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What’s Good About China?

It is too easy to rag on China. This is a country that has the world’s worst air quality, where contaminated food and water scares are common; a country that has an incredible gap between the rich and poor, a totalitarian government, and a heinous human rights record; a country that’s ravishing its own environment [...]

china-mapIt is too easy to rag on China. This is a country that has the world’s worst air quality, where contaminated food and water scares are common; a country that has an incredible gap between the rich and poor, a totalitarian government, and a heinous human rights record; a country that’s ravishing its own environment with gusto; a country where people gawk at you when you walk down the street and talk about you just because you look different than them. On and on and on travelers and expats here can criticize and tear apart this country from behind our respirator covered faces, but if this place is really so bad then why are there 600,000 of us living here?

There is another, often subtle, side of China that balances out the negative aspects that sometimes seem ubiquitous and overwhelming. The good side of life here is truly worth coming and sticking around for. I sometimes grow weary of regularly waking up to days where the smog is so thick that I can hardly even see the buildings across the street, but this fatigue is often mitigated by the fact that there are clear days too and life quality is otherwise very good and even-keel throughout.

The following is a list of the reasons as to why I keep coming back to China.

China is fascinating

I understand that I could be called a Sinophile, and I tend to take a much more intensive interest in this country than many other foreigners, but that doesn’t mean that this country is not fascinating for everyone. How could someone not think that watching a society completely restructure itself isn’t absolutely remarkable? Who wouldn’t feel privileged to go out and take the pulse of a country that’s building something that will be a benchmark of history? Decades from now those who are here will be able to say that they witnessed the rise of a superpower — or the prelude to a catastrophic collapse  What is being done in China right now has never before been attempted in human history, and once the dust settles, the scale, speed, and extremeness of China’s transition will have a mark in the timeline of human civilization.

You can watch history happening right outside your door here. I’ve watched this show in ’05, ’06, ’07, ’12, and now 2013, and I haven’t grown bored of it yet. Each day, I know that I’m going to find out about something absolutely insane, and sometimes I’m going to be able to go and see it for myself. You can see the complete redevelopment of the land, the mobilization of millions of people, and the resulting shifts in culture.

Now mix this absolutely rampant modernization with the fact that there are incredibly huge areas (most of the country) that are pretty much untouched by these redevelopment schemes. Old China, though being bulldozed fast, is still out there. You can walk into the countryside here and be in places with few signs or indication of the 21st century. It is clear that this country is operating in two completely different spheres, and families units themselves are being divided down the middle. Oftentimes, China isn’t pretty, but it’s always fascinating.

Flexible society to interact with

Once you get used to the people staring at you like you’re a zoo exhibit, the pushing, the crowds, the rude public behavior, and the upfront way that people here tend to act, it becomes apparent that the way people treat you here is actually pretty good. Like with any culture, there’s a learning curve in this country. But once you get how to navigate these social seas there is a lot to appreciate.

After you’ve been in China for a while it’s easy to take for granted the fact that you can ask pretty much any person for help, and they’ll try their best to fill your request. The people can be amazingly helpful, and they will watch out for you — often doing things that go far beyond the protocol of hospitality.

Beyond this, foreigners have a severe lack of social obligation here that some enjoy. You’re not really a part of the culture, you just sort of hang off the side of it. Some foreigners can’t take this, but others revel in it. China is a great place to be a hermit in plain sight. You can walk through the streets and nobody will bother you, your “friends” expect little from you, and you find that you have a lot of free time to be alone, contemplate, and work on your projects.

Chinese culture is interesting in that if you don’t want to talk with people you don’t have to, but if you want to talk with people, the opportunities are everywhere. This culture can be remarkably engaging if you allow it to be. If you open up to a room full of Chinese people they will often fully embrace you with conversation — especially if you have a common language to communicate in. So it’s your choice: if you feel like talking there’s always someone somewhat nearby to try to talk with, if you don’t then nobody is going to bother you.

There is work here

If you’re native language is English, you have a job in China. Though you’re much better off if you have a degree, the demand for English teachers is so high that just about any native speaker can find work. The pay is also relatively high, especially if you contrast it against the low cost of living. The work is often pretty decent, and around 25 hours per week is considered full time.

There is also work available in many other professions, but they often require more specialization.

In this way, China is a clutch destination for travelers who are close to going broke. You can come in, work for a year, and easily leave with over $10,000 in savings.

Cheap to live

China is a relatively cheap country to live in. I know of few places in the world where the basic necessities sell cheaper. If you’re cooking your own meals and eating basic foods, you can fill yourself on under $125 per month. You can rent a nice apartment for under $200 per month, a budget class one for $150. Local transportation is likewise cheap. The trains can get you across the country for a little over a dollar an hour. Just so you stay out of the middle class spheres of this culture, the living is cheap — which makes China an excellent place to save money.

They really try to figure out what you’re saying

Unlike some Asian cultures who seem to get very impatient if you can’t speak their language properly, the Chinese are incredibly tolerant and seriously put time and effort into figuring out what you’re trying to say. They sometimes actually seem to enjoy it, as if deciphering a foreigner’s gibberish is some kind of game.

They are also amazing good at it. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a fluent verbal exchange with someone and then walked away shaking my head in amazement that they could understand my limited and creatively used vocabulary. The other day I was looking to make a copy of a key. I said the following to three or four people in the streets: “I want two keys, where is a machine?” Every single one knew exactly what I wanted and guided me right to a shop that had a key replicator.

The Chinese are masters of deciphering verbal gibberish and figuring out what outsiders are talking about. In fact, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. China is one of the most linguistically diverse countries on the planet, and people from cities that are relatively nearby often cannot understand each other’s dialects — let alone people from across the country who speak a completely different language. The presence of a lingua franca is a relatively recent development, and the people here have become used to trying hard to understand what each other are saying. This creates an excellent environment for the foreigner who’s trying to get around on fledgling Mandarin.

Chinese guys don’t tend to hit on foreign women

(This perk of living in China was brought up by my wife. I’m not sure if all women would regard this as positively.)

If you’re a woman who has traveled much, you probably know that there are some countries where the men fall all over Western women in a splurge of unrestrained sexual frenzy. In Latin America, Africa, and India, horny men can be a major annoyance for female travelers. The fascination with Western women doesn’t really exist in China. In fact, foreign women seem to be about as attractive to Chinese men as a bucket full of lard. Seriously, very attractive women who get harassed almost ceaselessly in some other regions of the world can move through the streets here attracting just about zero sexual energy. Foreign women in China seem to be mere objects of curiosity, not sex.

Don’t have to worry about being robbed/ attacked/ mugged

Being able to walk around in the streets at any hour of the day or night and not having to worry about someone robbing you is an incredible relief anywhere in the world. Though there is theft in China like anywhere else, it is rarely the type that involves having a knife pulled on you in a dark alley. Muggings are incredibly rare here, especially for foreigners.

In all my travels in China I’ve only dealt with two attempted theft situations. Both were pickpocket events, and both were unsuccessful. I’ve also rarely have ever heard of foreigners being robbed (bicycle theft aside).

As far as the potential for being attacked by a human, this country is safe. It feels good to be in a place where you don’t need to waste energy watching your back at all times and you don’t feel limited in what you can do because of security concerns.

Outside of tourist areas people are honest

Contrary to what many foreigners claim, there are no duel pricing systems for foreigners outside of the tourist/ expat epicenters of this country. How do I know? I observe what the locals pay for things, and sometimes it is just obvious that the price couldn’t really be any lower for anybody. When you get a massive plate of food with lots of meat, a bowl of rice, and a large beer at a restaurant for 18 RMB, you know you’re not being ripped off.

But I didn’t know this the first time I came to China in 2005. Most of my travels up until that point were in South America — a region where you learn early on to ask how much something costs before ordering. It was a good thing my entry to the Sino world was with someone who knew the cultural landscape well. We would go into restaurants and noodle stalls and he would order us food without first asking the price. I thought this was sloppy travel — they’re going to rip us off!!! Finally my friend said something to the effect of, “They don’t do that here.”

He was right. I’ve never really been hosed in this country, and only on rare occasions, when in the belly of some tourist or expat hellhole — places where the Chinese know how stupid we are — has anyone tried to overcharge me or rip me off.

In 99% of the places in this country I can order a plate of food without asking the price and pay the same as everybody else. I can walk into a hardware shop, order a few copies of a key knowing that I won’t be charged much over a couple bucks. I know that I can flag down a taxi driver and if I don’t make myself out to be a moron he or she will take me to my destination and charge me the proper fare.

It’s relaxing and feels good to be in a place where you can engage people in commerce without needing to be looking over their shoulders the entire time. It’s good to invest your time into places where the people don’t treat you like money on legs, where you can believe that you’re not going to be ripped off or lied to just because you’re from another country.

The honesty of the Chinese is remarkable — especially since they could rip most of us foreign idiots off at just about every turn if they chose. Though they have the saying, “We can always fool a foreigner,” they tend to only put this into practice in the tourist cesspools.

Conclusion

It is frighteningly easy to provide an unbalanced report on China. The truth of the matter is that this is a good place to be. China is a country, a region, and, sometimes, even seems like an entire world. There is no other place like it — not even close. For the benefit of getting to know this rapidly evolving country and culture all other annoyances seem like a paltry trade off. Add to that the fact that I can live well here and I obtain a visa that allows me to stay, chewing on the polluted air each day seems worth it — well, almost.

Filed under: China, Expatriots

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3544 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Astoria, New York

10 comments… add one

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  • Musings of A Lost American February 26, 2013, 8:16 am

    Some of the most genuine nicest people I have known in my travels have been in China. That speaks volumes about what’s good about China.

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  • JohnWasteneys February 26, 2013, 12:37 pm

    I agree fully with everything you said Wade, but saving 10,000 is not that easy. My salary is 73000 rmb a year after first 2 month probation….. Which is pretty average for a first year teacher. Thats about 12,000 dollars. I’m sending home roughly 600 a month. Thats not going to add up to 10,000. I’d have to live on 2000 a year to save that kind of money. Maybe with more experience people can save more….. but personally i’d rather travel. ?

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    • Vagabond Journey March 1, 2013, 3:14 am

      @JohnWasteneys True, this estimate varies, as the pay rate is different throughout the country, between schools, and even between employee within schools themselves. $10,000 was roughly what MRP mentioned to me that he saved from this past year he just worked in Hangzhou — and it seemed like a good ballpark figure of what an English teacher making a median salary could save in a year. 
       
      I’d say between 6,000 and 13,000 RMB per month is the range of what foreign English teachers are being paid across China. Between 8,000 and 10,000 RMB per month is what I would consider average. 8,000 RMB per month is a little over $15,000 per year. With an apartment subsidized and end of contract bonuses, I think saving 10 grand is definitely a good amount of savings to shoot for without having to live too Spartan. $600 per month in savings isn’t too bad though. That’s $7200 per year — still pretty good.

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      • Vagabond Journey March 1, 2013, 3:16 am

        @JohnWasteneys Good call on choosing to enjoy China and travel around rather than saving every penny.

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  • LarryB_in_SEA February 26, 2013, 1:13 pm

    As a visitor to Beijing in ’04, I found the taxi drivers to be amazingly helpful and honest. I can also say that the only place anyone tried to rip me off was in tourist-centric areas. Going only a few blocks away revealed a very different China. I imagine a lot of that has been bulldozed by now.

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  • the candy trail February 26, 2013, 8:36 pm

    In total agreement … Another great thing as a teacher here is that students – particularly adults – are very easy to teach as they’re disciplined, studious, courteous, relaxed, and playful. China is awesome. An exciting time to be here (and it’s my 5th time since 1994) but will be leaving soon – yet, I will return again. 
     
    PS: The food is also great and varied. And internet speeds good, too (just use a VPN for some surfing issues).

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  • James J Taizhou CLong March 2, 2013, 2:59 am

    Thanks for sharing this revealing outlook about China. Sometimes its a love/hate relationship which you point out at the beginning but when it comes down to it the people are very good and honest. I am actually kind of surprised the estimate is only 600,000 foreigners living here; I assume you are referring to Western foriegners.
     
    I think living in Korea there was lots of similarities; locals are often quite friendly and want to engage with you but as you uncover it really is your choice in the end. Living in a small tier city surely has its limitations; in Seoul I had everything just a subway ride away including a gigantic expat community where the American military bases are. In Taizhou we have what we have; there arent really any places to openly speak English and sometimes that is difficult to live without. I will say that small town China has lots more of a peaceful atmosphere than big cities where you can really focus on your craft. Thanks for sharing as always; I have always had ambitions of writing and you are indeed an inspiration!

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  • Felix Gervais March 7, 2013, 6:18 am

    This list is excellent, far from exhaustive, though… I’d add the huge diversity of cuisines, absence of organized religion in the public sphere, general comfort and quality of life, and perhaps my favorite thing about living in China: the ability, as an obvious outsider, to just shield yourself away from daily life’s bullshit, while at the same time being able to socialize to greater extents than in a place where I am not an “interesting” minority.
     
    And also the immense potential of travel within the country. So many places, so many roads to get there!

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  • Caitlin March 7, 2013, 11:30 am

    You’ve inspired me! I’m going to Beijing for a couple weeks in late June. Any chance you’ll be in northern China around that time?
    Also, hi how are you? Say hi to your ladies for me.

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  • Michael A. Robson May 20, 2013, 2:06 pm

    “Once you get used to the people staring at you like you’re a zoo exhibit, the pushing, the crowds, the rude public behavior, and the upfront way that people here tend to act, it becomes apparent that the way people treat you here is actually pretty good”

    WTF? This is an awesome list, it just doesn’t jive with my own experience in China (speak Fluent Chinese.. lived there for 6 years). Besides English teaching the job prospects are very slim. Also, look around.. you’re living in China, eating pretty disgusting unhealthy food. Are you SURE you’re making a good living, when you take all things into account?

    “Don’t worry about getting mugged”

    Also, my apartment was robbed (see ya 2008 Macbook), and people get their cellphones jacked all the time. Yes, even Chinese people get mugged.

    “In fact, foreign women seem to be about as attractive to Chinese men as a bucket full of lard.

    Um, yeah, the white guys treat them like that too. It’s because Chinese women are beautiful and charming. Best thing about the country is the incredibly high quality of intelligent ambitious and beautiful women. The trick is to find one and GTFO of China.

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