Five Things That Will Surprise You About Living In China

In the beginning of 2017, a couple friends and I moved there to work on a SaaS startup in Shenzhen, China that helped Amazon sellers make more sales, get better feedback, and grow their business. It was the first time that many of us have lived in China and found many friction points, even for myself as a near-native fluent Mandarin speaker.

These little thing tend to wear on you over time and we didn’t last long. Turns out it’s a common occurrence among expats that try to settle down in China. My friend Michael Michelini at Global From Asia says there are three outcomes for most folks:

  1. You go crazy.
  2. You deal with it.
  3. You leave.

We even made a video blog about it together while having lunch at a KFC with his two kids and lovely wife. China is one of those places where you need to go all-in to really see the fruits of your labor. It’s the consistent pattern that I’ve seen among the expats there that have called China their home.

Your Credit Card Won’t Work There. Visa, Mastercard, and AMEX won’t work at 90%+ of the places you go in China because of the strict capital controls. If you don’t have a local bank account that’s based on Unionpay, you’ll need cash to get by on a daily basis. Unionpay is a banking card scheme that’s used by virtually every financial institution in mainland China. Think of it as their domestic version of Visa/Mastercard. On the other hand, their mobile payments on WeChat and Alipay are second to none. Once I got integrated in the system, there was no need for me to carry cash anymore on a daily basis.

It’s Hard To Get Money Out. As of May 2017, you can only purchase a maximum of $500 USD per business day. That makes it incredibly hard to get your savings or apartment deposit out of the country in the proper way. At the bank you’ll need to wait in the queue, fill out two forms, bring your passport, and sign two other ones before you can get your $500 USD. Rinse and repeat ten times (or more) if you want to get $5,000USD out of the country. There are non-official and semi-underground services that can help with moving this around, but it’s risky at best and subject to how much you can trust someone. You could also go the old school way of carrying cash with you, but even then there’s hard limit before you must declare or get caught at the border.

Very Little English Is Spoken. For a country that makes the world’s electronics and smartphones, it’s surprising how little English is spoken across the general population compared to other countries in Asia. From service staff at restaurants to taxi drivers, its virtually nonexistent unless you’re at the central business district of a city. So getting around can be quite hard if you don’t speak any Mandarin. On the other hand, take it as a challenge to improve your language skills.

Insane Valuations & Dumb Money. Because of capital controls restricting money from leaving the country, there’s an excess amount of cash floating around that inflates asset prices of property to startups. With the gentrification of many cities, there are folks that will squat a 30-year old house in hopes that a future real estate developer will trade them for 10-15 units of a new apartment complex. Based on the new market value, they’ve instantly become millionaires and now have nowhere else to invest that money if they liquidate a few apartments. So yeah, not a bad place to raise money for startups.

Your VPN Will Suck. The nature of VPNs are unstable at best, so often times you’ll spend a lot of time switching between providers and troubleshooting your connection when you’re trying to get on anything that’s blocked with the Great Firewall. So if you work online and need anything like Adwords, Analytics, and Facebook Ads – China is probably the WORST place you can base yourself at in the world as it’s an uphill battle with the internet infrastructure.

Even as a fluent Mandarin speaker, those were five things that I found surprising about living in China. There are plenty of expats I’ve met that learned to adapt to that world, and if you’re moving there in the near future I hope this will help you adjust quicker.


Also published on Medium.

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