Visiting China for the first time? These tips will set you free

We’ve all heard culture shock stories, whether from someone close or from a stranger who wrote or talked about it. Maybe they sang a horror story or perhaps they told it as a joke—either way, you paid attention because you want to be prepared, right? After all, even with preparation, you’ll still return home with a suitcase full of good stories of how China surprised you during your summer Internship, Studying Chinese Language or even just traveling. We’re just making sure China won’t pull you down or waste your time with clichés.

Here’s how to avoid severe culture shock when you move to China:

1. Do Your Homework

Just as you shouldn’t walk into a job interview unprepared, you shouldn’t start an internship in a foreign country without preparation. Do some research in the method that is least painful to you, whether it’s by watching YouTube videos, streaming recent Chinese films, eating Chinese food (which may or may not be real Chinese food), or a reading a book about China (or at least about the Culture, e.g. Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan). Browse the internet, follow an expat blog, or listen to podcasts—but be prepared!

You don’t have to fall in love with Chinese culture and know everything there is to know, but you should know what to expect. See what the buildings and people will look like, hear what the language sounds like, and taste what the local delicacies taste like (if possible in your neighborhood). That way, when you do arrive in China, you won’t be overwhelmed by all the foreignness and can focus on appreciating what you came to experience!

what to expect when moving to China - cultural shock

2. Plan and Conquer

Don’t just think of your China trip as an internship; get excited about it! You’re going to be living in a foreign country, in a foreign culture, and working like a local. You can be sure it won’t be boring—how can we guarantee this? Well, you can plan to prevent boredom!

First, watch explore China TV shows, documentaries, and read up on travel books. Once you’ve got an idea of what China has to offer, you should know what interests you in China. Did you like the grottoes, waterfalls, and rivers? Would you like to spend a few days in a rural village, discover the lifestyles of an ethnic minority group, or visit the sites where history was made? Do you want to sit in a Chinese garden, sipping tea as you practice Chinese calligraphy or practice a traditional Chinese instrument?

Whatever activity, location, or interest you’ve developed about China should be used as guidance for your plans. Make a “to do” list for yourself, plan a timetable (or you’ll never get around to doing them), and challenge yourself to meet all your goals!

3. Learn the Basics

As we’ve mentioned before, you don’t need to master the language before your trip or even during your trip—no matter how long it is. But any good traveler will tell you that knowing a few words and phrases—and knowing you’ve practiced them so hard any native should be able to understand you—is priceless!

Being able to greet a local in their native language, express gratitude, and ask for basic necessities (e.g. where’s the WC?) show that you respect the local culture and have interest in it—which will hopefully derail people from asking you for the 200th time why you’re in China.

China cultural shock

4. Find “Pen-pals”

You don’t need to find an actual pen-pal and write snail mail letters to each other. You just need to reach out to someone who’s either at your destination city, or also on their way there when you are. You could also reach out to someone who’s got the experience of living in your destination city and can give you the low down on what to expect.

By reaching out to people before your trip, you can ensure that you’ve heard it from people who’ve successfully returned from the adventure you’re about to embark on, which will give you the confidence to take everything China throws at you with a light heart and a smile. CIP provides free language partners to our China Program Participants. These are local college students who are looking to interact with foreigners and engage in cultural exchange activities.

5. Know Your Culture

Traveling to a foreign country as a tourist is a vastly different experience from living in a foreign country. The number of reason it’s different is because in the latter, you might have to live like a local and interact with locals more than when you were just a visitor. As a tourist, you might’ve admired the local specialties, sights, and wondered at the people’s lifestyles. As an expat, you’re

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