When we think of China, we probably have many contrary images popping up in our heads. Air pollution, cheap clothes, amazing food, forgery and so on. That’s why it is even more interesting to get to understand this culture, either by traveling to China or getting first-hand information from an expat who lives there, such as Charlotte from Chats with Charlotte.
Hi Charlotte, tell us about yourself…
Hi, I am Charlotte – a 25-year old girl, born and raised in a small town in Belgium. After high school, I decided to major in Mandarin Chinese at the university. I always loved foreign languages and as China’s economy was booming, I decided that was the smartest choice for me.
After finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I got a scholarship to study in Shanghai for one year. The year I spend in Shanghai was absolutely amazing, I fell in love with living in another culture. Once I moved back to Belgium to finish my studies, I knew in my heart that I wanted to move abroad again.
In my free time I love to read, travel, blog and exercise. I started my blog when I first moved to China to keep my friends and family up to date.
I feel really passionate about sharing my experience abroad, so I recently changed the focus to expat life and helping other people in their decision to move abroad.
What was the main reason for moving, to China? And which part did you move to?
After graduation (two years ago) I wanted a job that was related to China and preferably IN China. So, I contacted every Belgian company I could think of that was related to China or had established an office in China.
I got the opportunity to start working for a Belgian SME in their office in Ningbo (Zhejiang province) right after graduation (literally the Monday after graduation). I couldn’t have been happier.
Last year my boss asked me if I would be interested to move up North to open a new office for his company. I took the opportunity and moved with my boyfriend Mathias to a city called Shijiazhuang (Hebei province).
About 5 months ago we moved again to another city in North China for my job, called Tianjin. Currently, we are living in Tianjin and we hope to stay here for a while.
Is it easy to connect with locals (make friends) or are there any (language/cultural) barriers?
The Chinese people are generally very friendly and a lot of them are open to friendships with foreigners. My Chinese friends are incredibly helpful, I can ask them anything and they will go out of their way to find an answer.
Although being friends with locals is great, it is hard to connect on a deeper level due to cultural differences and language barriers. Even in big cities like Shanghai or Beijing, only a small percentage of Chinese people speak English. I would definitely recommend learning basic Mandarin before you move to China.
How about the cost of living?
The cost of living in China really depends on your lifestyle. It is certainly possible to keep the costs very low if you live according to Chinese standards. This means eating at local places, purchasing groceries at the farmer’s market and buying stuff from Chinese brands.
If you implement a lifestyle comparable to that of a Chinese person, your cost of living will be half of what you spend in Europe. At the same time, as a foreigner, your income will probably be similar to what you would earn back home. Therefore, China is definitely a good location to save some money.
Western restaurants and imported goods are a lot more expensive. Like all things in life, balance is key. It is ok to splurge once in a while to beat homesickness!
What is your favorite and least favorite part about living in China?
My favorite part is that China is located in the center of Asia. It’s really easy to travel to Japan, Korea or Thailand at a low price. Furthermore, China has amazing historical places and beautiful nature. The opportunities to travel around and discover Asia are endless.
My least favorite part is that simple tasks are often very complicated for foreigners. It’s always an adventure, but this can be exhausting.
The other day I had to go to the bank because I got a new passport. This is a small issue, which should not be a problem at all. However, it took me a couple of days and several hours at the bank to resolve it, just because I am a foreigner. In those moments I feel really discouraged.
What was the biggest culture shock for you?
The mentality of the people when doing business in China. We work with local factories, some of which have no other foreign customers. Our partners often don’t stick to their word, don’t deliver good quality or change the price last minute. These practices are unthinkable in Europe and probably would be the end of a business relationship.
Chinese people are so focused on the profits today, that they fail to see the importance of a long-term partnership.
What is your favorite local food?
Malaxiangguo 麻辣香锅! This dish is a rather new concept in China. It is extremely popular. I think the idea is really cool.
You choose either from a menu or out of an actual fridge, the ingredients that you want (vegetables, meat,…) and how spicy you want it to be. The restaurant cooks your ingredients in a big bowl and adds the spices which result in one big mountain of delicious food. You eat it together with rice.
Both my boyfriend and I can’t get enough of this dish and it has quickly become our favorite comfort food in China.
Can you share any funny/typical tradition from China?
Superstitions are still very much alive in today’s China. You can see many traditions in daily life on the street. It goes from buildings that don’t have the 4th floor (because the pronunciation of number 4 sounds similar to death in Mandarin) to people lighting incense at temples or burning stuff for dead family members in the middle of the street.
Also when buying a phone number or a license plate for your car, you get a whole list of numbers and you can select the one you want. Lucky numbers are serious business in China!
What is one stereotype about Chinese that you found out not to be true?
All Chinese people are smart and work extremely hard. So many Chinese I know are actually super lazy. They spend their Saturdays in front of the TV or sleeping.
I’m sure at the top universities, the environment is very competitive. However, a major part of the population are quite relaxed and don’t worry too much about working the hardest.
What is your favorite thing to do in China that people should do if they visit?
Walking around in the parks. For Chinese people, the parks are an important part of their life. They go on their daily walk or meet up with their group to work out. It is your chance to see the life of locals first hand. Wherever you go in China, the parks are always buzzing.
What was the biggest challenge for you once you moved to China?
For my job, I’ve moved to three different cities in 18 months. Finding a new home and building a new life every couple of months isn’t easy. Especially in China, a place that feels so foreign.
I must admit that the first couple of weeks in every new city are always the most difficult. It takes a while to get around and find your new group of friends.
What is a fun fact about China most people don’t know about or expect?
Chinese people can be very direct about a certain topic. A Chinese person will tell you to your face that you look like you gained weight.
Another example: Almost every taxi driver will ask me how much money I make. Which is considered rude in Europe. On the other hand, Chinese people are sensitive to topics like relationships or pointing out mistakes.
What do you miss most from home?
Family and friends! Living abroad is amazing, but it comes at a price. I miss out on a lot of birthday parties and weddings. When you see pictures of your friends hanging out together on social media, it always sucks.
What would be your top advice for people who are thinking to move to China?
Prepare yourself mentally for what is coming. Moving abroad is a huge challenge in itself, but moving to China is something different. I’ve met so many people that were very disappointed after they arrived.
It will take some time to figure everything out and adjust to your new environment. You will either hate it or love it.
The key to a good experience in China is your attitude. Life will not be easy and there will be so many little things that get on your nerves.
At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how you deal with it. You can either let it ruin your stay or laugh it off!