Is it difficult for a foreigner who doesn’t speak Chinese to live alone in China?

This is very difficult to answer in a general, catch-all way as it depends on many variables

  1. Where you live: I lived in Shanghai when I first arrived in China. I didn’t have zero Chinese, but pretty close. I could recognise the obvious everyday characters, such as those for entrance and exit (入口,出口)and some place names. I could order food by pointing and speaking like a baby. Despite all the English help I received from my company, I did have some painful interactions in the beginning. That’s because I tried to do things like getting internet sorted on my own. It took me ages, because my language skills were so limited. Now I’m not trying to claim my Chinese skills are amazing, but the time it takes me to do things like booking a van to move house, or a hotel when travelling, or whatever, is much much less. And I don’t have to ask for help. That’s important to me. You will receive a lot more help than if the situation were reversed (i.e. a Chinese person with limited English). People are often more patient with foreigners who speak zero to survival level Chinese than in the reverse situation, too. If you were to immediately move with no Chinese to a small city, your experience could be different, but I still think you’d receive help settling in.
  2. What kind of personality you have: I’m on the reserved side, so always am rather envious of people who fearlessly speak, whatever their level. If you want to learn the language, you’ll have to get over yourself, shy or not, of course. I have friends who don’t speak Chinese even though they’ve been in China for a while. One of them is completely independent, with the help of an app called “Dear Translator.” She never asks others for help, and gets things done. I have to say (I have said this to her face) that I wonder whether the effort she puts in could be offset by learning the language…but whatever works. The other one is much less independent, and asks for help all the time. He also gets by.
  3. So in summation: it can be done. Life will be a bit of a struggle at first if you try to do things on your own, and don’t ask for help. Also, if after more than a year you don’t start learning, then your friendship possibilities will be limited to those who speak English. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Again depends on your working situation. If I’d worked at the school where I was the only “foreign teacher” as my first job, I would’ve been very lonely. No one was confident about speaking English (aside from teachers in the English dept of course). When people found out I could speak Chinese, we made friends.
  4. It can’t be emphasised enough how much easier it is “this way round.” Of course I don’t know what it’s like first hand, but my Taiwanese and mainland China friends in the UK really had a hard time at the beginning. And that was with English much better than my Chinese was. I know there’s some support, but nothing like the level of assistance you get as a foreigner in China.

Leave a Comment