How is it to live in China? Is there freedom of speech? Explain more about the differences between the USA and other first world countries and China.
Eric Lewandowski, 4 Years in China - lived in Chengdu, Dalian, Shenzhen, Nanjing & Shanghai
Updated Mar 28, 2016
I was a graduate student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in Nanjing, China where I completed part of my Masters in International Relations in 2015. Over the past six years, I split my time between Washington DC and four major Chinese cities (Chengdu, Dalian, Shenzhen and Nanjing).
To echo what many others have said, China is a massive country and the differences between north and south, inland and coastal, major cities and smaller/rural areas, cannot be understated. However, let me take a stab at a few general points:
Conveniences of Daily Life: One of my favorite parts of China is how convenient it is to get many things done. Due to the population density, nearly all neighborhoods are mixed-use, meaning residential and commercial businesses are right next to each other. Need to get milk? Just hop in the elevator and go to the convenience store in the lobby. Need a haircut? You'll never be more than six blocks from a hair studio. Need to get a key copied? Walk two blocks and you are bound to see somebody on the street copying keys for about $.25 a pop. Even compared to central neighborhoods in major U.S. cities, many small conveniences are just so much more accessible.
Some other services are much more hampered by the large population. Need basic medical attention? Be prepared to spend hours in a lines to meet a doctor who may or may not simply refer you to somebody else, sometimes out of sheer laziness or 麻烦 as the Chinese might say. No need to mention visas, purchasing train tickets (as a foreigner), a thousand other small frustrations. It's a mixed bag, leaving me cursing China one day and adoring it the next.
Interacting with Local Chinese: Generally speaking, the Chinese are quite friendly, humorous, even quirkier than many of their Asian neighbors. Many people are polite, almost to a fault. I have been studying Chinese for several years and am fairly proficient, but still speak with a strong accent, yet am complimented suspiciously often on my Chinese. Just an example of the Chinese politeness. Another odd thing: people constantly ask the same questions. How tall are you? What is your monthly salary? Do you like Chinese food? Can you use chopsticks? After several years, these questions get tiring, but they are friendly attempts by locals to include you.
If you are not of Asian descent, you are always going to be a foreigner, no if, ands or buts. If you are of Asian descent, nearly every Chinese person will assume you are Chinese, whether you are Korean, Thai or fourth-generation American. Becoming good friends with Chinese people can be quite challenging... your identity is first and foremost a foreigner with at least 95% of Chinese people and getting beyond this can be quite the challenge. As a side note, the expat communities in many large cities are ultra-inclusive, and you can make more friends in three months of a major Chinese city than a year in the States.
Freedom of Speech: Privately, you can talk about anything with anybody. People are rational and generally better informed than the American press may give people credit for. I speak openly with my Chinese classmates and friends about all sorts of sensitive issues.
In small groups, there is a lot of 'cover your ass'. For example, my academic program consists of about 60 Americans taking Mandarin-language classes from Chinese professors and 100 Chinese taking English-language classes from Johns Hopkins based professors spending a year here in Nanjing.
- Chinese food is fantastic and diverse. Every region has it's own cuisine. Within this, cities have their own specialties and you could spend a lifetime trying the different foods of the country. Many do. Impossible to find good steak, salads and Mexican food outside of Beijing, Shanghai and perhaps Shenzhen though. I find it a bit difficult to avoid oily food here, however.
- China is loud. People talk loudly, there is a constant construction, and it seems people love watching TV on their phones with the volume up and no headphones.
- China is lively. Every night, any area of public space that isn't a road is filled with dancing women, ages 40-90 twisting and shaking to upbeat music. One of my favorite aspects of China, although it does make the place even louder.
- China's air quality is a problem. Unless it has just rained, is a windy day or a visiting dignitary is in town, the air is probably quite smoggy. In Nanjing, the sky is gray, not blue, and this isn't due to the climate. Two weeks ago, I bought an air filter and it has already turned black. Some coastal cities have better air, but it is pretty rough across the board.
- In China, opportunity is everywhere. A favorite blogger of mine, John Pasden of Sinosplice and ChinesePod fame, wrote that China is like an RPG. People are always coming up offering odd jobs, tasks, a friend they want you to meet. If you like unpredictability, come here and give it a shot.
A stint living in China may not be for everyone, but I was happy to spend four years of my life there. It is an exciting to be in China and I'd recommend adventurous people to visit at a bare minimum.
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