Living in China: some FAQs
We love life in China, but there always some questions that come up again and again. Here we’ve tried to set the record straight on the day-to-day of being an expat living in China.
- Can you get online?
Yes, absolutely. However the Chinese government censors certain websites- including Google, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Unofficially, this doesn’t mean you can’t access them, though. Many expats use VPNs, or virtual private network, which is a way around the ‘Great Firewall’- however there’s some suggestion this could change. But getting in touch with relatives back home isn’t as hard as it sounds- for online communication some apps like WeChat are ideal for friends and family. These instant messaging apps are a great substitute and a good way to keep touch with friends both abroad and in China- indeed you’ll find they’re pretty much the only way people keep in touch inside China, so as you begin to make friends you’ll probably want to download it anyway!
- Can you get Western comfort food?
Depending on the city you live in, the availability of Western goods will vary. Larger cities have plenty of shops stocking Western goods- though they may not always have a huge range, meaning it may take visits to several before you get all the ingredients for your shepherd’s pie or apple crumble. You will also have to pay more for many things than you’d expect to at home- even despite the exchange rate and generally far lower cost of living. Imported foods from specialist supermarkets will be the best way to get the taste of home you’re looking for- however the cost of a grocery shop like this will be three or four times what it may be back home. For example, bread will be expensive, and sweet, while Chinese-produced chocolate will be much less sweet that you expect. Dairy is simply not part of the diet in China in the same way as the West. Fresh milk is best treated with extreme caution- imported UHT milk costs more, but will be preferable, alternatively the locals all drink soy milk. Cheese will be of low quality (many Chinese diners view cheese as suspect, and it’s not popular) and more similar to highly processed, flavourless budget cheese available in the West.
Though most people in China have never visited the West, western goods and particularly foods are taking off. However, just as you’ll quickly discover just like real Chinese food bears a very little resemblance to the versions available in your local takeaway, so the Chinese take on the Western restaurant experience will probably vary from what you expect! Different markets, climate, prices and the high cost of imports mean a lot of ‘American’ or ‘European’ recipes get the Chinese treatment: expect shrimp instead of beef, green tea ice cream and rice instead of chips. Remember that perhaps unlike some outlets in the UK or US, these restaurants aren’t seeking to provide expats with a taste of home- this is fusion cuisine, carefully redesigned to make quintessentially Western food (particularly American fast food, although Italian food is also taking off) acceptable to the very highly developed and discerning Chinese palate. The first Western brands to set up shop in China in the 1980’s quickly learned that the locals find typical savoury Western food bland and flavourless, or simply too far outside their comfort zone, to stomach. Desserts, sweets and chocolate were found to be far, far too sweet to be successful, while generally city dwellers were deeply suspicious of anything raw- even salads. In response, franchises edited their recipes to offer a Westernised, yet still familiar and palatable, alternative.
Despite their rocky start, there are more KFC outlets in China today than in the US, and similar chains like McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Starbucks are opening all over the country. For all the tweaks to the menu, these outlets offer a deliberately Westernised dining experience. Tasting Western food reimagined for Chinese tastes can be unusual, and sometimes confusing, but fun!
Authentic Chinese food is wonderful, unique and a huge part of why so many Westerners stay in China. It would be unfair to assume that the low regard for many Western foods among the locals is due to prejudice or being highly-strung: you’ll find most Chinese people eager to try Western food, and you’ll probably be asked to host at least one dinner party! The fact is that the Chinese palate has developed in exposure to an amazing array of spices and flavours, along with a rich culinary tradition every bit as prestigious and esteemed as France’s or Italy’s. It’s probably fair for Chinese diners to be a little picky when faced with Western foods, where the only prominent flavourings are salt and pepper, especially the highly preserved, cheap imitations that make it onto the still very young import market.
- Is it overcrowded?
There’s no avoiding it: China is crowded. With 1.4 billion people, it’s a country of epic proportions. You’ll quickly learn to live alongside the crowds, though, and you’d also be surprised at the peacefulness that can be found by travelling beyond the cities. China has many thousands of miles of countryside, stunning mountains, steppe, and even desert, to explore. On average China has 363 people per square mile: but the UK has a population density of 1010 people her square mile. When in the city, the hustle and bustle of daily life reminds everyone of the powerhouse that is China, the huge scale of day to day life that’s driving ‘The Chinese Century’. But the opportunity to travel & explore easily means life in China isn’t all crowds and queues.
- Is it polluted?
The age-old joke about drinking the wine but not the tap water falls very much into the ‘true’ category in China- although in Qingdao it might be more appropriate to substitute beer instead of wine! Water pollution is just part of life, and it’s something the authorities are working hard to improve. Water filters are necessary on taps and showers, and drinking water will come from bottles. As with many parts of the world, life continues as normal, despite the need to drink from bottles.
China does also have an air pollution problem, due to large numbers of cars, rapid growth in heavy industry and coal burning power stations. This creates smog in cities, especially in winter and at busy times. There is, however, a lot of variety by region in this. When living in China, the smog is something you’ll learn to live with. Daily smog reports and smog monitoring apps are widely used, and there’s plenty of equipment available to measure both outdoor and indoor air quality, as well as household air purifiers and the commonly-seen outdoor face masks. Steps to deal with smog are being taken by the Chinese government, and in the meantime even in very large cities populations are rising to the challenge and overcoming the worst of the effects.
- Can I get my Western medical prescription filled?
Yes, the healthcare system in China is efficient and modern, and though branding may be different, the generic forms of the same medicine available in the west are available in China. In addition, some hospitals operate special wards for foreigners that stock Western medicines. Take care to bring all the relevant paperwork with you, including doctor’s notes outlining conditions and prescriptions. Pharmacies are commonplace in China- and although they’re rarely staffed by English speakers, the English name for a medicine’s generic form is usually used in medical labelling, helping overcome the language barrier.
- Can I be vegetarian or vegan?
If skewered chicken feet and dried jellyfish don’t quite do it for you, you’ll be happy to know there are plenty of options which don’t contain meat. However be aware that vegetarianism and veganism as a lifestyle choice have not quite permeated Chinese society in the same way as they have in most of the West. Indeed, you’d be surprised at the range of even western societies where publically being vegetarian or vegan becomes much harder than we’re used to in the UK, or in places like the US where personal preferences in food and drink are entertained with much greater tolerance. Therefore when travelling, it’s no good just walking into any restaurant and expecting to see a column of green ‘v’s next to items on the menu- you have to use a little initiative to get by. In fact, it can be part of the adventure!
Discovering your new favourite vegetarian dish isn’t as hard as it sounds in China. Firstly (and this goes with all food) take a friend! Someone who understands the cuisine and speaks the language well will allow you to throw yourself into the local specialties and discover amazing new things you’ve never eaten before. They’ll be able to ask the questions you can’t, and make recommendations. It’s really the only way to fully get to grips with the thorny issue of meat in Chinese cuisine. In many ways the culture makes this a necessity to begin with. Practicing saying you’re vegetarian until you’re blue in the face may not work, as the concept doesn’t exist outside major cities, at least not as we understand it.
Don’t lose heart though: China isn’t like other countries, where eating meat and animal-product specialties is a way of life, ingrained deeply into the culture. This is largely because of the huge Buddhist community. Buddhists in China are completely vegetarian, and will also avoid strong smelling plants including onions, shallots, garlic and sometimes coriander. Lots of Buddhist cafes and restaurants exist in China, where all the food will be cooked according to Buddhist principles. You may find it easiest to explain to people your vegetarianism or veganism in these terms. A guide will be able to show you the best places to go- these will likely become regular haunts as you discover a taste for their food.
There are options, of course, if the local café or Buddhist temple is closed. Chinese street food offers plenty of meat free options. From noodles to dumplings to spring rolls and pancakes, there are so many vegetarian-friendly foods in every corner of Chinese stalls and restaurants: it’s just a question of finding them.
The area of China you visit will have a big impact on your entire diet, not to mention your quest for vegetarian and vegan food. China is, in a word, massive. It’s very nearly the size of all of Europe combined. If you consider the differences in food culture between Finland and Sicily or Scotland and Greece, you can begin to see how much variety China’s region’s offer- you’ve literally got a lot on your plate! However, as with other countries, don’t expect the ‘meat-free’ option to, in fact, be ‘meat free’- it might still be made with meat-derived products, or cooked in meat fat or juices, or prepared in contact with meat. It just won’t feature meat as the main ingredient. Restaurant owners will tell you it’s vegetarian just the same, even as they pour oyster sauce all over your nice veggie noodles. This isn’t’ because they’re necessarily malicious or dishonest, just because in Chinese culture, like in a lot of non-western countries, a meal without meat just means a meal not based around meat- not necessary consciously excluding it. Meals made with tofu, soy or bean curd are a good example of this: just because these are popular with vegetarians or vegans in the west, it doesn’t mean that link exists in Chinese culture, where they are eaten normally, by everyone. To further confuse the issue, don’t expect vegetarian meals to be labelled as not containing meat. For instance, soy or tofu dressed up as chicken will simply be labelled as chicken. To navigate this minefield, a bilingual friend is essential. Once you find what you’re looking for, though- the experience will be amazing!