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The Basics

It can take quite some while for expat newcomers to get acclimatized to their new host town of Guangzhou. Our local contributor offers valuable tips to help you make heads and tails of life in this southern Chinese megalopolis.

Fact Versus Fiction

Of the many items stuffed into your suitcase when you arrive at Guangzhou, there will probably be pre-conceived notions about China and Chinese people. It’s forgivable given the huge amount of seemingly cultural and political differences. So what is fact and what is fiction?

  • All Chinese people are small. This commonly held idea is only partly true. Chinese men have a large range in height, and though I’m still taller than most men I meet, I am not the freakish giant everyone told me I would be. On the other hand, Chinese women appear to be generally smaller and with much slimmer – sometimes painfully slim – figures.
  • Chinese people will stare at you in fascination bordering on rudeness. Again, this is only partly true. Around the expat areas of Zhujiang New Town you are barely acknowledged. In the wider city areas, the responses vary hugely. You will get stared at but not half as much as you were told, though my female friends women attract more attention than the men.
  • Chinese people spit in the street all of the time. Not all of the time, but this happens and it is accompanied with stomach-churning throat retching. People here believe it’s better to get it out then keep it in. But then so did my childhood doctor in England.
  • Chinese people always go to the toilet in the streets. Adults don’t but children do and with no shame. Nappies are rare here and parents would rather toilet a baby or child over a drain or bin than in their underwear. Westerners find it quite shocking and unhygienic but is it really worse than millions of nappies going into landfills?
  • They don’t have western toilets in China. Most toilets here are of the ‘squatter style’, which takes a lot of practise for the average Westerner. Chinese people learn as children and can squat painlessly anywhere. The tricky part is co-ordinating the removal of clothing while securely balancing over the hole. Aiming is another required skill. Around the Zhujiang area, and in any restaurant or bar hoping for Western clientele, you will find familiar toilets. Regardless, toilet hygiene is not high on the social priority list, and there is never any toilet paper, so always carry some with you. And keep your shoes on.
  • Chinese language is one of the hardest languages in the world. This is probably true, when you take into account the different tones of the spoken language (which can change the meaning of a word); the thousands of Chinese characters, which are hard to remember; and the fact that Chinese people are also learning to represent their language using the Latin alphabet in a system called Pinyin. The 4000 year old Chinese language is a family of language in which “Mandarin”, or Putongyua, is dominant. Cantonese is part of the family it comes from this part of Southern China. Many people here can speak and read both.
  • Chinese people eat a lot of American fast food. There are far fewer McDonalds and KFCs then the English media led me to believe. There are certainly not the endless fried chicken shops, chip shops and other take-aways you find in London. Starbucks is the most prevalent American invader, with over a thousand branches.

Chinese Names

Many of the Chinese people I work with have 'Western' and predominantly English names: Elizabeth, Mary, Alicia and Katharine. I work in a school where English is the language of instruction and many of the Chinese and Korean children also have Western names as well. But not all of them. So why do some Chinese people adopt a second name?

My Chinese friends have told me a similar story each time: when they were learning English, either their tutor or they picked an English name. This makes it easier to communicate with an English speaking person. However, I have not met any Western people with a Chinese name. So why the double standard here?

Perhaps because of the difference in the cultural importance attached to the naming process. Chinese naming traditions carry greater degrees of significance, layers of family history and parental expectations that is both beautiful and complex. You do not normally just get "given" a random Chinese name. Whereas, most Westerners have no idea what their name means because it was given for no other reason than their parents just like it, or it was a name inherited from an older family member. To find out the meaning of their name, most Westerns look on websites.

So I asked a colleague to help me gain a Chinese name. She has done this for all the non-Chinese children in my class, giving a literal translation of the first name once she knew exactly what it meant - that took some online research. With my distinctive surname being Friday, I decided to use that as my new name. So now I am Xīngqíwǔ or in Chinese writing, 星期五 and phonetically it is said, sing chee wooo.

Transferring Money

If you are one of the lucky Expats whose company pays straight into your home bank account, then this blog entry will make you feel more grateful for your employer. However, if like me, your company pays you into a Chinese bank account then read on.

If you want a quick fix, there are Western Union transfer branches in the city, though you will have to pay higher fees. I bank with China Construction Bank and fortunately there is one branch in the city that has specially trained staff that can make the transfer. This is where it does get tricky.

Be prepared to wait. A lot. Wait for a cashier and then wait for the inevitable mountain of paperwork to be signed, stamped and counter stamped. The most vital part of the process is correctly filing in the first transfer form. One single, tiny error - a tick instead of a cross, a number in the wrong place, etc - means the ENTIRE form has to be filled in again. On my first attempt I had to complete the form six times, half of that was the cashier's fault. The trick: keep one of the early copies with mistakes and take multiple copies of the form when you leave so you can fill it in beforehand.

With patience the process works. Your money will arrive in your home account in one working day with surprisingly small bank charges. There are staff in the branch who happily help in English ad they will keep the bank open beyond closing hours to complete your transfer. I have been asked to return as a cashier made a mistake on the form. They reopened the entire bank as an apology for having to complete the form again! I'm MJF, this is Guangzhou and that's 303 words.


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Sean Henderson

"Looking for an appartment on InterNations, I met the expat community in Canton. Now I am sharing a house with another member."

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"Unlike other meet-ups around here, InterNations offers quite a few high-quality members and regular offline events in Guangzhou."

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