When in Rome, do as the Romans do. China may be a far cry from the hometown of wine and pizza, but the saying still applies – if you want to make the most out of being in an exciting new environment, make sure you immerse yourself fully in the local way of life. If you’re already in China, it’s likely that you’ve met two very different types of foreigners; there are the ones who move around the city with ease, can act as your translator whenever you are together, and generally seem to be getting more out of their time in China; and then there are those who very rarely leave their expat-friendly complex, unless they are heading to Element Fresh or Wagas. Without a doubt, any person who can muster up the courage to begin a brand new life in China deserves two gigantic thumbs up, but if you’re finding it a little difficult to fully immerse yourself in this very foreign culture, we may just have a few tips to help you along.
1. Learn Chinese
Number one on the list, and it’s a big one. Nobody will try to fool you into thinking that Mandarin is an easy language to learn, but if anyone tells you that it isn’t worth the effort, they’re either hideous liars, or have made a big mistake. Undoubtedly, just learning a few basic phrases will allow you to visit parts of the country that would otherwise be eons out of your comfort zone but nothing compares to being fluent in a language. By really learning Chinese, you suddenly realise that the woman on the street who shouts at you every morning, has simply been saying ‘good morning’, and not hurling obscenities; taxi journeys will no longer be limited to what address you can find pre-translated into Chinese characters on SmartShanghai; and most importantly, you open yourself to making local friends who can’t speak English. As with any other language, learning Chinese is not only a matter of translating what you know in English into something that locals can understand; it is also a gateway to discovering how people of a culture interact with one another, understanding the values of a vast nation, and unveiling the history of a people. Open your phrasebook, and you will find that the world is your oyster. Just be careful with your pronunciation.
2. Get out of the big cities
It is no secret that living in China’s big cities is a million times easier than living outside of them. It isn’t hard to figure out why Shanghai has the highest number of inhabitant ‘foreigners’ when compared to other Chinese cities- the expat community has been growing for decades, with the trendsetters who moved here back in the 1900s bringing the foundations of familiarizing the unfamiliar, and setting up restaurants and stores to remind you of, and even rival, the ones at home. Following this, it is far too easy to stay in your bubble of ease, and never truly get down to the nitty-gritty of the real China. For anyone not quite ready to get out to rural China on their own, the Dragon Trip offers a range of trips, which take you around China’s top sites, as well as some real off-the-beaten-path destinations.
3. Don’t be afraid to try new foods
Solidified duck blood? Cow stomach? Tarantulas on sticks? Start preparing yourself for some odd meals, because this is one way to really get down with the locals. Not only will you be trying something you would be considered a savage for eating at home (is that not reason enough to do it?), but you’ll also get to understand the basic motivation behind such strange food choices. Go to dinner with a local, and ask them to introduce the specialities of their hometown. Why do Chinese people eat dog? Because it is considered a ‘warming’ food – something they definitely need up in Northern China. Why are duck intestines on the menu in Sichuan hotpot restaurants? Because Sichuan province was historically badly hit by famines, and every last bite of food – and we mean every last bite – was cooked and savoured. Step away from Wagas, and prepare your taste buds for one heck of a ride.
4. Make friends with locals
When you are in a city where you might feel out of place, and, if we’re honest, probably a little homesick, there is no shame in finding comfort in what you know. With some of the largest and most tight-knit expat communities existing in Shanghai and Beijing, it’s a cinch to get together with someone from home with whom you may feel an instant connection to, based on a shared longing for imported food. It is, however, a huge shame to miss out on the ins and outs of the country you have moved to based on sticking to what is easier. Get out of your comfort zone, use your WeChat shake-to-meet function, and don’t be afraid of being laughed at – you might just find a whole new world open up right before your eyes. The difference between people who make the effort to become a part of the Chinese community, and the people who would rather stick with fellow expats is clear to see in how much they enjoy their experience in China, and how much they really learn about the culture. Chances are, if you could pronounce all of your friends’ names the first time you met them, you’re doing it wrong.
5. Party like a local
Because there is nothing quite like cramming 20 people into a small room, giving them two microphones and plenty of alcohol, and letting them loose on a large-scale version of SingStar. And, KTV, or Chinese karaoke, is just one of the late-night entertainment options available if you want to party it up China-style. If you have ever accidentally wandered through the looking-glass into a real Chinese club, you’ll know that they are nothing like clubs in the west. Empty dance floors, people sleeping (or, should we say, passed out) around buckets filled to the brim with Moet champagne, lasers shone around certain clumps of people to advertise their wealth. If you really want to get off-the-beaten-expat-path, shun the Westernized, bar-lined streets (we’re looking at you, Yongkang Lu) and head to the glitzy, over-the-top wonderlands like Shanghai’s Mook.
Source: Teaching Nomad, Dragon Tip