Five years ago when I arrived in China I knew nothing about its culture, its people or its traditions. I didn't expect to like it that much, I was supposed to leave after 4 months, but something kept me there. The youthful vibe of the city, the people, the food, the energy, everything there makes you feel alive. If you are looking for adventure and fun, this is the place to be because there's always something to do, somewhere to go, someone to meet. China is more like a ride or die and it matched perfectly with my personality. Now, if you're an introvert my advice is to embrace the change, adapt to their environment, accept their way of living, and try to blend in, otherwise you're not going to like it that much. Every country has its good and bad sides and sometimes can be frustrating to deal with the things you don't like, but if you look at it as an adventure, you're going to have the time of your life! Here are the pros and cons of living China:
One of the best things in China is the technology and innovation. Everything is sooo easy and fast! You're one scroll, one button, one click away from everything you need. It's surprising how quickly Chinese are adapting to the digitalization. My grandparents can use a smartphone with same ease I can fly a spaceship, meanwhile in China 80 years old grannies are using dating apps and depend entirely on their phone's app to pay the bills, to take the metro, to video call their family or just listen to some music. I remember 4 years ago attending a hardware fair, how excited I was about all the toys I found there, all those robots, VR systems, drones, 3D printers, hoverboards and so on, were something new to me, but so common in China. Back then I didn't even heard of robot waiters in restaurants, face scanning devices to pay for your groceries, shared bikes or shared powerbanks. Cashless payment is everywhere, is so common that even the beggars use a QR code to ask for money. Everything became so convenient that all you need is a smartphone and some apps. There are dozen of them, I'll list here some of the most helpful ones:
- Taobao (淘宝) is best app for online shopping. You can order anything you can think of, furniture, clothes, cars, etc. The only downside is that it can be difficult to use it without basic knowledge of Chinese languange.
- Dianping (点评) is something like Yelp, but better. This app is there for you every time you're hungry with discounts that will make you order half of a restaurant's menu.
- Didi (滴滴) is the Chinese version of Uber, but way cheaper.
- Dida (嘀嗒) is a copy of DiDi (they weren't really inspired with the name). It's less popular than DiDi but way cheaper for long distances. I used to go to Kunshan (90km away) pretty often and pay just half the price I'd pay for DiDi. Don't bother to download the app if you can't speak Chinese because doesn't matter how accurate your location is, no driver will ever come without getting lost then call you for directions.
- MetroMan (地铁通) is basically a metro map which can be used offline and helps you find the best routes possible. Trust me, getting on a metro in Shanghai, which by the way has 17 lines, might be a pain in the ass, so why not save time and use this app?
- There are so many VPN apps but ExpressVPN one is by far the best. Most apps are blocked in China so you can't use Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Google Maps, etc. without using a VPN. It's frustrating in the beginning, but you'll get used to it.
- Baidu Maps (百度地图) is the Chinese version of Google Maps, but you need to be able to type in Chinese. If you have an iPhone, Apple Maps works good in China.
- Youku (优酷) is the Chinese version of YouTube.
- Alipay (支付宝) and Wechat (微信). If you're in China, these 2 apps are all you need. They are a mix of WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, etc. with thousands of features like mobile payment, bike sharing, car rental, car hailing, food delivery, insurance, utilities, games, health care, shopping, tickets, basically all you can think of. Cashless payment is so convenient. Use one of these apps to scan the QR code and pay for everything without needing to carry a wallet.
Don't worry, you can survive without all these. I lived one year without a SIM card just because I didn't want to waste one hour at a service center dealing with different providers and signing a contract in a language I anyway didn't understand. One year later, I bought a SIM card so people can reach me anytime, not just when I have wifi :)).
It's so convenient to travel in China. Trains are cheap and fast, planes are the best options to travel a long distance, metros are great to travel within the city and shared bikes are at every corner and is a good way to see the city. I wouldn't recommend buses, are always crowded and pretty slow, especially in big cities where traffic jams are regular. Also, try to avoid taxis for long distances because sometimes can be pretty expensive. Forget about renting a car if you don't have a Chinese driving license, your international driving licence won't do it there. It's crazy how we are not allowed to drive in China, but Chinese citizens can drive outside China. That should be illegal. They CAN NOT drive! How do they even get a driving license? Anyhow, be careful as a pedestrian when you cross the street, cars won't stop unless there's a big group of people crossing in the same time.
3. Nature and Landscapes
Considering that China is the fourth largest country in the world, I'm not surprised you can find here so much beauty, from deserts in the west to ocean in the east, China has really impressive views and landscapes. Most people know China for the Avatar mountains and the Great Wall (for a good reason), but there's so much more apart from that.
Huashan, located in Shaanxi Province is by far the most beautiful mountain I've ever seen. I remember seeing pictures of the Huashan plank walk, ranked as the most dangerous hike in the world and I hoped one day I could go there. Six years later I checked it off my bucket list. One of the best experiences I've had! Was not as scary as they said, but the view up there is breathtaking! That's one place I'd go back anytime.
There are also other mountains with amazing views such as Mt. Rainbow, Mt. Huangshan known as the Yellow mountain, Mt. Tianmen famous for the wingsuit flying championship or Mt. Everest in Tibet, can be found all over the country. Chances are they're always crowded, especially during Chinese holidays, but this shouldn't stop you from going there. Charming lakes, some of them with crystal clear water, like Heaven Lake, West Lake, Lugu Lake, Erhai Lake or the Lake of the Five Flowers, are ones of the best in China. If you like river cruises, Yangze, Yellow and Li rivers are a must see. If you prefer the sea side, China has you covered. Hainan island is known as Chinese Hawaii. With white sandy beaches, temperatures which don't go below 16 degrees, and a mild tropical climate, this is a great spot for a tropical vacation. Ancient towns, hutongs and some famous terrace fields like Hani Terraces in Yunnan Province or Longji Terraces in Guanxi Province are also part of this amazing country. Make sure you check more than just the touristy area of the Great Wall next time you're there!
P.S. Everyone chooses to go to the Badaling section of the Great Wall, which is not bad, but is so damn crowded and is not much different than Mutianyu section. For a complete guide on the Great Wall check this article.
4. Friendly locals and bargains
One thing that really impressed me in China is how friendly and helpful locals can be. They're never too busy to walk you to the place you're looking for or help you buy a zoo ticket. Like that time when we were a group of students looking for the bus station. We tried to ask a local for directions but the barrier language made it difficult for him to understand us. After a long mime game, the guy takes out his wallet and offers us some money. He thought we don't have money when in fact we were asking how and where to buy the bus tickets. Another time, my friend Diana and I couldn't find a way to get back to our city. After we spent the whole day at an amusement park in Shanghai, we were the last ones to leave the park. At 10pm we had no clue how to make it back to Wuxi without spending a fortune on a regular taxi. This nice lady just finished her shift and was about to leave when we asked her to help us find someone willing to drive 150km back to our city. Needless to say she spent almost 2 hours until she managed to find us a driver. I can say that my experiences with Chinese people were mostly good ones.
Let's talk about bargains. Most markets in China don't have the prices displayed. If you've ever asked for the price and thought it's way too expensive, that's because they are up for bargain. You must be willing to spend about 5 minute arguing for a cheaper price in order to get it. Let's say you see a nice watch and you would buy it for $30 but the vendor asks you for $150, what do you do? You first offend him by offering $5, he'll gradually lower the price $130, $110, $80 until he gives you half price. I know it sound pretty cheap at this point, but I guarantee you can get the price even lower. Make a scene, act angry and show him you only have $20 in your wallet and just like that you'll get the product for as cheap as you want. Works every time! Don't worry about them, they are not losing anything, nobody would sell you something without making a profit out of it.
1. Lack of hygiene
I know this is a sensitive subject, but one of the biggest problems in China is the lack of hygiene. It's even worse when they are not even aware of it. This starts from kindergartens where nobody teaches the the importance of washing your hands after using the toilet, on top of that no educational institution provides soap in the restrooms. Actually, go to a local restaurant, a public institution, a shopping mall, a bar, a club, even a public hospital and you'll find that soap dispensers are empty or almost non-existent. Another thing I'll never understand is why there are squatting toilets everywhere and why do people do their ''business'' all over the place? You would never think girls are such disgusting creatures until you see unwrapped pads and tampons thrown in the trash bin or next to it. Where's the common sense?
Spitting in public is also a problem, it blows my mind how common, often and normal this awful habit is and how nobody is disturbed by it. And if this is not enough let's talk about parents holding their toddlers above a trash bin or a drain and let them do their needs there. Why? Why are they doing it? Why is this something common? Why there's no law against it? I guess I'll never understand.
2. Black car scams
Drivers who offer to drive you wherever you need for a 'fair' price. Ugh, this is so annoying!. Every time you get out of the train station, metro station or airport, there is at least one 'shifu' waiting for you there. As a foreigner you are an easy target and they would do everything to convince you to get in their car. It's even worse when there are more drivers and they all start following you, asking where you're going while trying to block your way. Their prices are sometimes even triple than normal, so I suggest you avoiding them. Of course, not all of them become aggressive, there are some funny ones who can even say few words in English. Back in 2017 when my sister came to visit me, we were about to leave the airport when she turns to someone, waves at him and says 'ta-ka-sih', with a smile on her face. I was a bit confused and I didn't understand what is she doing. She told me that the man said 'hi' to her so she was just greeting him back. First, I burst into laughter then I explained her that he actually meant 'taxi'.
I was always scared to go to hospitals in China. The public ones lack hygiene, are always crowded, there's no such thing as privacy and the doctors don't speak English. I tried to avoid going to hospitals as much as possible, but sometimes was really necessary. Like that one time when I presumably had an ear infection and they sent me home with a bag full of antibiotics. Visiting one of my friends that day, I forgot the medicine at her place and when I woke up next morning the 'infection' disappeared. Or the time when I got sunburned and the dermatologist insisted to take off my shirt while six other patients were inside her office asking what happened to me, offering her advises on how she should treat me. Or the other time when I couldn't breathe normally after getting a painful massage at a spa center and the doctor handed me a cup for a urine sample. That was the first and last time when I used the toilet in a hospital. Ok, maybe that day nobody had time to clean the bathroom, but where was the damn soap? I went back to the doctor's office to ask for something to wash my hands with and 10 minutes later he came back with a half bottle of liquid soap. 10 minutes! It took him 10 minutes to find soap in a hospital. Imagine! Or maybe he just took a cigarette break, next to the trash bin at the staircase where everyone goes to smoke. You wonder now why I would choose a public hospital instead of a private one, well that's because private hospitals lack competent doctors and the prices are way too high for the poor services they offer. Like that one time when they called me 4 days after the appointment asking me to come back to their office because they mistakenly gave me the wrong treatment. Or that time when my boyfriend sprained his elbow and the doctors weren't able to change the old arm cast and we paid 75€ for the 'consultation'.