I remember how nervous I was, getting ready to move abroad to China for over 2 months with Luke in 2014. I was unsure what daily life would be like. How would I know how to get around? Would we know what was and was not safe to eat and drink? I researched for hours on end on what it was like to be an expat in China. Food in China as an expat was what made me most nervous.
I really did not feel like I found a useful resource or blog that I could seek when questions arose. I read things that scared me, to be frank, like how you would be constantly sick from food for your first 3 weeks of living in China. I didn’t have these same concerns when traveling to Europe, or just other places domestically.
There wasn’t a great way to prepare for what daily life in Dalian, China would be like until I arrived. I quickly learned how to navigate my new area by tuning into my ability to put puzzle pieces together to draw meaning from things so foreign to me. I also learned that food in China as an expat is an experiment, each and every time. It was difficult to order without knowing how to speak the language, but even more difficult to not be able to read it.
Here is my perspective on the food in China as an expat from my experience. I hope it helps to inform expectations and to help you rest assure that yes, it is different, but an enlightening and delicious experience to eat in China!
I did love the food in China. I’d never been so curious about food.
Even with two months there, I felt like I had not nearly had enough time as I would’ve like to try everything. It was so different and unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. I’ve always viewed food as a huge part of a travel experience, and food in China did not prove me wrong.
Every time we went go to get something to eat, I had to mentally prepare myself and put on my intercultural communication thinking cap. Right when we walked into the restaurant, we would scope out our surroundings to put together a plan on what the best way to go about ordering is. Below are The Four Steps.
Step 1: Is there a menu?
A) Yes! Continue to Step 2.
B) No. Let’s stare at each other and look as puzzled as possible. We’ll point at whatever the guy next to us ordered. Looks pretty tasty. Won’t know what it is, but as long as it’s good and we won’t die, that’s okay.
Step 2: Does this menu have pictures?
A) Yes! We can point at things we know! Kung pao chicken, sweet and sour chicken, fried green beans, noodles with bok choy. It’s going to be good. Phew! (*This is the best case scenario)
B) No pictures. Move onto Step 3.
Step 3: Does this pictureless-menu have English?
A) Yes! It may not be accurate translations, but we can choose something by understanding even the randomest mix of words thrown together.
B) No English. Only Chinese characters. Proceed to Step 4.
Step 4: Panic.
A) If we’re feeling brave, we will close our eyes and wiggle our fingers all over the menu, see what comes out of the kitchen for us. Most likely it will be delicious. But will we know what we’re eating? No idea. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
After this is over, and we are seated and waiting, we don’t really chat too much since we are mentally drained. Once we get the food that is always good, then we are revived, and it is very awesome.
Grocery Shopping for Food in China as an Expat
I almost enjoy grocery shopping. Luke despised it. We would go to the Wal Mart nearby (yes, there is a Wal Mart in China!) and get our groceries there. It’s a fairly long process, as we had to walk 30 minutes there, navigate ourselves to get into the actual Wal Mart since it is in the basement of a department store, shop, then get all the way back home.
Once we were inside, a whole new process begins. What is familiar? Are there English translations? “What the heck is THIS?!” was our most common phrase. Good thing I sure love surprises.
I felt pretty exotic shopping in the ‘Imported Foods’ section for my super-ethnic Craisins.
I liked going and seeing all of the new foods I’ve never seen in my life. It was always an interesting outing, and there are some new favorite snacks that we have acquired in China, like dried fruit of every kind you can fathom, spicy dried peas and delicious fresh bread made in the bakery section.
Something very popular were red beans, a sweet flavor added to bread (and all kinds of other things – I had them in a Maccha latte), kind of like raisins we would have in cinnamon raisin bread.
I wasn’t sure how to tell which fresh produce is safe to eat. I just kept hearing mixed things from different Chinese friends, so I decided to go ahead and stick to only consume fruits and vegetables that you peel.
I wouldn’t have been this paranoid except for the fact that half of Luke’s program was hospitalized three weeks into our time in Dalian with the worst food poisoning/stomach virus case I have ever seen, thought to have stemmed from eating grilled green beans at a beach party. I ate them, too, but somehow evaded that plague. I was one of the few who it somehow skipped.
So with that, I have stuck to lemons, bananas, cucumbers, kiwi, carrots, sweet potatos (which are white on the inside here, interesting) lychees, ginger, onion, and I have bought bok choy but boiled it. No one drinks the tap water, so I boil water to wash all of my produce with.
We did our dishes with the tap water, but completely dry them before the next use. I brushed my teeth with that water, but Luke used boiled water just to be careful.
It is important to note that you should be weary about ice, because you aren’t sure if it comes from the running water or purified water. The general consensus is that if we were at a restaurant, the ice is okay.
As delicious as it smelled when I would walk by the stands on the street grilling all kinds of seafood, veggies and meat, I did not eat street food. When we first got there, one of our Chinese friends warned us that the oil used by small street vendors is “bad”, and would make us sick since we aren’t accustomed to it.
But I did eat it once. I didn’t realize where the food I was served was from, and it was honestly one of the best things I’ve eaten here. I think it was some sort of chicken kabob with super spicy fried veggies with white rice. No clue, but I don’t regret it.
To keep our immunity up despite the different bacteria we consumed in our new environment, I would make a variety of drinks, like water with lemon, cucumber and ginger in it. It was a challenge to find foods to eat that aren’t covered in oil because we have only been eating out – it’s cheaper than cooking in in China – and if we did get veggies, they are fried.
Something I REALLY missed once I had returned to the states from food in China is the availability of amazing beverages on every street corner. Mixed in with all the stands of street food, these drink places had all kinds of teas and coffees, juices and smoothies.
One of my favorites was maccha tea, a popular drink that is similar to yerba matte (from South America) except that maccha is sweeter. Maccha tea normally comes with red beans in it. Milk teas are delicious. They also had really good ones in Thailand, too.
Chinese beer had been different than what I’m used to drinking in the US. Snow and Tsingtao are two popular types that I’ve seen a lot in restaurants and in bars. They aren’t bad, but I wouldn’t say I love them. They’re a pale yellow color, very carbonated and have a very light taste and texture.
It is a very American thing to drink cold beverages, so beer is served warm unless you request otherwise. The European students in Luke’s program make fun of us for always asking for ice. “Bing” is ice in Chinese, one of the first words we learned to avoid being served flaming water with dinner.
I know that I have friends who have had such different experiences than I have living in China. It’s such a huge country, so a lot can change from city to city. What was your experience with food in China as an expat?