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What is it Like Living in China?

China is one of the most misunderstood nations on Earth. Tales of mysticism and peculiar oriental traditions travelled far and wide along the Silk Road and beyond, creating a cultural mythology like no other.

Foreign nationals are few and far between in the lands of China, thus a perspective on life in the beating heart of Maoist communism is more exclusive than a list of potential Premier candidates. As one of the few wai guo ren who has lived and worked amongst the hallowed streets that were once considered forbidden, what was life like living in China?

As a bright-eyed clueless Brit, I was equally uninformed and completely naive to the world I would discover, the misconceptions I would shatter and the similarities that I would find.

So in that case, let me tell you exactly what it’s like living in China as a foreigner.

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Whether you know much about China or not, everyone has an image of what life must be like there. You might picture a frail straw-hat-wearing local pulling along a rickshaw through a gauntlet of markets, screaming housewives and filthy dirt tracks. The buildings might resemble a 16th-century tapestry of emblematic arching rooves and walls with a deep red shade of sweet sweet communism.

The megalithic skyline of Shanghai or the vast magnitude of Tiananmen Square should go some way to show that the days of an agrarian culture are long gone. To be fair to foreign perceptions, this is a relatively new transition. Prior to the communist revolution in 1949, roughly 90% of the nation lived off the land. Yet today, there’s little doubt of the power the Chinese economy holds when you’re standing in a city large enough to make London look small.

Living in China is surprisingly modern

Sports cars roar through the streets lined with mirrored skyscrapers and high-speed trains connect cities faster than anywhere else in the world. Luxurious apartments overlook the maze-like structures that hold the remnants of cities’ former glory and celebrity culture is as prominent as anywhere else. Times have changed.

The stark image of malnourished citizens lining up for rations of potatoes and cabbage is unavoidable when thinking of communism. The sickening atrocities committed under the Soviet Union and Maoist rule have given the ideology a bit of a negative reputation, to say the least. But in today’s modern world, what is life really like in a communist country?

Well, there’s a surprising amount of capitalist ideals on display for a country which supposedly sees it as the enemy. Starbucks and McDonald’s stand in harmony with Walmart and Apple stores. Megalithic shopping malls command the centre of every city with big-name, soulless brands selling the very merchandise their Chinese sweatshops produced. Fine-dining restaurants, EDM nightclubs, and socially tolerated late-night “spas” are in no short supply either.

Capitalism. Photo by 彩色琪子CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s no denying that China is fully able (and willing) to assert its dominance when it needs to – rights are fleeting after all. Challenges to authority are not tolerated in any form and will be addressed with far fewer considerations for human rights than in the West. Neither will your social standing have any bearing on that. Just look into the disappearances of billionaire Jack Ma and international tennis player Peng Shua if you still have any doubts.

That being said, when it comes to day-to-day living, there aren’t that many tell-tale signs that you’re living under and control of an authoritarian regime…other than the security posted on every street corner…but other than that…

Living in China comes at a price. You quickly have to come to terms with the fact that each and every moment of your life is under the watchful eye of Big Brother.

Guards and security officials are posted on every street and every corner. Your addresses must be registered with the police (technically speaking, that also applies to spending the night at a friend’s place!). You’ll be tracked by CCTV’s facial recognition systems and your bags will be searched before entering the city’s subways. Oh and of course, you best believe your phone’s contents now belong to the CCP’s army of data analysts. If you believe the US government, that’s the entire point of TikTok anyway!

As horrifying as that sounds, is that really so different to what happens in the West? Are Western nations really less capable of tracking your every move if they really wanted to? If so, why would a man like Edward Snowden need to stay in hiding?

Take some mild relief in this though – if you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about. Comforting, right?

Despite being a nation of seemingly oppressed individuals, few nights get as wild as those in China. Ballers splash out lavish amounts of cash on tables and bottles to be delivered by scantly-clad models and bills can easily run into the thousands. Oh, and if you thought illicit substances were out of the question, then you’re very much mistaken.

But before you roll up your 100 kuai note and snort of line off Mao’s face, be very aware that the punishments for such illegal activities are severe. In China, just having it in your system is considered a crime. Worse yet, cops will regularly arrive at clubs unannounced and put a hold on the evening as they drug test every single individual in there. Good luck escaping that one.

Party time. Photo by green_intruder on Flickr

Not to worry, heavy drinking is not only allowed but encouraged! As rich as the experience may sound, being the beloved exotic foreigner that you are, you won’t have to pay a cent. While bars function as normal (though not nearly as many can be found), clubs operate a little differently. For many spots, foreigners get handed everything on a plate – drinks, tables, entrance fees and of course, a flood of sexual advances from foreign-hungry locals.

Though the drinks themselves are usually some dodgy off-brand paint thinner that burns your throat the next day, you’ll get a taste of the VIP life. So why do the clubs do this? Simple – more foreigners equals more money-wielding locals who come to interact with them. It’s a win-win for everyone!

Certain East Asian nations such as Japan, Taiwan or South Korea are so used to the sight of foreigners that walking along their streets will barely get you a second glance. However, that is far from the case in China.

As there have always been so few foreigners in China, seeing one in person is a source of utter fascination for most locals. As such, every non-Chinese citizen is going to be looked at… and I mean a lot! People aren’t purposefully trying to be rude when they stare at you, for them it’s the equivalent of seeing a panda in a zoo – it’s something cool and amazing that you haven’t seen in person before.

Look what we found. Photo by Maryland GovPics on Flickr

As a result, you will become the centre of attention pretty much everywhere you go. The only exceptions are cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen which have always had more of an international influence. Yet even in the capital of Beijing you will get looked at, photographed and unrelentingly commented on every single day of your life. Not to mention once you start heading out of the major cities, then it becomes even worse.

It’s the closest you will ever get to feeling like a celebrity, with people approaching you sheepishly for a chat or a quick selfie. However, it can become a little overwhelming at times as Chinese people have a different sense of boundaries to Westerners. It can get exhausting knowing that there are always eyes on you and might have to put up with being treated like a novelty attraction for the amusement of others.

Have you ever felt worthless? Doubts in your career, personal life or even your physical appearance can bring us down and make us feel as if we have no value whatsoever. Whether that’s true or not, in China, it will never be the case. Foreigners, in every shape and form, are considered incredibly valuable, even in ways you never expected.

Having a foreign face at your company suddenly gives it credibility and makes it more appealing to customers and investors. Friendship with a foreigner is considered an achievement to some and something worth bragging about at the dinner table. Foreign faces are given preferential treatment (some races more than others) perhaps just out of the kindness of their heart or simply because they want to leech off you.

Your value also comes from your exclusivity. As there are considerably fewer foreigners living in China compared to other major Asian nations, and so few people are willing to make that move, that makes you that much more valuable. For instance, when China passed a controversial regulation which banned private English tutoring, the fee for foreign English teachers doubled overnight. Foreigners are even approached randomly on the streets and over dating apps with job offers from being the face of a new company to modelling the latest brands.

More than anything, there’s hope out there for hopeless romantics. Suddenly that sickly pale skin of yours that was once the source of mockery has now become white gold! While Western beauty standards revolve around muscly hunks and tanned, big-booty ladies, in China, it’s the complete opposite – skinny and pale are the ultimate signs of beauty.

Life as a non-Chinese speaker can be a nightmare at times. Signs, announcements, and information of any kind will only be available in indecipherable Chinese.

Outside the occasional “hello“, most locals won’t know a single word. Naturally, this isn’t so much the case in major cities, and there is certainly a generational gap. Where young adults might be able to stumble through a basic conversation with very broken English, their grandparents won’t.

Hit the books. Photo by Roland Tanglao on Flickr

Not only can this be a nightmare for a tourist, but it’s even worse for anyone who wants to live here! Complex processes such as renting properties, registering documents, and dealing with banks, are an absolute headache.

Your only course of action is to get a local to assist you, or, like anyone should do while living in a foreign country, start hitting those textbooks hard and learn as you go.

Arriving in a new city, let alone another country can be pretty daunting. Leaving your friends and family behind to start a new life and even newer connections is a challenge at best!

You’ll often come across Facebook groups dedicated to “Expats in (insert arbitrary destination)” which typically feature a few thousand people confiding in their foreign comrades or giving misguided rants as to how and why their homeland does it better. In China, there’s no need for these groups, as everyone knows everyone already!

Meeting one foreigner opens the door to a whole network of expats who also chose to lay their roots in the Orient. Foreigners are a rare breed, all of whom usually work the same jobs (English teacher anyone?) and find themselves in the same position as you. On top of that, they’ve all gone through the good, bad and ugly of living life in China, and they were just as crazy to move here!

This unique network is a sense of comfort and familiarity that you desperately need when living in a place like China. Living in a country with such a distinct, and often, overbearing culture and societal norms, it’s nice to have a sense of normality.

People wrongly assume that a country which would have been considered poor during our grandparents’ age could now be even more advanced than the West. In many ways, that is the case.

In the never-ending fight against capitalism, China leads the way in e-commerce beyond the comprehension of Amazon Prime customers. Payments through Google and Apple Pay pale in comparison to the fact that Chinese citizens have been paying for EVERYTHING through a single app (WeChat) since 2013, including rent, bills, taxis and every transaction you can think of. Cash became obsolete far before the West thought of this revolutionary concept.

Not to mention China is at the heart of advancing technology that challenges anything the West can compete with. From the fastest trains in the world to AI technology, it can stand with the best of them.

Thus, walking through the streets of China doesn’t feel like a step back in time, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Of course, megalithic sites like the Forbidden City and the traditional hutongs that snake their way amongst the development are wonderful reminders of the ancient heritage of the nation, though it’s by no means the norm.

The acronym VPN will play a vital role in your life in China if you wish to remain in touch with the outside world. Virtual Private Networks are your gateway to access all the sites that are banned in China, including Facebook, YouTube, Google and Instagram.

Despite quite clearly being illegal, VPNs are actually pretty common in China and are used quite freely, though don’t start getting cocky. Some say you shouldn’t even type out the dreaded acronym online as it runs the risk of being flagged on governmental systems.

On top of that, VPNs are a luxury that the government kind of tolerates to a degree, but can easily put a stop to when they need to. For example, VPNs become notoriously unreliable during significant diplomatic events.

The UK historically has a well-established middle class where children were sent to pretentious private schools with regal accents. That is why many wrongly assume that average British life is more Hugh Grant than Karl Pilkington.

That misconception extends to China, a nation which some would assume has a mostly lower-income population. In fact, a staggering 50% of Chinese citizens can be classified as upper middle class which is similar to the US and twice as high as the UK.

Living in China can be lucrative

With such wealth, comes great spending. Families invest in numerous properties, even buying homes in cities like London and New York! Children are sent across the country and beyond to receive the finest education and housewives are routinely gifted the finest merchandise.

The standard of living for the typical Chinese individual, in many cases, is better than that of those who are reading this article right now (myself included). Thus, this myth of China being a “poor” country has been long dead for a while now.

The last few decades have been relatively smooth sailing for citizens in China. With a booming economy, an ever-growing standard of living and every opportunity to succeed, life had never been better in the country. Then, COVID happened.

The pandemic was the perfect representation of what power the CCP truly holds over the country, and how they are more than capable of showing who’s really in control at any given second. If they want to , they will. If they want to kick you out of your house, there’s no room for debate. Most terrifyingly of all, if they want to make an unruly protester or mouthy businessman “disappear“, there will be no more words said about it…and what are you going to do about it?

As mentioned previously, daily life isn’t directly affected by this overbearing threat. It’s like a father reading the paper quietly until he has to put it down to pick up his belt. They are in control, and your only course of action is to close your eyes and hope that belt isn’t meant for you.

Though many aspects of life in China are as free and capitalistic as many other places in the world, this comes with an understanding that you are playing by someone else’s rules.

Following the Tiananmen Square incident (which did not officially happen according to China), an unspoken agreement between the ruling CCP and its citizens was established. The government promised to raise the standard of living and overall quality of life through economic reforms in exchange for no further opposition and dissent against the ruling party.

For the last few decades, this system has more or less run smoothly, though in recent years factors like COVID, the housing crisis and even more student protests have challenged the status quo. Unlike 30 years ago when such events could be quickly swept under the rug, now they are instantly posted online for the world to see.

The same rules apply to foreigners. You have the freedom to pretty much do what you want, within reason of course, with the understanding that this courtesy can easily be taken away. As soon as you even dare to start pushing back, try to be smart or challenge authority in any way, you’re going to find out real quick why no citizen would ever speak up in the first place.

Despite my deep love for China, I am by no means a CCP sympathiser and would never wish to seem as if I’m arguing their case. However, I cannot deny the fact that the years I spent there were some of the best of my life.

I never once fell under the ire of the government or had any notably negative experiences. Fortunately, my time in China came to an end in November 2019, a matter of weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic became an undeniable reality. Hence, friends and comrades who kept living in China during that time have less than favourable things to say and many have left because of it.

Living in China is a decision of a lifetime

I am also aware of my privileged position. As a white, 200 cm tall British English teacher, life couldn’t be easier. For a non-English speaking African individual, there are tragically fewer opportunities and liberties afforded.

Most significantly, while many of these steps and practices may seem extreme (too extreme in some cases), is it really that much different to what we already experience in the West? Citizens are constantly being watched, our rights are altered based on the needs of the government (Patriot Act anyone?), and we are only really as free as they allow us to be. Of course, China takes far beyond what it should, most countries don’t actively practice genocide for instance.

However, if this is simply a question of what it’s like to live in China, the answer would be challenging. It’s great when times are good and oppressive when it isn’t. Ultimately, living in China for the long term will inevitably bring you to a point where you face challenges that you could not predict and, more importantly, something you will find difficult to contend with. China is not for the faint of heart.

Thank You for Reading What is it Like Living in China? Check Out These Other Helpful Links!

Thank you so much for reading What is it Like Living in China? Check out these other helpful articles! See you next time!

One Comment

  • Ben Zabulis

    A great write-up and a country of fascinating contrasts indeed. Culture and people are great though current government leaves much to be desired. I have never lived in China (unless we count HK), but have visted many times. The pace of change as you mention has been terrific. On my first visit in 1992, tourists could only use Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) and only then in designated hotels and shops. To shop and eat at ‘street’ level we had to obtain RMB via the good old black market, FEC being much in demand, cue surrupticious tradings in quiet hotel rooms or public lavatories. Though that is the only trading I have done in public lavatories I hasten to add !!

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