Living in China

My attempt to fight the negativity

During my first year in China I met and studied with lots of people suffering from culture shock. A few never got it, most of people recovered after some time and for some it was too much. With this post I don’t want to criticize anyone and it’s completely natural to feel frustrated when moving to China from Europe for example. Everything is different and getting used to new life style isn’t easy.

I am not sure did I suffer from culture shock or not. The first months were good and then I went to Finland for summer vacation. When I came back to Guangzhou I suddenly didn’t want to go out by my self. I felt people were staring at me too much and I spent hours to think should I go to the grocery store or not. I just wanted to stay in the comfort of my home. After two weeks that was luckily over and new term started at the university.

As an exchange student I’m surrounded with people that stay in China only for a short time. I’ve met many new people in the past year and saw how they got through their culture shock. Usually people complain about the differences they see and everything different is usually seen worse than in her/his homecountry. It’s not that the one guy in the metro was disgusting, it’s that the whole Chinese population is disgusting. I have heard terrible things being said about China and Chinese.

Of course many things are frustrating to me too and it’s sometimes hard to cope with them. I don’t like spitting or picking nose in public. I don’t like people cutting in line and being rude to me. But I try my best to think why Chinese people are behaving as they are. I also try to keep in mind that this is China and what ever is considered good/bad in Finland, doesn’t ably here. I’m not the one to decide what is right or wrong in Guangzhou.

But negativity spreads too easily. Many times I listen foreigners’ complaints and nod my head. It is easier to agree than to try to defend local folk’s behaviour. It is easy to join the rant because I feel frustrated too. I can also very well understand where all the criticising comes from. But there is a limit too and choose to stay quiet when people get too far with their negativity towards Chinese people and China.

While writing Why I Love Living In China? I wanted to make a list of all the good things in China, but failed badly. I just couldn’t come up with a list long enough. I was quite scared to realise that and thought have I really get used to living in China or not. But then I also noticed that even I can’t write a long list, I still enjoy living here. Maybe that is good enough.

What about you? Do you enjoy complaining about China or are you the one with everlasting patience and understanding? Does other people’s negativity affect you?

Did you enjoy reading this post? Then be sure to subscribe to my blog by rss or by email in order to get new posts delivered to you!


  • Marcus

    Even I come from HK which is now a part of China I experienced a degree of cultural shock in moving to live in Shanghai. Mainland as a whole is dirtier than HK especially when people spit all over the place. The driving is terrible and inconsiderate and I still never get used to the side of driving as both HK and Britain have left-hand traffic. Commodities are not great either as a lot of stuff are not sold in mainland; see how many mainlanders scramble to HK to buy things. In some ways we HK people is harder to cope than foreigners as mainlanders assume we are Chinese and therefore speak mandarin flawlessly. No one complain when you don’t speak chinese right?

    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with this Marcus! I’m going to visit Hong Kong in May and it will be interesting to compare it to Guangzhou. I have a feeling that it’s completely different world. You are right, they expect you to know how things are and communicate with them in pure Mandarin. But for as complete foreigners it’s easier because they don’t even assume as to know.

  • C

    It’s easy to see why you’re susceptible to all this negativity. You probably need to spend more time with people who are (evolved and) familiar with your ways and thinking other wise you’ll get sucked into the big hole of isolation and further depression.

    I grew up in chinese culture and i have never embraced the traditional customs or habits, all chinese seem to copy each other so easily. I do my best not to react like a typical chinese who would stare, spit, be really blunt or flat, or ask really personal or intrusive questions, or take a friend’s side and their emotional baggage.

    Just remember that, China may be developing or catching up with the western economy in terms of trade and financial wealth but their culture and attitudes are pretty much backwards. As they live in a smaller bubble than you, they mostlikely won’t see your point of view.

    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for commenting C! I still haven’t really found my place here in Guangzhou, because I’m still en echange student and spending time with other students that are coming and going. Hopefully when next Autumn I start my Bachelor degree here, I would find like-minded people and my own place.

    Like you wrote that you don’t want to follow those Chinese “customs”, I also don’t want to forget my Finnish manners while living in China. Sure sometimes I just need to be more rude than I would do back home, because it sometimes gets things done here. But for me it’s also important to keep my Finnish ways and our way of being polite and good person.

  • ordinary malaysian

    The saying that when in Rome do as the Romans do is a good advice to adopt to minimise culture shock. I believe the guy/gal who came out with that saying must have experienced what today we call culture shock. It happens all the time. We are after all, just human beings and when we are out of our comfort zones, we naturally feel discomforted with the unfamilar and we start comparing and wishing that everyting is like what we are used to. Anything that does match our sense of what is acceptable to us or “normal” we readily latch on to, to judge and to critise in our desperate need to feel justified and comforted. It is really a psychological need for the comforter. We never really outgrow our childhood. Sara, for one so young I think you are doing well. Just RELAX and enjoy. When you go back to Finland you will have another culture shock to enjoy, the reverse culture shock. So, might as well get used to it. Do as the Romans or as in your case, the Chinese do. 照顾 !

  • Sean

    I find it funny that when people say the Chinese in China are dirty they point to how much they spit. Well, I’ve seen many men here in GA spit a lot too. I think when you are in a foreign environment you tend to pick up more difference that are negative because you long for the feeling of security that stems from a familiar environment that your home country would provide to you. I think most people’s view of a place is biased when they first arrived there. As an immigrant who moved into a majority black neighborhood as a teen, I thought every black kid was out to get me and beat me up at the bus stop. Turns out it wasn’t that bad (there were some bad episodes but not all that terrible). Anyways, I agree that China is still in many ways not perfect (and I would not live there myself for a long period of time), but if you are not familiar with the country when you first arrived and had little to no mental preparation, you will pick up a lot of negativity and form a biased opinion. It really just happens anywhere you go. Also, with a country like China or US, where you have spent your time also determines how your view of the country is shaped. These countries are large and diverse. If you’ve only been to Shanghai, you would think all the Chinese live at urban centers. Same as here in the U.S. NYC and mid west are two different worlds. What’s most important when living in a foreign country is not to let other people decided for you how much you like it there. Look, if you like it you wouldn’t need a list. Why? Because if you don’t like it there, you would have listened to the others and left on a flight a long time ago. Trust me, I’ve been through my struggles and it took me years to decide where I should live.

    Sara Reply:

    You had many good points in your comment Sean. The most important one being:

    What’s most important when living in a foreign country is not to let other people decided for you how much you like it there.

    And it’s true that if I wouldn’t enjoy living here, I wouldn’t be here anymore. There is something that is keeping me here, something interesting even I can’t quite point it out. It’s quite of a mystery even to myself why China have always been such an important things for me.

    I’m sure if I would have chosen USA, Spain or Russia, the change would be as big as it was when I moved to China. Every country have their own ways and like you said, inside the country there are some many different kinds of areas, cities and people. The problem is not China, the problem is that it’s hard to get used to living in a completely different way in a foreign country. No matter what country it is.

  • Tom

    I do know what you mean. After 4 years in China I keep expecting to be used to the differences. Then I head out to dinner in a “nice” restaurant only to have boys peeing into garbage cans at the next table, and the whole “positive” thing is hard to maintain.
    I too have tried making lists of the things I love here and failed, but I think it is the things that are indescribable that really keep westerners here. Things always come back into the positive after a bit.

    Sara Reply:

    I agree that those things are indescribable and maybe there isn’t no need to fully analyze everything. If you like it, then just like it. This is still my first year in China and I’m eagerly waiting what the following years will be like.

  • Minna

    Being negative seems to be easy also in the home country, and I’d like to fight against that. It is easy to complain about studies, teachers, credits, work and everything. And when we are concentrating on those things that we have something to complain about, it is hard to see what troubles other people have.

    I know there will be hard days and days full of complaining, but the will to be positive is already great. Tsemppiä! Though you couldn’t list all the positive things, they still are there and some of them so deeply in your heart that you can’t even recognise them easily – but you would surely know they are there if you moved away from China. :)

    Sara Reply:

    You are right my dear friend Minna :) Finnish people like to complain a lot and even it does create improvement sometimes, it would also be important to be happy about what we already got. Coming to China have teached me a lot good things about Finland.

  • Steven Daniels

    I find I have periods of time where I’m really down (or negative) on China. It comes periodically, like a cycle, so I tend to feel it’s natural. As long as the negative feelings don’t occur too often, I think you’ll be fine. If you find yourself being negative on China for a long period of time, it might be healthier to think about getting away for a while.

    Sara Reply:

    I agree with you Steven, that most important things it that the majority of days and feelings are positive and if it goes the other way around, it might be good to take a break. My friend and classmate had spent a year in Beijing before and then after some years back to Europe, came to study in Guangzhou. After half a year she decided to go back. It was hard decision for her and she pondered over it for weeks. But at that point I think she made the right decision.

    Before I came to China I was quite worried will I like it or not. It was the biggest dream of mine to come to China and so I had a lot of pressure that it should go well. It would have been, and maybe would be, difficult to me if some day I would start hating China completely. But it’s also important to remember that things change and people change. We should always think what is the best decision at the moment. And right now for me it’s to stay in Guangzhou and enjoy it to the fullest!

  • Jules

    Oh, I can totally relate to the experience of sitting around debating whether or not to go to the grocery store!

    I think I usually don’t complain, except with my roommate. There are not many foreigners in my area, so there aren’t people to complain to…which is good because I think, like you described, it makes me think about why things are the way they are…and that I don’t have the right to have expectations in another culture.
    Great post!

    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for joining the discussion Jules! I would like to connect more with the locals, but haven’t succeeded in it. I have high hopes that when starting my BA degree here I would find a nice group to fit into. With foreigners and Chinese that I could later on call my friends. But before that I’ll do my best to go to the grocery store and fight the complaints.

  • Ivy

    I think culture shock is inevitable thing that foreigners in China experience. This country is very different from any other country and there’s definitely an adjustment period; or more accurately, waves of adjustment periods!

    That said I think individuals experience it differently. Some people seem to never be able to adapt at all. These are usually the people who are constantly negative and wind up leaving after, at most, 2 years or so.

    I think China “long-termers” are people who are able to adapt and even pick up some local cultural habits. Certain practices and behaviors start to make sense after being here awhile, making friends, and learning the language. However even though I’ve been in China a few years there are certain things I’ll probably always find unacceptable, and that’s ok. I also still experience cultura shock, not infrequently might I add, after more than 7 years. The key is to keep it positive as much as possible, and to have some good Chinese friends. Learning the language is really important, too.

    Sara Reply:

    I totally agree that learning the language is important in order to adapt to the life here in China and to get to know the local life style. Without being able to speak Chinese I would feel even more outsider in this country, where I’m always outsider because I’m not Chinese. Maybe on point is to accept thay you don’t accept everything about China and make peace with it. For me it’s really lightening to hear you Ivy and other long-termers to share their experiences about living here. It’s only my second year about to start and I have lot of things to learn.

  • HH

    I agree, negativity does breed negativity. If you’re out to dinner with a bunch of “laowai’s” one starts bitching and then everyone joins in. I try not to, but every now and then you just need to vent I guess. I also work by myself and I think sometimes I feel the need to vent about work. I think foreigners in general love to analyse why Chinese people do this or they do that but the discussion can easily change to a bitching session. For some living here is a complete and utter change to their life back home. If you’ve travelled somewhat I think you don’t find the “culture shock” so bad?

    Sara Reply:

    I travelled for five weeks in China before coming to study in Guangzhou. During that first month I learned a lot and then it was easier to start the normal daily life in here. Before that I hadn’t been really traveling to other countries. I do agree with you HH, that everyone need to vent a little sometimes. I’ll try to remember that things aren’t necessarily good or bad, just different.

  • Woman

    I found your blog through Sean’s blog… I cannot seem to leave him comments as I use a proxy server… but once again he makes a world of sense.

    Now… be in China for a couple years, THEN go home and see the difference. Reverse culture shock is in my opinion ten times worse.

    All the things you see now, they become part of the charm of the country and they do fade into the background when you go out on an adventure through the city.

    I get what you mean that you have a revolving door of foreigners, I’ve seen it too over the years. It doesn’t get any easier, it actually gets harder as the time goes on.

    All foreigners in every country have the bad days regarding their new homes, not just those of us here. Thankfully, over time… those “bad” days are further and further apart!!!

    Sara Reply:

    I really like Sean’s blog too!

    I really appreciate that you and other foreigners share your stories and experiences. I’ve only been here for a year now and there’s many things ahead. Nice to hear about them in advance :)

  • Marina

    Ahh, that is a very sensitive question. I personally find myself to be somewhere in between. Yes, unfortunately, a lot of things bother me here, habits and the like. But I’ve figured out quite a while ago that it is not my place to pass judgement. People are free to act whatever they feel like in their home. And for one, it truly disgusts me when a foreigner starts going on in public about how much they hate the Chinese for this and that. I always retreat from the conversation thinking “Shut your dirty mouth and go home if you hate it here”. We are all free to vent our frustrations and opinions, but insulting a foreign land that welcomed you and gave you amazing opportunities is just uncool. I do vent whenever I feel that way, but only to my mom and people who are closest to me and never in the face of a local. And it helps to remember that each of us is only one person, and in any country in the world assholes as well as brilliant people are both in abundant supply.

    Sara Reply:

    Thanks for commenting Marina! The key to be able to live here in China might just be that you also accept that it isn’t your “place to pass judgement”, as you said. Maybe after one can accept that, it’s easier to adapt to the life in here. I also don’t like people ranting China in English infront of Chinese people. Even not so many speak English here, they might understand. With my Finnish friends it isn’t that bad because Chinese luckily can’t understand the complaints. But I do have a Chinese boyfriend and I don’t like people being racist towards his people. I also translate to him what people are saying in English or Finnish because I think it’s not fair that he can’t understand.

  • Terence Shen

    just saw your blog. You already published two books?! I wish I can become a writer too!
    Frankly, I don’t think Guangzhou is good place for experiencing Chinese culture. But anyway, have fun in China!

    Sara Reply:

    Nice to see you here Terence. No, just one small book about how to apply to university in Finland. It’s a guidebook on how to prepare for the exams. But I do want to publish more books in the future and something that is related to China. I have ideas, but it’s harder to get them to the paper. I hope you can achieve your dream to become a writer too! Why you think Guangzhou isn’t the best place? I would really like to hear.

  • Zee

    Hi Sara,
    I came from China and have lived in U.S. for many years. In fact, my family is still in Guangzhou. I have not lived in Guangzhou much. Instead I lived in a lot more backward places before I left. I just want to say that I love reading your articles. You are very honest. I’d love to exchange stories with you.


    Sara Reply:

    Thank you so much Zee. Do you have a chance to meet with you family often? I try to be honest with my experiences here in China so it would be as much help to others as possible. And in order to be able to share my true feelings with others.

  • E. Woo

    “spitting,picking nose,cutting in line”. Reminds me of Hong Kong when I grew up there in the 60’s. When you go in May (when I’m leaving to come home),you won’t see much of that. You also won’t hear all the loud honking from the cars. Hong Kong has changed as have I. I hope that the next generation of mainlanders change too. Their government is trying but it”ll take time.

    Sara Reply:

    I visited Hong Kong quickly last Sunday, but only saw one street because it was truly a fast visit. But I am really looking forward my trip in May when I can find out what I think about Hong Kong.

  • Love Messages

    “I felt people were staring at me too much”
    That happens just because you look different :) Simple…
    Just be cool & kind to the localities, gain their be be like others :

    Sara Reply:

    In China I will never be like others and will always be a foreigner, waiguoren, outsider. Even I would live ten years there, I’m still going to be white and look different. I have been thinking will this be one of the reasons to return to Finland. Do I get sick of all the stares all the time? I am doing my best to be cool and polite, but sometimes it is too much when people are taking my photos on the beach when I’m only wearing my swimming suit.

  • Greg

    HK is my third “non-home” country I’ve lived in. And the one thing I’ve found – and your mileage may vary of course – is that the greater proportion of your friends who are also ex-pat, the more likely you are to be someone who complains and sees the downside of where you are living.

    I know this is a generalisation, but over the years, the most positive ex-pats I’ve met are those who have made the greatest effort to ‘integrate’. IMHO.

    Sara Reply:

    I agree with you Greg that those wo adjust and integrate the best to a different culture are also those who don’t feel the need to complain all the time. I would love to make more Chinese friends, but have found out it isn’t too easy. Hopefully I’ll meet more people next Autumn, Chinese and foreigners, that have similar ideas and passions with me.

  • Ani

    You have a really positive attitude about cultural perceptions! I really agree with you. Our negativity and criticism towards another culture comes from the cultural framework in which we were raised. I write a blog about volunteering/global social issues, and I recently wrote a post about ethnocentrism since I went to China in May and found it a difficult experience, even though my family is Chinese (I was born and raised in New York). Take a look and tell me what you think! I think that your blog in general, is a beautiful effort to appreciate Chinese culture and to discuss important pertinent issues. Keep it up.

    Sara Reply:

    Thank you Ani for coming over and leaving a comment! I try to keep positive even it’s not easy all the time. We just should remember that many things are just different, not bad.

    I will absolutely take a look at your blog!