Michael is an ESL teacher who has lived in Nanjing, China for almost two years now! He shares 10 things he's learned since coming to live and teach in China.
Most people are taken back by some hefty cultural differences that separate the east and west, but after the initial shock fades, you realize that China can (in many ways) be like home. Learning the language isn’t vital to get around, western amenities do exist, and after a few weeks, you’ll get used to the fast pace of living here. In fact, China makes life easier in a myriad of ways, and you’ll find yourself missing the perks of living here when you spend an extended amount of time in western country.
Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, or have any other dietary restrictions or requirements, there’s almost always an option for you. Most restaurants are more than willing to accommodate your needs, and most large cities do have a swath of fruit shops, Walmart’s, and a variety of western markets that sell foods for the local and foreign palettes. It really is that easy to enjoy the same foods you enjoyed in your home country. Furthermore, gyms are scattered across most metropolitan areas, so staying in shape is a absolutely possible while living here.
When you arrive, you’ll be overly enthused to see the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors, but you’ll quickly realize that China is loaded with surreal sites. From Guilin to Shangri La to Sanya, your travel list will grow rapidly, and it will seem like you just don’t have enough time to see all these places. Word of mouth is the best way to find out all the hidden gems this country has to offer. Furthermore, the affordability of it all is astonishing. It hardly cost more than a few hundred to get to even the furthest reaches of China.
A huge kicker of being an expat in China is that you meet people from every corner of the earth. You will make friends from nearly every westernized country and then some. Nearly every nationality exists within the confines of this country, and you’ll certainly make friends for life. Where else can you have friends across every populated continent?
This one is largely connected to the previous point. Through my own experiences, I’ve come to appreciate the diverse perspectives of other expats and the locals. You see how connected we all truly are, and how much we can really learn from each other. Barriers are broken down and ignorance is left by the wayside. Also, the exchange between the foreigners and the Chinese is always an enlightening experience that will continuously expand how you see the world. You will evolve as a person through your time in China.
China is in no short supply of classes you can take or workshops you can attend. Do you want to learn how to strum a guitar properly? Yup, there’s classes for it. Want to take up an ancient martial art like Kung Fu? Yes, that exists too. Maybe you’re interested in painting, writing, meditation, or even dance. For those ambitious expats seeking to expand their reach, the sky is truly the limit as there are classes (in English) for many of these skills/hobbies. And in terms of affordability, you’ll find that classes cost a fraction of the price then they would at home
In case you didn’t know, VPN’s reign supreme in China. Your best bet is to download a few VPN’s before your arrival here, but in case you didn’t come prepared, you’ll still find an option for you. Without having one installed on your PC or mobile device, you’ll find it difficult to stay in contact with anyone unless they are connected to WeChat (an amalgamation of nearly every social media app you can think of). VPN’s are your lifeline to the likes of Google, Facebook, Instagram, and many other resources you’ve likely become accustomed to back in your home country, so come prepared!
Read more: What's a VPN and Why Do I Need One in China?
Although Amazon may not be the go-to online retailer, the country has its own robust retail network in the form of Taobao. You can buy nearly anything you can think of, and it’s built in with a nifty feature that allows you to take a photo of a real-world item to find through the app. Apparel, gadgets, foreign food, and even cars can be purchased. And most of the time, you’ll have your purchase within 2 days delivered directly to your door. It really is a life saver when you can’t seem to find an item that isn’t found in a regular retail store. It can also be a black hole for money, so spend wisely.
Transportation is easy and convenient here. Literally, every method of transport is available for locals and expats a like. Fancy a bike ride? Several mobile applications allow you to rent one of the many bikes littered through the city for only 1 Yuan. Interested in calling a Didi (Chinese Uber)? Then open the app and select anywhere to go to for a fraction of the price you’d pay back home. Are you more of a public commute sort of person? Well, China has those options for you as well as nearly every developed city in the mainland has access to metro systems and public buses. If you’re lucky, and work in a city center, walking is also a convenient option, too.
When it comes to living life as conveniently as possible, China reigns supreme. There’s an app for every smart device and nearly every service you can fathom. Meituan and Elema, food delivery applications, allow you to order a meal in or even get your groceries sent straight to your door. Also, you will undoubtedly have been bitten by the travel bug, so be sure to download Trip.com as your go to source for travel arrangements.
However, the two apps that are crucial during your tenure in China, WeChat and Alipay, are used for virtually everything. You will rely heavily upon these two apps to make purchases, stay connected to friends, rent bicycles, pay your phone bill, and even stay connected traffic updates. These utilitarian apps provide you with anything and everything you’ll need assistance within China.
Mike Santiago is a former First Leap teacher in Nanjing, China. He has worked for First leap for almost 2 years. He's originally from New York. He loves writing, traveling, and film making. You can follow many of his travels on Instagram: @michael.santiago87