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What is Life Like in China – Part One

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Within one week of my arrival in Guangzhou, I got a good taste of what life is like in China. A woman stopped me on the street and asked me “Where you from?” I responded “America.” She quickly asked, “You marry?” I said “No, I’m…” and she quickly responded “I like you. “You have phone? Give me number.”

Many years ago, perhaps this was much more normal than it is today, but since this happened soon after my arrival and before my jet lag had ceased, I began to wonder just what kind of a place China was going to turn out to be. As of today, April 3rd, 2017, I’ve spent almost four full years in mainland China and am now able to understand (most) of what goes on here. In short, when people ask me “What is life like in China?” I always give the same answer:

China is a place of extremes.

As we are raised in our respective cultures, we become accustomed to certain ways of doing things and many of these habits or methods are considered normal, if not practical or efficient. Leaving the familiarity of our home countries and moving over to another one introduces us to sights and sounds of which we had never even dreamed or thought about. Some of these can be amazing, wonderful, even life-affirming, and make a lot more sense than what we knew back in our home countries. Other experiences, however, can often leave us scratching our heads and wondering either just what people are thinking or completely unable to find a good reason for what we are witnessing.

From day one and continuing on to this very day, life in China has been an ongoing series of extreme events from “I can’t imagine not having this in my life” to the “I can’t imagine why people have this in their lives.”

Now, Let’s Take a Look at a Few Examples

There are two main ways to look at life in China, the first being life for the locals, and the second being life for the foreigners. We’ll give you a bit of both.

A Foreign Concept

No matter where you go in China, if you definitely don’t look like a Chinese ethnic group, then people will assume that you are not Chinese. I even have some friends who ARE Chinese and are often asked where they’re from because they look a bit “unique.” If a Chinese person says they’re able to tell Chinese apart from other east Asians better than foreigners can, then take it with a grain of salt. They often get that wrong as we do.

However, if you are clearly a foreigner, then you’ll notice that a ton of people will stare are you nonstop, everywhere you go, all day and all night, day after day. On top of that, you’ll often hear “laowai” or “waiguoren,” which basically mean “foreigner” or “foreign person,” a they try to get their parents or friends to look at you as well. Children aren’t typically taught not to stare or do this from what I can see, as they do it incessantly. White skin, brown skin, black skin, whatever skin–if you are clearly a foreigner, you’ll inevitably hear these words, primarily in the smaller cities. However, I have heard them in places like Shanghai as well.

Added Note: do your best to be kind and understanding of people who might comment about your skin color. Most people in China will speak to each other in Chinese, if they do actually say anything about you at all. However, there are some who might speak English and their questions can sometimes appear odd or even rude. Just remember that these type of people just aren’t privy to a person like you or the world you know. Be respectful and calm, and remember that life in China is different.

You Are Rich

As with the introductory story I told, this has changed a lot in China over the years but it still exists in several different ways, so it’s best to be aware of it.

As a foreigner, you will most likely shop around and pick up some souvenirs, clothes, specialty items, as well as pay for special activities, outings, taxis, rentals, places to stay, etc. It’s important to remember that a lot of people who render these services will sometimes throw out prices that are far beyond the going rate. The reasons for this are easy to understand: you have the money to pay, and you (probably) don’t know that they’re giving you an inflated quote. It’s also possible that you don’t have any other options at the moment and this is unfortunate if the seller knows it. If that’s the case and the seller isn’t reputable, then he may try his best to stick you.

Luckily, this isn’t the case everywhere in China, but in many places off the beaten path, scammers are quite prolific and even work in groups. My advice to you is to keep your options as open as possible and use reputable sources for the services and products you seek to acquire. I personally often use Booking.com for info about hotels and their surrounding areas, but more tips can easily be found for your desired destination by doing a specific search.

I’ll also add that you become as familiar as you can, as quickly as you can, with the value of the currency before you go to any country. Get an idea of how much different types of drinks, food, hotel stays, and common clothes cost. This will give you a reference point that you can draw on in the case of being unsure of what you’re hearing from a vendor.

It’s also worth noting that the government in China has been cracking down a lot more lately on vendors who’ve been scamming tourists. My Chinese friends say that Chinese tourists have been the main victims in the big problem areas. The good thing is that in some places it’s been sorted out so quickly that several people I know are now in the process of visiting these previously problematic areas.

Living the Local Life

In many cities in China currently, people are happy if they can make 5,000 CNY (Chinese Yuan) per month, though many make less and, in the case of the villages, some far less. This is where it gets a bit confusing because apartments, from what I can tell, always seem to cost more than a house does in the US. When I bought my first house, I obtained a bank loan for $90,000 and paid just over $700 per month for it. The house was just larger than small, with three bedrooms and one bathroom, and included a small front and backyard in a somewhat safe neighborhood.

Right now in China if one wants to buy a home in a tall apartment building, then the cost will typically be much higher than that, the size will be smaller, and it will be both unfinished and unfurnished. I’ve seen several people buy new, completely empty apartments with two bedrooms and then spend over three months doing what they always call “decorating” before they can even begin to move in. After inquiring why it always seems to take them so long to “decorate” their new apartments, I found out that it was a different use of the word as we know it in English.

Decorating an apartment in China means not just furnishings, furniture, paint, pictures, lamps, etc. It also often means things like toilets, sinks, kitchen appliances, gas supply, and even hot water heaters! Now that I’ve visited a few brand-new apartments, I’m amazed at just how bare they are from the beginning. In the US, we would call this “unfinished” and the sell price would be lower. I remember getting a small bit of money rolled into my loan so that I could buy all new appliances for my home (the others were outdated). If the house had lacked paint, gas, and water heaters, then I would’ve asked for a lower sell price!

In China, they tell me it’s because they prefer to select their furnishings and appliances. However, one still must foot the extra bill on top of the apartment’s purchase price and this is an extra expense from my point of view.

The other part to this is the vast chasm that exists currently between the income level and price of the apartments. It is still common for families to live together, with grandparents, parents-in-law, parents, and children sharing the same home. It’s easy to see that it makes practical sense but, as an American, I value my personal space so much that it’s something I cannot and would not ever accept–until I get my huge mansion with removed guesthouse, that is.

Due to today’s high and rising costs of housing in China, most are still opting to live together, thought there are a growing number of younger couples seeking their own space. Still, the only way for them to do this is by gathering a lot of money from the family in order to buy a house (as they also do commonly with cars), unless their family is wealthy, of course. Due to the societal pressures of marriage and family, young people are still largely following their parents’ footsteps without much room given to consider other options–and this leads to the next point.

Good Grades, Good School, Apartment, Car, Spouse, Children

Having formed relationships with so many Chinese over the years, I’ve seen a lot of the same models playing out in their lives. The main one goes like this: first, a child here has more homework in a year than I’ve ever seen in my life. During holidays–including the two-month summer break–the children are given extra homework to be completed and turned-in as soon as they return. When I ask grade-school children “what are you going to do during the holiday?” they usually say “Homework.” Because they spend so much time doing this, most children have little time to do any significant extracurricular activities. In the US, ECAs can be a bit out of control at times, but sports in the school system as we know it just doesn’t exist in China. The test score is everything.

Besides doing their homework, studying, and making good grades on their tests, the students are pushed to do well on the Gaokao, a standardized university entrance exam all students must take if they aspire to attend college. However, only the highest of scores have a chance (no guarantee) at getting a spot in the best schools–and by “best” schools, this doesn’t always mean they teach the best, it could just mean that they have the most popular or recognized name.

Most locals have told me that a university degree is simply “putting in your time” so that you can get a nice job, and they don’t really feel that they learn much of anything there, apart from having a pleasant and enjoyable experience with friends and generally a more all-around relaxed time in their lives. As for actual job skills, I don’t often hear anyone tell me “I learned a lot from my time at the university.”

So, after they get the degree from the big-name university, it’s off to get a good job. Once this is secured, the primary goal seems to get some experience and learn some things–things that can be used to get a better job within a few years.

During this time, pressure will be applied to guys to get a car and an apartment–pressure that seems to fall heavily on the shoulders of the guy’s family. Having lived in China for a while, I see little need to have a car at all in most situations and, if I had the standard income, I can’t imagine why I’d even try to get one.

However, the goal here is for them to find a wife and the girls have been taught to find a man with a degree, job, car, and apartment–it’s basically like having a pre-made family setup and ready to go! As prices are so high, the family anticipates this and saves up money for a long time, as well as pooling money from other family member who chip-in for the goal of expanding the family with expected future additions. When I ask singles why they are so quick to follow these steps, I always get blank looks or laughter, but never a deep answer apart from “It’s what everyone does, I’m expected to,” or “I have to.”

Part Two

In the next article on What Life is Like in China, we’ll discuss some very specific quirks and beliefs that most foreigners find to be interesting or curious. Until then, Which City are you looking at visiting next? Well, check it out before you go, and for those of you who may have cold feet about visiting China, be sure to check out our article about how to overcome fear of traveling!

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