Current Affairs

What’s it really like to live in…China?

When I first told my friends in the UK I was going to live in China, they thought I'd taken leave of my senses. “You'll be back in a fortnight,” sniffed one, while another, well-educated, who I thought would know better said: “You'll be left with a yak and a pair of chopsticks.”

Even my grandmother, then 88-years-old, with memories of its famine, warned me the country had no toothpaste! (I wish I could have replied to her with what I know now, that two eights represent double fortune. She’s now 100).

Twelve years later, I’ve seen plenty of yak, on the pastures of Tibet, and their meat and butter in the markets of Lhasa. I’ve mastered the art of chopsticks, which is pretty compulsory everywhere if you don’t want to starve. And needed no dental treatment.

It’s a land of contrasts and contradictions, and highs and lows in terms of experiences.

China is very much a two-speed country. While it modernises at breakneck speed, building a vast network of high-speed railways, city metro systems and towering skyscrapers, people carry on side-by-side almost obliviously. Old men play cards or chess on the street as they’ve done all their lives, next to the latest building site. Older women perform part group dances, part exercise, in whatever spare space they can gather.

In terms of “what is it really like?” to live, and work, in China will depend almost entirely on what you’re looking for.

If you want to live much like you do in the west, you can pick any first-tier city such as Shanghai or Shenzhen where you can find western brands, high-end dining and comfortable apartments. For a more down-to-earth lifestyle, head west to the interior where you’ll rarely hear English spoken; squat toilets and stares from young children at the sight of a foreigner.

Wherever you go in China, you’ll find people are friendly and polite. Not only that, it feels, and is safe

Here the difference can still be quite stark, homes quite bare, as the country continues to build on lifting   more than the already 600 million people, out of poverty.

Increasingly, expats can find employment in many overseas companies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), or take their chance with a local Chinese employer. Teaching English is by far the biggest opportunity as families seek to give their children the best possible start in life with their own new-found wealth, achieved during 30 years of reform and opening up. It’s also created a new middle class, keen to travel and explore.

Kindergarten classes for two to six-year-olds abound everywhere recruiting people with at least a degree, while more established institutions such as English First China at least ask for some teaching experience.

China has been for the last three decades, and still is the workshop of the world.

But, old smokestack industries are now being replaced by new creative and innovative industries, fuelling the new economic boom of telecommunications (Tencent, Huawei and ZTE) and zero-emission autos (BYD’s battery vehicles).

After global headlines about pollution, the country is now a world leader in wind power and solar panels.

And culturally, China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, is making inroads into Hollywood to satisfy the country’s voracious movie-watchers (when they’re not glued to their smartphones). Indeed I can count on two hands, how many cinemas – not screens – are within just two kilometers of my home.

High-rise apartments in Shenzhen
High-rise apartments in Shenzhen (Credit: Keith Crane)

But wherever you go in China, you’ll find people are friendly and polite. Not only that, it feels, and is safe. There is ever-present security, especially at rail, coach and metro stations, and on street corners. You may find it either assuring or intrusive, but it’s a way of life here, together with CCTV cameras.

Censorship is an issue few Chinese care about unless they are among the now hundreds of millions who have travelled abroad. But there are ways around it, for example using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access blocked sites such as Google and Facebook. The BBC News app works uncensored on my smartphone.

Instead, China has its own networks such as Wechat (for Twitter) and Baidu ( for Google) which more than make up for their Silicon Valley rivals. Such is Wechat’s popularity that people now ask for that rather than your ‘phone number’ the first time you meet them. It boasts more than half the country’s 1.3 billon population as users, chatting, sharing photo’s and videos.

Tempers rarely flare, although road rage, or just pure lack of skill, is increasing as more and more people drive cars.

It’s a land of contrasts and contradictions, and highs and lows in terms of experiences

And in terms of both cars and people, be prepared for the sheer numbers. Seemingly everywhere you want to go, half the population has also decided to join you. And don’t even think about trying to travel over a public holiday when trains, planes and buses will have been booked months ahead.

That of course is a symptom of the system. The Chinese work long hours, so any free time is to be seized.

Shops and restaurants stay open till 10pm at night, even estate agents. Although who buys a house at 9.30pm, I don’t know.

Even office hours stretch from 8am to 6pm, with staff grabbing an hour’s sleep after lunch.

Spare time is spent in KTV bars; hiking the nearest hill  (they euphemistcally call a mountain) or playing basketball or badminton, by far the two most popular sports.

Meals are mostly shared affairs, although of course dishes are nothing like the Chinese food we are used to on our high streets.

With 32 provinces and regions and 50 or more ethnic groups, there’s an enormous variety of dishes, from the fiery chili dishes of Sichuan to the delicate dumplings of Guangdong.

At a push, you may find something that resembles a sweet and sour; but more likely oodles of noodles and rice with various toppings.

But be careful not to turn your nose up too much when you see people tucking into chicken claws; duck heads and sliced pig ear.

Of course, they’re not to everyone’s taste. But in a country of 1.3 billion people, in this and everything else, you’ll always be in a minority.

Garden in the "city of springs", Jinan
Garden in the “‘city of springs’, Jinan (Credit: Keith Crane)

Tourist tips

  • Many Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, now offer 72-hour visa free visits for transit passengers, allowing you to stopover and visit the sights. But note, you are not allowed to leave the city you land in, and need an onward ticket.

  • Visit Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and home to Giant Pandas. The Wolong National Nature Reserve just outside of the city is the place to see the cuddly creatures in a semi-natural environment. Some born here are now set to be released into the wild.

  • Avoid the busiest parts of the Great Wall in Beijing such as Badaling. Instead, pay a little extra on a tour to one of the lesser visited parts where you can stretch your legs and get more spectacular views.

  • Qingdao in Shandong is a seaside resort but packed in the busy summer months. Visit outside the peak season to enjoy quieter beaches, fresh seafood and locally brewed Tsingtao beer (take-aways available in plastic bags), not to mention the growing number of craft breweries.

  • Catch high-speed trains (300kph), rather than flying, to see a lot more of the country. They now link practically all major cities, for example you can travel from Beijing to Shanghai in just four hours. You can book single tickets up to 30-60 days in advance.

  • ATMs accepting VISA and Mastercard are now widespread and most debit/credit cards are accepted in major cities. But expect to use cash in more far-flung places. Try and avoid bank branch counters as you can be there an age. But if you have to, ensure you have your passport and all relevant documents. The biggest currency note is 100 RMB, about 8.50 pounds, but you can withdraw 3000 RMB a day at an ATM.

  • Check Chinese Public Holiday dates before you leave. Remember Christmas, Easter and other Christian and religious holidays are not recognised. Spring Festival (January/February) is the most important in China and should be avoided at all costs, especially if you plan to travel.

  • People don’t tip in China, nor is it expected. If you hand over large notes to cover your bill, you will be given change. High-end restaurants and hotels clearly show an added service charge.
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