1 – Leave your preconceptions at home
Don't let what you see and hear about China and its people in the news influence your judgment. China is rich in history and culture, but it is still a developing country. A lot of progress has been made in many respects, but there is still a lot to do. Try to approach things with an open mind and you'll find that there's a lot to learn.
2 - Be friendly, but not naive!
China is a relatively safe place for foreign visitors. The most common crime is pickpocketing, which you can find in most major world cities. It is not uncommon for a laowai (the colloquial term for foreigner) to be chatted to by locals on the streets, but this has normally more to do with the curious attitude towards foreigners (especially in small towns, where they're quite uncommon). However, be aware that apparently friendly invitations from English-speaking students to sing karaoke or visit an art exhibition can hide scams, so keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to say “no” if need be.
3 - Get used to being the centre of attention!
Every expat should face the truth: no matter how hard you try to assimilate the culture, you will always appear alien to the eyes of the Chinese. This no longer happens much in big cities, but it’s quite a common phenomenon in rural areas where people are not used to meeting many foreigners (laowai). Be prepared to be stared at, followed around, lightly touched or asked to take photos with groups of strangers – but try to play along. Feeling like a movie star might be a bit awkward in the beginning, but it’s a way you’ll never feel anywhere else in the world!
4 - Don't be afraid to experiment
This does not only apply to food (which is much nicer than the westernised dishes in Chinese restaurants at home!). During the first weeks of your stay, find some time to walk around and get familiar with your area. Don’t be afraid to take the bus, subway or even a bicycle to explore the neighbourhood. In other words, try and get around like the locals do: this will be the quickest (and cheapest) way to learn about people's habits and will boost your confidence and sense of belonging.
5 - Remember: if it's too good to be true, then it probably is.
This golden rule applies to a variety of aspects of life in China; the land of opportunity and great shopping bargains. Try not to lose your sense of judgment: a super-cheap item at the market will probably hide flaws and is most likely fake, likewise the appealing job offer you receive out of nowhere is probably worth examining closely. Unfortunately the same goes for relationships. It’s not that the scammers are always out there to get you, but it can be best to share your thoughts and experiences with Chinese or expat friends before committing to a situation.
6 - Know your price
If you love shopping, China is the place to be. However, bear in mind that bargaining is an essential cultural custom that comes with it. Of course, one can’t simply bargain anywhere: the unspoken rule is that wherever the price is displayed (such as in shops) you don’t need to bargain. However, kan jia (literally “cutting the price”) is a common practice in markets. Sellers might “adjust” their prices according to the type of buyer: locals, Chinese tourists and foreign tourists may be charged differently, according to how they bargain. For those who fall in the last category, a basic grasp of the language and a good sense of humour will help to cut a few RMB off the price – the trick is to know how much an item is worth and to be prepared to pay its value, without pushing the stallholder too far. A session at a Chinese market can be a fun way to practice the language outside the classroom!
7 - Make friends, not “personal assistants”
Most Chinese people observe a strict and ancient etiquette when it comes to relationships. For instance, the traditional idea of friendship is closely associated with the idea of “paying back” favours received. This and other factors, such as the language gap, contribute to creating obstacles and misunderstanding when connecting with the locals. Be open-minded in dealing with people and try to establish a cultural exchange: a home-cooked dinner or a present from your country is an appropriate way to thank a colleague or a new friend for their help and will also teach them a bit about your background. At the same time you will win a caring and devoted friend, always ready to help whenever you need.
8 - Get lost... In translation!
Many people ask if learning Mandarin can make a difference to life in China. The above tips would suggest that it does. Even a basic grasp of the language is not only the best way to get to know the culture and the people you engage with, but it can also earn you a bit of special treatment when shopping or going for a job interview. Don’t be scared about getting lost in translation, the full-time exposure to the language during your experience in China is an easy and effective way to learn!
9 - When in China, do as the Chinese do (sometimes!)
Adapting to a foreign culture is not about passively imitating its every aspect, but rather understanding the thinking behind it and acting accordingly, without forgetting who you are. Take Chinese eating habits as an example: traditional etiquette suggests that, when invited to a banquet, you sit at common round tables to share plates and ganbei (toasts). Playing along with this habit is a nice way to blend in with your colleagues and friends and respect their culture. However, you won’t necessarily have to take part in the noisy sucking and burping demonstrated by your dinner companions.
10 - Remember who you are and where you're going
It is not uncommon for newcomers in China to feel like Alice down the rabbit hole and they can end up losing themselves in that reality. There’s obviously nothing wrong with adopting local customs and lifestyle if you feel you’ve found the place you can call home, however, if you’re thinking to leave China at some point, don’t lose touch with the outside world. Keep yourself up-to-date with the job market: this will help you take the right steps in the right direction and make the most of your China experience.