Photo of China Flag. Photo: iStock
Photo of China Flag. Photo: iStock

Living in China as a foreigner has some very specific challenges. Unless you have Asian heritage, you stick out like a sore thumb from everyone around you. With no Chinese ID card, everything from buying a phone to shopping online can be inconvenient. And then there’s the language barrier and the culture shock. Here are some of the tips and tricks I found that helped keep me sane during my year abroad:

1. Sign up for some activity you enjoy back in your home country. For me it was finding dance classes at a local gym. Some of my friends found campus Frisbee or soccer teams nearby and even ended up becoming their coach! Maybe you want to look for a cooking class or a hiking group or a chess club. Chances are, if you’re in a big city or university you’ll find one and if not, you can start one! This will not only help you feel a sense of familiarity and routine doing something you enjoy, it is a fantastic way to meet locals with whom you have common interests!

2. Keep perspective – When your elderly neighbor or mother-figure coworker scold you for not wearing enough clothes in winter, it’s easy to feel condescended to, as if you, a grown person, don’t know how to dress yourself. Remember that this is a way of demonstrating concern and care for another person! Shake off the irritation and smile at the statement behind the words.

3. Make a list of the things you love about China – On the days when your VPN is slow, the air is super smoggy, and the locals won’t stop taking your picture without permission, you might start asking yourself why you even moved to China. Remind yourself of your purpose in coming, whether it was language study, adventure, or world travel. Write down all the things that China does right. Include things like the comprehensive public transportation system and deliciously cheap street food! Look at this list whenever you start feeling down and out.

4. Set boundaries and stick to them – When your boss changes your schedule at the last second, tell her that from now on, you need at least 24-hrs notice if she wants you to provide a high-quality lesson. When your school “volun-tells” you to sing an American song at the Christmas party next week, say no, but offer to help with set up or MC-ing instead if you are more comfortable with that. When the businessman on the bus wants to practice his English with you after a long day of work, kindly explain to him that you are tired and just want to rest, and then close your eyes and ignore him. You are allowed to take time for yourself. You’re already out of your comfort zone by living in another country; you don’t have to say yes to every demand that is placed on you.

5. Explore your neighborhood – Don’t just sit around your room and mope. If you’re feeling homesick, step out your door, pick a direction and start walking. The exercise will clear your mind and you might discover something really cool like an outdoor market or a cute little café. Make your neighborhood feel like home by becoming familiar with its nooks and crannies, storefronts and restaurants. If you are extroverted or want to work on your Chinese, talk to the street vendors and shop-owners. If you’d rather stay quiet, bring your camera and snap some artsy pictures, or just enjoy the fresh (or not so fresh) air. Learn your way around well enough to give a taxi driver directions back to your place. Look up what sites your town has to offer by asking your students, teachers, or friends. Then pick a day, grab a friend or go solo and go! Some of your best China memories may be made this way. At the very least, you’ll shake off that restless, dissatisfied feeling by taking action.

Have any of these techniques worked for you? What else do you do to feel at home in a foreign country? Let me know in the comments!

Carly O'Connell

Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.

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