Going native — getting to know the locals while living in China

To understand China you need to get to know the people and the culture. You can do this by frequenting holes-in-the-wall, making friends with locals, and traveling throughout the country. You’ll have opportunities to use the language and get even farther out of that expat bubble.

Now that you’ve popped the expat bubble and are starting to speak the language, it’s time to take the next step: getting to know the people and the culture. There are many ways to do this, but the best one is to spend more time with locals. It’s time to go native.

Eating with the locals

It’s important to try the local cuisine anywhere you travel — even if it leads to intestinal distress and a few extra sprints to the bathroom. While you’ll discover a plethora of different cuisines in China, the most important part of trying them is getting to know the people while eating.

By eating at holes-in-the-wall, you get a feel for the people. You’ll hear them slurp their noodles. You discover they can eat bone-filled fish without any trouble; making it seem like they have a special ejector hatch for small fish bones. You’ll get to enjoy people clearing not only their throat, but their whole respiratory system over lunch. Every now and then someone will sneeze and, for some reason, they will make it as loud as possible and will add a second syllable to their sneeze. You didn’t know there were two-syllable sneezes in the world, did you? Neither did I until I moved to China.

These are the sights, sounds, and (sometimes uncomfortable) feelings of China. Yes, it’s important that you go out and try the stinky tofu and chicken feet, but it’s more important that you see how the Chinese eat, drink, and interact when they dine together.

Make friends with the locals

As I mentioned in my previous post about learning the language, I have found that most Chinese are incredibly supportive and friendly when a foreigner is trying to learn the language. Use that to your advantage and try to strike up conversations with strangers.

Go out on your own every now and then and, instead of burying your head in your iDevice, just smile and observe. Don’t make it too big of a smile or it’ll look weird, and if you just smirk at people it’ll be creepy. Just don’t frown, think friendly thoughts, and look approachable as you try to make conversation with the locals.

Doing this will give you a chance to practice Chinese and, more importantly, help you make friends with the locals. And when you do that you’ll be able to learn more about the Chinese culture and the people.

Get out of the city and look around a bit

One of the many fascinating aspects of China is that there is so much diversity within what seems like a homogeneous society. Even though you are surrounded by “Chinese” people, there are actually 56 official minorities, and many more unrecognized ones. And even though Beijing and Shanghai are primarily filled with Han Chinese, there is a big difference between the cultures in these two cities.

You can read about all of this (on this blog, for example), but if you are in China you should go out and experience it for yourself by traveling. Take weekend trips to cities near where you live and take longer trips to far-off places. While there, spend time getting to know the locals. Listen to their local dialect — often a completely different spoken language. Try the food and discover the huge differences in flavors throughout China.

It’s a big place, so you might as well go out and take it in.

It’s all about being open

Learning the language is critical, but afterwards you need to start using it with the locals. When you eat and drink with them, you’ll find that they loosen up and return your openness in-kind. Then you’ll get to hear their perspectives, and about their lives.

Open yourself up to different foods and ways of consuming it. Make friends with locals so you can learn more about how they live and can talk to them about their goals. And be open to the different ideas and philosophies you hear when you do get into deep discussions with them.

And don’t forget to have fun. Getting to know the people is one of the best aspects of living abroad.

This is the third post in the “Getting the most out of living abroad” series. Read about getting the most out of it in the first post, and read tips on learning Chinese in the second post.

Do you have other ways you are getting the most out of living abroad? Leave your thoughts in the “What do you think” section below. And while you’re heading down there, why don’t you sign up for email updates so you don’t miss any future posts.


  1. Clifford Wong says:

    These are wonderfully enjoyable and tremendously helpful posts written by Sameer Karim. Sameer’s advice is very valuable. For starting to speak the language, I have found myself engaging in the very steps Sameer has written about whenever I travel to China, and I have discovered significant improvement in my Chinese within a relatively short period of time. In addition, getting to know the locals while in living China is a truly enjoyable and fascinating experience!

  2. Hi Sameer,

    Great blog you have, I wish I had known about this sooner, this is TJ (Timothy Choi’s cousin, we briefly met in the lobby of Regent hotel just as you all headed out do have dinner at Duck de Chine a few weeks ago). Wonderful advices above and I can’t agree with you more when you said to truly know the culture, you got to do what the locals do – eat like them, learn to talk like them and most importantly, get to know them as friends.

    I hope to learn more about China through your blog! do let me know when you visit Beijing again, I’ll share with you a few of my favorite local restaurants.

    TJ Kim-

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