The language part was quite different. I have many friends that have lived in China and can speak only the basic Chinese to order food and go to the bus station. I myself couldn’t speak more than 50 words in Chinese in my first year. Most of us complain that Chinese is difficult to pronounce and has millions of “hanzi” 汉字 (Chinese characters), but in the end it’s actually our laziness that keeps us from leaning the language of the country in which we live. In 6 months of study at the Shenzhen University (only the Chinese beginner language course) I discovered that I actually enjoyed the language, it was like a puzzle that needed to be solved with every lesson. But people usually chose either work or study, and in China they mostly chose work because of the high salaries and the easy workload. And Chinese people want to speak English, so the pressure to learn Chinese is not that high – you will always find some nice Chinese friends that will help you with anything just so they can speak to you in English.
In Japan it’s the opposite, most of the “gaijin” come here to study and then work. Without speaking Japanese you cannot get a better job than English teaching. My Japanese level was very low when I first arrived, but it wasn’t 0. That helped a lot with my study, much better than in China. In almost 8 months I could speak as much Japanese as I spoke Chinese after 2 years. Was it the culture influence? The people? Indeed, I’ve noticed that Japan obligates you in an involuntary way to learn the language, in order to live here longer. The English teachers are the most isolated from the Japanese language because they’re not allowed to speak Japanese at work (the “English only” rule). But anywhere else, you have to speak Japanese. The pressure comes even from your fellow “gaijin” friends!
I have tried to learn both and make my way into both societies: use Baidu maps in China, go to the hair-salon in Japan and talk in Japanese to my hairdresser, order food online in an “hanzi”-only website, talk to old ladies in the park about how beautiful the cherry blossoms are…and other weird conversational situations. Japanese and Chinese are indeed difficult languages and living in these countries is not enough to learn them. Without stubbornness, you can’t learn either of them, and you’ll be lost and confused in the two “promised lands”.