An Ex-pat's Lifestyle Guide for China

When I first jotted down ideas for these posts, my intention was to focus on tech only. But, once I got going and asked for additional “survival guide” tips from my colleagues, it was clear that there was more to say, beyond tech. So, after covering financial tips last time, I’ll finish off the third of these three by sharing our collective thoughts for a lifestyle survival guide:

1 - For Inside…

For your apartment or condo, it is essential to get a good mattress or mattress top. At entry level, you can get good products from IKEA or a handful of Western-branded specialty shops.

At the higher-end, one of my colleague’s very specific instructions for Shanghai residents was to go to Kerry Parkside in Pudong and find the natural mattress and mattress pad store. Buy up everything they have for every bed in your house. “Your back will thank you and the price is worth it!” is how he put it.

In addition to a great mattress, two other standard items you will want in your living space are a bottled water cooler and a good quality air filter. While Chinese authorities are starting to make significant investments in restoring their natural resources, the bottom line is that the air and water – “as is” – are bad for your health. These devices will help.

Similarly, it will serve you and your family well to research a real, organic home delivery service for produce and groceries. They exist in the Tier 1 cities, like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, etc. And, while they are more expensive, they are better for you and more flavorful.

2 - When Outside…

Among the first things you will notice walking the streets of Shanghai or another big Chinese city is the face masks being worn, with the hopes of mitigating effects of pollution. Whether they work or not is arguable (the science primarily says they are not); however, you may want to get one because they make you feel either locally hip or better, for peace of mind.

Speaking of air pollution, another app we would recommend is the China air quality app that uses the American Embassy measurements. It’s very informative and you can favorite your frequent destinations. Of course, there’s not much you can do about the air, once you are there, other than use the app to help you make choices about whether you want to venture outside or not, if that’s an option.

When you are venturing about outside, it’s very valuable to learn your local subway system, in Shanghai, and Beijing for example. The subway is generally safe, clean, cheap and efficient transportation. When you up on the streets, however, the situation is different. People aren’t a threat, but your surroundings are!

Most ex-pat residents learn fairly quickly to watch their step, everywhere. After a while, you develop a new form of 360-degree peripheral vision, especially on sidewalks and street corners. Without it, you could get run over by a scooter.

3 - In Case of Emergency

Carry a card in your wallet or purse that has your essential information: significant other(s) to be contacted in case of an emergency, Western hospital(s) to take you to in case of medical emergency, etc.

You should also have emergency routes planned to the hospital - IN MANDARIN! Know which surgeons you want to work on you in advance. One colleague of mine with kids whose young daughters lived with him in China, even went so far as to part-tongue-in-cheek/part-dead-serious, tell me “If you can befriend the American-trained, Stanford medical school emergency room doctor at any time, then do so!”

4 - Let Your Government Track You

For U.S. citizens, register with the American embassy. That way, they know you are present in the country and can marshal their resources behind locating and assisting you.

This may be especially important if you are injured or you are traveling in a part of the country that experiences a disaster – for example, the coastal areas are exposed to monsoons and tsunamis, while certain, heavily populated inland areas have experienced severe earthquakes in recent years.

5 - Should You Learn Mandarin?

This is a question I get asked a lot. My opinion is that it is really a matter of personal choice, especially if you expect to spend that large majority of your time in Tier 1 cities and expect to be in-country for 1-2 years at the most.

By getting a Mandarin tutor and becoming conversational, you will obviously earn a lot of “street cred” with your native Chinese peers and it will help you get around. However, the Chinese language is very different from English.

So unlike some of the Latin-heritage, “romance” languages like Spanish, Italian, and French, that share a lot of similarities with English and make them easier to pick up, it’s much harder to learn Mandarin, Cantonese, and other popular Chinese dialects, because they have completely different character sets, a different and critically important tonal system, and other grammatically structural differences.

Ultimately, while I took a few lessons from a great tutor and slogged my way through the basics of Rosetta Stone Mandarin, I chose to leverage the Chinese public education system’s investment in the English language, which is mandatory and taught in school beginning in fourth grade.

Between widespread conversational English that I found spoken or at least understood in Shanghai, I also leaned on the goodwill and humor of my Chinese friends and work colleagues (thank you Vivian, Samuel, and Marion!), who would go with me to set up my bank account, help me make changes to my cell phone account, and other interactions that required the mother tongue.

That concludes this brief series on surviving China. You can read more of my experiences and reflections on my personal blog. Thanks to my Appconomycolleagues who contributed their tips, gained from our shared experiences living and working in China, since 2012: Brian Magierski, Maarten Metz, and Joe Canterbury. You guys have made it a fun journey!

As always, I welcome your comments and questions!

A repost From Steve Guengerich's Linkedin Post