Many former expats look back on their lives in the Middle Kingdom as ‘cushy’. Part of that may be to do with the fact that life is made intrinsically easier for Western foreigners, but it also has to do with the literal convenience of life in China. Unless you’re stuck in a third- or fourth-tier city, you can’t walk five minutes without passing a FamilyMart, Lawsons, AllDays, 7-Eleven, or C-Store, sometimes packed right up next to each other. Do you have a sudden craving for Huang Fei Hong spicy peanuts at 2am? China’s got your back.
Trying to explain KTV to someone who has never lived in China is barely worth the effort. ‘So it’s a karaoke bar?’ No. ‘You just get drunk and sing really loudly to songs that haven’t been popular in 10 years?’ Partly. KTV may exist in the back rooms of Korean restaurants around the world, but there is nothing quite like the experience of gathering a big group of people together, smuggling in Finlandia vodka from the FamilyMart across the street, and losing your voice to the tune of ‘Lose Yourself’ by Eminem. You just can’t get that anywhere but China.
‘Ni shuo de hen hao!‘ This frequently heard phrase gets polarizing reactions from expats. On the one hand, it’s nice to receive daily affirmation that your Chinese lessons are paying off. On the other hand, you know that all you did was say ‘ni hao‘ and now your Mandarin is getting praise that it maybe doesn’t deserve. When you look back on it, however, you’ll realize that everyone who says this to you is just trying to be friendly and these free pats on the back don’t come with most other cultures.
Though many expats arrive in China on a tourist visa, quickly turning to kindergarten teaching to get by, it is astoundingly easy to move to bigger and better things. It is admittedly becoming harder to do this, what with China cracking down on visa laws and with more highly-trained professionals arriving than ever before, but this is still a country where you can experiment and find out what you most want to be.
In the immortal words of Charles Dickens: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.’ No matter how many years separate you from your China days, it will always be when you grew the most but also did the stupidest things. Sometimes living abroad can feel like living in a different world, especially when there’s no one with whom you can relive your experiences. Unless you find someone who lived in the same city at the same general time as you, there’s no common ground, and you’ll start to miss the people you met there, who witnessed your successes and mistakes and understood them all.
On a scale of one to addicted, China is, empirically speaking, insanely addicted to the smartphone. Who can blame them though? Everything is available at the touch of a button, including most purchases. Alipay and WeChat Wallet have only blown up within the last few years, but there’s no going back, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up. Until then, former expats will just be left with their memories of a time when scanning a QR code meant renting a bike, hiring an ayi, grabbing a bite to eat, or donating to a homeless person all at once.
China doesn’t have a monopoly on world-class public transportation, but it does hold some major records. Shanghai’s metro system is the longest in the world. Beijing’s has the highest ridership. The gaotie (high-speed rail) from Wuhan to Guangzhou is the fastest commercial train service in the world. Wherever you go, there’s a train, bus, trolley or moped ready to get you there on time.
China: under construction since 1949. From Shanghai to Urumqi, old restaurants, shops, and buildings are constantly being overhauled for new and renovated models. Where a dumpling restaurant existed yesterday, today there’s a florist. What used to be a crumbling neighborhood is now a luxury shopping mall. All the change can be overwhelming at times, but it can also be thrilling to be in an environment that keeps you on your toes.
Many foreigners in China find themselves eating Western-style food every second meal, complaining that the ‘local’ food is too oily, spicy, or rice-y. Little do they know how good they have it. Chinese food is so incredibly diverse that simply calling it ‘Chinese food‘ barely narrows it down. There’s Sichuanese, Hunanese, Yunnanese, there are Uyghur noodles and Dongbei dumplings, Chongqing hotpot and Cantonese dim sum. There is every kind of flavor you can imagine at any price point you can imagine. Hungry yet?
There’s something completely inexplicable about life in the Middle Kingdom. Maybe it’s the chaos mixed with authoritarianism, or the way it all smells like street food, but you can’t put your finger on it. China isn’t like anywhere else, but for a time, it is simply your daily life. You have to live it to know it, and hopefully you’re one of the lucky ones who has.