11 Things Foreigners Never Say In China

Life in China as an English teacher or any kind of expat is challenging. This is a fact. I have found it helpful to talk to my fellow expats in my city and also reading online what other expats are going through. It’s always a relief that no matter how I’m feeling there’s always someone who’s going through the same issues or has been through them and know exactly how I feel. When those feelings of utter helplessness and the desire to “throw in the towel” wash over me it does make the world of difference to know you’re not alone.

I joined a funny Facebook group where foreigners living in China vent about their issues. The group is called “Things foreigners NEVER say in China” and the idea is to post a sarcastic sentence, something a foreigner living in China would never say and which describes the Chinese way of life – which also gives away how we perceive our expat life in China. I’d like to share some of my favorite quotes from this group.

1. “I was only a mild fan of karaoke before. But you allowing your primary-school-aged children to sing seven songs in a row really sold me on what a fantastic art form it is.”

This made me laugh because I remembered my first time in a Chinese KTV (short for Karaoke TV): my friend had invited me to have dinner with her family and her family friends. There were around 5 to 6 children between 3 and 12 years old and three couples. After dinner they wanted to take me to a KTV, this was at 9 pm. I was surprised: wouldn’t the younger children need to get to bed soon? Also, the men were pretty drunk at this stage, so I was wondering how we would mix sober wives, drunk husbands, young children and myself, a foreigner who’d never been to a KTV before.

When we got to the KTV they immediately shoved the microphone in my hand expecting me to start singing my heart out. I was flabbergasted throughout the night, watching the adults singing their favourite songs and the children playing recklessly, shouting in the extra microphones fur fun (you can imagine how loud) and running around until midnight. It was surreal.

2. “I really enjoy discussing politics in China. People are so well informed and insightful.”

Ah, politics in China. I personally try not to get into this. When people ask me about economy and politics in my country, I try to give a short, neutral answer. Nothing spells awkward more than talking about freedom of speech and democracy to citizens in a country where these things are mere fantasies.

3. “Wow – that’s really convenient, I’m going to cut the seam out of my kid’s pants too. I’m going to save a ton on diapers!”

If you haven’t been to China you can’t imagine the crotchless pants. The children who are not potty trained wear these trousers that simply have a slit in the middle, a.k.a. crotchless pants. I can not count the number of baby genitals I’ve seen during my time in China or witnessed babies peeing and pooing both indoors and outdoors. When you see a turd on the street in China, it is more likely to be human feces than an animal.

4. “When they build something here, they really do it properly don’t they.”

Architecture is not really Chinese people’s strong point. I have been to buildings wondering to myself how old they must be: I can see mold, dirt, things falling apart…and then I’m told the building is only a few years old. Apparently, I was told, that buildings in China are built to last about 30 years.

5. “Yes please, open the windows! Pm2.5 is only 800 today. It’s good for us!”

“It’s the middle of summer with all the windows open and 90% humidity… of course I’ll accept your hot water! I must have been cold and didn’t know it!”
“I know it’s so cold that the water in the toilet is frozen, but would you mind opening every window in the house for a couple hours so that we can change all that stale filtered air for fresh polluted air?”

These quotes sum it up: Chinese people like to “air” the houses, no matter how hot or cold outside air is. When the pollution levels are high I always feel like my lungs are filled with cancer as naturally my school also keeps windows and doors open.

(PM2.5 is an air pollutant, one of the most dangerous kind as the particles are tiny. In China, many foreigners, like myself, check the PM2.5 levels every day to know whether to wear a breathing mask or not.)

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6. “More fish/chicken heads in my soup!”

“I love eating prawns with the shell on.”

Yes, animal heads in soups are delicious if you ask the Chinese. Also, they look at me like I’m a weirdo when I peel my prawn shells… But after I had food poisoning from prawns, I decided not to eat them in China. Never. Ever. Again.

7. “I’m sorry, I can’t do any work at the moment, I have to watch Chinese TV shows on my phone.”

I used to think that Asian people are so hardworking because they always seem to be at their workplace. Then I noticed that when Chinese people come to work, their standard of work is not really the same as for us Westerners… People watch TV shows on their phones, they make personal phone calls (my assistants answer their phones during my class when they are there to translate!), they sleep on the job, and pretty much do everything and anything that would not be okay for us in the West.

The Chinese complain about their small salaries, and yes they don’t make much money, but compared to what they actually do during their working hours… I’d say the compensation is fairly decent.

8. “The customer service here is fantastic, and the staff is so friendly!”

There is no such thing as customer service in China. You’re happy if someone will take your order and once you give them your money you’ll be lucky to get what you paid for. Also, forget about manners: just because they work in a customer service profession doesn’t mean they have to even try to be nice to you.

9. “I’m not going to worry about dental care for my children’s teeth, it’s not like anyone sees them anyway. I think I’ll spend a huge amount of money on a Michael Kors bag instead.”

Many people in China have bad teeth. Probably because daily brushing of teeth is not a habit in China… It’s funny how Chinese people would actually buy an expensive Western car, designer clothes or a bigger house to show off how much money they have, but not take care of their hygiene, oral or other kinds.

10. “I hear China Post is really reliable.”

It sure is! Personally, I had to order a new credit card from home, have it sent here to China and miraculously it did arrive. But I know people have lost plenty of things: parcels that didn’t make it here because a custom officer decided that he needed the item that was being delivered and just took it (oh yes, this happens) or the tax on things are so high it makes no sense to order certain things at all.

Also what I find hilarious is the fact that the Post offices don’t sell stamps, letters or actually send anything…You usually have to send something via a courier to post it. Funny that at the China Post you can’t really post anything..

11.”More fireworks! Especially those 50m firecrackers that go off for 15 minutes! I never knew I could enjoy them so much!”

In China, there are fireworks and firecrackers going off every day! I have tried to ask why from my local Chinese friends what is the reason behind this, but I’m still waiting for an answer that makes sense. So far, though, I’ve discovered that fireworks go off when someone’s getting married or there’s a funeral. But you do see them here on daily basis. Thanks to the thin walls, you also hear them constantly…

And the firecrackers can be somewhat alarming when you’re walking down the street and all of a sudden you’re in the midst of a big racket and intense smoke starts to form: for a fraction of a second you always wonder if it’s a shooting incident or good old firecrackers.

You can find the Facebook group “Things that foreigners NEVER say in China” here.

I hope you found these quotes as funny as I did; they do give a good idea about the most common oddities foreigners and English teachers face in China. Like one of my friends said: “it’s totally different than home – isn’t that why we’re all here?”.

Jenni is a passionate writer and CELTA-certified English teacher. She gained years of valuable English teaching experience from Ireland, China, and Japan.

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