5 Challenges Every China Expat Faces (and How to Beat Them)

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!

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China Expat Challenges

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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.

VPN China

Gotta love internet censorship!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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Summer Palace Suzhou Street

Why yes, I did order this purse on Taobao

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.

Lijiang China

Who doesn’t love Lijiang

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.

They’re wrong.

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!

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China comfort food

Finding comfort food in Beijing

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.

China Expat Challenges

Don’t be the Jaded China Expat

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! 

China Expat Challenges

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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 SummersJosh 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.

Give him some love on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube




About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

29 comments on “5 Challenges Every China Expat Faces (and How to Beat Them)

    • So true! I have had some good help from there, but for the most part it’s pretty negative. Definitely not something you want to go in if you’re having an “I hate China” day.

  1. Wow it sounds like you had a really bad experience. While I have had some issues with schools paying on time, I never once had a problem with them not paying me enough. I would guess that maybe you were teaching on a tourist or business visa at a bad school? Otherwise, you were totally in your legal rights to leave and find a better job. Not every job in China is horrible, I can speak from personal experience! I lived and worked there for 5 years and I have so many friends that teach at awesome schools.

  2. Like I said before, it sounds like you were working at some less than ideal schools. While this does happen in China, the better schools only hire people with all of the requirements and put students in the correct level.

  3. I agree with Mitch. I faced theft and fraud by school I hired. so why in hell do we give them our teaching experiences. believe me is blatant lies I found in china and I DON’T like Chinese in the first place.

    • Frankly, based on the English in the comments from both of you, I don’t know how either of you were even hired in the first place. Please take your racism off my site. Thanks.

      • Hey Richelle, Im a teacher. I meant we do have unprofessional educators in U.S as much as Chinese teachers or Indian. I do have great respect for English second language teacher, which he/she hasn’t famously working in china that come from native engliscountries. Gd luck w/Chinese FaVoo!!

        • Richelle, thanks for your kind words about the comments, but why did you feel fear and trepidation?
          is not racism it is all a matter of common sense. I disappointed by the views ( eerie scene) of china and Chinese, I didn’t bother to comment on it as a result. But once I was in china my brows prompted much comment and criticism.

          Richelle,there is no established framework of social life in china, such as friendship or sex, usually people can be slotted into. Both Chinese sexual characteristics rented sex toys to practice an erotic sex romp every night. the problem is much wider. Dn’t try to cozy up Chinese sex drive too, please?

  4. I consider Chinese student are pussycaty, so no one brave enough to act like that. but is something far more lethal. I sink they are motivated by ‘white persons’ around you. In my Chinese circle, ‘white male’ is a pejorative term,,,,,,,,, even using ‘gay’ word as a general is a pejorative also. which is apparently all the pleasure among ‘gay white males’ these days. Believe it or not, this was a pejorative to all black persons and should not go to china anymore. It’s clearly a pejorative ,,,,,,,I feel you are very close kinship with gorilla- Are you Indian ?

  5. p.keitha
    Openly and unequivocally, not all “Nigga/Black people” from Africa.
    a lot of Niggas/Black people come from India/ Bangladesh and Haiti in the Caribbean Sea.
    in the Middle East some people still buy and own nigga/Black people from Africa/ India/ Bangladesh/ Sri Lanka/Nepal and Libya is now the biggest market for the sale of African slaves.

    Zhang Ho

    • Please stop using the N-word on my site or I will take your comments down. Also, if you could all bring these comments back on Reddit where they belong, that would be great.

  6. Hello jay,
    Yes, Asian women love Arab men while never titillating or exploitive, the love shared between them is honest and very moving

  7. TO:MR. JAY
    the fact is ASIAN WOMEN, fell in love, feel vivid and flocking to Arab men only. they do cheer them, pretending to find them irresistibly attractive which is so true. And there are many reasons, agreed with them for aging parent’s cares, thirsty for sexual gratification or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement, devote more time to both families, showing deep religious feeling & commitment. ASIAN WOMEN, faces culture bump, disgruntled and a lot of distraction all the time, ‘Unscrupulous’ white male behavior destabilizes marriage life and forced female to having consensual sex with two men in the West. the different between Arab women and Asian women are Maroon vs. Burgundy.
    thank you for this point!

  8. Hey there, nice and lovely conversation. Not for their nice looking only, for their manhood also.
    I’m Malaysian young lady, I love Arab guys. Means if you’re an Arabian stallion I’m Asian mare in estrus. Does the picture clear!!
    Superior thanks to Richelle
    thnxs all

  9. We’re willing to give everybody the truth about us as we’re slave, slaves by any means.Lord created us as slave through the history .
    the benefit the doubt as we have we’re not anymore slave theory surrounding us this ridiculous.
    when we realize how ridiculous these scenarios ( we’re not anymore slave theory) are, we will have the accept or admit the existence or truth of.
    American get rid of their own salves started 1800-1900 by created country for them called ‘Liberia’
    British get rid of their own salves started 1800-1900 by created country for them called ” sierra Leone”
    British get rid of their own Indian salves started 1800-1900 by throwing them parts some in southeast Asia, south Africa, and Fiji.
    ِ Arab they do still have own both salves African & Indian; lucky slaves.

    • You had the decency to come and confess, Up to now, either one American/British has not even had the decency to come to their own Slaves.I am not conventionally Islamic religious, but I do have a very strong faith in the essential decency of Arab culture of humanity.

    • look, you’re right!!
      the sources of slaves 2 only: Africa and semi continent of India.
      people are dote to get back slave trading. in fact; everybody want to own 2 different slaves in one time. as I’m white guy, I like to own one African ONLY. Indian they’re OK, but they like to have sexual relationship – with both genders they had felt the thrill of a sexual attraction.

      • #ME TOO!!
        Where and how can I buy Indian pair. sound like pretty good. have Indian pair a night will be cool. I promise I’ll get green card for both!. we have a non-profit organization.

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