Western social media platforms and selected websites are not available in China. However, that does not stop the Chinese people of being one of the most active smartphone users of the world. So, the Chinese equivalents must have something awesome. And they definitively do!
To chat, do video calls and share your daily moments or thoughts, the most used app is WeChat, in China known as 微信 (wei1 xin4, micro letter). You can chat with your Hutong School friends and with Chinese people since the app comes with an integrated translator. You can also do video or voice calls and pay at many shops, restaurants and online.
Take a picture and share your moments. It is as easy as posting something on your Facebook wall. Since WeChat is available globally, you can ask your friends to download the app as well. This way you can stay in touch with Chinese people, your Hutong School friends and your friends and family from home with just a single app.
Another very common app similar to Twitter is Sina Weibo. This app allows you to post micro messages (like tweets). Setting up an account can be difficult though since it requires a Chinese cell phone number and verification and the registration process is in Chinese. The official iPhone and iPad apps however do feature a partial English translation. But since you come to China to learn Chinese, you should make use of this opportunity and get introduced into the Chinese app market, one of the strongest growing businesses.
Other apps are also available but are getting less and less popular. 51.com is nowadays mainly used for sharing CVs and searching for jobs, teens and students make use of RenRen (人人, which has been one of the first equivalents to Facebook) and one of the most popular social games is kaixin001.com (开心网, home to Happy Farm, China's Farm Ville). Continue to micro blog also on Zuosa (做啥) and Digu (嘀咕). All of them share the same functionally and similar layout as you are used to from Twitter.
Actively using these websites and connecting to your Chinese friends is a great way to learn and practice your Chinese! You'll even end up making new friends while you learn Chinese! Isn't this a great way to work on your Chinese language skills?
Whereas copyright laws are limiting the offers of music and tv apps, this is not such a problem for China. Therefore, you can listen to many songs for free, watch the music videos and read the lyrics synchronized to the song. Some music apps feature a KTV extension so you can practice your singing performance. The largest one is QQ music, it is also the most used one by foreigners since it features a large selection of international songs. You may also use the app Xiami 虾米音乐, offering many playlists and song suggestions based on your previous listenings. Nearly all Chinese music apps offer a free selection of songs, selected songs are available for VIP listeners which means you have to subscripe for usually 6 to 10 CNY per month.
As YouTube is also one of the sites that is not available, you need a substitution for it. There are many apps, the most popular are youku 优酷 and Sohu TV 送狐视频. Again, as the laws are pretty open, you can find entire seasons of popular TV series and complete movies. International series are available in English with English and Chinese subtitles and can be a great way to learn Chinese reading. If you feel for something more advanced, why not joining one of the latest Chinese TV airings 欢乐颂, (Ode to Joy), a drama about 5 single career oriented women who live together on a floor in a Shanghai apartment buidling.
Maybe you have already heard about a website called alibaba. Although it has some special reputation in the west, the same company operates a website in China called taobao.com. This website is the most successfull online shopping site in China. There you really can get anything. Before you do your first purchase, you should ask a Chinese person (like your teacher) for help to make sure you set the address correct and you really buy and pay for what you want. Once created an account, continuing shopping is very easy. You can buy shoes, clothes, electronics, toys, home items and much more. But be careful to check the offers as some items are cheap replicates.
Another popular online store is Jing Dong. This store is known for having higher quality items than on taobao, but products are therefore more expensive. However, a convenient option for foreigners is the payment at delivery as you do not need to have a Chinese bank account in that case.
When going out to restaurants, sports centers, cinemas or other type of entertainment, the Chinese app Dianping may become very handy. If you already speak some Chinese, you can read reviews about the places and get some voucher codes. It is quite usual to find discounted options for admission tickets, lunch offers or movie tickets. So whenever going out, check the app first before buying a ticket at the counter.
In this case, you will need a VPN connection. VPN connections currently can bypass the Chinese Internet censorship since you use a server abroad. There are several opportunities including free options. Mind that the more reliable and safer services are for purchase. Many foreigners buy a paid VPN service for their computer and use a free one for the mobile phone.
You can search online for the VPN service that suits most to your budget and your needs. Most of the paid services offer a discounted price per month if you book and directly pay for a longer period. Don't forget to read some reviews whether it worked in China. The most common VPN services are ExpressVPN, Astrill and VPN Alien. With your Hutong School student card, you can get discount on a VPN Alien purchase.
Important notice: It is highly recommended to download and install the software before your departure. Also purchase already the licenses if planning to use a paid service. Once you have VPN, you can easily extend it but downloading and installing software within China is very difficult.
Important information for Android smartphone users:
If you have not installed a VPN on your smartphone, you are not able to connect to the Google Play store. This means that downloading apps can be quite difficult. There are several Chinese app store alternatives like 360.com, which are acceptable for a short stay, but you may not find all your wanted apps. However, being connected to a Chinese app store allows you to download all the Chinese games, music, tv and shopping apps and you are even more immersed to the Chinese lifestyle.
The following major sites or services are not available without VPN:
Google and all its products including Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Google Play
There are many more services and websites that are blocked and it is frequently changing and a complete official list is not available. However, after you experienced the Chinese apps, it is likely you do not miss the western apps anymore.
If you have any questions concerning the use of internet in China, feel free to contact your personal consultant or the Hutong School team anytime.