Relocation to China, especially to somewhere that is not a large, diverse metropolitan area, implies a major overhaul in terms of lifestyle, habits and mental frameworks. It is best to see it as an opportunity for professional and personal growth, and it is potentially a very exciting and interesting experience from many different points of view. It is important not to get discouraged or frustrated: keep in mind that most problems will have (at least partially) a solution.
Acquiring at least some basic knowledge of Mandarin is a good idea; it can make your daily life much easier. If you have the possibility to do so, take some classes or do some self-study before leaving. It goes without saying that becoming fluent in Chinese takes time and effort, but even elementary skills can make tasks such as grocery shopping or taking a taxi less daunting.
Furthermore, there are a certain number of practical matters to keep in mind before leaving for China. Make an appointment with your doctor for a general check-up to make sure that you have all the vaccination you need and ask for prescription for antibiotics or any other medicine you need. Finding a doctor in China is often complicated, so it is better to take precautions beforehand. For the same reason, it’s better to have a dental check-up.
It is important to remember that, in the South of China, there is no central heating, which may result in extremely chilly housing in the middle of winter. Thermal underwear and electric heaters are easily available, but if your destination is in Southern China and you are arriving in the winter months, make sure to bring warm clothes.
There seems to be a lot of misinformation abroad concerning the availability of toiletries and cleaning supplies in China. In reality, unless you’re planning on moving to an extremely remote area, chances are that you will find soaps , shampoos and creams of most prominent Western brands at the local supermarket (though obviously, if you like a specific brand that’s not particularly mainstream it might be better to stock up before you leave). Bleach and other housecleaning supplies are not a problem either.
Food is a big part of the Chinese adventure. It is generally cheap, varied and delicious. You might find yourself even unwittingly adopting healthier eating habits, with more fruit and vegetables and less red meat or sugar. However, a big overhaul in the way you eat is bound to be a strain. If you happen to be a big consumer of bread, meat, sweets or dairy products, prepare to suffer at first. Consider that tofu is an excellent form of protein, that it has many different varieties and that it can be prepared in all sorts of ways. Otherwise, some stores are going to sell imported Western products like cookies and cheese (albeit not always cheaply). Even those who are the most enthusiastic eaters of new foodstuffs and of Chinese cuisine are likely to crave “something from home” once in a while, but a relentless pursuit of Western products will likely lead to eating mediocre food and losing the opportunity to try new things. Still, as with toiletries, if you are particularly attached to a specific type of food, it might be better to stock up before you leave (or arrange for family and friends to send you care packages!).
Another issue to consider, preferably before leaving, is that of internet access. Many foreign language websites cannot be used in China (or will disappear and reappear rather erratically): unfortunately this does not apply solely to “Facebook and Youtube” as the widespread shorthand information goes. If you rely heavily on the internet for work, it is really advisable to acquire a Virtual Private Network or VPN, which will enable you to get hold of any website you need. Some VPNs are free, but paying ones are more reliable; a brief research should tell you which one works best for your needs. As concerns resources more generally, if you are planning to do research or teaching work in a foreign language, remember also that, especially in smaller universities, library resources might be limited. If there are any materials or books that are strictly necessary, take them with you. Outside of large cities, foreign-language bookstores are also scarce. On the other hand, online shopping is extremely widespread in China, including for books which are often available at very reasonable prices but online shopping might take some time to “master” efficiently.
In conclusion, whether you go through a “honeymoon” phase and subsequently experience rejection or instead feel overwhelmed at first and then gradually adapt, bear in mind that settling in China does take an emotional toll: allow yourself to feel drained. At the same time, focus on the positive aspects, such as the opportunity of developing new professional skills, seeing unique sights, forging friendships with fellow expatriates or Chinese people, and try not to dwell excessively on the negatives (especially those associated with small difficulties or cultural elements you can do precious little to change. Spending time in China can be extremely fulfilling, as long as you keep both your mind and heart open.