5 Lessons I learned during my first year in China

Over a year ago my family and I moved to China to work and live. Time for a retrospective. What turned out how I expected it, what did not?

5 Lessons I learned during my first year in China
Photo by Ryan Graybill / Unsplash

In March 2023 my family (my wife, daughter and our two dogs) and I moved to Shanghai, China. I came with a plan of what I want to achieve in the first year. Someone smart once said, plans exist to be changed. Let me tell you something: I changed my plans often during the past year. I regularly even forgot about them.

1 - I underestimated the impact on our bodies

Let's be frank: we changed continents, our bodies and immune systems were used to a specific place either beginning from birth or (in the case of my wife) at least for a long time, and we turned everything upside down. Different climate, different food, different virus and bacteria. We arrived in Shanghai right after most of the Covid restrictions have been lifted. We also experienced the first winter after the end of the pandemic in China.

Yes, we have been careful, but in the end could not avoid a very serious illness and a stay in a hospital for a week. I guess this is part of the deal and our bodies are just not made to change continents within one day. This is not how we are supposed to live. It is not like we went out for a three week vacation and go back to our known, stable surrounding afterwards. We need to deal with the full range of life and work in this, for us, unknown country which - especially in the first year - puts lots of stress on your mind and body.

If you face a similar change, take your time, give yourself rest whenever you can, and even if your colleagues or new friends want to spend time with you a lot cause they are interested in your past and your experiences, say no when you don't feel like meeting this time. Chances are they just cannot imagine what it takes to move continents with a family and little kid.

2 - I overestimated what I can achieve within the first 6 to 12 months

Before I came to China, I had big ambitions cause I wanted to integrate into the culture. For me that especially included taking language learning serious again. After our daughter was born I stopped that and so far in China went with the flow and got around with the few sentences I know. My listening improved but I felt pressure from colleagues and work that speaking Chinese would make things much easier for everyone. Plus, I do not like the fact that everyone needs to adjust because of me and speak English.

Still, it was just not possible to settle in as fast as I thought we could and I did not have the energy for a proper language course. After over a year I booked some classes recently and will slowly start more structured learning again.

I also wanted to get a Chinese drivers license to make us more flexible and independent from my in-laws. Cause I have a Germany drivers licence I would "just" need to go through about 1000 questions and remember their proper answers to get through the theory exam. Last year I downloaded an app to support learning but quickly stopped again. I just do not feel like it right now and made peace with that at the moment. I might pick this topic up again later.

3 - Building new friendship is hard, maintaining them as well

Before we came to China I thought that I would quickly make new friends and do stuff after work or on weekends. Fact is, nothing of that happened: I did not make real new friends, I did not take part in many activities outside of family and work. I needed to manage my energy wisely and making new friends was just not a priority so far.

I had lots of interesting discussions with colleagues and family members though. That helps to understand the culture and the big and subtle differences.

It is no surprise that maintaining friendships is always an effort. However, being so far away from friends in Germany and considering that when the German day starts the Chinese day almost ended, it is really hard to stay connected. This is the organizational side of things, but there is a deeper side as well.

Your friends and family back home cannot easily relate to your new life anymore cause they (probably) never experienced such a thing themselves. This means that there might be less to talk about, at least there might be less "easy" topics available and a tendency for more difficult topics. That's a chance to connect on a deeper level though. There are also topics where you can say a lot but your friend cannot relate.

4 - We traveled too much in the first year

It sounds counterintuitive. I definitely wanted to see different parts of China and use the opportunity of being here to see more of Asia in general. And we did that: we went to north China to re-connect with family, we went to Hongkong, we went to Sanya on Hainan and while I write those lines I just finished my one week trip through Switzerland. Afterwards, I will spend a month in Germany working, but also reconnecting with friends and family.

This is lots of travel considering what we needed to do in the past year! But we also feel that this was exhausting and we need to manage our energy better.

5 - I compared myself with the locals for far too long

I came to Shanghai and in addition to the general feeling of being overwhelmed, I thought I need to keep up with all the locals. I thought I need to understand why and how they do what they do. I need to gain all the experience they gained over the course of their whole lives. Why? Because I thought that when I could be like them, I would fit in, integrate well and feel better about my new home.

A few months later I started to understand that I will never achieve this, and it is Ok. I did not come to China to transform into a local. In fact, me being different is what makes other people interested in my stories, and what makes me interested in theirs.

About a month ago a friend of my wife from Germany visited Shanghai for business reasons. We spend a few hours with each other, had lunch, took a walk. Apart from that familiar, comforting atmosphere I felt when she was around cause she is German and I am as well, eventually she said to me: "You can already understand many things and get around pretty well!"

This struck me, I understand many things? I am getting around well? And I thought about it. As a visitor, she does not understand many things in this environment, she did not spend months in China, just a few days; she did not learn the language and was not immersed in this culture. For her it was apparent that I already made huge progress. I understood what that woman in a shop we have been in said, I am comfortable to use some Chinese apps and understand the surrounding.

When I started seeing myself out of the eyes of the 1-year-younger Sebastian, I made lots of progress. Never compare yourself to others, only compare to your past self.


Plans exist to be changed. Exactly this happened in the first year in China. Things did not happen like we expected. I am not regretting the decision to move to China. Lots of great things happened. I have broaden my horizon a lot and I recognize that when talking to people who did not have this experience. One thing is for sure: life will continue to be colourful.