Learning to Live in China

I’m back in China. This being the third time I’ve come to live and work here, it feels like a homecoming – and living in China still comes with its own challenges.

Your mileage may vary, of course, but I think I can point to some usual issues. And provide my perspective, of course.

The State of Bureaucracy

The main issue for the start: bureaucracy.

China has never been as bad and uncomfortable to enter as it is often made out to be, for me. And yet…

I started the process of getting the necessary documents for a work visa in March. I was afraid, if not certain, I would miss the Prague Marathon at the beginning of May.

Eventually, the whole process took until June, and it was not over when I was finally in a position to enter China, but continued for a lot longer.

The App-iness of China

One of the main things this all is related to: With a bank account (provided I pay great attention to how it’s set up, because its info needs to be used *exactly*), I should be able to get WeChat Pay and Alipay set up.

You’ll Pay…

These two payment systems/apps have replaced cash in China to such an extent, there are places that do not even accept bank notes anymore. Living in China without them is, thus, really hard.

Then, there is also how I should be able – using those apps – to get money to my wife’s account, pay her back for what she had to lend to me (ahem), have her withdraw money in Europe and put it in my non-Chinese account.

You’ll Shop…

And I could use Taobao and China’s other big shopping platforms, which are… Well, whenever someone complains that Chinese seem more interested in shopping than anything else, I wonder if they’ve ever had a look at Taobao.

You can get many things much cheaper there than if you go to a store. You can get many special things.

Even in my research into chilli and other spices in China, Taobao is an interesting first stop to learn what is being offered, where from, with what sort of presentation and explanation.

… and Get Connected

At least, I had been able to get a SIM card (as a foreigner, at a bigger branch of China Mobile, with my passport).

It even turned out that my Europe-bought (and still-on-contract) smartphone really had no SIM-lock anymore, so that I can do without the old (unlocked, but hardly working anymore) phone.

A SIM card/contract with a nice amount of data traffic allowance is an utter necessity.

Know Your Way

Without Amap (GaoDe DiTu) I would have been lost a few times already. With it, I can navigate all around China.


WeChat needed installing even before I came to China, because it is the major way that everyone at this, or any, company communicates. As do people in private. And it does many other things, too.

Language Barriers

Of course, language plays a role. Especially when we are talking about learning to live in China, when the language is Chinese.

My knowledge of it is existing, but pretty basic.

It is enough to get through everyday food shopping and ordering meals at restaurants, having very simple chats.

Enough to sometimes understand what some note or WeChat message is probably about. (WeChat has a “Translate” function, too, which often helps a lot!)

It’s also exhausted as soon as I actually need to pay for some utilities, for example. (That is hidden somewhere in those apps, needs the payment systems set up, so I still have another excuse for that.)

Anything more than a basic chat, and I don’t understand anything anymore. Or if I understand anything, I still can’t answer…

How Much Chinese Matters when Living in China…

Look at Where’s Poppy? and TravelLight, and you’ll see that it’s quite possible to travel through China with pretty much zero Chinese.

In fact, the Chinese these two girls have tried to learn may easily be more of a hindrance; if you don’t get the tones right from the start, through some good teaching, it ends up like that…

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing them; Chinese is not easy and the despair when you think you’ve learnt some of it but still get something wrong and aren’t understood is real. I still experience it often enough myself!)

Check out Blondie in China, though, and you’ll see that a great command of Chinese does make for an easier life and greater insight.

Living in China is less nice, of course, when you don’t have a good command of the Chinese language. It doesn’t make travel or life impossible, though. And this is good motivation to learn more!

… and Where It Matters

Where this language barrier is the most relevant for someone who’s just a traveler is in interactions with rather bureaucratic systems.

Picking up a train ticket is so easy and efficient nowadays, for example – if you are a Chinese with a Chinese ID card.

Otherwise, you will need to line up at the ticket window to pick up your ticket. And things can get a bit awkward between the service person’s likely lack of English and one’s own lack of Chinese.

(The common advice applies, though: Get things written down, printed out, screenshot on your phone, in Chinese. It will help!)

People and Behaviors

“People are people.”
“I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”

That such statements were made by people mainly living within their own societies, with little exposure to others, becomes quite apparent when you get to living in China.

I have encountered quite enough friendly people. Sometimes in peculiar ways, like the woman who visited a tourist site in rural Hunan and immediately found me a rather better attraction for the smartphone video she was making than her surroundings.


In cities like Beijing or Shanghai or Shenzhen, people don’t bat an eyelid at foreigners anymore. In other places, I find myself still getting commented upon and pointed out as “waiguoren” (foreigner/non-Chinese), “Hello“-ed and gaped at.

Then again, there are not only the people who seem to have seen a ghost (sorta literally; guizi, i..e ghost still being a word used for a foreigner).

There are the kids who are being told to be nice and say “Hello” (which, yes, I wish they weren’t but is rather cute).

And – in my case certainly – there are the fellow runners whom one greets in recognition of the shared interest, including some I have started to meet regularly on our common running tracks.

Public Behavior

A bit tougher to handle can be the queuing and not-queuing that happens. Things have become rather better, but if the woman where I go to buy breakfast didn’t recognize me and make sure she gets to me, I’d still be left over among the people who just approach, shout their order, and don’t care about anyone.

What one wouldn’t expect but still gets uncomfortable: When people suddenly hawk up some phlegm and more than likely spit it out somewhere at one’s back, too close for comfort, on the road. Let alone on a train or subway or in a restaurant.

Public and Private

Notions of privacy and private space, inside and out, are still rather different; don’t expect to be left alone, not stared at or curiously inspected, commented upon.

Then again, that also makes for interaction that can be nice, if you yourself adjust.

Oh, the Smoke!

What I find even worse is the smoking… Chinese cigarettes continue to be awful; Chinese men continue to be heavy smokers. And those who smoke will smoke in the office, when they get out of the office, as soon as they are on the move to the toilet, when they feel like it in many a place to eat.

The overall situation with air pollution seems to have become rather better, but this continues to be awful. At least the high speed trains prohibit smoking, unlike the earlier slow ones.

Work Culture?

Work culture and organization is another issue that is – or isn’t – different, of course. Living in China means working in China, most likely.

Yet, I don’t want to go there now as well, though, and I can’t say if my example would be particularly telling. Like everywhere, work cultures seem to differ quite strongly between companies, anyways.

The Different Issues: Food, Flats,…

You may be surprised that I do not mention differences in foods or accommodation while talking about living in China. These are not really my issues, or issues I find as bad as some people love to comment.

Chinese Bathrooms

Yes, your bathroom is likely to have a squat toilet, and you’ll shower in basically the same place. That’s different, but one gets used to it.

I have, of course, promptly broken off the attachment that kept the shower head on the wall. Now, I have to hold it myself when I shower. As so often, the metal used for that was so flimsy, and so sensitive to rust, when I tried to adjust the shower head the third time, it all just broke instead.

Oh well.


The food? Well, that’s actually what I’m used to, what I have been cooking myself, and what I am in China for!

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  1. Jim Skibo

    Fascinating! So, do you commute back to Austria at all now or are you “there” for the duration?

    • Will be back in November… and then we need to see how much I should be where. Trying to minimize flights…

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