How to get the most out of living in China (or any other foreign country)

When you move to China, or any country with a different language and culture than your own, you can choose to live in an expat bubble, or you can try to get the most out of your time in that country. If you want to live in the expat bubble and not learn the language or experience the culture, you might want to just go back to watching cat videos on YouTube; this post probably isn’t for you. But hey, enjoy those cat videos!

This post is the first of a four-part series on how to get the most out of living abroad, whether you’re in China or some other foreign country. Let’s start by looking at two different foreigners, Erica and Lily, who have each been living in China for two years.

Which one want do you want to be like?

Erica, living in an expat bubble

Erica’s company moved her to Shanghai two years ago and time has really flown by. She loves her expat package, which includes a beautiful apartment in an area with lots of bars and clubs that she frequents. Erica speaks English at work, and even though she knows that her Chinese staff sometimes talks about her in Chinese — even when she’s sitting right across from them in a meeting — she’s the boss and they work in a multinational so, in her mind, she’s just doing her part to help them improve their English.

She occasionally shows-off the few Chinese words she knows: beer (“pee-joe”), hamburger (“ham-bow-bow”), water (“shew-a”), and a few others. She couldn’t put a sentence together if you gave her all day, a dictionary, and Google Translate, but that doesn’t bother her.

During the week she’s usually swamped at work so she just gets some McDonald’s or KFC and eats at her desk. On the weekends she enjoys trying out different international restaurants in Shanghai, especially because the waiters speak English so she and her expat friends can just relax and enjoy the food and atmosphere.

While she was back in San Francisco visiting her family a few months ago she took some friends out for Dim Sum. Over dinner, she talked about the Chinese culture (which is an exact copy of American culture, in her mind), told her friends that her Chinese staff loves her, and talked about all the great bars and restaurants in Shanghai. She even impressed everyone at the table when she ordered beer in Chinese, though it took a few tries for the waitstaff to figure out what she was trying to say. They got it eventually, though the pantomiming probably helped.

Lily, hanging with the locals

Then there is Lily. Like Erica, she was also sent to Shanghai by her company two years ago. After the first year of living in expat housing, she realized that she wasn’t learning enough about China while living in the bubble, so she moved into a building with mostly Chinese people. Although her building isn’t surrounded by bars, its still in a nice part of town. There’s a great farmer’s market down the street where she can buy fresh vegetables, the streets are lined with little noodle restaurants, and there’s also a nice international grocery store nearby where she can buy imported goods.

Although most of her staff speaks English, she tries to speak Chinese with them whenever she can, though she knows she still has a lot to learn. Since she’s working a lot, she spends just 10 minutes studying Mandarin each night, but she makes every effort to use the new vocabulary she learns while she’s at work to make sure it’s all sinking in.

She sometimes goes out for a nice international meal with her foreign friends, but is just as comfortable fumbling through a menu at restaurants frequented by locals. She does occasionally end up ordering chicken feet by mistake, and although she likes the flavor she still can’t get past the idea of sucking on a chicken’s toe; she hasn’t finished a full order yet. She often strikes up conversations with Chinese customers at these restaurants and has even made a few friends this way.

When she was back in Los Angeles visiting her family recently, she went out to a Sichuan restaurant with some friends and got a chance to practice some of her Chinese while ordering. She was even able to carry-on a short conversation with the impressed waitstaff.

Which one do you want to be?

These are obviously caricatures, though I’ve met many people like Erica and Lily in the over four years I’ve lived in China. If you want to be like Lily, learning the language, getting to know the people, learning about the culture, and occasionally sucking on a chicken foot, the rest of the posts in this series will help. Of course, I do hope you’ll be able to avoid the chicken feet, unless you happen to like them.

And remember, even if you’ve already been living in the expat bubble for years, you can choose to break out of it at any time. Grab a pin and POP, you’re free! This doesn’t mean you have to move out of that beautiful expat housing (yes, I’m jealous); most of this has to do with your attitude, not where you live. All it takes is a bit of courage and a little bit of effort. Not much, just a little every day.

Join me for the “Getting the most out of living abroad” series

This post is the first in a four-part series on getting the most out of living in China, or any other foreign country. In this series, I’ll cover:

To read the other posts in this series, check back soon. Or, better yet, why not just sign up for email updates so you don’t miss a post! It’s easy, and your email address will never be shared with anyone else, not even my wife! (She keeps asking to see them, so I’m getting a bit suspicious.) Just add your email address to the “Subscribe now!” box on the right, near the top of the page.

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