Five years of living in China was an incredible experience, but it definitely wasn’t easy. Being an expat has its ups and downs, but there are plenty of ways to overcome the typical challenges of living and working in China.
My friend Josh from Far West China has been living in Xinjiang, China with his family since 2006! So, if anyone can tell you about the challenges and struggles of living in China, it’s him. Today, Josh is here to fill you in on the biggest challenges China expats face, and how to overcome them!
The following is a guest post from Josh of Far West China. Enjoy!
5 Challenges Every China Expat Faces
Let’s face it: living as an expat abroad is exciting but not necessarily easy. Living in China? Well, that complicates things even more. There are a number of challenges that we face and whether you’ve been here for years or are planning on arriving in China soon, it’s good to be aware of what those challenges are so you can be prepared to face (and beat!) them.
Having lived in China for over a decade, I’ve seen some expats thrive and other expats crash and burn. What’s the difference?
Sometimes it has to do with temperament and the ability to withstand culture shock. More often than not, though, it’s the stressors of the challenges that they weren’t expecting to face.
I’d like to offer 5 of the most common challenges I see expats face in China and provide ideas on how to overcome the challenge.
The Challenge of Communicating
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re probably aware of the “Great Firewall” that censors internet access for all residents of China. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Gmail have been blocked for years and show no sign of being opened to the public anytime soon.
Living without all this social media noise really isn’t that bad, to be honest, but most expats use a VPN to gain access. Easy enough.
What’s harder is when this internet censorship affects your ability to communicate with the outside world. There have been times when I can’t make calls with Skype (even with a VPN) or my Facetime doesn’t work.
It’s happened to me so many times that I’ve had to resort to a couple different solutions:
- Move Your Family/Friends to WeChat: I hate to do it, but I’ve had all my family and close friends download WeChat so we can remain in constant contact. It’s the most reliable form of communication in China and allows for voice and video calls.
- Always Have Skype Alternatives: For those times when you have to call an actual phone number to call your bank or sort things out back home, make sure you have a backup plan if Skype doesn’t work. Just Google “Skype alternative” and pick your favorite.
The Challenge of Receiving Mail While Abroad
Although physical mail is slowly becoming a relic of the past, it still has the ability to cause a headache for expats in China. I still receive important pieces of mail pertaining to taxes, the house I still own in the US, my business, etc. Not to mention receiving new credit cards in the mail or Christmas cards (yes, my family still does Christmas cards).
Most expats tend to use the address of a family member or close friend as their “address” while they are abroad – and this works for about a year – but if you’re abroad for a longer period of time, you risk over-using their generosity or missing an important piece of mail.
The solution I’ve found is something known as a virtual mailbox. It’s essentially like having an email inbox for your physical mail. I have an address in my home country where all my mail is sent. All new mail is scanned and sent to me where I can either keep the digital form or ask for the mail to be forwarded to me wherever I am in the world.
It’s not a super-expensive solution and I’ve already done a lot of research on the best virtual mailbox services for travelers that you can use as you consider your options.
The Challenge of Taxes as an Expat
In this section, I’m going to be speaking mostly to US citizens since I know their situation the best, but make sure you do research into the laws concerning taxes in your home country.
Many expats I’ve met in China – particularly teachers – don’t give taxes much thought and many think they don’t need to file taxes while they’re living abroad.
Whether you’re a teacher on a salary equivalent to US$1,000/month or you’re a professional making a comfortable living in a city like Beijing or Shanghai, most foreign governments require you to disclose your foreign earnings. If those earnings exceed a certain limit, there are often taxes involved.
If you’ve never heard of a “Foreign Earned Income” tax credit or if you make a significant income in China, you’re much better off using the services of a tax professional when doing your taxes.
The last thing you want is your tax man waiting at the airport terminal for you when you arrive back home!
The Challenge of Finding Comfort Foods
Unless you live in a city like Beijing or Shanghai, getting import foods – those “comfort foods” that remind you of home – can be a major challenge.
To make things worse, even in places like Beijing and Shanghai, no one import store has everything you might want. It sucks having to go across town to get that one item that your local import store doesn’t carry.
Again, I’m writing you as a person who has never lived in a major Chinese city, so this challenge of finding comfort foods, or any import food for that matter, has been very real!
Thankfully, over the past few years, China has grown leaps and bounds in the area of online shopping and home delivery. As recently as 5 years ago, getting something delivered to my home wasn’t even an option!
Using sites like JD.com and Taobao are a must for any long-term China expat. Make sure you open a local bank account and have a friend teach you how to use these online shopping apps. Your life in China will never be the same, I promise.
The Challenge of China Burnout
If you talk to any expat who has lived in China for more than a year, every single one will have stories of those days or weeks when they just wanted to tear up their China visa and call it quits.
Every. Single. One.
It happens and that’s ok. Don’t get discouraged! The worst thing you can do is start browsing places like Reddit’s China sub, where disgruntled expats and those on the verge of burnout like to hang out and share their misery.
Instead, consider taking a short trip or treat yourself to a “staycation”. Watch some movies that remind you of home. Look at pictures of when you first arrived in China and take note of everything you’ve accomplished since arriving.
The feelings of burnout are inevitable. Once you get through one or two bouts of burnout, though, you’ll find that it’s just part of the cycle of living as an expat in China.
Author’s Note: WOW is Josh right on this one. I find making friends that are brand new to China reminds me why I loved China in the first place. Avoid the Jaded China Expats!
Conclusion | Challenges of Living in China
Every country presents its own set of challenges, even living in your own home country. Don’t try to eliminate the challenges because frankly, there will always be new ones that spring up!
The key to living in China and enjoying your experience is understanding what those challenges are and when you face them, having a game plan for how to overcome them. Whether it’s communicating with your family back home, getting your mail, doing your taxes, buying foreign goods or just dealing with burnout, know that you’re not alone.
The challenges are just one part of what makes being an expat in China so exciting!
About the Author
Josh Summers has lived in China since 2006 with his wife and two boys. He loves traveling around China and visiting other countries throughout southeast Asia. You can find him on his Xinjiang blog, Far West China, or Travel China Cheaper.
FREE Teach Abroad in China Mini-Course
So you want to teach abroad in China?
Here's all of the advice you could ever want, straight to your inbox.