Essentially, I have just received a job offer to do research in Beijing. I do not know a word of Chinese Mandarin. I applied for the job in a rather sporadic way (this was at the end of a PhD, where one usually deals with the existential crisis of unemployment).

In any case, it's at a great institute with a figure head in my chosen field and from an academic point of view this is a great opportunity, however I remain a little worried I won't be able to survive without knowing chinese. This is not to say I won't learn, but I can't imagine knowing such a language before leaving (3-4 months), if I were to accept. Once I have settled down, I would indeed learn as much as I can but I don't see myself being fluent, but perhaps enough to survive.

So I guess real question is, how hard are those first couple months going to be? Has any anyone else been in a similar situation and can tell me what it was like?

I would imagine being close to the universities, Tsing Hua, Peking.

  • This might be better suited for expats.stackexchange.com; as its about moving long term and not a short trip. Feb 10, 2016 at 5:29

3 Answers 3


(I lived in Shanghai for five years and toured Beijing and other Chinese cities.)

English is spoken in high-end Western establishments. Elsewhere written and spoken English is very rare. Basic Chinese (numbers, taxi directions, common foods) is very helpful to surviving in China.

Having said that, your attitude is key to the quality of your experience. Having traveled in many countries, language is rarely a barrier to getting things done. It's much more important to know how to find help (online, friends, etc) and get a bearing for your environment. Actually, you can survive just about anywhere - hotels and grocery stores can be found by sight. But enjoying a strange new country means learning to leave your comfort zone and embracing uncertainty.


You'll be able to do quite a lot of things in English, but your time will be much more enjoyable if you are able to learn a few simple words and phrases. There are situations you'll find yourself in where this will be useful. For example, purchasing train tickets and eating at local restaurants.

In my experience of living in China, the locals will sometimes step forward and offer to help act as an interpreter if they are bilingual.

The other trick is to learn a few Chinese characters - at least the numbers. Since the city that I lived in had quite a few bus routes that displayed the route numbers in Chinese rather than Hindu-Arabic. So being able to read the numbers was a handy skill.

As mentioned in a previous answer, if you visit high-end places, then you'll find that English won't be a problem. For example, I used to do my grocery shopping at a specialist Western supermarket, and all of the checkout operators there spoke perfect English. You'll pay much higher prices for your groceries as a result. So you do end up paying for the convenience.

Anyway by being immersed in the culture you will pick up the language very quickly, and the pleasure from speaking to someone in a new language and having them understand you and respond is very rewarding.


Yes, no problem at all. At least, it will be of similar difficulty to moving to any city where you don't speak the local language - be it Berlin, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Paris, or Beijing.

Many people speak English in Beijing. If the person you are speaking to doesn't speak English, generally there is someone else nearby who does, who will be quickly called to 'deal' with you.

I learn languages very slowly, I just don't have any talent for it. After 5 years I'm doing ok, but it really wasn't necessary to learn to speak Chinese. It has been fun though.

Enjoy your studies!

  • 1
    "No problem at all": this seems little overly optimistic. Not knowing Chinese may well be a manageable problem, but it will definitely still be a problem. Jul 16, 2016 at 13:41
  • 2
    Like being unable to communicate with 90+% of the people you meet, not being able to read signs, not being able to reliably identify items in shops... Jul 16, 2016 at 22:37
  • Ah! I guess you and I have different interpretations of the word "survive" and "get by". Those things might be annoying, true, but are they a big problem? I'd say moving to Beijing was much easier than moving to Chicago, even including all these annoyances. Jul 17, 2016 at 1:55
  • The OP asked if they will survive (yes, agreed, they will) and how hard it will be. And I'm leaning more towards "hard" than "no problem". Jul 17, 2016 at 5:43
  • Will you say the same for moving to Berlin with knowing German? Or Madrid without Spanish? Beijing is an international, cosmopolitan city. The area around Tsinghua is filled with English speakers and foreigners. The greatest challenges of moving to a new city are finding an apartment and locating a grocery store. These things are generally easy for foreigners to do in Beijing in comparison to London, Paris, or Berlin. Also, Beijingers are also generally very excited to help people who are new arrivals. Have you had this experience in Paris? New York? Beijing is a relatively easy city. Jul 17, 2016 at 6:53

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