Moving halfway across the world to live and work abroad is always a big challenge, but also hands down my favourite way to explore this amazing world. I’m still new to Shanghai, China but reflecting on the experiences and lessons I’ve learned in this short period of time I know this has been a good move. I moved to China with the idea of living here for a year, but one month in I realised that I would definitely be living here for longer.
Here are the most important things I have learned so far while living and working in Shanghai, China.
1. WeChat is Everything
The mobile phone is king in China and you will be lost without a smartphone. I had my smartphone unlocked before I moved to China and downloaded WeChat the Chinese version of Whatsapp. But that’s just the beginning, because WeChat is your life. Chinese people actually don’t use regular text messages, they just use WeChat to text, send voice messages and even to send actual documents as attachments. I have also embraced WeChat pay which you can use to pay for almost anything, so I don’t need to carry cash with me here in Shanghai. Even the tiny hole-in-the-wall places has a QR code that you can scan to pay with WeChat. Other than WeChat you need a smart phone to order taxis, food delivery and train or plane tickets by using different apps on your phone. You also need your mobile phone to access the shared bikes here in Shanghai which makes life so much easier.
2. Free VPNs Will Not Cut It for Internet Usage
If you want to access sites and apps like Facebook, Google, Gmail, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, Tinder, and more, you’ll need a VPN. It is a virtual private network which allows you to access sites that are blocked here in China. I am so glad that I was warned about this before moving to china. The going rate tends to be about $50-$100 USD per year for a functioning VPN. Trust me, the free ones might work for a week or so but in the long run you realize how lost you are without access to the big world wide web without a VPN.
3. In winter, AlWAYS go well wrapped up to restaurants and cafes
I wish someone had told me that, due to a government decree, there is no central heating in public buildings south of the Yangtze river. This policy was intended to bring about huge savings in energy costs. Just a few miles to the north of Shanghai, the public buildings are toasty warm throughout the winter. However, in Shanghai itself, we are expected to happily shiver through freezing winter temperatures whenever we leave our houses.
4. Invest in a proper face-mask as Surgical Masks Don’t Do Anything
When I moved to China I had no idea what the pollution level was. I have seen images of very polluted days in China, often accompanied by photos of people in surgical masks. I thought these might be rare occurrences but soon found out that this is quite common during the colder months. Forget the surgical masks, they are great for keeping yourself from getting sick on a crowded subway, but they will not work for the pollution at all. What you need is a 3M mask that will protect you from PM2.5. Don’t worry, you will be able to buy one here in China, and they even come in funky colours!
5. Buy an Air Purifier, your lungs will thank you
The media emphasizes wearing a mask outside, but let’s be honest, if it’s really polluted, you’re probably staying indoors. This is an option I have opted for a couple of times so far this winter. Unfortunately the pollution filters into our houses and I have woken up coughing more than once on heavily polluted days. I now know that it is very important to invest in a good air purifier for your apartment if you plan on living here for a while.
6. Fitted Sheets Are Not Popular
I never really thought twice about my sheets. While I like to sleep with soft and comfortable blankets, my bottom sheet never concerned me all that much. Well, over my lifetime I’ve become very accustomed to fitted sheets, and I was shocked to find that China does not share my love for fitted sheets. After searching a bit online I eventually found a place that sold them. But next time I am definitely bringing some from home!
7. Coffee Is Expensive
While many of the foreign restaurants are only expensive by comparison, imported foods and coffee are much more expensive than they are back home. Thanks to China’s tariffs, you can expect to pay up to two or three times the original price for items like coffee, cheese, peanut butter, and cereal.
Coffee is seen as a luxury in China, and many coffee shops price the drink accordingly. I was shocked to find that I could buy an entire meal for half the price of a tiny latte.
8. Bring Your Own Sunscreen
I was warned before moving to China that sunscreen isn’t very common here. Most people in China cover up to avoid the sun’s harmful rays so sunscreen tends to be sold in small bottles and is super pricey. In China you will also find the term “whitening” on your sunscreen along with most facial moisturisers. So I have brought my own, as personally I am very nervous about using a product that will end up bleaching my skin.
9. Don’t Flush Your Toilet Paper
While I knew about squat toilets, no one ever told me not to flush my toilet paper. Next to every toilet you’ll find a small basket for you to throw your used paper. Chinese pipes aren’t equipped to handle non-organic waste, so you may find your toilet clogged if you try flushing your paper one too many times. Trust me, I learned this the hard way.
Many public restrooms also don’t have toilet paper or soap, so you’ll probably want to bring some hand sanitizer from home and pick up a mini pack of tissues when you arrive.
10. “That’s so China” Is an expression you will also end up using
Being open-minded is so important, as cliché as it may sound take everything with a pinch of salt and remember that you are a guest in another country. What you may see as the cultural or social norm will most likely be different, once you learn and adapt to living as a ‘guest’ in another country you will enjoy the experience a lot more. A saying that has stuck with me and can only be fully understood by individuals who have experienced travelling or living in China is to “expect the unexpected” and “that’s so China”. As soon as you think you have seen it all, whether it’s something new or shocking, positive and/or negative something else will occur making you say “that’s so China”.
China is a complicated country with a long history, and living here has been positive and negative all in one. I have experienced and accepted some of the ‘negatives’ to living and working in this big city but still love the country as the positives out shine any of the negatives. I think the surprise of discovering new things every day has made my life here an adventure. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to arrive in China with an open mind. China is so large and complex, discovering new aspects of life and culture are just part of the fun!
Don’t let your fears and apprehensions hold you back from the adventure of moving to China.