Many outsiders are unaware of what life in China is really like, and some of the lame stereotypes making the rounds are just silly. Expat life there has its perks, and China does many things well. In the wake of anti-Asian sentiment and hateful, ignorant racism, I’d like to chime in and brag on the positives of Chinese society for just a minute. Here is a compilation of what I miss about life in China which has been sitting in my draft folder since September.
Mobility – Transportation infrastructure in China is for the most part cheap, reliable, and ubiquitous. Busses and subways are easy to access in big cities; they run frequently and on time. Didi, the main taxi app, is cheap and super convenient. It’s a lifesaver for getting home safely from anywhere in town at any hour, and makes nights out with friends easy to coordinate. One downside is that someday you will have to show a driver how to get around the block because he’s clearly never driven a day in his life. (Just wait; it’ll happen eventually if you use Didi often enough – and you will!) Learn how to say “here”, “okay” “go right”, “go left”, and “go straight” and you’ll be fine.
WeChat Pay – This app is handy dandy for splitting the bill with friends or reimbursing someone for tickets or didi rides. AliPay is another payment app that to many feels slightly more secure than tying your bank account to your social media/messaging app, but either are fine. It’s so unspeakably convenient to be able to leave the house without a wallet or even a purse; just your phone and keys. Sigh…
Tea – Chinese tea shops seem to have every possible variation of fruits and flowers and other plants you can imagine! Only a couple menu options will be black tea, which most Westerners probably think of as “regular”, and that’s if you’re lucky. The great thing about chains like Coco Tea (one of the biggest ones, at least where I was) is that they let you choose your sweetness level. You get to tell them how much sugar syrup to spoon into the cup – none, 25%, 50%, 75%, or full sugar. Alternatively, depending on the chain, none, low, medium, full sugar. You can also customize whether you want many drinks to be hot, warm, cool, or cold, as well as how much ice you’d like.
The feeling of utter, sanitized security – It’s very safe to walk around at night, generally speaking – living in a police state does have a silver lining when it comes to dealing with crime. Cops and any authorities can access footage from anywhere without a warrant, even for the purpose of helping a girl recover a lost phone. They traced her movement through every bus and subway car she had taken that day until they found the moment she left the phone. (Sketchy didi drivers might be a bit harder to get off the streets – make sure to leave a scathing review if anything untoward happens, and you will get your money back for the ride. that’s all I know as far as consequences.)
Cost of living – On an English teacher’s salary and company-sponsored housing, necessities are so affordable, you’ll able to enjoy luxuries like nice dinners out and even big splurges like cheese and wine (super expensive but worth it when the cravings hit). Do NOT, under any circumstances, buy Great Wall or any other brand of Chinese wine. My expat friends would only have bothered to use it for cooking! Be careful of those reds that claim to be from another country but have only Chinese on the back label, too – the cheapest options are hardly drinkable. The markup on wine is really insane, if I might be allowed to complain for just a moment. A decent bottle will be about $20 USD. Any cheaper than that and you’ll be pulling horrible faces with each sip.
But I digress – water and electric bills are almost negligible, and you can find cheap delicious food if you know where to look. Your salary might not look like much if you convert it into US, British, Australian, etc, currency, but it goes so far and doesn’t have to cover housing. Your standard of living will be good, and people have saved up plenty of money to pay down student loans, etc, if they choose to live relatively frugally.
Big. City. Life. – You want burgers? A Margherita? Indian food? Thai food? Sushi? There’s a spot for that – several, actually, for each cuisine. Take your pick. In the mood for a staycation? There’s a nice spa inside that new modern mall, and plenty of bars and nightclubs to choose from. You can window shop some name brand clothes, purses, and shoes in the expensive department stores, and buy high-quality knockoffs online. Food delivery apps are cheap and speedy. Lovely parks with long walking paths, outdoor fountains, gyms, calligraphy classes, coffeeshops, ice skating rinks – you name it, any “mid-level” Chinese city is a actually a highly populated metropolis and probably has it. You could live in any one of those places for years and only scratch the surface of what it has to offer.
I’ll never forget the awe of staring at the light shows at night on the outside of Suzhou’s iconic, shiny, bluish-tiled “Pants” building over the Suzhou Center mall. It was the most lovely, futuristic night view of a city I’ve ever witnessed. Moving (LED?) pictures scrolled and gently exploded across the building’s surface. It was mesmerizing.
I was in awe, and genuinely moved by the long-famous beauty of my city. I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything like it again. Raised in the suburbs of mid-size American cities like Asheville and Chattanooga, this felt like the country mouse moving to New York City. Words may or may not fully describe my nostalgia and homesickness for Suzhou itself, and the sunny freedom of coming of age there, but that is a story for another time. That feeling and experience will always be one of the best memories of my life.
I know that Suzhou is “China lite”, being so clean and green and modern, and that most cities in north or central China are far dirtier with coal smoke and construction work everywhere. Air quality everywhere is icky and in many places is downright awful. China has lots of aggravating aspects that will drive you up the wall and likely cause you to decide not to stay forever. But everything else on this list still holds true. And yes, there will always be some sort of expat (fancy way of saying English speaking foreigner) community available for you.
Coronavirus has thrown a monkey wrench into the plans of nearly everyone in the world, but as things return to normal, people will have more opportunities to travel, move, study, and live abroad. To anyone thinking about going to China to teach English, do it! It’s a fantastic learning experience and you will grow so much from living abroad. There are plenty of reasons to choose China, but a lot of boils down to the fact that the pay is good and the jobs are plentiful. You’re not likely to regret it.