A Foreigner's Guide to Surviving in China
January 1, 1970
by Diana Stanislavova
What are the first words that come to mind when someone says China? The mystic land of the East. The land of the clones. The place where Facebook and the likes are blocked and social media are doomed. China is the place with an open door policy expectation and yet, in certain aspects, a rigorously-controlled reality. However, there is a comical side to China, the one that originates from expectations – Asian stereotypes that pervade in the minds of non-Chinese people, and the reality which you get to find out only by coming here and experiencing the full force of culture shock.
Is There Truth Behind the Stereotypes?
All Asians are the same. In a country this big there are many intermingling cultures, languages, and dialects that make it difficult to say that Chinese people, or Asians, are all alike. Stereotypes come from somewhere though, and as a newcomer to China, it is difficult to differentiate whether a person is native to China or from say Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Japan, Korea or the likes. It’s not like the Chinese can differentiate Europeans much better than we can them though.
Often, you are the foreign white girl who can be pretty much from anywhere, if it is not the UK or the US, the likelihood of a Chinese person knowing where you come from is painfully slim. Europeans may as well all look alike and most may even be unheard of, as one bamboozled Chinese demonstrated when he asked my Bulgarian friend: Is your country in Africa? People from nearby countries don’t get it much better; many people from Kazakhstan get mistaken for being Chinese by Chinese people. Don’t you speak Chinese? But how can this be, you look like one of us? A look of horror crosses their face.
Be Careful with Your Finances in China
The Chinese have a love-hate relationship with foreigners. They hate you how? You dismount your flight and enter the airport for the first time eager to venture out, but in China ladies and gents, a peaceful airport exit is impossible. Taxi drivers will slither toward you and attack. Their goal? To criminally rip you off by charging you anything from triple onwards of the actual price of the taxi fare, for example, the average fare from Wuhan Tianhe International Airport to Wuhan University is 125RMB. I nearly got badgered into taking a savage 425 but haggled them down to 250, whereas, my friend wasn’t so lucky and got taken for a murderous 700RMB (murderous to a student’s broke pocket, that is).
Chinese taxi drivers have supposedly had misgivings and trust issues with foreigners, for example, a customer says they have the money in their house, leave the car and don’t return. That’s a fair enough concern, but this cannot be the story that excuses every cabbie. You go for a night out with your mates, you are dolled up, pumped, but alas your groove is crushed by the taxi drivers. They see a group of eager twenty-something-year-olds and flee. It can be next to impossible to get a taxi here, even if you do speak the language. They seem to hate foreigners because of the language barrier. You come to their country and don’t know a word of Chinese, maybe that’s not your fault, maybe you have never studied it before, maybe you are a first-time traveler, but a Chinese person’s patience is thin.
So, if you stand there for longer than five seconds when choosing which sauce to put on your rice or where to input the coins in the ticket machine on the bus be prepared to get shouted at. You can’t communicate clearly, too bad. Make up your mind swiftly. Even if you speak the language, communication still seems futile, Chinese people can still act as if you’re speaking a different language.
The Chinese are a proud people – they like to have their way, a seemingly aggressive people – screaming is a must; basically, they can seem bonkers which can be off-putting if you are not used to it (if spiciness was a marker of culture shock, then be ready for a kick of the most pungent chili because culture here differs radically and spicy food is a staple), but the bonkers factor can also make for an adventure. China is a place to enjoy and to embrace for all its oddities.
Chinese People Love Foreign Friends
Here comes the love part of the relationship. The Chinese like to have foreigners in their midst. If a university sport’s club has a European person then it is sure to attract more people to sign up. If you show up to a club with your international friends be sure that you can find a group of Chinese people who are more than willing to buy you drinks all night just to make friends and practice their Chinglish with you. With a non-existent or minimal proficiency in Chinese, good luck navigating that conversation. It may be a challenge, but one you should face head-on because Chinese people are eager to make friends so be sure to return the favour.
Like when I along with my international classmates from Wuhan University took a weekend trip to Yichang we spent the day exploring the city and going full-tourist mode at the famous sight of the Three Gorges (you can take a train from Wuchang or Hankou Railway Station to Yichang East which is around a two hour train ride that will cost you from 150-300RMB depending on the time you choose to travel and the seat type – regular seat, or hard/soft sleeper). After a tiresome day out we decided to unwind and sing our foreign little hearts out at KTV – a karaoke bar that can be found in any corner of China. Our international horde – one German boy, two Dutch boys, one Finnish boy, three French girls, and me, a resident of the UK with Russian roots – intended to take the lift up to the third floor where the KTV is, but the lift shook suddenly and some dust from the ceiling fluttered down onto me and I screamed. We experienced a mini-earthquake in the lift and got stuck between the second and third floors – I wasn’t sure we would make it out.
At last, we made it into KTV, rented a room for 300RMB for two hours, and got our jam on. We were about to leave, when the owner shoved us into his room; we spent the rest of the night taking turns, at first blaring out Western songs and then letting our Chinese comrades take over and sing Chinese songs we’ve never heard of to their heart’s content. A night of horror turned exciting by a Chinese man’s hospitality and willingness to converse with foreigners. Our Chinese host was in love with the Netherlands – kept on insisting that he wants to move there with his family one day – so my Dutch friends and he chatted feverishly about the country using a plethora of translation apps.
Be Ready to be Photographed Endlessly
However, be warned, sometimes Chinese people are friendly in a welcoming manner but, at other times, they are manic paparazzi pursuing a celebrity, they are excited children photographing a caged zoo animal. If you have the appearance of a European, Chinese people tend to fawn over you, blue eyes, blond hair, and you’re tall? That’s it, you’re in for it. Hordes of excited people will shove cameras in your face like you have never experienced before. This one is hard to classify as a love or hate. When no one asks permission to take a picture of you, then a hate, when they ask for a selfie with you and inquire about who you are and where you’re from, then a love. On the trip to Yichang, Chinese girls muttered excitedly over our handsome Dutch and Finish boys that travelled with us and crowded around them – none of us could escape the photoshoot.
Ergo Chinese people seem to love and hate us the same way we may love and hate them, so the simplest piece of advice is to be cautious. Come to China, by all means, experience the culture for yourself, but be smart about it, do your research, maybe meet a Chinese person and ask them what it’s like, buy a phrase book, don’t believe stereotypes – decide for yourself. And, above all, come with an open mind.