The Dirt Underneath Your Fingernails: Challenges of Expat Life in China

After writing my own personal love letter to Beijing, I thought it would be an appropriate time to discuss some of the challenges of being an expat in China. While I have found my time in China to be a really enriching and life-changing experience, it’s hard to discount many of the challenges involved in living in China for a long period of time. It’s really easy to view my life or the lives of other expats through various social media platforms and assume that living abroad in a constant adventure. After the initial honeymoon period is over, living in China just become a normal thing and you deal with everyday problems. Let’s talk about some of them.


“The bane of my existence”- Most China expats at one point or another

Visas are tricky in China. You need a visa to enter to China. Getting a visa is not necessarily an issue, but many foreigners struggle to get the most sacred of all documents in China: a Z visa. A Z visa is a work visa that permits foreigners to legally work in China. Getting a Z visa involves a long bureaucratic process as well as procuring a number of documents. One of the documents, a non-criminal record check, does not exist in any country except for China so you have to have your local sheriff’s office to explain what it is. You need to have two years work experience outside of China as well and be older than 24. A company needs to sponsor you in order to get a work visa and then you have to leave the country. Some companies cannot do this and many foreigners end up working illegally on student, tourist, or business visas. Foreigners on business visas or tourist visas have to leave the country every 60 to 90 days. Sometimes it makes staying in China very difficult and leaving the country every few months is expensive. This can make saving money very challenging.

Getting Out of Teaching

Teaching is a good way to get over to the Middle Kingdom. This is not targeted towards teachers who majored in English or education and are really passionate about teaching. If you love teaching and that is what you are really interested in, China is a good place to work at a respectable international school. For many people, this is not the case. Teaching is easy money in China and you don’t need to be qualified to find a good paying teaching job. Many times the minimum is just a white face who doesn’t even need to be a native speaker. There is a lot of money to be made in teaching and it is easy to settle into teaching.

At the end of the day, teaching experience does not look good on a resume unless you want to go into education consulting. Many times you end up taking a pay cut in order to find a more professional position and it is much easier if your Chinese is business proficient. There are many websites such as HiredChina that can help you find different jobs across many different fields.

It comes down to a question of how you use your time in China to advance your career. Moving away requires some sacrifices and it’s important to make your time in China count which bring us to our next problem.

The Chinese Hurdle

While you can still get around with speaking basic Chinese, it makes everything more difficult. Taking the subway and food may be fine but dealing with your landlord or getting things fixed may require some assistance. Chinese is not as easy as picking a Latin language and you cannot just pick it up. Knowing Chinese and speaking it well make everyday life substantially easier but you need to invest time in it. It takes time, dedication, and guidance and it is oftentimes frustrating as you hit different plateaus in the language learning process. At the end of the day, it is worth it if you are going to spend a substantial amount of time in China.


Hospital, Banks, & Other Daily Inconveniences

Chinese institutions can be extremely difficult to navigate through if you don’t speak Chinese. Even if you do speak Chinese, going to a Chinese hospital or bank can involve way too many steps. When you go to a Chinese hospital, you have register first and pay the registration fee. You have to get a number and doctors will not see anyone from 11:00 to 1:30 sometimes If you are going to a large Chinese hospital, you have wait in huge waiting room for an hour or two. You see the doctor for a few minutes and then you have to go to another floor to get a blood test. First, you have to pay for the blood test at the cashier then go to the blood testing counter which might be on a completely different floor. Then you have to go back to the doctor to discuss your results. All of these different steps are frustrating and nerve wrecking even for foreigners who feel comfortable with their Chinese. You end up having to ask multiple people where to go and what the next step is.

There are so many situations in which you need to speak Chinese or have someone help you do things in China. Whether it’s buying a phone card, setting up a bank account, turning on the power in your house, paying your water bill, or getting something fixed for a fair price, far too many things are so much complicated and difficult than they need to be

The Dirt Underneath our Fingernails

Beijing is a dirty and gritty city. There are a lot of people and the climate as well as pollution isn’t great. Things don’t always go smoothly or function as they should sometimes in a truly comical and nonsensical way. At the very core, I think a lot of expats actually like that part of Beijing that there are more struggles and challenges than there should be. The energy in the city keeps us moving, staying here, and coming back for more even though all of us have has a “ugh, China, really” moment here and there. It’s a flawed place with flawed people and institutions but a great place to be nonetheless. 

Kristen Carusos is from Atlanta, Georgia in the United States. She graduated from Kennesaw State University with a major in International Affairs and a minor in French. She studied abroad in China for the first time in Shanghai in 2010 and again in 2011 at Beijing Language and Culture University. She graduated and moved to Beijing in 2012 and has been studying Chinese since then. She works in the Marketing Department at the Sinology Institute.