Keys to the Castillo

For Expats in China: 5 Things NOT to Do

You should always treat others with respect, especially when you live abroad.

Table of Contents

At 19, I was young, dumb, and quite impressionable, but I credit my parents for raising me well and warning me to stay on the ball.


In September 2014, I hopped on a plane to Shanghai to study Chinese for a year at one of the top universities in the country, on a full scholarship.


When I touched down, it was like a different planet. As much as I’d tried to prepare myself and search around the net for information about what was in store, I was still surprised by tons of everyday encounters.

One of these was the sheer amount of foreigners pouring into the city on an annual basis. I stayed there for four years, and it seemed like more and more ‘waiguoren’ were popping up all the time.


Here’s the thing, though – it didn’t take me long to recognize one simple fact: it is very easy to get carried away and enjoy yourself too much. So, listen – if you’re planning on staying in Shanghai, or any other popular expat destination, and you seek to live a balanced, healthy lifestyle, then bear the following in mind.


5 Things Expats Really Shouldn’t Do…


  1. Expats in China shouldn’t drink too much


Alright, ‘too much’ is certainly subject to opinion, but I think everyone has a sense of when they’re overdoing it.


I knew tons of guys (and girls) who were supposed to be studying alongside myself… but, it didn’t take long for them to get hooked on the hedonistic thrill of hitting up the clubs or bars every night and showing up to class hungover the next day… if they even showed up.


Keep in mind as well that alcohol varies from country to country. In China, you can be sure that a good portion of what you’re drinking is ‘fake’ booze – just take a look at these clips here and here to get a glimpse.


Not only that, but you have to realize that yes, some alcohol may be much cheaper than it is back home, but let’s not forget the age old adage that you get what you pay for (more often than not).


I’m not demonizing drinking. In China, drinking is just as much a social thing as it is in the west, and perhaps even more so. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been invited to high-end dinners with wealthy businesspeople who were typically polite, humble, and mild mannered… but man, as soon as the bottles were popped, it was one glass after another, down the hatch!


Great times, great memories, but they all have their place.


  1. Expats in China should try to meet locals


This is especially true if you are monolingual. I am bashing you a little here. In 2018, you are at a disadvantage if you can only speak one language.


The world is shrinking, and the amount of people from across cultures who are gaining access to avenues which were once closed off to them is increasing exponentially. Where does that leave you if you can only communicate in one language?


“But, Sebastian, there’s always at least one local who can speak my language. I chill with them. What’s wrong with that?”


Nothing. What I am against, however, is when expats don’t make a serious effort to take some steps out of their comfort zone and learn the local language. Interact with locals who have limited to no communication skills in your language.


Think about it – locals who put an effort into learning your language have also inevitably learned about your culture. In that sense, when you interact with them, you’re not exactly getting the full ‘cultural’ experience you otherwise would by interacting with a local in their language.


On top of that… let me share something that may startle you.


In China, the demand for learning English is high and continues to climb as more kids are born and more parents are becoming aware of how essential English language skills are for their kids to be able to communicate with the rest of the world. Teachers are paid reasonably well for taking the time to teach these kids.




I remember on occasion meeting Chinese people who were adamant about speaking English with me. I would purposefully respond only in Chinese. The result was a strange conversation where the Chinese person was speaking broken English with me, while I, the foreigner, communicated with them in fluent Chinese.


Needless to say, those relationships never really went anywhere.




Because the truth is, some people will use you. For your money, for your status, and even for your language skills. Am I blowing this out of proportion? See for yourself. Engaging a local in your language, then switching to theirs. They will most likely be resistant to it.


  1. Expats in China should take care of their appearance


Most of the expats in China I see around tend to fall into one of two categories – well-dressed, in shape, and generally decent-looking… and then there’s those who look like they just rolled out of bed. As if living in a different country negates the need to dress well and present yourself in a positive light to the world!


People are generally the same everywhere – we tend to judge others heavily based on first impressions… which is almost entirely based on how you look! Next time you decide to walk out the door, even if you’re hungover (see point #1), make an effort to look clean and well-maintained. Wear clothes that fit you well. Nothing too old. Clean your shoes regularly. Not only will others respect you, but who knows what other opportunities might come your way.


  1. Expats in China should never, ever complain about China


Just to be clear, this piece itself isn’t meant to be interpreted as me complaining about the current state of affairs! Rather, it’s aimed at helping expats in China have a better, more joyful experience while abroad.


Unfortunately, a ton of expats in China regularly tend to cast a black cloud over their head… and that often carries over to others.

If you’re from the west, you’re probably used to everything working properly. Running water. Fast internet. People generally following rules and laws. Public decency. In other, less developed parts of the world, this isn’t necessarily true.


This isn’t just limited to expats, either – try to eliminate complaining from your life no matter who or where you are. Spouting negative energy incessantly does no one any good, especially you!


Instead, think back to the positives that initially drew you to the place you’re in now. Great weather, good job, delicious food, time to enjoy yourself… the list goes on.


At the end of the day, if things aren’t working out for you… go home. Or, go somewhere else. No one and nothing is physically forcing you to remain where you are… I hope.


  1. Expats in China should avoid getting stuck in a rut


I saved this one for last because I think people will often overlook the possibility of sinking into a rut, especially when all they want to do is get started with their new life as an expat in China!


Look, everyone faces challenges in life. Sometimes, they get the better of us, and we feel like no matter what we do or where we turn, there seems to be no avenue of salvation within reach.


That’s not true. Believe me when I speak from experience that you make your own opportunities. You need to be the cause of what occurs in your life, rather than the effect.


I sank into feelings of hopelessness and melancholy about three times while I was in China. It seemed strange, given that I was so happy to be there initially. But, as time wears on, the novelty wears off, and we get used to our new lives. That’s just the way it is. The key is to remember why you started. Why did you want to start a new life?


I’ve been there, and I’ve gone through some real torment with no family, and hardly any of my friends by my side. If you need help overcoming difficulties as an expat, you can read my article on that here.


To wrap things up… these aren’t commandments by any means. They’re guidelines based on my personal experiences, and my observations of friends and acquaintances who ended up having to deal with some unfortunate consequences as the result of their inability to think long term.


Don’t let that be you.

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