Living in China – FAQs
Martin and I have been living in Shenzhen for almost 10 months. Many people are curious about what it’s like to live here, so I thought I would answer a few common questions about life in Shenzhen. Please keep in mind that everyone’s lives are different and these are simply my experiences.
What’s the food like?
Hot pot (火锅 huoguo) restaurants are very popular, especially when celebrating with a large group of people. At these restaurants, every table has a pot of hot broth. You order a plethora of raw food – meat, vegetables, mushrooms, etc. Then, you cook your own food at the table in the broth. I hate these restaurants. I’m doing all the work! But most Chinese people I’ve met love them.
I really like the canteen restaurants. They are like a school cafeteria. Grab a tray, get some rice and point to the dishes you want. I especially like the scrambled eggs with tomatoes, the spicy fried eggplant, and the sautéed greens in soy sauce. A full meal here costs about 15-20 RMB ($2-3), which fits our budget perfectly.
Martin loves roujiamo (肉夹馍) – especially from the old woman at the street market by our apartment. For only 10 RMB ($1.50), he gets a mouthwatering and filling sandwich made of stewed pork chopped with cucumber, cilantro, and spicy pepper. The Chinese bread soaks up the pork juice just like a French Dip.
Some Chinese food is gross – ahem, chicken feet – and some restaurants are not clean. It isn’t easy to eat in China, but I’m learning to love a few dishes – especially Sichuan dishes which have a distinctive spicy flavor.
Most restaurants serve food family style with dishes arriving at the table as soon as they are ready. This makes going out to eat with friends a lot of fun and quite reasonably priced since we share all the food.
What’s your apartment like?
Our apartment is small (42 square meters / 450 square feet) and dingy. The kitchen is abysmal. The location is great because I can walk to work when it isn’t too hot and we are close to several subway lines.
Housing prices in Shenzhen are very expensive. They are the major bone of contention among the Chinese locals. A student told me housing prices doubled in just the last year. Salaries did not. Just another indicator that Shenzhen is growing faster than it can keep up.
How easy is it to get around?
The metro system in Shenzhen is fantastic. It’s clean, easy, safe, and cheap. In the past 6 months, three new subway lines opened. If a train can’t get you there, a bus can. Fares are usually only 2-5 RMB ($0.30 – $0.75) depending on how far you go. The only downside is the trains stop running at midnight. Which makes for an early night when hanging out with friends on the other side of town.
The trend right now is app-based bike rental companies. You download their app and scan the QR code on the bike, which unlocks the back tire of the bike. When done, just park it anywhere in a public area and re-lock the back tire. It’s a great system that would never work in America because the bikes would get stripped of their parts pretty quickly. Here, they’re more worried about the massive numbers of bikes that are taking over the sidewalks.
Can you speak Chinese yet? Do many people speak English?
Martin and I have found ways to get by not speaking Chinese. All of our friends speak English and I speak English at work. I’m sure we are missing out on many things by not being able to speak the local language.
I can order a cup of coffee. (Wo yao yi bei meishi kafei.) I can ask where something is (zai nali?) or if the store has what I’m looking for (ni you ma?). Beyond that, it’s pretty limited. I just took a one week, 14 hour, one-on-one class with a fantastic Chinese teacher who I met through Couchsurfing. I learned a ton. Chinese is a language that really requires intense and diligent study to progress. Without a class to go to, I don’t study it. I haven’t signed up for another class yet, but if I have more time in the future, I will.
Why do Chinese students do so well on standardized tests?
The education system in China is ridiculously rigorous. Children start going to school at 3 years old. They call it Kindergarten but it’s really pre-school. First grade starts at 6 years old. It’s common for kids, especially in middle and high school, to live at the school and only visit their parents on the weekend and for holidays. This means they study all the time. Some will go to school after school to study some more. The tests in high school are so competitive that students don’t do anything else but study. No dating. No partying. No hanging out with friends. Just studying. In college, they let their hair down a bit, but their rigorous study habits of 16 years are hard to shake. So, yes. Chinese students are amazing at taking tests. They are very knowledgable about the things taught in school.
What are the biggest cultural differences between China and America?
Um. Everything. Is. Different.
In America we say “Money can’t buy happiness.” In China, they say “Only the wealthy are happy.”
Work weeks are usually six days long, not five days. They have to work extra hours on their regular “weekend” to make up for holidays. Even schools do this. I don’t understand how it is a holiday if you have to work another day anyway.
The pressure for young people to get married and have children in their mid-twenties is intense. Imagine going to school for 16 years, studying so hard you don’t have time to date and barely have time for friends. Then, you are in college and you suddenly have to find a husband or wife.
So many more things are different here.
What’s Lunar New Year like?
It’s pretty much amazing. Most people have a week or two off from work and travel home to visit their extended family. They eat dumplings and traditional food from their home towns. It’s a time to enjoy your family.
Shenzhen doesn’t have many locals, so it becomes empty. Many of my expat friends stayed in town too and it was like the expats took over Shenzhen. All I saw were expats! I went to Hong Kong to see the parade and celebrate too, which was amazing because of all the people from around the world. It’s magical living in such a diverse area.
Do you like living in China?
Sometimes. I like it more every day.
Shenzhen is a growing city. It’s like a teenager. Sometimes its energy is contagious and really fun and other times I just wish it would grow up. When I don’t have to work, I love Shenzhen. We have an amazing group of friends who are always up for a picnic, a walk up a mountain, a drink at a bar, a movie night, or board games. However, most of the time I’m working or getting ready to go to work or exhausted from working. Martin enjoys Shenzhen more than I do.
How expensive is it to live in China? How do you pay for things?
China in general is not expensive. However, it is easy to spend money here. Martin and I have to be really careful about not spending too much. With just one salary supporting two people, it can be difficult. We spend about 30% of our income on housing and about 25% on food (including groceries, restaurants, and bars). I pay about 12% in taxes. Transportation, shopping, personal care, and other miscellaneous expenses amount to 10-20% of our monthly income. That leaves about 15% for savings and traveling around, which is about $300, not enough for two people to travel around China, let alone other nearby countries. I usually work at least one OT shift a month and I have often taken on extra projects for extra pay. But, with working more, I have less time to have fun.
I had to open a bank account with a Chinese bank to get paid by my company. That account is linked to my WeChat (China’s social media app) and I can use WeChat to pay at most businesses. So, if I have my phone, I can pay for things. Allipay is also common. Visa and Mastercard are rarely accepted; Union Pay is the norm. Cash is also common, but really most people pay with WeChat.
What are you going to do next?
I HAVE NO IDEA!!!
Everyday I have a new idea. Masters degree? Stay in Shenzhen? Stay in China? Teach in Taiwan? Teach in South Korea? Volunteer in Tasmania? Start a business? Teach privately? I HAVE NO PLAN.
So I do yoga. I meditate. I research. I cultivate patience. I’m sure I’ll figure it out.
I’m open to hearing about any ideas you might have – especially if it involves teaching at a university (outside of the USA, of course).