China Expat Beginner’s Guide – Adaptation

We all can agree, that being expat in China is not simple.  In this part of the guide we look at our process of adaptation to China and its people.

It doesn’t meter for how long you will live here, 10 years or just one year. It also doesn’t meter whether you know Mandarin or you know just a few words. For chinese people you will always be just a laowai – a stranger from abroad. However, it looks like it doesn’t bother  most of the expats, that we have met here in Xi’an. We have been living in Xi’an already for one year, and as time have passed, we noticed how, little by little, we adjusted to our new environment. It is obvious to us now, that our adaptation came with several realizations and here they are.


Realization #1: You will never understand the thought process of chinese people.

When moving from one western country to another, we still feel comfortable.

We know, or at list can imagine, how people around us are thinking. Two plus two will always be four, so to speak. You can describe the western way of thinking as a straight line. When we came to China, we suddenly lacked this comfort. We’ve realized that their thinking process is more like a curve, and never a straight line.

And the fact that their language is so different from your language only makes the things worse.

Here is one simple example. We asked one of our chinese friends to call some other guy, to find out if he has a job for us as English teachers. Our friend has called and asked, but the other guy never called him back with the answer. As our friend explained to us this is typical behavior. If the answer is positive, the other person will always call you and let you know. But when the answer is negative, the other person will never call back. It is all about this one famous expression – “to lose face”. In simple words it means “to look bad in eyes of the others”.  Remember, chinese people are ready to do anything just not ‘to lose face’.


Realization #2: They all are just people, like me and you.

In any case, locals different cultural background and non-western mentality bothered us  just a first few months. Then came the simple realization, that, after all, the chinese people are just people. We all share similar worries and anxieties,

we all can laugh and cry about the same things. And then one wonderful thing happened – we began to like them without trying to understand them. We just let our suspiciousness and distrust go.  Whew…. What a relief. Now we could enjoy our life in China.

Realization #3:  Always remember these simple facts:

  • this is overpopulated country
  • you look different from all the people around you
  • many people only seldom see a laowai
  • someone will always say “Hello!” to you on the street.


The minimum personal space in western countries is approximately 1 meter (wild guess here). In China personal space can often be equal to zero. It is a usual thing, when someone suddenly can approach us and ask “Where are you from?” in pure Chinese. In some villages people can become very fascinated about the fact, that you have hair on your hands or legs. Don’t be afraid when they will come without warning to touch this hair. They are just trying to check if it is real. Don’t panic. Sooner or later you will get used to this zero personal space rule. It will happen sooner if you will use the chinese public transportation system more often.


ni hao alian

Finally, one sunny morning, our friend Adaptation has come. We’ve noticed that
people around us are actually quite friendly, and always willing to help.
It became obvious to us, that chinese people are much more friendly, then our neighbors back at home.


Final thought

As China will become more developed country, it will attract more and more foreigners. It will become more open to rest of the world, but it doesn’t mean, that it will become more understandable. When you will come here, don’t be annoyed by the fact that you don’t understand chinese people. Just try to like and accept them as they are.


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2 Responses to China Expat Beginner’s Guide – Adaptation

  1. Blah…
    “Realization #1: You will never understand the thought process of chinese people.”

    Trust me, they aren’t that complicated or mysterious. if you can understand the thought processes of a pre-schooler in the West, you can figure out the Chinese… and for anything you can’t figure out, read the right book and the all will be revealed.

    • Hi Kalan!

      Thank you for your advice. By the way, can you recommend some book about thought process of Chinese people? :)
      We didn’t mean to say that their thought process is complicated.
      But sometimes, we can’t find the logic in it from our point of view.
      Of course they are just simple people with simple desires, but ways of their
      thinking is different form ours.

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