Moving to China is a huge change for almost everyone. It certainly was for me. And I had traveled to China and many Asian countries and moved across continents before moving to Beijing.
How happy you will be living in Beijing, and in China in general, will depend a lot on your personality and your mindset or attitude towards living in a culture that is so different from the West. Knowing yourself will help you make the decisions that give you the best chance for a successful transition.
Differences that affect daily life in China
Many things in China are quite different from the US and other countries. Some of these things may bother you more than others, some not at all. Here are a couple things to consider before moving to China:
- Personal space: The Chinese sense of personal space is very different from the Western, as you will encounter when waiting in line or using public transportation. It takes some getting used to having people getting that close. Even if a space is not crowded, a Chinese person will stand much closer to you than a Westerner would. If you are standing in line and are not getting close to the person in front of you, someone else will just cut in.
- Being polite: People squeeze through or reach across you without saying anything. There seems to be no Chinese equivalent to “excuse me” for those situations. To Americans this may seem rude but not to Chinese. Many Chinese think that Westerners say “thank you” a lot. For Chinese, the closer you are with someone, the less need there is for those niceties. Also, pushing and cutting in line is common when getting onto a bus or subway.
- Social interactions: The Chinese equivalent to the American friendly small talk between strangers does not exist. Strangers usually do not acknowledge each other. For example, people will often share an elevator ride without saying a single word or pass each other in the hallway without even a greeting.
- Local customs: Chinese find it gross when Westerners put a used tissue back into their pocket after blowing their nose. Westerners on the other hand are often appalled by the practice of “blowing” the nose without a tissue with a big snort and spitting out the stuff, either right on the floor or, if indoors, into a trash can.
- Crowds: There are a lot of people, everywhere, all the time. Peace and quiet can rarely be found, maybe in a public park in winter with freezing temperatures. After two years in Beijing, a typical street in the US seems empty.
- Being a foreigner: Foreigners are still quite, well, foreign in many parts of town. If you are not in an expat area, you can expect to be stared at, especially if you are tall and blond. Children may call you out and point at you.
- Clean air: By now China’s and especially Beijing’s problem with air quality are well known. Smog is a common issue that you can’t escape. I will never take clean air for granted again. Check out the post on pollution in Beijing for more info.
- … (Please share your own observations and unexpected experiences in the comments section.)
Turning knowledge into better decisions
Knowing what to expect gives you a chance to gauge your very own reactions ahead of time, which in turn informs your decisions. For example, if crowds and lack of personal space are issues for you, you should avoid public transportation, at least during rush hour. If you crave of social interaction with like-minded people, you may want to keep towards the expat areas. See also my post about the key 5 things to consider when selecting the area where to live.
PS: If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out my Practical Guide – Newcomer to Beijing. It contains this post and 30+ others, plus additional resources, and follows your steps from planning your move to a new culture to settling into your new expat life in Beijing, all in one easy-to-read pdf.