15 Biggest Culture Shocks When Moving to China

Guilin, China

Congratulations: you’re considering the move to China and have made it this far in your research! But, you can’t help but feel reluctant, apprehensive, and/or nervous. What is the world like there? Will it be clean? Will the people like me or hate me? Will the culture-shock be too much for me to handle?

These are all relevant questions to ask yourself. It is totally okay to be a little nervous or even terrified about going. I know I certainly was before I moved here!

China is, in short, an entirely different place than anywhere in the Western part of the world. As an American, for me, China, its culture, people, food, infrastructure, attitudes, language, cleanliness, hygiene, celebrations, and almost everything else are vastly different from back home. I’ve also traveled to many other Western countries and still, China is completely different from them, too.

But that’s okay. If you’re up for an adventure, come to China. If you’re laidback and can really “go with the flow,” come to China. If you want to experience a country and culture unlike any you’ve ever experienced before, come to China!

Since moving to China in August of this year, I’ve found there are a lot of things here that people in the West wouldn’t ever imagine happening to them in their home country.

Without further ado, here is my list of the 10 biggest culture-shocks in China for a Westerner!

  1. The Food

I know what you may be thinking. “My home country has Chinese food. I eat it all the time. I know what to expect.”

Like I said, China is different from anywhere in the West, so yes, that includes their food. You’ve never had Chinese food unless you’ve actually visited China. Otherwise, you’ve had another country’s idea of Chinese food.

I used to eat TONS of “Chinese” food back in the States— and I loved it! But, it was so heavy, greasy, and salty, it often made me feel like absolute crap afterwards.

Chinese food in China, however, isn’t quite like that. There are tons of options to choose from— and there are different kinds of Chinese food depending on the province. For example, in Sichuan province, they have some of the spiciest food in the world. In Guangdong (where I live), the food is apparently more “bland” (I don’t think so, though) and they often eat soup. In Beijing, they tend to eat tons of noodles and their famous roasted duck.

This is culture-shocking because the food is very different from the food in the West— it’s packed with flavor! Oh, and it’s mostly cheap as hell.

Chinese food can also be a bit…strange to a foreigner. They eat anything and everything an animal can give them. I’ve eaten and seen other people here eating chicken feet (very common!), pig feet, duck head, duck tongues, some insects, intestines, stomach— I could go on and on!

Chicken foot

However, you need to be selective with the places you eat. Some places prepare food with unhygienic practices (more on that later), so you can’t just eat anywhere you want— unless you want food poisoning! So, just stick to the places with many people and the ones that seem clean-ish.

2. The Pollution

Every time I mentioned to people that I was moving to China, I constantly got this response: “Aren’t you worried about dying from the pollution over there?!” Or, at least something of the like.

Bottom line: yes, China has more pollution than anywhere else I’ve ever been— Western country or not. But, in Shenzhen specifically, the city where I live, it isn’t that debilitating. Most days, it’s actually labeled “good air quality.” However, sometimes, it can be moderate or even labeled “unhealthy air quality.” On those days, I do tend to have a bit of a headache. But, it’s advised to stay more so indoors on those days. Otherwise, the pollution doesn’t do much else to me!

But, keep in mind, Shenzhen is not the same as other cities in the country. For example, in Beijing, pollution is very bad. You need to be more cautious when going outside. Some days the pollution is so unhealthy, school gets cancelled!

Imagine that. Instead of a “snow day,” you get a “pollution day!”

3. Garbage and Lack of Recycling

One thing that really shocked me when moving to China was the loads of garbage everywhere and recycling— or lack thereof. People will throw garbage on the ground without a second thought. Recycling? Ha! They’ve never heard of it.

In Shenzhen, there are garbage bins around the city labelled for “recyclable” and “non-recyclable.” However, don’t let those labels fool you. A quick glance in those bins (gross, I know) and you’ll notice anything and everything is in both. And the trash collectors? They just throw everything into the same dumpster.

And so do the citizens. Recycling just doesn’t exist in China. Yes, you’re imagining correctly: 1.4 billion people don’t recycle.

Sorry, Earth…

4. The Bathrooms and Plumbing

Traditionally, people in China have used squatter toilets for forever (yes, the ones that are basically a hole in the ground). Therefore, there are far more squatter toilets in China than there are Western toilets. In my school, for example, there are mostly squatter toilets. In the entire school, there is only one Western toilet— and I’m lucky with just the one. Most people I know who work in schools in Shenzhen don’t have any Western toilets available!

Also, when going out on the town to bars and restaurants, almost all have just squatter toilets (except for most Western bars and restaurants). Be forewarned— you will have to do a #2 in more than just one squatty potty during your time in China!

Also, the plumbing is shit (heh heh). Due to that fact, you have to throw your dirty toilet paper into the trash can next to the toilet instead of into the toilet because, yes, 92% of the time it will clog the toilet.

Word of advice: always carry tissues and hand sanitizer!

5. The people are friendly…and stare-y

Now for a bit of good news: Chinese people are extremely friendly and generous! At least, that’s been my experience and I don’t speak much Chinese, so I don’t really know what they’re saying. But, based on their actions mostly, the people in China tend to be very curious about you and really want to get to know you, your culture, your country, and what you enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis. They often enjoy showering you with gifts, even ones that aren’t warranted by a holiday.

Me with some Chinese teachers from my school who have become my friends— and love spoiling me with free dinners!

Me with some Chinese teachers from my school who have become my friends— and love spoiling me with free dinners!

But, they do also stare— a lot. When moving to China, be prepared: all eyes are on you— always. Be prepared for people to constantly be snapping photos of you as well!

Just me with one of my classes after making Halloween masks!

Just me with one of my classes after making Halloween masks!

6. Light skin triumphs all

As I mentioned in point #4, I’ve experienced that Chinese people are overall friendly and generous. However, you should know that I’m a Caucasian American female. I really can’t speak for those people who move to China who have darker skin or are from a different country. Chinese people tend to look down on those who have darker skin because, to them, that means you work out in the fields, which implies you are poor and therefore, inferior. They believe in this so much that, when walking around outside—even for a few seconds—the women always have umbrellas covering themselves as to avoid any direct sunlight and a possible tan.

**Please keep in mind I am not trying to excuse their sometimes racist behaviors. I just want you to be aware of their rationale going in.**

But, I have met a ton of darker-skinned foreigners living and working here who all seem to be generally happy while doing so. So don’t be too scared to come to China because of this! It should be an overall good experience, even if you are darker-skinned.

7. The sometimes downright backwards and head-scratching beliefs

I’m lumping a few things into this very important category. Chinese people as a whole believe in things that people in the West would say are—for lack of a better term—bullshit.

Here are just a few examples:

—Believing pregnancy is possible when men and women share the same washing machines

—Not eating meat because you have a cold

—Never drinking cold water and always drinking warm water because it’s “healthy,” even on blisteringly hot and humid days

—Putting the A/C on, but leaving windows and doors open because they “need fresh air”

—Constantly spitting, even in public, because it “is good for the body to get it out.”

—Drinking hot water cures anything and everything

And I’m sure there are many more, but you get the picture.

8. Lack of basic hygienic practices

During my time here, I’ve noticed that Chinese people really don’t understand hygiene or the transmission of germs and illnesses— at all. They tend to make themselves sick just because they’re not paying attention or really know any better.

Here are some of my favorite (or really, least favorite) unhygienic practices:

—Not washing their hands with soap and water after using the restroom (the school I work in doesn’t provide any soap in the bathrooms)

—Not providing toilet paper for people in most public bathrooms. In my school, they don’t provide toilet paper for the students (I really don’t like to think about what they do in those bathrooms and what they do with their hands when they’re done).

—Throwing used toilet paper in the trash can next to the toilet and not the toilet itself (as I mentioned, the plumbing is poor in China, so that part makes sense, but that is very unhygienic)

—SPITTING. Chinese people CONSTANTLY SPIT anywhere and everywhere.

—Coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths

—When eating food with bones or other things they can’t eat, they simply spit them out onto their plates

There are some gross things that people do in China, but, when you’re grossed out, remember: it’s a different place and different culture. And bringing hand sanitizer with you everywhere you go certainly helps!

9. There are a lot of people and no personal space

In the whole country, there are 1.4 billion people. That is one hell of a population! Therefore, numerous cities are jam-packed with millions of people. So, Chinese people are used to being in close-quarters with other people. If you plan on moving to a Tier-1 city (Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou), be ready to be surrounded by people at most times. And be ready to have almost no personal space!

I take the metro (aka subway) every day to work. When I do, it’s unfortunately rush hour, so I am literally squeezed between tons of people every day. And when I need to get out of the metro? I have to aggressively push and shove my way out.

It’s a mess, but it makes life and my commute interesting to say the least!

On top of that, everyone is a “close-talker” (for my fellow Seinfeld fans!). They just tend to have no idea of what personal space is and they’ll just come right into your “bubble” without a second thought. Be wary of that!

A street market in Shenzhen, China

A street market in Shenzhen, China

10. Cockroaches, cockroaches, cockroaches

This has a lot to do with the two previous points: there are cockroaches almost everywhere in China, especially in the bigger and more Southern cities (due to the climate). It is commonplace to find cockroaches crawling around in your apartment, in the restaurant you’re eating at, in the bar you’re drinking at, at your job, in schools, in bathrooms, in kitchens, everywhere.

When finding an apartment, try to pick one that is newer and cleaner. If you happen to move into a place with cockroaches, don’t be too surprised. Just go to a shop and buy some cockroach killers, like traps, powder, and spray. Then, kill them all. And be sure to keep your place as clean as possible and never leave food out. You should then be fine!

Cockroach

11. Almost non-existent English

China has only recently become more accepting to and of the Western world, so they’ve only recently starting learning and teaching English. Because of that, a majority of the people here do not speak English. The only people that know a little English are the children and their Chinese English teachers, but that’s about it. You can rarely find Chinese people who speak English, but for the most part, people don’t. So, be prepared to face a pretty big language barrier!

But, that could be interesting, too, if you want to learn Chinese! I’m learning Chinese in order to communicate with people here. I’ve only learned a little bit, but even that little bit has already proven to be extremely helpful. And if you don’t, you could always use a translating app!

A too-funny translation on China’s Amazon called Taobao

A too-funny translation on China’s Amazon called Taobao

12. The Internet: “The Great Firewall of China” and inconsistent connection

I’ve discovered that while being here, the WiFi and internet in general are very fickle. Sometimes, the Internet is extremely fast! But then, not even a moment later, it completely stops working and is unusable. And that’s very common almost anywhere and everywhere here.

But, what is the Great Firewall? In China, Western social media sites and other websites are blocked for everyone, Websites we use in the Western world daily, like Google, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, are all unavailable. Fortunately, though, there is a way to bypass this “Great Firewall”: a VPN.

A VPN, or a Virtual Private Network, basically blocks where you really are and makes it look like you’re in a different country or city virtually. With a VPN (we recommend ExpressVPN and here are 30 days free), you can use those blocked websites we all know and love while in China! A VPN costs money, of course, but it is 150% worth it.

What happens when you try to go on a site like Facebook without a VPN in China

What happens when you try to go on a site like Facebook without a VPN in China

13. Endless Opportunities Everywhere

China is booming right now. The economy is skyrocketing and the country is really unsure of what to do with all its newfound money! Because of this, the country is jam-packed with opportunities, for both locals and foreigners.

As a foreigner especially, you can easily find a regular job (teaching English in public schools is what we do and it’s incredible) and even more easily find side jobs. For example, I privately tutor four 3rd graders for 1.5 hours a week for 600 RMB, which is about $90 USD! My friend got an acting job in some random Chinese girl’s videos (she has over a million subscribers in China, so she’s a pretty big deal). We both also acted in a commercial all day for $100 each!

Like I said: lots of opportunities for lots of money. China is basically a gold-mine right now!

Me with some of my students at my school

Me with some of my students at my school

14. It is far safer than you might imagine

Being an American, I am continually told by people back home to “be careful” and other warnings because they assume any country besides America is unsafe (but they love to ignore the random and constant shootings that go on everywhere all the time in America, but I digress). Although there are a fair amount of unsafe places to go in the world, China is not one of them. There are no shootings, bombings, terrorist attacks, or really any very dangerous crimes.

Sure, there are petty crimes, like pickpocketing. There’s also a counterfeiting problem, like counterfeit alcohol, food, and other items. There’s also a small stabbing epidemic where people run into schools and stab children (don’t worry: most schools have very strict security now to help combat this issue). Although those are a little scary, they aren’t that dangerous at all and aren’t very common. You are actually more likely to be killed in America than in China!

The crime rate is very low here and, no, the government will not do anything to you (unless you’re an idiot and start riots, you know?). Therefore, China is a very safe place to live.

15. Modern and new vs. traditional and old

As I mentioned earlier, China is booming. In order to keep up with the times, it has been rapidly putting up towering skyscrapers and other modern buildings around the country.

The country also has incredible public transportation. They have fast trains— and the fast train stations look more like airports! The public transportation within cities as well is fast, efficient, clean, and cheap, especially here in Shenzhen.

The metro (subway) in Shenzhen, China

The metro (subway) in Shenzhen, China

What really makes China interesting, though, is that right beside all these modern commodities lies traditional and older things. There are traditional buildings and temples found in most cities. Plenty of run-down buildings, old motorbikes chugging by, older people dragging carts behind them, and so on. It’s wonderful to witness that though China is progressing rapidly, they aren’t leaving behind their traditional ways of life.

Sports Day at my school-- a traditional celebration of sports!

Sports Day at my school-- a traditional celebration of sports!

Lion Dance in China

So far, China has been an incredible experience for me. Living and working here is affordable, comfortable, and always fun. To be honest, though, I’ve heard most people develop a love-hate relationship with China. One day, you can be totally enamored by the country in general. The next day, you absolutely loathe it. But, that’s what makes it interesting. Life is always exciting here in China. I’m never too bored, overworked, or completely uncomfortable. Every day is a new day and often an exciting one.

So what are you waiting for? Move to China already!

Sunset in Shenzhen, China

Sunset in Shenzhen, China


Do you want to move to China? What are some things that worry you about moving to or visiting China?


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15 Biggest Culture Shocks in China
15 Culture Shocks When Moving to China