Guide to Living in China as a Single Foreign Woman

Guide to Living in China as a Single Foreign Woman

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China offers one of the most exciting and vibrant experiences for expats, but it can seem daunting, and even more so for a foreign woman moving to China and exploring the country alone. The good news is that, despite its challenges and differences, China provides a safe and memorable living environment for all foreigners with an abundance of opportunity to live a great life and travel around Asia. If you are able to keep an open mind and adapt to your new cultural surroundings, your time in China is sure to be one you cherish for a lifetime.

When you move to China, you will go through some different stages, the beginning is scary and exciting, it can soon become overwhelming or frustrating, and with time, you will become comfortable and confident. We hope this guide will help you navigate some of those initial feelings of trepidation and fast forward to being an established, assured, and successful expat woman.

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The Status of Women in China

Mao Zedong famously said, “ women hold up half the sky” but gender equality was only put into law in 1995. Traditional Chinese society is patrilineal and while attitudes are changing, a prejudice for sons has long existed. 

The status of women in China has risen considerably since the 1970’s when the country began to open up and new laws were put in place to educate and protect women. Women are now free to request a divorce, have more than one child and are protected by law from domestic violence. 

As of 2020, men outnumber women in China by 35 million. This has created an interesting and unprecedented power dynamic, leaving a significant percentage of Chinese men without wifes and a slow in population growth. It has now become illegal to reveal the gender of a fetus in utero to prevent any gender-selective abortion. 

While there is still a gender gap in primary and secondary education, especially in rural areas where families may not be able to afford to educate girls, women are increasingly being represented in higher education. Over 50% of undergraduate students are female and after college, many of these women are entering the workforce. 

A pair of women of different ethnicities working together in China
Women in China have seen prejudice in the past, but times are changing and more women are in charge these days. 

Women are still seen as the primary caregivers for their families which can include their parents, in-laws and children. Women often feel pressure from their families to marry early and have children. Women in China spend three times more time than men (a sixth of their lives) on unpaid household chores.

This has left a gender gap in the workforce and women who do continue to work face an uphill battle to achieve the same professional status as their male counterparts. Less than 20% of 401 enterprise’s CEOs are women and women earn just 84% of what men are paid. 

The way women are viewed in China will not necessarily affect your experience too much as a foreign woman working and living there. Chinese people are very aware that non-Asian women are held to very different standards and while you might receive opinions or advice from (especially older Chinese people) about how to live your life or act, these come with no obligation to actually follow though.

At work, an expat woman’s salary will usually be equal to a man’s. If it is not, this is simply a matter of your negotiating skills and you should not be afraid to address it with your HR. As you would not stand for discrimination at home, also let it be known that you deem it unacceptable in China, just learn how to communicate with Chinese people in an effective and respectful way. Chinese bosses do expect you to praise them and be overly deferential toward them.

What to Bring from Home 

Most Western items can be obtained in China. Shopping options include stores you are familiar with in the West like H&M, Boots, and Ikea in larger cities. Shopping is a great national pastime in the PRC. 

Online, Taobao has an enormous amount of items available from sellers across China and is a new expats best friend. Sites like Bao Pals also exist, acting as a Taobao agent if you just can’t navigate Taobao’s Chinese website. 

There are other items, however, that can prove trickier to obtain though or might cost so much they are worth bringing. Check out the list below for what to stash in your suitcase: 

  • Medications: Talk with your doctor about your travel plans and bring your written prescription with you. 
  • Electronics: Chinese brands like Xiaomi are cheap and comparable to Western brands in quality. Brands like Apple can be more expensive however, so depending on where you’re from you may want to buy that new iPhone at home. 
  • Clothing: There is no shortage of clothing shopping options in China with big names like Zara, Forever 21, and H&M at malls around the country. But sizes tend to be smaller and geared to an Asian market. Plus sizes are not readily available and bras for larger chests are hard to come by. A woman who considers herself a “medium” at home could easily find herself wearing an “XL” in China. 
  • Special Food items: Grocery stores in China are not like Whole Foods and even places that stock Western items will have a limited supply chain. What is available is more expensive. Common Western foods like peanut butter, cheese, and pasta are easy to find but if there’s anything non-perishable you can’t live without, you might want to tuck it into your suitcase or request a care package. 
  • Cosmetics: The cosmetics industry is huge in China and you can find a Sephora, a Boots, and department store beauty counters in nearly every city mall. Products are geared to an Asian market and you might want to bring boutique products and multiple bottles of your tone of foundation if you are anything but super pale. 
  • Books: Printed books are hard to find in English and those that are available have often been censored before being printed in China. Thankfully, there are ways to use Kindle and Google Books in China on handheld devices. 

8 Cultural Differences You’ll Notice as a Woman in China

For the most part, we are all human and you will find you have so much in common with your new Chinese colleagues and friends. There are going to be times when cultures clash and you should make an effort to understand Chinese culture so as not to offend your hosts or cause yourself unnecessary frustration.   

Directness 

Chinese people tend to be indirect in conversation except, it seems, when it comes to comments about weight or appearance. In this area, there’s no beating around the bush. Don’t be surprised if your colleague comments that you have gained weight or tells you that you look particularly tired that day. Take it all with a grain of salt and know that they are not trying to be rude or hurt your feelings, just making observations. 

Staring

While foreigners have become a common site in larger cities, there is still a novelty factor. It’s not uncommon to feel like you are being stared at and occasionally strangers will ask to take photos with you or want to strike up a conversation.

Chinese tourists on the riverside
In more touristy spots in China, you might find people want to take photos with you, you can politely decline or go along with it. 

Fortunately, the stares and requests for selfies are rarely malicious, and simply smiling back or ignoring them completely are perfectly acceptable responses. 

Beauty Standards

Chinese standards of beauty are different from the West. Women strive for pale, porcelain-like skin and will go to great lengths to protect themselves from any sun. They idealize a very slender body type with as little muscle definition or curve as possible. There’s a strong emphasis on face shape with a chin and jawline that form a slim “V” shape being the most desirable and a square face the least. 

Family Values

The family unit is more important than the individual in Chinese culture. Even young, modern, progressive Chinese place great emphasis on the feelings of their family and often live with family into adulthood. This can include parents, parents-in-law, even grandparents. Chinese society in general is a collective one, with a need for an affiliation with a group. Western ideals of independence and individualism are not well understood and can be perceived as selfish or untethered. 

Health 

You’ll notice some differences in the way that women care for themselves and their children. Traditional Chinese Medicine remains common in China and women use these remedies throughout their lives particularly during menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and in child-rearing. You’ll notice that many women are adamant about drinking only hot water, avoiding spicy foods, and taking a month of rest indoors after giving birth, for example.

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Personal Space

There is an enormous amount of people in China, especially in Tier 1 cities. It is not uncommon to feel your personal space bubble being invaded in the elevator, the subway, even the grocery store. There’s little you can do but get comfortable with the occasional shove from an unassuming old lady. Ironically, Chinese people actually do not respond well to over-familiarity in one-to-one interactions and are not prone to hugging or expressing affection publicly unless you know each other well.

Gift Etiquette

It’s common to give gifts in China for special occasions or to give thanks. But there are some very specific superstitions about what not to give. Scissors and knives hint at the severing of a relationship. Clocks, straw sandals, and scarves are associated with death and funerals. Give your gift item a google before wrapping it.

Also note that the receiver might refuse your gift a number of times before accepting it and they likely will put it aside without opening it in front of you. This is not because they don’t appreciate it, it is to avoid looking greedy and more excited about the gift than your presence. 

Visiting a Chinese Home

It’s not common to be invited to dine at a Chinese person’s home as they prefer to entertain in public places. If you are invited to someone’s home, consider it an honor and do your best to accept the invitation graciously. Remove your shoes before entering the home and bring a small hostess gift to express your gratitude. Eat whatever is served in as large of portions as you can stomach to show how much you appreciate their food!

Where to Live

The location of your job will dictate where in China you live, but the city you end up in is going to have the most impact on your life as a single foreign woman in China. Your lifestyle, personal needs, shopping, and dating experiences are going to be affected by the size and “westernness” of the city you choose.

Biggest Cities

China has five mega-cities with a population of over 10 million – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Shenzhen. The majority of China’s over 845,000 foreigners can be found in these Tier 1 cities, especially Beijing and Shanghai. Most job opportunities can be found here and they are vibrant, busy places to live. The downside to living in a city this size is that you are always surrounded by people and there is little in the way of scenic views or green space. Having so many expats around also means that you can get stuck in a social bubble, with little interaction with locals.

Beijing

As the nation’s capital, Beijing has a multinational expat community that includes diplomats and embassy workers, corporate employees representing fortune 500 companies, and students at some of the top universities in China. Cost of living in Beijing is high, but you can live on a budget if you need to. 

While Beijing is a modern city in every sense of the word, some neighborhoods still offer a glance into life in old China. The hutong neighborhoods with their classic courtyard houses are charming alleyways to explore and famous sites like the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven feel like the “real” China experience. 

Shanghai

Shanghai is the largest in China, with a population soaring above 26 million. It is a chic and bustling city with a reputation as a party town. With over 200,00 expats, Shanghai feels more Western than much of Mainland China and has long been inhabited by cosmopolitan expats – the more prominent of whom have resided in the famous French Quarter. 

Shopping, dining, and nightlife seem to be the Shanghai resident’s favorite pastimes and venues for entertainment and indulgence abound. But Shanghai luxury comes at a price, with the highest cost of living in mainland China. 

Tier 2 Cities

There are also over 90 Tier 2 cities in China now with a population of over 1 million, some with growing expat populations. Qingdao, Chengdu, Xiamen, Wuhan, Hangzhou, and Chongqing are a few interesting cities to consider.

A view of a modern apartment complex in China
Most people in China live in a high rise apartment complex. These range in quality but they are very safe and comfortable. 

Air pollution is more tolerable in these smaller urban areas and the cost of living is significantly lower. Salaries and job opportunities are also more sparse, however, and there aren’t as many foreigners around. 

Smallest Towns

China also has a vast and beautiful countryside with thousands of small cities and villages. If you are looking for an immersion experience, you may want to consider teaching English or looking for an NGO position in a rural Chinese area. Living in rural China will immerse you in the language and culture but is not for the faint of heart. Country life remains a far cry from the comforts most expats are familiar with. 

Accomodation for a Single Foreign Woman

Living alone in China is generally very safe. Apartments usually come with thick metal doors, deadlocks, and bars on the windows. Chinese people prefer to live on higher floors to minimize the risk of break ins but honestly, they are almost unheard of. Penalty for crimes in China is harsh, and committing a crime against a foreigner is going to put someone in too much trouble to be worth it. 

Foreign women might prefer to live with a roomie. If you are looking for someone to share an apartment with, you will have plenty of options in major cities like Beijing or Shanghai. If you are in a smaller city, you might have fewer options, but always ask your employer if they can connect you with any other single women who might like to be your flatmate. 

General Safety 

Many female expats find that living in China feels safer to them than other large cities like Paris or New York. Local men generally leave women alone and catcalling just doesn’t happen. Streets tend to be well-lit at night and the large population means there’s usually someone in close proximity. There are CCTV cameras on most street corners and local authorities abound. 

As long as you take general precautions, China can be a very safe place. There are ways to get yourself into trouble, though. Drugs are strictly forbidden and getting caught with them will result in deportation at minimum. It’s also not unheard of for foreigners to get in muddy political waters after voicing dissenting opinions online or in public. Generally though, as long as you’re not standing in Tiananmen Square waving flags and staying free of any super wild bar scenes you’ll be alright. 

Making & Saving Money  

The cost of living in China is increasing year by year, especially in Tier 1 cities with Shanghai coming in first, and Beijing not far behind, but overall costs are lower in China than in the West. Expat salaries tend to be higher than local ones and many find themselves living a more comfortable lifestyle than they were used to at home.

You will be able to lead a great lifestyle and save plenty of money if you are sensible and plan well. Open your Chinese bank account and take every opportunity to send money back home to your personal savings so that you have a nice security blanket in case of emergencies. 

Environment 

Pollution is a problem you learn to live with to some degree or another when living in a large Chinese city. You’ll get used to checking the air quality, turning on air purifiers, and wearing PM2.5 masks on badly polluted days.

Tap water is not drinkable, even when boiled. Most expats have drinking water delivered each week in large jugs or get filters installed throughout their homes. 

Cities can feel like a concrete jungle with apartment blocks as far as the eye can see with little greenspace. Tier 2 cities like Chengdu or Hangzhou are known for being much greener and more picturesque. 

A foreign girl on a walk in the outdoors in China
Take care of your mental health in China by getting out into nature as often as possible. Don’t let the concrete jungle blues get you down. 

If you are a woman who needs to convene with nature, living in a Chinese city might get you down. You can combat this by finding pockets of nature just outside the cities and spending your weekends on countryside adventures to be among the trees on hiking trips and other adventure sports outings. 

Women’s Health 

The quality of healthcare varies greatly depending on where you are and what kind of hospital it is. Those living in large, urban areas like Shanghai and Beijing will have access to high-quality public and private hospitals while those living in rural areas can be limited to small clinics. 

Public hospitals are often inexpensive and efficient but lack the privacy and comforts many expats are used to. They also do not accept direct billing from foreign insurance providers. 

Private hospitals cater to foreigners and wealthy locals with plush facilities and more personal care, often with English-speaking staff. Prices are much higher at these facilities, however, and their for-profit status means you could be recommended expensive treatments. 

A happy baby and its mother
Sometimes babies just happen, sometimes we plan for them. Make sure you have good health insurance for China to cover maternity at a comfortable hospital. 

We never know what is going to happen and many foreign women do get pregnant and choose to give birth in China. For this important experience, and finding a doctor you are comfortable with, it is common for women to move to a larger city for the duration of their pregnancy or to give birth at the facility of their choice. There are maternity hospitals in every city, but the level of care in public hospitals might be jarring for some of us and a comfortable environment is usually at the top of the list of pregnancy priorities. Make sure your insurance covers maternity. 

Dating & Socializing 

Men and women in China have very different dating experiences. Chinese men outnumber women by around 35 million which gives single ladies plenty of men to choose from both Chinese and foreign. Foreign men also seem to have their choice of local and foreign women and it’s hard to deny that they generally seem to prefer locals, especially when they first arrive. For foreign women though, it can seem like slim pickings.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Foreign men that have been in China for longer seem to be more open to dating women of all varieties once the initial thrill of being the center of attention in China wears off. There are also 724 million Chinese men in China, some of whom will definitely be interested.

Testing out the local dating scene is a great way to improve your language skills, learn about Chinese culture, and meet wonderful people. For those women who date women, that is also becoming much more widely accepted in China and same-sex relationships are increasingly common while still not officially recognised. 

A couple holding hands at sunset
The love of your life might be waiting for you in China, but if not, who cares! Love life! 

The fact is that many foreign women have gone to China and found the love of their life, but there is also a big group of naysayers who will complain about the lack of romantic prospects for foreign women in China. It is all about attitude and effort. Keep an open mind and put yourself out there.

Online Dating & Friendships in China 

Online dating is popular in China through apps like Tinder, Bumble, and the Chinese app TanTan.

Active nightlife scenes in cities like Shanghai are a popular place to find a fling or something more. Foreigners and locals alike tend to be friendly and open to conversation. 

Attending events targeted at the expat community can also be a great way to connect with new friends.

TheBeijinger.com lists upcoming events, restaurants, concerts, and more in the nation’s capital. SmartShanghai.com keeps tabs on Shanghai happenings. You also have Chengdu Expat and Internations is a great organization to get you networking in Shenzhen. Try searching Facebook for groups of new friends in your Chinese city, like this Foreigners Qingdao group. 

You’ll also want to join invite-only expat groups on WeChat and get to know members who share common interests.

Food & Drink 

China offers a truly exciting array of regional cuisines, bold flavors and spices. Hot Pot in the South, Peking Duck in the North, all of the food in Yunnan, Dim Sum in Guangzhou. All of them are so good you’ll wonder why you’ve never tried them before. But Chinese food can also be intimidating for a Western palate with ingredients and customs that feel wholly unfamiliar. Those with dietary restrictions or allergies may also have a difficult time figuring out how to get what they need. 

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A Chinese chef making fresh pulled noodles
Hand-pulled fresh noodles are a favourite food in China but just the beginning of your culinary adventure. 

Don’t be too worried about navigating the Chinese menus right away though, Western restaurants and ingredients are increasingly common all over China, especially in the bigger cities. 

Drinking is often encouraged at meals. And sometimes the peer-pressure to drink with Chinese friends and colleagues can be extreme. Women do usually get a bit of a pass in this respect and we can decline that 3rd shot of liquor at dinner when our male colleagues cannot, lest they be forever labeled a “sissy”. 

Beer is common and comes in large bottles that are poured between everyone. Wine is not always available and the selection is likely to be limited. Spirits are a popular choice with Baijiu (a distilled grain spirit with a distinctive and powerful punch) being the most common to get passed around.

Dietary Restrictions and Allergies 

Vegetarian and vegan offerings are starting to pop up in big cities, and restaurants are becoming increasingly conscious of special requests from customers. But you shouldn’t count on most restaurants in China understanding what “vegetarian” means to you or taking the consequences of an allergy seriously without some explanation. 

Be as clear as you can; perhaps carrying around a card with written Chinese translations of your food restrictions. This includes things like “peanut oil” if you are allergic to peanuts or “pork broth” as a vegetarian. They will generally be careful to help as long as there is a clear understanding. 

Technology 

China has one of the most unique technology markets in the world. Notoriously, the great firewall of China blocks the usage of many of the apps, social media platforms, video streaming services, even search engines that we use most often in the West. You’ll need a VPN to access Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Netflix, and many more

China’s answer to this has been to develop a tech market totally independent from the West and develop things like WeChat, DouYin, YouKu, and Weibo. Chinese brands like Xiaomi, Lenovo and OnePlushave also emerged in the last decade with high-quality, high-tech products. Many Chinese prefer these homegrown brands over foreign brands like Apple and won’t bother trying to get through the firewall to use a foreign social media platform or get on YouTube. 

As an expat who will likely still want to log into Instagram, though, it’s good to set up a few things in advance and prep all of your devices. 

WeChat 

As soon as you get a SIM card put into your phone you can download WeChat and WeChat Pay and set up an account. This will be your hub for literally everything in China. From communicating with your friends to online shopping, even paying bills and checking the latest Covid-19 news – everything is done in WeChat. 

Friends most often exchange contacts by sharing their QR code and you can simply scan someone else’s to add them. Group chats are another way to stay in touch through WeChat. They function as little social networks with some groups as large as 500 members. You need to be invited to join a group and seemingly everyone seems to have a private group to add you to. Groups can be just a small group of colleagues or can be specialized like Dog Lovers of Beijing. Ask friends to add you to their favorites. 

VPNs

It is much easier to download and install a VPN on all of your devices before you get to China. There are many VPN options out there, some are even free. These might work but you are also at the risk of them selling your data or being bombarded with ads. For as much as you’ll be using a VPN (all the time), it’s good to invest in a full year of service on all your devices. Astrill VPN and Nord VPN are popular but do a little digging to find one that suits your needs best.

Other Helpful Chinese Apps 

  • Didi – A ride app similar to Lyft and Uber which has become the way most people hail a ride in China. The ability to enter a pick-up and drop-off location is great for foreigners whose Chinese is limited. Automatic payment through WeChat also makes things easy. 
  • Trip.com – The best travel booking site in China.
  • JD and Taobao.com – Online shopping marketplaces similar to Amazon. 
  • Alipay – An alternative payment method to WeChat Pay. Works with some foreign banks. 
  • Meituan or Sherpa’s – Food delivery! Meituan is Chinese and has a ton of options. Sherpa’s caters more to foreigners with listings in English. 

In Summary – Final Tips

Let’s acknowledge that living in China as a single woman has its pros and cons. Weigh this list against your personal reasons for considering a move and your willingness to adapt at the stage of life you are in – each person’s experience is unique. 

Pros

  • China is an extremely safe place to live as a single female. The busy streets mean there are almost always people close by, even late at night. While it’s important to stay aware of your surroundings and take general precautions, your time in China is likely to be free from worry about personal safety. 
  • Local men generally leave foreign women alone. While you might get some intense, curious stares, it’s unlikely that you will be hassled by any cat-callers on the street. While sexual assault and harassment are by no means unheard of, China can feel like a breath of fresh air from these kinds of pressures. 
  • There is enormous economic opportunity. Expat salaries are generally higher than local salaries and some employers will even offer housing and travel bonuses. 
  • WeChat is actually great! It streamlines life and using it becomes second nature. Other Chinese tech is pretty interesting too and it is an experience in itself to explore Chinese life online. 
  • Online shopping is the norm in China and deliveries are made at lightning speed compared to most Western countries. Everything you need from cosmetics to homewares to electronics can be found on the Chinese mega-site, Taobao. Food delivery options also abound. 
  • China offers a rich cultural experience. With over 3,000 years of history, China has a unique depth to its language, culture, and food. Even in big cities, you will feel surrounded by local life and will have plenty of opportunities to use Chinese, try new foods, and experience local traditions.

Cons 

  • You’ve probably already heard that the air quality in China is bad, especially in Tier 1 cities like Beijing and Shanghai. While it has improved greatly over the past few years,  check out aqicn.org to see what the average air pollution numbers are where you will be living and buy a comfortable mask. 
  • Living in China is an exercise in adaptability. Even adventurous and resilient travelers can find themselves getting worn down by the sheer amount of people, the general brusqueness of the locals, and the environmental differences. 
  • While there’s always a chance you could meet the partner of your dreams in China (I did!), foreign women often complain that their dating options are limited. If dating is a priority for you, China might prove a little lonely. 
  • You will need to learn some Chinese to live in China. Larger cities tend to have more English speakers but it’s safe to assume that most locals you interact with will not speak more than very basic English. Reading and writing are a whole other ballgame. 
  • While access to all things Western has increased exponentially over the years, the Chinese have different tastes and their own preferred brands. Your favorite grocery store items or cosmetics might not be readily available and if they are you may end up paying top dollar. 
  • Since the start of Covid, China has clamped down on overseas travel. Expats are finding it difficult to visit home because of visa and quarantine restrictions. These restrictions are likely to be in place well into 2022 and beyond. 

Now, onto You

We hope that this guide has helped you prepare for your time in China. There are countless things to explore in this country and the memories you make here will last for a lifetime. It’s a great choice for female travellers and is a safe, affordable and fun option for those travelling alone. 

The main thing is that you come with an open mind, be ready to adapt, don’t stick to your comfort zones, be prepared, and arm yourself with knowledge. The experience will be rewarding and you might stay for far longer than you expected when you realise just how great China can be for making a good living, boosting your career options, and feeling safe and respected as a woman. 

Jaymi is a Minnesota native who has been exploring Asia for the last decade. She called Beijing, China home for over 7 years but moved to Hua Hin, Thailand in 2020. She has been writing, singing, and teaching yoga by the beach ever since.

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