Living Abroad in China with Barbara & Stuart Strother

1. Are there any local customs that a newcomer to China should be aware of?

A few key customs that come to mind include receiving a business card with two hands and treating it as a valuable item, being aware of the fact that there is a particular protocol on where to sit at group dinners (wait until the host shows you the chair you should take), and not leaving your chopsticks pointing straight up in your food, which resembles incense sticks and is therefore associated with funerals and therefore death. There are really too many customs to mention, but the good news is that the Chinese are very forgiving when it comes to ignorant foreigners. They don’t expect you to know all their traditions, but they’ll be honored and impressed if you do.

2. Making local friends is a great way to assimilate to living in a new country. What’s the best way to meet new people in China?

It’s quite easy to strike up conversations with people in China. The Chinese are often very curious about foreigners, so a foreigner who wants to chat is quite welcomed. I’ve made friends with taxi drivers who were simply curious about my life. Of course this is easier to do if you speak some Chinese; even if your language skills are rudimentary, they’ll celebrate your attempt. So the simple answer is to just be friendly and talkative. But the best advice is to learn Chinese, practicing it everywhere you go. When it comes to establishing deeper friendships with acquaintances and coworkers in China, the Chinese culture revolves around food. Friendships are built around shared meals and drinks. Inviting a few co-workers to join you for an evening at a hotpot restaurant is a great way to show you’re interested in building friendships. Just don’t forget that whoever does the inviting also does the ordering and the paying.

3. What do you consider essential items to pack before moving to China? Are there any things you just can’t find?

What to pack greatly depends on what part of the country you’ll be living in. If you’re moving to Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong, you’ll be able to find most everything you’re looking for, though sometimes it does take some searching. But if you’re moving to a smaller city with few expatriates, you’ll need to pack much more—or plan on occasional trips to the big cities to get what you need. Nonetheless, here are a few hard-to-get items to consider bringing along: books, board games, holiday items, your favorite spices, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, deodorant, plenty of undergarments and shoes if you’re much less petite than the Chinese, and perhaps most importantly, personal items that will get you through those occasional homesick days, like photos, hobbies, your favorite movies, or other ways to relax.

4. Should someone moving to China find housing before they leave or look around upon arrival? Are there any great housing resources to be aware of?

Typically it’s best to wait until you’re there to do your searching. Real estate agents can be a big help, taking you around to see multiple properties, regardless of whether you want a villa or an apartment to buy or to rent. The biggest cities with large expat populations also have property websites in English for you to do some online searching on your own. If you can’t find an English website for the city you’ll be living in, there will likely be good resources in Chinese (like www.5i5j.com or www.soufun.com, which cover multiple cities). If you don’t read any Chinese, get a bilingual friend to help, use an online translator, or simply work on recognizing the housing-related Chinese characters on your own. Of course you don’t need to read Chinese to peruse the listing photos.

5. What’s the best way to manage your money in China?

Go local. Eat the local food, enjoy local transportation and housing, and limit your partying. The more you require the comforts of things like American food and imported beer and a housing complex that caters to foreigners, the quicker you’ll see your money evaporate. On the other hand, if you’re trying to make a small budget go a long way and you don’t mind sacrifices, China can be an incredible bargain.

6. When moving to China, what are the initial costs? How much money should you set aside in order to make the move?

Usually foreigners moving to China do not need large budgets because most are going to take a job there, whether teaching English (where the school provides your plane ticket and furnished housing) or working in corporate or government positions (with the accompanying moving budgets provided through their employer). Students who will be studying in China will have inexpensive dorm housing provided. If for some reason you don’t fall into one of these categories and are on your own financially, you’ll need to bring several months rent to get into an apartment, which will be your biggest expense in the first months. Look at the online housing websites for your destination city to estimate how much you’ll be spending in rent, which can vary significantly from one city to the next. If you have children that you plan to enroll in an international school, usually you need to budget around US $25,000 per kid per year, though often employers cover this as well.

7. In which fields is it easier for a foreigner to secure a job? Any tips on getting hired?

The easiest job you can get as a foreigner in China is teaching English. You’ll need to have completed a Bachelor’s degree, but it mostly doesn’t matter what subject you studied or if you have any teaching experience. Again, this differs greatly from one place to the next since the nicest places to live and work will be more competitive in their requirements. Check the many ESL (English as a Second Language) job placement websites online for open positions around the nation.

8. What’s the one thing you wish you would have known about living abroad before you left?

It would have been extremely helpful to have had a book like Moon Living Abroad in China to answer the many questions and confusing situations we came up against, but there wasn’t anything like it back then. There was a lot that we didn’t know before we left, but I wouldn’t change that a bit now. Part of the enchantment of living in a new culture is the continuous opportunity to experience and learn something new every day.

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