Cody Hoffman, living and teaching in China, describes the most popular social media apps in China and how and when to use them.
Whilst collectively across the globe we have all become heavily reliant on our devices, in China it is next level. At first, you might be a bit irritated by the sheer amount of people walking around with their heads down, engrossed by their phone but it is the absolute norm.
Back home, it’s considered impolite to be on your phone while out for dinner with a friend or on a date. Here, you’ll spot many couples and friends sitting at restaurants, silently yet happily scrolling away. There’s even an announcement on the Metro reminding passengers not to focus on their phones while getting on and off the train. Social etiquette aside, your phone is an invaluable tool as a foreigner in China. Whether you’re using it to buy dinner, navigate the Metro system, connect with your social circle, or communicate in Chinese with a confused shopkeeper, your phone just makes life that little bit easier. Here are the apps that I’ve found most useful since moving to China!
WeChat is the big one – if you aren’t using WeChat, are you really living in China? In some ways, this app is like WhatsApp, as its primary function is messaging. Almost every social event I’ve attended here has been planned and advertised via a WeChat group chat. You’ll quickly find that there are groups for almost any interest: hiking, reading, partying, whatever you’re into doing. It’s necessary for work too; my teaching agency and school contact teacher use it to communicate important messages. But this only scrapes the surface of what WeChat can do. The other main feature is the ability to link it to your bank account and effectively use it as a virtual wallet. I can’t remember the last time I used cash to pay for something. Even street vendors and scooter taxis will pull out a little card with a QR Code for you to scan and pay using your WeChat Wallet. It has also made splitting a bill with friends a quick and painless process; one person pays for the bill and the rest instantly transfer their portion to them via the app. There are many other features, some of which I haven’t even explored yet, as they require some knowledge of Chinese or at least the willingness to use a bit of trial and error. For example, you can top up your phone plan, buy movie tickets, rent a bicycle, and buy rail and flight tickets. WeChat is not just a useful app, it’s a must-have for anyone living in China!
I must mention Express VPN, as without it, I would not be able to check my Gmail, message family on Facebook, or find teaching songs and videos on YouTube. As you probably know, these and many other apps and websites are blocked in China. Luckily, using a VPN allows you to bypass these restrictions and use the internet as normal. Before moving here, I did a bit of research as to which service was the best and most reliable, and Express VPN seemed to be the most popular choice. I can’t say it’s always worked perfectly but I don’t think any of them work 100% of the time. Sometimes it may experience a drop-in service, but this can usually be solved by trying a few different locations (you can select which country you want to connect to the internet through). You also need to pay to use it, but you can choose three devices to link up to one VPN account. For me, access to the unblocked internet is totally worth paying $8 a month for.
If you’re living in any moderately sized city in China, the MetroMan app will help you get from Point A to Point B in the most efficient way. It provides users with a subway route map and helps you to plan your journey. You can enter the stop where you’re coming from and where you are trying to get, and the app will provide you with several choices of route – whether you want the quickest journey or the least amount of transfers. It can also tell you about the attractions and restaurants around each Metro stop. It works better than any of the Map apps I’ve tried in terms of planning metro routes and it’s simple to use!
Of course, if you don’t feel like fighting for a seat on the Metro, you can always call a DiDi! DiDi is China’s answer to Uber, and it works in virtually the same way. You input your location and where you want to go, and you’ll get an estimated fare. Then, you can see which driver is coming to pick you up and check how far away they are. It’s useful for foreigners without much Chinese as it eliminates the need to explain where you’re going. The app even has pre-programmed messages that will be translated into the driver’s language, such as “My GPS location is accurate”, and the driver’s messages will be translated into English for you. One problem that DiDi eliminates is the possibility of a taxi driver taking a longer route than necessary to increase the fare. You can watch on the app to make sure the driver is following the set route. I’ve also found their customer service to be great – Once, my driver got lost (possibly due to road closures) and ended up taking us in circles for a while before finally getting on route to our apartment. While still in the car, I sent a message to the DiDi customer service, who instantly replied and made sure that we would only be charged the estimated fare – not the increased fare due to the driver circling.
As mentioned before, Gmail and other Google services are blocked in China, so you’ll need a VPN for this one. Google Translate can help you to communicate via its voice to text translation feature, or you can type in what you’d like to translate. Once you set the languages to Chinese and English, you can have a conversation with a Chinese speaker by pressing English at the bottom of the screen and speaking into your phone. Then, you press a button to swap back to Chinese when the other person wants to talk. However, I think the coolest feature is the photo text translation. If you hold your phone up to some Chinese writing, it can show you the writing in English in real-time. It’s not always fully accurate and it works better if you actually take a photo of the text. However, it is pretty cool to see the Chinese characters turn into English right before your eyes! I mostly use it to translate menu items and check the ingredients on food packaging but it can be used in many other ways.
There are many apps that will help you to learn Chinese – Memrise and HelloChinese are just two that I’ve been enjoying. However, I’m mentioning Pleco because it’s a great supplement to any Mandarin learning that you may be doing and can be used when you need to figure out a word quickly. It’s essentially a dictionary app, but the ability to bookmark words is what makes it so useful. It also gives you examples of the word used in context, so you can ensure you’re using it properly. I’ve been taking some informal Mandarin lessons with a teacher at my school in exchange for helping her with her English. When she teaches me new words, I bookmark them in Pleco for quick reference later. The app’s ease of use and simplicity makes it a useful tool for building your Chinese vocabulary. You can even use it offline, which is great for those times when your VPN won’t connect or your internet connection is spotty.
In a place where even the most basic task can seem daunting due to language and cultural differences, there’s no shame in turning to your phone for help. With these apps to help you, life in China is a lot less intimidating than it may seem!