Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Moved to China

In my own defense I was 18 and an idiot. It was my first trip to China and I really had no clue what I was doing. I had done research, as the massive amounts of highlighter in my Lonely Planet guide (circa 2007) can attest to. But for some reason (see sentence one), I managed to ignore a lot of the basics. So here they are, the things I really should have done before moving to China.


I can read about 20 Chinese characters, and at least half of them have something to do with food.


I cringe having to admit this, but my 18 year old self though I would just “pick up” the language. Yeah, I actually thought learning Chinese would be that easy. I had been told I should try to learn as much as I could before arriving, which is a piece of advice I promptly ignored. This advise I have also tried to pass on to others and have had promptly ignored. So let’s try this again: Seriously, learn a bit of Mandarin before you go! You don’t need to be fluent, but your usual travel basics are a really good place to start (hello, please, thank you, I’d like a beer, etc). For things more complicated (I need a one way train ticket to Xi’an for Wednesday, hard sleeper please), you’re going to need a translation app anyway. I wish I had the new Google Translate app that can translate from an image back when I was in China–it would have seriously expanded my culinary horizons if I had been able to read the menu better. But really, even if you’re only going for a few weeks, take some time and learn a bit of the language–it will not only help you when you first get your feet on the ground, but it will give you a foundation to build from when you start taking on more complicated phrases.


Though there was a fork available that night, this picture always reminds me of exactly how out of my depth I felt that first night in Beijing


Yeah, I moved to China when I didn’t really know how to use chopsticks. Just a bit of an oversight there and one I didn’t really recognize until I was in Beijing at my first meal attempting to actually transfer food between the plate and my mouth without wearing it. This is not to say forks cannot be found in some restaurants, they certainly can when they either cater to tourists or server some western food. But the best meals I had in China were usually from small street side restaurants where you balance precariously on broken plastic chairs, and these places are kind of chopstick exclusive. If you want to not embarrass yourself and actually be able to eat a full meal, you really need to learn this if you don’t already know how. There is even a convenient “how to” diagram on the back of the package! When I teach people (yes, I have been asked to do so), I usually have them eat something easy like popcorn or potato chips until they get used to how they need hold the sticks. After that you can advance to heavier food items. When you can eat fried rice, you know you got this. Honestly, I still kind of suck at using chopsticks, but I am no where near as much of a mess as I was before.


I have a deep and unending love of steamed dumplings. Best paired with local beer!

Real Chinese Food

If you read the above section with bemusement because, how did I not know something so basic, this one is going to really make your eyebrows hit the ceiling. Actually the reasoning for both my lack of chopsticks skills and the fact that I’d never eaten authentic Chinese food are the same; I grew up in a small town and so simply never had exposure to such things. I grew up about an hour north of Toronto, and at the time the multiculturalism of the Greater Toronto Area had not quite reached that far. To get anything even close to authentic, it would have required me to take the trip down to the Toronto city center, and the reality was that “going to the city” was a special treat that happened maybe once or twice a year. So the closest I had come to Chinese food was at the mall food court. I do love Chinese food now, but I really wish I had taken the time to get to know it better before leaving Canada if for nothing else than to have not spent months eating only fried rice because it was the only food item I could name.


Me and the students form one of my classes on sports day.

How to Actually Teach English

English is my first language, but as you, dear reader, have probably noticed, my grammar and spelling can at times leave something to be desired. So what exactly made me think that as an 18 year old recent high school graduate I had any qualifications what so ever to teach English is beyond me. Not entirely my fault, the gap year company I was going with was letting me teach after all. They were also supposed to give me some training in that direction, which they didn’t. All this basically resulted in me showing up for the first day of class having no knowledge of how to function as a proper teacher, and more importantly, knowing nothing about teaching in a second language. Faced with this rather sink or swim knowledge gap, I started paddling pretty hard. Eventually I was able to build strategies to help myself be understood and actually engage my students. Looking back, I should have seriously invested in a proper TEFOL course. Both you and your students will get more out of the experience if you have some idea of what you’re doing to start out with. Since I was learning absolutely everything as I went, I really wasn’t able to really hit a good stride with my students until the end of the semester. If you are thinking about teaching in China (or any other country for that matter), don’t just assume you will be fine to walk up with whatever education you have and be a teacher. They may let you, but just because they do doesn’t mean you should.


Shanghai neon

How Awesome China Really Is

To me China was this rather nebulous place on the map back in 2006 when I first started seriously looking at moving there for my gap year. My knowledge was limited to pop culture references and what I’d seen in movies. I was going because I was legitimately looking for a place as different from my home town as I could get. Yeah, that was my actual criteria for the country I wanted to move to. China is a vast country, with a long history, and a really amazing and vibrant culture. It’s more than pandas and pop stars (though, let’s be honest, both those things are awesome!). The Chinese have a wonderfully quirky sense of humor that runs to slapstick. And I love how much they love a good happy ending–to the extent that when putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet at a school my friends taught at, they rewrote the ending so both title characters lived. The food is amazing, so quit worrying about what it is and just eat. Take the hard sleeper train and actually meet people instead of staying in a tourist bubble. If you want a place to start before you go, binge watch the Chinese movie section of your Netflix. China is both Hero and Kung Fu Hustle, and everything in between. Maybe you’re thinking of going to China because it will be an adventure, or maybe you want to check another country off the list. Either way, China will surprise you and confuse you and amaze you in all the best ways.


Live crabs in a vending machine in a metro station, just another day in China

These were the big things that I really wish I had known before I left, especially the first time around. I was definitely young and ill prepared. It did make me realize that I really had no clue how much I really didn’t know about the world.

Some additional small things I wish I had known:

  • Don’t carry travelers cheques (does anyone still do that anyway?), they’re a bitch to cash and not worth the hassle.
  • Always take a business card from the front desk of the hotel/hostel you’re staying at, because even if you think you are pronouncing the address right (you’re probably not), if it’s not written in characters, the taxi driver probably doesn’t know where you’re trying to go.
  • Baijiu is Chinese rice wine, it’s strong stuff, it tastes the way I imagine gasoline does, and will hit you fast. You have been warned.
  • He who queues up politely (I’m looking at you Canadians) will get on the bus last or will get line cut by an old lady at the grocery store. Stand your ground and fight your way on like every body else.
  • Street barbecue will change your life
  • Trying to get on a train during the month of February (the whole country is on holidays for Chinese New Year) is kinda like being in a stage rush or a rugby scrum, be ready for it.

Hopefully you wont make these same mistakes. Rather, I hope you make your own mistakes and have the opportunity to experience this amazing country in your own way. Either way, you really should just go and see what’s out there.