This is a truncated transcription of our podcast episode on how best to prepare for your first trip or move to China. The following are relevant links to the various places you can find our podcast:
Electronic, Telecommunications, and the Internet
- If you are from north America, no need to buy an electrical outlet converter
- Regarding consumer electronics generally (e.g. computers, mobile phones, etc.), most big international brands (e.g. Samsung, Apple, HP, etc.) are significantly more expensive in China. I know, I know, they are manufactured to some extent in China. Regardless, that is the case.
- Only counterfeit branded products are cheap in China.
- You can consider buying a domestic brand if you have no other options. Lenovo makes excellent laptops (I am recording this podcast through a Lenovo ThinkPad). XiaoMi and Huawei mobile phones are probably just as good as an LG or Samsung device.
- If you’re accustomed to Apple products, you may just have to prepare for the additional charge imposed on foreign products.
- Chinese Firewall Prevents access to many Western servers, and therefore you cannot always access the software and online platforms you might be accustomed to.
- Google products
- google calendar
- google maps
- any cloud storage solution
- Download Chinese alternatives or apps that work in China
- Email (Hotmail or outlook and yahoo), GMX, or
- Maps (Baidu Maps)
- Sms texting
- File sharing
- Social networking (friends circle)
- Online marketing
- Basically, you can not function in China without WeChat or when dealing with Chinese people and organizations.
Health and Sanitation Issues
If you have a chronic or severe medical condition for which you must receive treatment or have prescriptions filled regularly, then I only have three pieces of advice:
- First, of course, do you own due diligence. Talk with your qualified medical professional before making any major life changes, as would be the case for anything. There are many forums online, including thebeijinger.com, shanghaiexpat.com, and tripadvisor.com that contain many threads on such topics.
- Second, it is important to have a dependable point of contact in China, hopefully someone residing in the city you’ll be visiting or living in, who can help you in the case of emergency. If you don’t know anyone in China yet, that isn’t a huge hurdle. If you’re going to China for work, most employers will have a staff member who either specifically or at least regularly acts as a liaison for foreign employees. As Opportunity in China works with dozens of Chinese schools and education-related businesses, I know that any reputable organization with foreign staff absolutely employs someone who serves this function. So, if you arrive in China, and find your prescription medication is running now and you haven’t figured out how to refill it, then you can go to them for assistance. You might also meet some very kind and trustworthy locals and fellow expats and folks from your home country, either through social media, or during the early phase of your residence in China. While I wouldn’t suggest leaning on people unnecessarily, if you truly have an emergency or an impending problem, don’t hesitate to reach out to people you’ve met.
- Finally, stock up well on all things necessary for your health and well-being prior to departure. In addition to critical medication and medical devices, there are a variety of health, wellness, and hygiene products to which you are accustomed that you will likely have difficulty finding in China.
Generally, any medicines, vitamins or other supplements that you use regularly should initially be brought with you to China in bulk, and you might consider even continuously ordering them from your home country and then have them shipped to your new mailing address. This is not only due to issues of availability, but also due to safety concerns. In all fairness, markets outside of China are not free from their own scandals on these issue; I do recall just two years ago the Attorney General of the State of New York filed a law suit against many of America’s largest vitamin and supplement retailers (i.e. GNC, Walmart, and others), because it was found that the majority of their products did not contain what was listed on the label. Regardless, the stereotype that Chinese products are often fake and even potentially hazardous is a stereotype for good reason. While the situation in China is improving, there still may be a chance that supplements and even medicine purchased in China could be fake. Again, being prepared, doing your own due diligence, and learning from the experience of others should help you avoid any problems.
Most sanitary and hygiene items, ranging from razors, soap, shampoo, and deodorant is either available in the same brand that you’re used to, and this is especially true in the major cities, or such products are at least provided by domestic companies, and their quality has never seemed to me to be lacking. However, there are some specific items you must consider bringing along, depending on their circumstances.
- Latex-free products
- Ask a Chinese friend or foreigner living in China who might have details
- Feminine hygiene:
- Sanitary napkins
- Anti-diarrhea medication. While you can buy this in China, it’s better to have it when you need it, which is likely just a couple days after you arrive. Keep it in your bag.
Food Safety and Enjoyment
The following are a few simple steps you can take to make your life in China more pleasant and tastier.
- Don’t drink the tap water. If you think it’s tap water, don’t drink it. If the water is piping hot, then you should be fine. If it is in a bottle, then you should be fine. In all other cases, abstain. You may even want to rinse your toothbrush with bottled water for the first few weeks until your body has acclimated to the environment.
- If you haven’t already mastered using chopsticks, buy a few sets. Try to eat as many meals as you can using them, even if not Chinese cuisine. Steamed broccoli for lunch? Use chopsticks. Popcorn during your dinner night with you family? Use chopsticks. I think you get the point. You wont easily be able to avoid using chopsticks. Most restaurants do not have forks available for your use.
- Start introducing more spice into your diet. While you can avoid eating spicy food, especially in Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, virtually everywhere else in China, you will be confronted with spicy food on a daily basis. You can also learn how to say that you don’t like spicy food. You need to be able to clearly tell the cook or the server that you don’t want spicy food. That’s a good idea if you really cannot tolerate it.
- Don’t eat street food early on. Eventually, you can start to try some, but if you want to avoid stomach issues, abstain until you’re feeling brave.
- Be careful with virtually all meat dishes as they might contain bone fragments. And fish, all bones are left intact. Be careful.
Clothing, Footwear, and Accessories
- Price & Size Issues
- Unless you’re planning on living in or near-to the city of Guangzhou, foreign branded clothing is often difficult to find, especially at a reasonable price. There are virtually no clearance sections on foreign clothing, and the government policy of imported goods renders all foreign clothing, accessories, and footwear noticeably more expensive.
- For Ladies and Men, clothing and shoes will tend to be available in sizes much smaller than you are accustomed to. For larger clothing, the styles will not be acceptable. Consider bringing extra clothing if you don’t want to afford foreign brands.
What about language? Is it really necessary to learn any Chinese prior to your arrival? I am asked this question regularly by the candidates we place. The answer is an unsatisfactory, “it depends”. Basically, if you’re not aiming to glean the most advantages as possible from your time in China and with Chinese people, then studying Chinese is probably not worth the effort as almost all Chinese have studied the grammar and vocabulary of the English language for at least ten years in their compulsory education system. Therefore, it will take at least four to six months for even a dedicated and strong learner to reach their level of second-language proficiency. If you’re going to be spending your time in a tier one city, especially Guangzhou or Shanghai, then the need is even slighter.
However, if you think studying Chinese is both interesting and potentially necessary for you to achieve goals, then I’d say go for it, but do it right. I personally do not think that learning Chinese is anymore difficult than learning any other language, except for the fact that it is likely very different from your native language if you’re from anywhere outside of East Asia, and Chinese language learning materials are still far less robust and varied than their ESL counterparts. But go for it nevertheless. If you know how to start, then you can succeed, especially if you’re in China. Many people will feel pride and interest in your Chinese language study. Perhaps, that will lead to assistance from locals and lifelong friendships. At least, I had that experience. Additionally, if you want my personal take on how to learn Chinese from the most basic level, then visit our YouTube channel to find a video I created on that very topic, but, of course, there are hundreds of other sources online, and plenty of textbooks.
What Else Could You Learn
What you should learn prior to engaging with China. Essentially, learn as much as you can. What should you learn? Well, I can present you with a brief list of what I deem to be the most fundamental topics on which you should be fairly well-versed, but when it come to specific knowledge, the subject you delve into should be primarily germane to your specific pursuit.
- Chinese Pronunciation: If you’re not able to learn the language, at least learn Chinese pronunciation, called “pinyin”. If you can learn tones too, that would be great. You’d be leaps and bounds ahead most folks, and learning the language would be much easier in the future. More importantly, saying people’s names, asking for directions, and practically all live in China would be improved as most signs and documentation contain some Pinyin, which are essentially Latin Alphabet representations of Chinese pronunciation. It is a way to cheat a learning enough Chinese to do very well, without actually investing the time necessary to study the language fully.
- Chinese Political Geography: it’s very helpful to have cursory knowledge of the major cities, provinces, and special administrative zones of China. Of course, if you learned Pinyin, you’d be able to say these proper nouns clearly. This would be a good opportunity to become accustomed to using Baidu Maps.
The follow are topics that would help you understand China, Chinese people, and their worldview. As you will be a foreigner to them, sociopolitical context is going to play a major role their perception of you.
- The Opium Wars
- Nanjing Massacre
- Chinese Communist Revolution
- The Reform and Opening Up Policy
- One Child Policy
- 2008 Beijing Olympics
- Red Star Over China – Snow
- Age of Ambition – Osnos and Backman
- Street Smarts – Rogers
- The Hundred-Year Marathon – Pillsbury & Hillgartner
- Deng Xiaoping – Vogel
- Red Scarf Girl – Moore & Jiang
- The Chinese in America – Chang
- The China Dream – Zhang
- The Opium War – Lovell
- Same Bed, Different Dreams – Lampton
For general information, you can glean YouTube for well-done documentaries. You can listen to podcasts. You can follow ours; my colleagues and I are working hard to deliver up to date, useful, and insightful content to better prepare you. The Opportunity in China Podcast is published weekly, every Monday morning Eastern Standard time in America. Or, just start talking to Chinese people. That’s a good place to start.
That is all.