Am I ready to move to China?

A lot of our posts are funny. Sometimes intentionally; other times merely because of the subject matter. This one isn’t really intended to be – this is directed at those of you who are considering a move to China for an extended period of time. We remember doing a ton of research and asking lots of questions of ourselves and others before agreeing to come. Here is what we think you should ask yourself when trying to decide if moving to China is a good idea for you.

Obviously this can’t be comprehensive as personal details will greatly impact your choice. What your job will be, where you’re from originally, what part of China you’re moving to, will all impact your experience. However, we’ve seen the following as challenges that we or other expatriates have had trouble with and think you might too, regardless of your personal details.

So are you ready to move to China?

Do you get bothered by a lack of cleanliness?
Everything is dirtier than in the West. From the air pollution to the streets to the interiors of buildings. I think it’s a mixture of overcrowding, lack of health/sanitation education, and generally a cultural disregard for the individual. If you’re OCD (Obsessive-compulsive) or a germophobe, you really should stop reading and pick a different destination.

Are you open to trying new foods (or willing to cook for yourself)?
You’re mileage may vary but at some point you’re going to be in a situation where you’ll have to eat Chinese food (and not the Westernized version). Can you handle that? You probably will need to become proficient with chopsticks as well or you’re going to have to constantly bring your own silverware with you to restaurants (and look like a weirdo).

Are you willing to give up seeing your friends and family back home for a few years?
This depends on where you’re from but for anyone from Europe, Africa, or the Americas, it is quite a long flight back. You may miss weddings or funerals, spend time away from a niece or nephew that is learning to walk, or just lose the chance to grab a beer with your friends every Friday night.

Can you be patient?
Even though everything moves pretty fast over here, normal processes that Westerners are used to take a lot longer in China. Whether it’s in business or personally, most employees and companies are not going to move quickly at all. Customer service is usually very poor and rarely will someone follow-through on a problem without you personally addressing it multiple times. This is very hard for many expats in business as we have much higher expectations than a typical Chinese person would.

Can you deal with misunderstanding?
If you hold grudges or get easily frustrated, this is not the best place for you. You will have language or cultural misunderstandings quite often. When you get into a taxi, they might throw you out if they don’t want to go where you’re going. In a restaurant, they’re going to misunderstand your order. In a business meeting, you’re going to think you were going easy on someone and they feel like they lost face. The relationship is ruined, possibly with big repercussions depending on their personal influence level. Can you cope with this?

Do you have a sense of adventure?
This probably goes without saying but just in case you thought you’d come over here, make a lot of money and basically live the same life you do somewhere else, you’re sorely mistaken. Some people that we’ve talked to actually have this opinion. And they’re very, very wrong. Every day you will see things you’re not used to. Internally, China is changing at incredibly fast speeds and if you’re resistant to change, stay very far away.

Are you convinced that you or your culture has the best way of doing things?
My motto when moving to China was and still is… “It’s not wrong, it’s just different.” I find myself referring back to this whenever I come into contact with the inefficient processes or paperwork or medical checks. The way things are done over here may not necessarily be the way you would do them, or the way you’re used to seeing them get done. But you have to remember, just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  If you can’t accept that and you’re going to spend all your time complaining about the way things are done, please spare the rest of us and stay home.

And the most important question,

What are my family members answers to these questions?
Over half of expat assignments fail and the number one reason is the trailing spouse or children’s failure to adjust. Can they handle these challenges too? If not, the experience will be miserable for everyone.

So what do you think? Are you ready to move to China? If not, which one counts you out?
For those of you who already live in China… What do you think is the most important question to ask yourself before deciding to make the move?


10 thoughts on “Am I ready to move to China?

  1. You forgot to mention weather, pollution, smog, noise, traffic and New Year’s fireworks…lol. I hear there are dust storms in the spring, as Shenyang is very close to the Gobi desert. Summer is the rainy season. I think alot of companies only show the very best and do not really prepare you for the reality. North American people can be very spoiled. I have my bags almost all packed and will probably fly out around the 9th of March-but I do have my return ticket booked-just not the one to get there.

  2. Your questions can be summed up in one question: Do you have a passion for China? China does face a bigger pollution problem than most other countries, but most of the questions you asked are relevant to living any foreign country. What it really comes down to is whether a person really has a passion for Chinese culture, language, history, and way of life, or whether they just want to stay in their own native culture. If someone doesn’t have a passion for China, why move to China?

    You should also ask: Am I willing to learn a new language? And I don’t mean learning it grudgingly out of necessity. If that is a person’s attitude towards learning Chinese, then they will never learn anything. I mean having a strong desire to learn Chinese, and pursuing that desire at every opportunity. While many people travel to China and even live in China without learning Chinese, I don’t recommend it. Visiting China briefly is one thing, but if someone wants to live in China for an extended period of time, they really should be committed to learning and mastering both spoken and written Chinese. I know some Americans who lived in China for a long time and even taught English there, but can’t speak any Chinese. Personally I think that’s crazy.

    Chinese is a difficult language that seems overwhelming at first, BUT the more you learn, the easier it becomes to learn. Especially Chinese characters – difficult at first, but once you master a few hundred of them, learning new ones is a breeze. I’ve been studying Chinese for only two years, and I now know over 1,000 Chinese characters, and I can carry on a conversation in Chinese. I’ve never been to China yet. All of my studying is preparation for when I do go to live in China for three and a half months, beginning in September. I’m not yet fluent but I hope to become fluent in spoken and written Chinese as soon as possible, definitely within a few years at the rate I’m learning. I’ve learned a lot in two years because I really feel passionate about Chinese. I really believe that anyone can learn Chinese if they are passionate about learning it. But if they aren’t, then no amount of study can help. The same applies to going to China. If you have a love for China, you won’t be bothered by culture shock.

  3. I really enjoyed Matthew Elton’s website and watching their videos. They are truly professionals. The wedding video was great. I subscribed to their FB.
    Thanks for your comments about China. I look forward to your new videos.

    • Aw. Ya’ll should really come visit! (But honestly, I don’t think you would like living here. But I bet Ri would love it. She would be a little celebrity! =)

  4. Mathew, I think learning the language depends on why you are here and why you will use it. I don’t plan to ever be fluent even though I will be here 7-10 years. I am not the working spouce. I don’t mingle a lot with the locals because I am a house wife. I do what I do just like I did when I lived in the USA, except I don’t personally drive. Almost all the Chinese we are around want to pratice there english when they are with us and ask us to speak it. In fact, English is growing so fast ehre the government is trying to stop the growth for fear of the Chinese language dying out.

    Pollution. So much of this is a lack of caring in both the government and the people. Everyone throw everything down on the grow. The lack I live on is full of trash and it’s never cleaned out. With no laws for air polution or waste management, builing codes and the likes the country will never improve in these areas without drastic changes. It’s really sad when Japan is so clean and even Hong Kong. Some Cities here that deal a lot witht he west are cleaning up but it’s not a whole country thing. It’s very sad.

    I love that I’m forced to cook here. It’s so much healthier for my family.

    BTW, the main reason we are here is to see another country but to also be more finacially secure when we go home. We are not here becasue we love China, in fact I would have picked almost anywhere else. Yes, a lot of things are a lot harder than we thought they would be and nothing is fast or easy but it’s home, for now.

  5. We are an expat couple and have lived in Nanjing for just 3 weeks and will stay 3 years. We are up for the challenge and it is one. Finding other people in the same boat and blogs like this one prove especially helpful! Thank-you for your thoughtful posts and comments! Good Fortune to us ALL!

  6. Great points Matthew. And great post about the things to think about before moving.

    Moving to the other side of the planet does have its drawbacks and challenges. But (like Matthew said) if you have a passion for learning and are willing to step out of your comfort zone then you can have an enjoyable time.

    I am supposed to be moving for a year to study abroad. Now that might not sound like much but I am not your typical student. I am fast approaching 40 have has a life (or two) already. But I am seizing this as an opportunity to show myself you are never to old to learn and grow. The forward motion is what keeps us young.

    So good luck to everyone moving or living abroad. (I know i will need some too.) Either way – “ganbei!”

  7. I’m so fortunate to find your blog! I am a recent Clemson grad from South Carolina and am in the process of interviewing for one-year teaching positions in China. What I have read so far in your posts has definitely given me a better understanding and preparation of the culture shock I will experience if I do accept a job. Thanks for blogging!