Things That Never Go Right in China

by Mikhala Stutzman Dec 10, 2015

In recent conversations with friends and family in America, I noticed a pattern. Many have made comments like, “I’m so jealous, your life there sounds so awesome and way cooler/better/easier than what I’m doing!” I realized that while my blog has hopefully been interesting and fun to read, it hasn’t given the full picture.

On blogs–as with all social media–we tend to put our highlights, our best moments, our greatest accomplishments. So in an effort to keep others posted on my life abroad, I have admittedly mainly shared my favorite trips, happy experiences, and moments of cultural appreciation.

However, it isn’t always weekend trips and fun adventures over here. Here are some things that never seem to go right for me, and never get easier in a foreign country, especially China. I hope this will shed some light on the full picture of what it is like to live abroad. 


Pronouncing/ordering food beyond my 5 staple dishes

Over the course of these few months, I’ve learned a few popular Chongqing dishes. However, since I can’t read Chinese and there are no English menus, it gets tricky to order anything new. Sometimes I will see someone else eating a dish I think looks good, so I’ll just point to that. However, not being able to read the options available is rather difficult, especially if I eat somewhere other than the restraurants I frequent. And although I’ve posted some delicious dishes in past posts, I must admit I have accidentally ordered some less-than-favorable dishes too.


Renewing my phone plan each month

China has a super weird system for buying phone data: you buy a SIM card, choose a plan, and must come in on the 1st of each month to renew that plan. If you don’t make it in on the 1st, they cut your phone off. This gets a bit inconvenient if you don’t have time on the 1st, or are out of town and need to use your phone but can’t get to the store. Furthermore, I have to try to explain what I want to do and what phone plan I want each month because they have so many customers that they don’t remember. It’s something I dread doing each month.  This month, I even got a message that for national security purposes I had to go to the China Mobile headquarters in Chongqing and recertify my identity with them–an order from national security to make sure foreigners pay their phone bills. It took me 2 hours in line behind hundreds of other people just to have them look at my passport to make sure I am still the same person.


Finding my package

Mail/package delivery in China is also a very odd and confusing system. Because most people in China live in apartments that have a locked main door, packages cannot be delivered to your home. So instead, mail carriers on motorcycles carry packages to people. You put your phone number with the package you are having delivered, and then they call you and you both decide on a place to meet and get the package. There are a few issues with this system. First, you have to be available to drop everything and go somewhere to get your package when the call, no matter what day and time. Second, you have to understand what they are saying about where to meet. Third, you have to speak Chinese. This makes receiving any mail or package in China rather difficult and unreliable. So please do not send me anything–I probably won’t get it!



Taking a taxi to somewhere new or even a place I’ve been requires a lot of pre-planning and a helpful Chinese friend. For anywhere I want to go, I have to ask someone to type it out in Chinese before I go so I can show it to the taxi driver. Sure, China has their version of Mapquest…but it involves typing Chinese so that option is out for me. Other than the area that my apartment is near, I can’t say any of the addresses or directions to places. This can get complicated if it’s my first time somewhere and the taxi driver doesn’t know where the address I show him is. Because I only know very basic Chinese and am still new to this massive city of 30 million, I can’t give directions so just have to sit patiently and hope he finds it.

Government procedures

Especially when I first got here, there were several “government procedures” for foreigners that were very frustrating. Us foreign teachers didn’t have our passport for nearly a month and a half while they prepared our residency permit–a task that should take only a week or less but that our boss didn’t feel the need to make a priority. Another situation that happened recently also had to do with frustrating and seemingly questionable government procedures: I traveled to Hong Kong for two days, which is ‘technically’ still China. However, I got a call from someone in the Foreign Affairs department at SISU that since I had traveled ‘internationally’ I had to go to the police department immediately to re-register with the Chongqing government. Apparently, the law-on-the-books states that anytime foreigners even leave the province we have to notify the local government beforehand, and re-register once we return. The Chinese government is a bit heavy-handed when it comes to national security and foreigners.


Doing anything that involves speaking/reading Chinese

Nothing is in English in Chongqing. Maybe in Beijing and Shanghai they have English menus or signs, but my city is not very international at all. It can be a bit disorienting at first to only see Chinese everywhere you go, and never be able to read any signs. This makes what would be a simple task in an English-speaking country much more difficult. Things like going to the bank, ordering food, asking for directions, figuring out which bus to take home, shopping, trying to find a certain store or place, and other daily activities quite challenging. Of course, it gets easier the more time you spend in certain areas. However, I must admit it’s a bit eerie to walk everywhere in this city and not be able to read a single thing. 

I think sometimes we take for granted being able to read, speak, and understand the language in our daily lives in America. Sometimes it takes me hours or even my whole day to do some tasks that would take 15 minutes in the States. The challenge of figuring these things out isn’t fun, but it has definitely made me more resilient. I am always proud when I am able to find a new place I was looking for, or take the correct bus somewhere. 

My hope is not that this post makes you feel bad for me or vow never to come to China, but rather to grasp the full picture of what it’s like to live abroad. Living abroad certainly isn’t easy and presents many challenges that we don’t face in our home countries, but that’s all part of the experience.

This article originally appeared on laoshi and is republished here with permission.

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