China can be at first challenging for the non-native. It is not only that one might be moving to an unfamiliar environment, with a new language, new food and a new job, but perhaps more so that there is a unique approach to doing business, making friends and addressing problems in mainland China. To thrive in China one must be able to accept this new normal.
The mainland China way of dealing with matters may seem unfathomable and totally different from the European approach, but the Chinese way works in China because society is operating to different rules. The mainland China ethos can be encapsulated in two popular sayings, “Cut your feet to fit your shoes” and “If you want to go far, go in a group”. An insightful Chinese student once explained to me that the Chinese “are a homogeneous people” and so the more conservative find personal peculiarities and eccentricities difficult to understand. The mainland Chinese are not as homogeneous as they might have been in the past, and hobbies, personal likes and dislikes, and alternative life-styles are becoming common, especially among the metropolitan youth. Nevertheless, habitual meditation on Wednesday evenings, a citrus fruit diet or an aversion to techno music, are likely to be met with incredulity in more traditional circles in China. The universities, which employ most of the “Foreign Experts”, tend to be rather conservative environments and, even as a foreigner, you will be expected to fit in and do as the others do. Saying “but I'm British” is no excuse!
The mainland Chinese are a very friendly people, and even their business or research collaborations are managed as friendships. Do not be surprised if the boss assigns you a new friend or if your new project collaborator decides that you should go camping together next Weekend. To get on well in China, it helps to be a people person and to have an easy going nature. New postdocs do particularly well in China because they are often most open minded and the camaraderie of student life is similar to that of a Chinese work unit – they are also quite well accustomed to late nights and enthusiastic celebration! Adaptability and flexibility are certainly key traits for the successful ex-pat in China. One might wake up expecting a quiet day and suddenly find oneself in an auditorium giving an impromptu presentation in a very important meeting. Chinese people are very hard working and you may be called in for one of those unexpected meetings on a Sunday morning, but the boss is understanding and in the end everything works out fairly.
There is no typical day in China, and this is one of the things that makes working there a stimulating and interesting experience for many ex-pats. The research facilities in most universities are also state of the art and in-house funding is often available so that there is no need to spend time writing and applying for grants in order to get work done. You may also have more freedom to follow your own research path and be able to pursue diverse avenues of research.
In terms of social life, most Chinese cities feature resplendent, vast, ultra-modern shopping malls and entertainment venues. Shops in China are not crowded and customers are treated as special guests. In many cities there are also air-conditioned, resplendent, underground trains or trams to convey you across the city to the shops. China has very good public security and going for a walk at 2 am is usually safe, Chinese entertainment venues are often palatial and prices are not too high. One might miss Facebook, Twitter or the latest best selling book. Consequently, the China ex-pat needs to willing to adapt to the Chinese versions of the above (Weibo, Sina and QQ) and be able to spend periods alone when necessary (e.g., during Chinese New Year if you can't get a flight back home). To get some insight into ex-pat life in China it is highly recommended to read the forum of one of the websites which translates Chinese news into English (e.g., China Daily); the views of ex-pats and their experiences are often discussed on such sites.
The above might seem quite difficult to adapt to, but this is not so. China is so big and has such an independent culture that, after a couple of years, you will probably begin to see China as the world, and no longer miss, or see the need for, reference to those “outside countries”. The laid back and unfussy nature of Chinese society makes China a good place to live. The pace of growth means that there is always a new park to visit or train to catch, and the high level of investment by the Chinese government in research means that there are the resources to be innovative and maybe get that Nobel Prize!