Dealing with culture shock in China


IF YOU ARE LIKE most foreigners in China, you will inevitably experience culture shock and sometimes homesickness. Maybe a certain person will annoy you, maybe you will grow weary of disorganization of some sort, or maybe you will just miss your friends and family back home. In this section, I give you some ways of dealing culture shock and how to combat it effectively.

One of the best ways of combating culture shock is to make your apartment a place you look forward to going home to. Most places I have lived in China have generally been in a good location with nice amenities as far as Chinese apartments go. Decorate the interior of your apartment with things that remind you of home or make you comfortable. At the same time you do not want to be overly reliant on these little comforts because if you are, you may not ever adapt and integrate into the Chinese culture.

Some things I recommend are warm lighting, a DVD player, a nice rug, some art to hang on the walls, and pictures of family and friends. Other conveniences that may also help include a George Foreman grill, XBOX or other gaming system, and musical instruments if you are musically inclined. Also, spend extra money on some foods that are a little more expensive in China that may remind you of home, such as different cereals. You will be able to buy most of the above in China at shopping malls, music stores, or shops selling artwork.


One skill all successful expats living in China develop is their ability to be patient and go with the flow. You will experience moments when you want things to be like they are back home. Maybe a class is cancelled with no prior notice and you show up to no students in class. Maybe you make plans to go exploring in the mountains of Sichuan, but when you get to the bus station you are told no foreigners are allowed to leave the city for certain areas of the province during the holiday. Or maybe someone remarks that you are fat for the third time in a single day—the Chinese views about being overweight are very different than in some countries and it’s not taboo to say someone is fat.

Yes, you may be justified in getting angry and judging the ways things are as feeble. And you may be right. It’s okay to get a bit angry and worked up, and don’t pretend like something uncomfortable didn’t happen if it did. But one of your best allies will be being patient and waiting. Learn to avoid situations that cause too much discomfort.

When in China, I try to never go to the supermarket or shopping mall on weekends because there are too many people and it gets loud and crowded. If I know a particular restaurant is notorious for making different food from what I order, I stay away from it. If one of my colleagues is a jerk, I stay away from him or her.

From time to time, you may also need to follow a system that seems backward in order to get what you want. Train tickets are only sold a couple weeks before the departure date and so this may make planning trips ahead of time difficult or nerve racking at times. Your school might not tell you your class schedule until the day before classes. You will wonder why you get paid in cash and why the school doesn’t just deposit money directly into your account. Whatever the seemingly strange and inefficient system is, don’t get worked up about it, go with it.

Embrace ambiguity and you will go far. Living in China teaches you to be comfortable with not knowing. It’s not only the foreigners who don’t know what’s going on. The Chinese people don’t know either. Everything is changing too quickly.


You probably don’t need me to tell you, but calling your friends and family back home is also a good way to combat culture shock and homesickness. Although you may have many good Chinese friends, speaking with them is not the same as speaking with someone from your home country. You will be able to vent a little to them, but don’t expect them to understand what you are going through. They probably haven’t had that type of experience to know what you are feeling.

I usually use Skype to call home since it is free from computer to computer and very cheap (2 US cents a minute) to call a cell phone.


If you haven’t figured this out by now, you should. Complaining doesn’t change anything, it brings others down and it drains a lot of energy. When I hear foreigners complaining to each other in China, I typically stay away. If my closest foreign friends are complaining too much, I limit our interactions to hanging out only once or twice a week. People whining and complaining around you will kill your mood.

Complaining is definitely warranted sometimes and you should feel free to complain to your close foreign or Chinese friends when it’s really needed, but don’t make a habit of it. Complaining about China with fellow expats may be an easy way to bond, but the cost is high.


Watching or reading your home country’s news is probably not something you would immediately think of when you are experiencing heavy culture shock or homesickness. However, it is one of the best techniques.

Hearing about what the Republicans are doing to attack the Democrats or what the Democrats are doing to the Republicans for five minutes is usually enough for me to feel excellent relative to my present circumstance in China. Watching a car commercial or hearing about a reality TV show will also help.

Reading stories about life back home or even hearing how slow life is in comparison with China will make me feel much better about being in China. Even dropping an email to a friend for news of home and hearing that nothing very exciting is going on makes me happy. I know I am not missing out and that my present situation is okay.

You are trying to experience what life back home is like without being there. For me, the news and talking to people always helped me remember how mundane and routine life back home usually was in comparison with life in China. Learning about life back home will put everything back into perspective, and you probably won’t feel homesick for very long.


Returning to your home country once a year will keep life in China fresh. From time to time you might feel that you are missing out on life back home, but I assure you, at least if you live in the United States, not that much is changing.

Leaving China for a while will keep it interesting, and when you come back you will be reenergized. After being in China for a year or two without leaving you will probably have the feeling of “I need to get out of here!”, and leaving for a month or two before returning will be a good thing. Going to Hong Kong for a mini retreat to escape the craziness from time to time is also a good idea.


Many people out there may groan when they think about moving to China and then hanging out with other expats. While I can understand this sentiment and certainly spend much more time with Chinese friends overall than I do my fellow expat brothers and sisters, living in a country as different as China, with its cultural and linguistic differences, definitely necessitates having a support group of other foreigners you can rely on who can empathize with you when you are having a rough day.

Your foreign friends will be some of your best companions on your journey in China. The best year I experienced in China was because I had two foreign friends who were down to earth that I could hang out with on a regular basis. None of us complained too much, and when we needed someone to talk to we had each other for support.

You don’t need to be best friends with the foreigners you hang out with, but it’s generally a good thing to have someone to talk to and hang out with who is also having their own “China experience.”

In general, foreigners can be found in the nicer places around the city: Starbucks, Burger King, authentic foreign restaurants, foreign bars, Chinese language schools, hostels, universities, English training centers. There are generally foreigners about in any first, second, or third tier cities. The only time you may be out of luck is if the city is smaller than these and there isn’t anything foreign there. Below is a list of where to meet other foreigners in China.


A city’s foreignness can also be measured by the number of Starbucks in the city. The ratio of Starbucks to foreigners is positively correlated and linear though the exact ratio is still unknown. You can usually spot a foreigner or two at any given time at Starbucks. The staff can also usually speak English and might also have ideas on where foreigners hang out in the city.

University Campuses

University Campuses

If you are new to the city, it might be a good idea to have a local friend tell you where different universities can be found. If you are teaching, at least a few of your students may even know some foreigners they can introduce to you.

Otherwise, if you simply hang around a university or college campus you will probably spot a foreigner eventually. As he or she is likely in the same boat you, in addition to being a friend, they would be a valuable source of information as to where in the city you might be able to meet other foreigners.

Foreign Bars

Foreign Bars

Foreign bars are a surefire way of meeting a lot of interesting people from all over the world.

“I said my goodbyes to my family when I first came to China, telling them I’d be back in a year. I’ve now lived here eleven years,” a Canadian I met one of my first weeks in China told me while at Friend’s Club, a foreign bar that’s been in Zhongshan almost as long.

“As a kid, I traveled around the Sahara desert for ten years making three circuits in total,” I overheard a Moroccan telling a colleague of mine at a bar.

If you want to meet a lot of people with interesting back stories you can find them here.

Authentic Foreign Restaurants

Because they are rare in many cities, foreigners will flock to authentic foreign restaurants. Restaurants such as these are usually Italian or Mexican; a good Indian restaurant will also attract many foreigners and is my favorite choice for where to eat in Zhongshan and whenever possible.

A note on finding authentic foreign restaurants: many restaurants claim to be “Western” and this is usually a sign that it is a Chinese-style restaurant, which usually does not have any authentic foreign food. A duped foreigner (we’ve all been there) might be hanging about hoping for something Western at such an establishment so you might be able to find one at these types of places.

Nice Hotels

The swankiest hotel in the city may have some foreigners, but even if it does they are likely there on business and know less about the city than you do. Thus, they may not be the best person to ask about the city, though they still could be good for blowing off steam or sharing a drink if that’s what you need at the moment.

Chinese Language Schools

Chinese language schools are a great place to meet other foreigners since they are the sole clients of such establishments. Furthermore, if you are studying Chinese at a place like this you would have that in common with the other foreigners and therefore could make friends without needing to randomly approach them in a bar or restaurant.

Chinese language schools, along with bars and hostels, also usually put on different types of events (especially during Western holidays), where many foreigners will socialize together.


The majority of cities in China will not have a hostel in them, but if you are living in a tourist city such as Beijing or somewhere like Hangzhou or Yangshuo, there will be lots of opportunities to meet backpackers and travelers of all kinds at hostels.

Resources for Finding Other Foreigners

Below are a few social networking websites that will also be valuable for making foreign friends.

Guangzhou Stuff (
A website designed to help English speakers in and around Guangzhou meet each other.

Shanghai Stuff (

A website designed to help English speakers in and around Shanghai meet each other.

Beijing Stuff (
A website designed to help English speakers in and around Beijing meet each other.

The Beijinger (
A website for foreigners containing everything you might like to know about Beijing. There are travel and restaurant recommendations, classifieds, and more.

Shanghaiist (
This is a China news website which caters to foreigners.

Shanghai Expat (
This is a forum for foreigners living in and around Shanghai.

EChina Cities (
This website has everything from articles on how to do something such as find an international school for your kids to city profiles.

Lost Laowai (
This is a website offering advice to expats living in China.

Keywords: China Expat,expat in china,learn Chinese ,Chinese culture ,China jobs ,China travel, 外国人在中国

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