably be wetter when it’s sunny that you would if it was raining; nothing you have ever experienced will prepare you for the concoction of heat, humidity and pollution.
If you’re living in China you’ll soon get used to wielding an umbrella, if not for the rain then for the sun; the umbrella is used in Asia to typically block out the sun from giving you a tan (lighter skin is more desirable) and keeping you cool, but is there another purpose? After years of research and thousands of successful field tests taken place on the streets of Chinas third largest city, Guangzhou, I’ll share with you my ultimate secret weapon, the umbrella!
The secret function of the umbrella. Concealment of my western face, was, for me, essential when walking about the streets of China as you’ll get a lot of unwanted attention in the form of gawking, shouting, photographs and maybe even touching, essentially, as I’ve always stated, it’s like being a zoo animal just without the protection of a cage. This, what some see as, ‘western worshipping’, can create the ‘big headedness’ syndrome in foreigners, so do yourself a favour and hide to protect yourself from prying eyes and hide to prevent your head from swelling with confidence (you’re not really a celebrity). Secondly and somewhat controversially, the umbrella can create a personal barrier by gently swinging it side to side like a blind man walking (personal space in China does not exist!).
The polices reluctance to take instances seriously may make stats lower than those that are reported, but that’s not to say crime doesn’t happen. What sorts of crime might you see or be victim to? Police brutality? It certainly takes place back at the station as you can learn more about with Youtuber, Laowhy86. A common sight is that of petty crime, pickpocketing of phones and wallets, but scams are as commonplace as well; some elderly scammers will lie in the roads and wait for unsuspecting good samaritans to help and as they do, they will threaten to call the police because ‘you attacked them’ and will demand a bribe. Kidnap is also commonplace as the price for young working boys is high, villagers travel to the city and steal children which often takes place in public places.
What should I do? If you’re a witness to a crime it is only natural that you will strive to help, but, in China, many criminals rely on the good-heartedness of others, so intentionally create an upsetting situation to lure you into their grasp. The same link above and below will provide you with a somewhat controversial but accepted opinion/advice as to how you should react in certain (not all) situations. Watch here.
The people of China shift in one gigantic swoop all at the same time during public holidays. Why? It’s simple, public holidays and an overpopulated country equals one gigantic swoop. If you’re heading to China and wanting to waltz across the Great Wall during a public holiday to find your inner chi, then this may not be the best place or certainly not the best time to do it.
Where should I go? Sadly, China has a tendency to commercialise everything and everywhere, meaning even going to forests will cost you money to enter and your selfish selfie will be ruined by gift shops and toilets when there should instead be a breathtaking backdrop. If instead you’re a city-goer and prefer shopping, my advice would be to do so during weekdays. Depending on what you want to do, it’s always best to do it during non-peak-holiday times and also avoid weekends; if you want to see the nature of China, tours may offer ease and convenience, but the packed coaches, big hats, big noise and big cameras will almost certainly destroy the sense of liberation that one might seek in mother nature.
What if I do go during public holidays? If you have no other option than to follow the masses, then prepare to be lubricated in expelled phlegm and sweat as you squeeze through the thousands upon thousands of Chinese tourists. It is essential to note that pickpocketing is commonplace during these periods so either sew your money to your skin or put a padlock on your bumbag, either way, please be prepared for thieves and their litter picking grabbers they’ll use on you.
Above all things, it is absolutely vital that your state of mind adapts to your new surroundings, remaining a westerner in terms of your expectations from society, manners and rights will result in a very depressive and frustrated psyche.
What do I mean? China does not adhere to whatever which laws and standards you yourself may be accustomed to, in some parts, it is utterly lawless where chaos and madness thrives, and there’s nothing and no one that can change that. Eventually, after my first year of living in China, I adopted my own, somewhat simple and inappropriate philosophy of, “you can’t punch em’all“. This surprisingly enabled me to come to terms with the fact that it would be impossible to confront every single negative encounter that I faced because I’d simply never get anything done. Over time, this enabled me to relax and begin to loosen my tightened expression and instead, laugh, maybe you can’t change your expectations, but you can change how you react.
Finally. Avoid seeking home comforts in befriending only non-Chinese, i.e. westerners, as this will ultimately prevent you from experiencing China in all its madness and glory. My Chinese friends took me to a place that no westerner ever could, the family home and to family traditions and there’s nothing more Chinese than that. Be a spectator if it’s overwhelming or sincerely follow the customs, but just never challenge the ethos.