WORKING & LIVING IN CHINA
Lifestyle / Culture / Food / Working / Nightlife
What's it like living in China?
Living in China is a very different experience to living anywhere else in the world. It’s hard to sum up what daily life is like in China, so I’ve just picked out a few things that I feel are worth mentioning:
First of all, China is rapidly becoming a cashless society. One can make payments for almost anything using WeChat’s Wallet function by simply scanning a QR-code with a phone; eliminating the need to carry cash or card wherever one goes. Now that’s convenience, right? Eating out at small restaurants and local eateries is something you’ll find yourself doing on a daily basis due to just how cheap it is compared to the western world, and how common it is for friends and families to gather outdoors for something to eat. This was actually my favorite thing about living in China; I found that I could eat-out three times a day for more or less the same as what it would cost me to prepare three meals at home. Awesome.
China is, in most places, very welcoming of foreign visitors, and you’ll find that plenty of Chinese people will show an interest in you when you’re out and about, especially in smaller cities and towns. So if you’re sat in a restaurant full of locals eating their rice-bowls, or dancing in a club with some of your buddies, or even just sat on a bench in a quiet park minding your own business; don’t be surprised if you’re approached by a few people asking you to take pictures with them, or just looking to speak a little English with you. This is a sort of Segway into the next thing I want to cover, which is the language and communication in general.
Very, very few Chinese people actually speak English fluently compared to those who don’t speak English at all, but there are plenty of people who can speak a little. It’s kind of hard to summarise, because the average English level of Chinese people changes depending on where you are in the country, but you’ll usually find that only those who are currently in high-school or university; or have graduated in the last 10 or so years, will be able to communicate in English with you. This means that if you really want to be able to talk to locals regularly, and you’d love to be able to read menus and various other pieces of texts that you see every day, you’ll want to start learning a little Chinese once you arrive, and just see where it takes you.
You would be hard pressed to find a country that has experienced as much culture shock in 60 years as has China. Still resembling a feudal kingdom when Mao Tse Tung’s 1949 Communist Revolution assumed control, the nation has become a fascinating mix of old world tradition and new world sophistication. Navigating the modern day Chinese customs and traditions can be tricky. However, if you follow cultural cues and observe the behavior of hosts, you will be warmly welcomed into a society with some of the deepest roots on the planet.
Expect food to be delivered family-style in large bowls from which each diner serves himself. Avoid showing surprise when these foods appear; westernized Chinese dishes bear no resemblance to foods served in China. Be inordinately polite. Don’t flinch if your host uses his chopsticks to serve you from a common bowl. Place your chopsticks vertically across your food bowl when they're not being used, as standing them upright is part of Chinese funeral rituals. Avoid eating every morsel of food or your host may order more thinking you're still hungry. Don’t offer to pay the tab unless you’re the host.
Think of gift giving as politeness – rather than a means of reciprocity – in modern day China. Always present family members or business associates with gifts. Start with the senior member of the group and hand gifts to others in declining order of seniority. Don’t worry about the dollar amount you’ve spent. Handing the same item to a Chinese host and subordinates automatically confers a higher value upon the gift, according to the order in which it was given. Refusing a gift in modern-day China is considered insulting.
You will be considered rude if you don’t drink with Chinese hosts in modern day social settings, but be forewarned that drinking contests are popular. If you wish to keep your liver intact, come prepared with a medical excuse. Fortify yourself for after-dinner karaoke, saunas, social talk and, on occasion, all-night partying. While engaging in these social settings, steer clear of these topics: an independent Taiwan, your preference for Japanese over Chinese relationships and condemnation of the current head of state.
Modern Day Chinese Holidays
Although the names remain unchanged from thousands of years ago, modern-day China’s political climate, social environment, and physical limitations have morphed celebrations from religious to thematic, putting creative twists on old customs. Chinese New Year, Lantern, Double Seventh, Double Ninth, Mid-Autumn, Qingming and Dragon Boat Festivals are still held in accordance with the Lunar Calendar, but celebrations are generally stripped of their religious connotations, which is why a family may still tidy graves during Qingming, now an excuse for a picnic.
The Chinese Food Experience
Forget everything you know about Chinese food, and start again — there’s much more to China’s cuisine than our Westernised impressions. It makes sense that a country as big and diverse as China has a food culture to match. Wherever you are, there’s something new to try, from spicy Sichuan hot pots in Chengdu to possibly the world’s first type of burger in Xi'an.
While in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai you can try delicacies from all over China, they generally taste better when eaten in the region they originate from. There are countless local delicacies and cookery styles across China, but they can be roughly divided geographically into the following:
Here, cooler temperatures and Mongolian influences mean heavier, warming dishes are popular. Lamb and mutton are common ingredients, and wheat-based delicacies like noodles, dumplings, flatbreads, and pancakes are staples. More salty than spicy, dishes are usually simply seasoned with garlic and vinegar.
The south’s Cantonese cuisine is probably the most familiar to Westerners. Most early Chinese immigrants to the West hailed from Guangdong province and Hong Kong, bringing with them the varied dishes and tastes that the south is known for, including sweet and sour sauce.
Rice is a staple thanks to the humid climate providing ideal growing conditions, but otherwise, delicacies can include a wide range of ingredients. Most dishes are stir-fried or steamed, with dim sum a signature dish of Hong Kong.
Dishes in the west pack a punch, with chilies, Sichuan peppers, ginger and garlic heavily used to season stir-fried pork, poultry, mushrooms, and vegetables. In Guiyang, you'll find incredibly spicy chicken delicacies, while Sichuan province is best known for its hot pots, a food tradition that dates back more than 1,000 years.
Delicate and refined, the cuisine in this area uses sugar, vinegar, and wines to create sweet and subtle tones. You’ll find a lot of fish and shellfish dishes here, endowed by the Lower Yangtze River and the East China Sea, as well as a good range of vegetarian options, mostly wok cooked.
The Chinese Working Experience
China is a developing economy with abundant economic opportunity for foreigners that come with an open mind to new cultural experiences. Working in China for three years taught me that while learning Chinese opens up lots of job options, paying attention to the culture was equally important in making the most of China's work opportunities. Chinese cultural aspects such as saving face and relationships (关系 Guānxì) are a great deal more subtle than the rules of professionalism in the West, so it is difficult to say exactly what actions you should take in the workplace apart from a willingness to absorb the culture and patience when it comes to getting results. However, if you are able to understand the Chinese cultural perspective and communicate accordingly, China can be a place where anything is possible for your business ideas.
The first aspect of Chinese business culture you need to learn is that saving face is important in all relationships. The best way to make sense of the abstract concept of face (面子 miànzi) is to consider the collective opinion of the group, rather than the opinion of any individual. In other words, think about how others see you, rather than how you see yourself. One of the most important implications of face being given and taken by others is that when you approach your co-worker with a problem, you should be careful to approach in a way that does not cause a loss of face (丢脸 diūliǎn). Blame and criticism are rarely directly given in public because the loss of face could disrupt group harmony, which is more important than who is right or wrong. Usually, if there is a problem that you must call attention to, rather than being direct, you should cite external issues and avoid putting a co-worker in the spotlight.
Sometimes it can be useful to arrange an on the side one-on-one meeting with your co-worker. Business meetings are not the place for conflict or argument, especially if your superiors are involved. If there is an issue to address with your manager or boss, schedule a private meeting to address things in detail. Chinese people tend to be much more direct and talk more business in private situations than in public, so don’t be afraid to request a one-on-one with any of your co-workers. You might find yourself getting much more done and understanding much more about the company if you talk to your co-workers on the side.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE KING
China is a high-context culture in which laws are often subject to change due to circumstance. In Western companies, there are certain rules which dictate the way things are done, and lawyers usually play a big part in negotiations. In China, the rules of the game are based on personal relations, or "guanxi," and doing things by the book won’t work as well as doing things through your personal network. While it may seem daunting to go into an unfamiliar business environment based on a different set of cultural relations, take your time after entering a company to get to know key stakeholders on a light, personal basis. Make small talk and exchange pleasantries, and members of the company will slowly warm up to you. Chinese relationships are long-term, which affects everything in the business world from the interview process to the hard work that makes your ideas come into fruition once you have entered a company. Chinese people like to work with people they have face-to-face contact with and with whom they build up trust over time. Rushing things may actually have you end up spending more time trying to get things done because it could arouse mistrust in those who could be a help to you.
DON’T PROBE TOO MUCH
Chinese companies have different standards about how much information is shared outside of the boardroom. You should be aware of the tendency of Chinese companies to strictly protect company information (保密 bǎomì). While many Westerners may feel Chinese companies lack transparency, keeping information in-house is an old practice that goes back to when aristocratic families believed that allowing misfortunes to become public knowledge was inviting danger. It is considered disrespectful to pry too much into affairs before you have the trust of those around you. If your co-worker is being vague when you ask questions, back off to show respect, keeping in mind that because they might not know the answer to your question either. While Chinese people will sometimes give you vague or indirect answers to questions, they also feel obliged to answer every question out of politeness. When you get “yes” as an answer to one of your questions, it could mean that the person you are talking to is merely expressing that the person you are talking to is merely listening to you and doesn’t necessarily agree with you. It is best to refrain from asking too many questions or from assuming tacit consent when you first start a new job. Instead, keep your questions for one-on-one conversations or times when you feel you have built up some guanxi.
CHINESE COMPANIES ARE LIKE BIG FAMILIES
Chinese business culture’s emphasis on group harmony goes back to the Confucian roots of Chinese civilization. While capitalism is relatively new, Chinese business practices are a lot older than you would think, and many companies both small and large were built on family or clan-based ties. In Confucianism, all social relations are based on the family structure. In Confucian terms, being a good employee means being a functioning member of the larger family structure of the company. The power structure in Chinese companies is quite vertical, resembling the traditional Confucian patriarchal family structure, although in modern China, women often hold very powerful positions. Hierarchy is clearly defined within the company so that everyone can easily recognize his or her place and little conflict occurs. Accordingly, you will want to familiarize yourself with the company hierarchy when you first arrive, and it might help to ask for business cards if you are having trouble remember their positions. When you are being inducted into the big family of a Chinese company, expect mandatory festive drinking at dinners and KTV outings. Chinese drinking culture is very important to the business process, and it's common to go drinking once a new employee is introduced to the team, even on a weeknight. Contrary to work culture in the West, the more drunken revelry you have with your co-workers, the more credibility you stand to gain in your company, as you will start to be perceived as part of the big family.
STAY CALM AND BE CURIOUS
Although it is an investment of time and patience, cross-cultural communication will open your mind up to different ways of thinking and appreciating life. While the cultural barriers to success in a Chinese company may seem high, I found in my experience that there is much Americans and Chinese have in common. Both countries are very business-oriented at the end of the day, so as long as you find a job you are passionate about, it should not take long to turn apparent cultural differences into commonalities. Remember to approach the Chinese work situation calmly, slowly, and steadily. The pace of change in China’s rapidly developing economy is misleading, and China is really a place where slow and steady wins the race. There is no telling what lies ahead for you and your career if you are able to bridge cultural gaps, so hang tight, and your patience will pay dividends in the long run. Part of the excitement of learning a new culture and language is finding out where it can take you.
Sitting is the new dancing
If you picture nightclubs as a large furniture-less dance floor full of young people swinging their hair and bodies to the beat, think again. My experiences so far have taught me that tables and booths take up maybe 80% of the entire club; yes, so much so that sometimes it can be hard to even pinpoint the dance floor!
You must drink and dice
The majority of patrons have not come here to just dance, but to sit, drink, snack and most importantly, socialize by playing games. Drinking games, or 酒令 jiǔlìng in Chinese, typically involve dice or hands, and are a popular past time. Sitting with friends at a round table (symbolising ‘unity’ from the phrase: 团圆 tuán yuán, meaning united and round) is the main form of entertainment. Don’t be afraid to join them too. In fact, wealthy Chinese people often take great pleasure in inviting foreigners to join their table, and enforcing copious amounts of whiskey onto them!
Don’t be deceived by the small glasses
Chinese people love tiny glasses, be it tea or alcohol. Popular drink choices are白酒 báijiǔ, a strong Chinese liquor (around 40-60% alcohol), as are Western drinks like whiskey 威士忌 wēishìjì and brandy 白兰地 báilándì (notice the phonetically similar pronunciation compared to their English names). This can be compared with foreigners who mostly drink beer and mixers (though the Chinese often drink beer shots too!). As can be imagined, drinking liquor straight will set you up for an eventful night. Drinking to get drunk is commonly observed, the party does not stop until everyone has fainted/ passed out!
Smoke machines are not necessary
The familiar hissing sounds and strong smells of the smoke machines are replaced by actual smoke from cigarettes. Smoking indoors is not banned here, so that is something to get used to since there are many smokers in China. With disco balls, chandeliers, mechanical flashing lights, and stages, the décor can sometimes pass off as gaudy rather than glamorous, so you can say that the smoke aids to mask that.
Nightclub or… entertainment hall?
The notoriously high prices charged for hiring tables can be justified for the entertainment value provided by the club. It is not uncommon to find female dancers in sparkling outfits singing or miming on stage. Sometimes there are even magic and fire performances throughout the night. Attendants will bring you your champagne in ice served alongside platters of freshly cut fruit, complete with sparklers and fog effects of course! Partying sure is an elaborate affair and it is safe to say the focus on going to a nightclub is not to dance and drink only, there is much more to it than that!
The 3 letters that change your night around: KTV
The majority of bars and clubs you find in China will play foreign, mostly English music. Despite the vast majority not understanding the meanings of these popular Western songs, Chinese people love to sing along to them. If KTV (karaoke) rooms aren’t joined to the club itself, do not fear as you are never far from a KTV joint in China. Karaoke/KTV is a cultural phenomenon and one in which you do not have to be musically gifted to enjoy. Often following a trip to a nightclub, Chinese people love to sing to their heart's content until the wee hours of the morning. It is usually sunrise by the time a Chinese night out finishes! While partying this hard might sound tough, keep in mind that a catnap in the corner is totally acceptable. And let’s not forget the street food, which is available at all hours and never far away from bars and KTV clubs.