Guest Post: 7 Ways to Deal with Culture Shock when Living as an Expat in China

Guest Post: 7 Ways to Deal with Culture Shock when Living as an Expat in China

Today’s guest post is from Alex who works for Currency UK – a foreign exchange broker with lots of helpful services for expats.


China is not only a long way from the UK geographically, but culturally too. The differences between the two cultures can come as a shock when you first touch down on Chinese soil. Here are seven of the main culture shocks you may need to adjust to before you settle into your new community:

Food and Eating

One of the biggest culture shocks will be to your palate. China’s cuisine is different from any other in the world – and no it’s not quite like your local Chinese takeaway! And of course, there are chopsticks to get used to.

The main ingredients in Chinese food are rice and wheat; noodles corn and potato are also common. There are also a few surprising things not often seen on a UK menu including seaweed and chicken feet.

Start off gently with simple rice dishes or meals that mostly include familiar ingredients. Bear in mind that playing with your chopsticks or making faces at your food is not good etiquette.


With rough 1.357 billion people in China, accept the fact that there will be crowds in any urban area. Unlike the UK, lines and queuing are not the automatic reaction. In dense towns and cities there will also be lots of traffic and a lot of noise.

Like any populated area, pick pocketing can occur in crowded areas, so mind your valuables. Also bring a book or listen to something on your headphones to help you zone out from the crowds if you’re travelling.


If you are invited to a Chinese person’s house, it is traditional courtesy to bring a gift. Red flowers are popular (not white flowers; they are used at funerals), or a basket of fruit. A pre-made gift of fruit usually costs about 30RMB so you don’t have to break the bank to make new friends.


Despite certain restrictions, smoking is still popular in China. Unlike the UK, smoking is seen as impressive and it’s not generally considered offensive to be smoking in public places.

You can try to avoid places with heavy smoking However, since it often occurs in restaurants and cafes it will also be a matter of choosing a seat furthest from the smoke.

Eye contact

Direct eye contact in China is considered inappropriate, especially when talking to your superiors.

Practice makes perfect with this culture shock. To remember, think of who is traditionally in the ‘superior’ role e.g. teacher and student, the teacher would classically be the superior role.

On the other hand, excessive staring can be considered normal but may leave you feeling like a purple panda.


In Chinese tradition, if a host offers refreshment and the guest declines, the host will ask twice more. This shows concern for the guests’ comfort.

Don’t get impatient if you find yourself declining more noodles three times. Remember, the host is literally the host in China, so if you are having people round, you provide everything for them.

Conversely, it is customary to leave a little bit of leftover food to indicate to your host that you are full.


Due to a strict social etiquette, establishing friendships rather than acquaintances requires certain clues.

Establish a connection by giving a cultural exchange with your friends, such as dinner or a present from your home country. Gifts of thanks work well with the old Chinese aspect of friendship being about repaying favours.



China can seem a strange and confusing country when you first arrive. Keep in mind some useful phrases, and be prepared to make a few blunders along the way! Getting used to any new culture can be difficult, but stick with it, be patient, and the rewards will make it all worth it.

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: 7 Ways to Deal with Culture Shock when Living as an Expat in China

  1. I knew that real Chinese food is different than what you’ll get from takeaway restaurants, but I didn’t know it was different enough to invoke culture shock! I would have expected not to find fortune cookies or orange chicken in China, but I’ll admit that I didn’t expect chicken feet to be on the menu instead. If I ever go to China, I’ll follow your advice and start off with more familiar dishes first. Thanks for the tips!

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