Eight Ways to Improve Your (China) Life: the newbie's guide to getting along
The excitement of living in a new place! It's a thrilling, fantastic, amazing adventure ... it's ... it's horrible, terrible, and unendurable. We've been there, done that, and now offer you this lucky number of tricks to keep you from going off the deep end and help you make your life in Chengdu even more fun, interesting, and productive.
1. Meet people.
Whether you're staying here short-term or indefinitely and whether you've arrived solo, with a partner, or an entire family, a social network is vital to feeling fulfilled and stable. Expat bars have long been the standby meeting point for new arrivals—turning many a newbie into alcoholics along the way—but the ever-growing group of foreigners in Chengdu has helped build up social groups and activities, regular events, and online forums and hubs that don't revolve around booze. Get involved with the groups you share common interests with be it sports, arts, lifestyle, language-learning, etc. and see how much more you can accomplish together than solo. If such a group doesn't exist, find a few people and start one.
Living in a new country means learning not only the local language, but also social customs, culture, and history. Every individual raised in the society shares some common knowledge and values that you might know nothing of. Start your re-education today. Visit museums and historical sites. In Chengdu, these are only growing in number and accessibility. Read what you can. The Internet offers a wealth of information, but even memoirs by foreigners in China and Chinese fiction—more and more of which is translated into English these days—can help you understand China's history, culture, and society and make everything start to make a little more sense.
3. Study Chinese.
If you don't already speak Chinese, try to start studying as soon as possible. Even if it's just mastering a few practical phrases, it'll make your stay that much easier. If you can't enroll in a full-time program, buy a book, find a tutor, subscribe to ChinesePod. Learning the language from scratch takes a significant amount of time and effort, but that doesn't mean you should toss it aside as an unattainable goal: Your access to mainstream society is proportionate to the amount of language you master.
4. Buy a bicycle.
If you can ride one, buy a bicycle or scooter (and several locks). The rules of the road might seem chaotic—or nonexistent—but with Chengdu's streets as congested as they are, being able to transport yourself on a small, highly efficient vehicle beats fighting to get on buses or in taxis and then sitting in gridlock. Plus, the rush from cruising around on your own wheels is no less thrilling than getting your driver's license—and you'll learn your local geography that much more quickly.
5. Find balance.
Culture shock might feel like a manic-depressive episode at times with its ups and downs, loving-it and hating-it moments. On the one hand, you want to take it with a grain of salt when somebody cuts in front of you in line; on the other hand, you don't want to completely abandon all of your principles and values for the sake of cultural tolerance. The craziness isn't an inherent part of China; it's an inherent part of culture shock. Have patience, keep an open mind, and remember that the more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to learn.
6. Allow yourself indulgences.
Some westerners come to China determined to blend in and shun anything and everything not Chinese. While it might seem the quickest way to total cultural immersion, that approach is as extreme as staying in the "expat bubble" in China and a fast path to becoming jaded and bitter when the foreigner realizes that, despite his best efforts, he (or she) is still foreign. It's OK to seek out the familiar sometimes. Whether that means hanging with your compatriots, treating yourself to a shopping trip at an imports-good shop, heading out to one of the Western restaurants, or getting a friend back home to send you a care package, it's fine. It doesn't make your experience any less authentic or your badass self any less hardcore.
7. Remember that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Metaphorically it might be true, but we mean it in the literal sense: Unless you're a seasoned world traveler, you're probably going to have times when you feel more sick than you ever have in your life. Stress, city pollution, humidity, and extreme climates take their daily toll, but none of that compares to your first 'bout of bad food poisoning. Everybody seems to get it at least once early on; but once the body adjusts it's a relatively rare occurrence for most. You'll feel like you're going to die—just stay hydrated, call a friend to bring you water and some simple food and company, and you'll be OK.
8. Keep a record of your experiences.
Photographs might be the most popular way these days, but sketches, voice recordings, blogs, and old-fashioned notebooks are also great ways to preserve memories and leave something you can look back on and marvel at what you've learned. Whether you share it with others is up to you—but it'll always be there for your own personal reminiscing.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 26 ("HOW TO 3.0").