American expat “Kainan” tells me his amazing story of dramatically changing his lifestyle by getting into shape and taking a leap of faith by moving from southern California to Chongqing, China. His top priority in China is to find his future wife. Read the full interview below (Ness in bold font and Kainan in regular font):
Could you start by telling us your age, nationality, hometown, ethnicity, and what kind of person you consider yourself to be (personality wise)?
My Chinese moniker is “Kainan.” I’m 30 years-old. I’m American, and my hometown is Arcadia, a city nearby Los Angeles in southern California. I’m a white guy – 50% German, while the other half is a rainbow of mixtures. As far as personality goes, I’m outgoing, honest, and nice, but I’m a no nonsense kind of guy. However I try to treat people fairly, even those whom I don’t like. So I’m all about mutual respect.
It’s hard not to respect someone who’s all about mutual respect. How long have you been in your current location of Chongqing, China?
Almost two years – one year and eight months to be exact.
Do you have experience living in or traveling to any countries other than China?
Unless you count the airport in Tokyo, I haven’t seen any other countries. I’ve seen America, and I’ve seen China – that’s the extent of my travels.
How much have you seen of China beyond Chongqing? Any favorite or least favorite places?
Back in my early travel days, prior to moving to China, I traveled to Shenyang in Liaoning province. I thought it was a very nice city. Granted, when I went, it was my first overseas experience, so everything had that “brand new” feeling. As dirty as it was, I felt it was a pretty charming city. Even though it’s a very cold place, it has very warm people. Northern Chinese people may seem colder and harder on the outside, but they’re kinder and more hospitable than people in the South.
I’ve also been to Xi’an, which is famous for its Terracotta Warriors. The city seemed like a touristy place, which I don’t really care for too much. I once worked in Chengdu for a day, and it seemed like a really clean and nice city. I really liked what I saw there. I’d even consider it as a future place to live. Overall, I think I’ve been to about eight cities in China. I didn’t spend extensive time in each one, but I have seen a lot of China.
I remember seeing some photos you posted online a while back from Leshan, which is home to the Da Fo (Giant Buddha) rock statue.
Oh, yeah! I went up to see the Giant Buddha, and that was okay. That place had a nice little city feel to it. I didn’t spend much time there, but it was an interesting experience, as I had never seen anything like that before.
I had big plans to go there on my month-long trip to China in 2015, but my camera broke on me at the last minute, so I had to change plans. I also remember you telling me a story about going to Lanzhou (Gansu province). Tell us more about that.
My ex-girlfriend whom I met in Shenyang’s hometown is Lanzhou. Her mom had died, so she went there, and then I followed after. Her home was actually three hours outside of the main city. I was in this really rundown, unmodern city. The town square was bare, and it seemed like everywhere was under construction. But my experience there was very good, and the people were very very friendly.
As far as the main city, I don’t really have much of an impression at all. I know it was pretty dirty. It seemed like one of those nicer, out-of-the-way cities where people still have their Chinese culture (less Westernized). My ex-girlfriend said only one foreigner had ever been to the city, and that was a German guy buying property for his company. So I was definitely a very strange person to them there. It was an interesting experience being the only foreigner within hundreds of miles.
I got to meet all of her family and eat some homemade food on their farm. I got really bad food poisoning about six times in that city. That was probably due to my Western immune system not being used to the local bacteria yet. I also met some interesting and unusual characters there, one being a self-taught English teacher. But overall I had some good memories there.
Sounds like a pretty interesting story! Maybe you should write a book about it someday.
My whole life story is pretty interesting – I could name the book From Zero to Hero, haha.
I’d be your first buyer! How do you make a living there in Chongqing? Could you also let us in on how much you make?
When I first arrived in Chongqing, I was making 8,000 RMB a month as an English teacher. I was teaching about 25 hours a week, which was okay. I believe I was on the lower end of the foreign teacher pay scale.
If you happen to stay in shape and are decent-looking, you can do model jobs on the side here. I use the term “model” quite loosely. You can do advertising, fashion walks, and even dressing up as characters (if you can drop your pride). These jobs pay anywhere from 600 RMB for a couple of hours, up to 1,400 RMB for one to five hours. It’s decent money! One month I made 11,000 RMB or so working three different modeling jobs. You can make money many different ways in China as a foreigner. You don’t have to just do English teaching.
Do you find that the modeling work is consistent? Is it something you can rely on, or does it just come and go?
When I came to Chongqing two years ago, the work was consistent, but Chongqing has changed dramatically in only two years. There’s been a huge influx of foreigners, so the modeling work is harder to come by now. But if you’re a woman and you have the looks, you can make a lot of money and even rely on it as an income. But as a man, you can’t really rely on it anymore.
When I traveled to Beijing in 2014, I remember running into a really pretty Brazilian girl at a convenience store. She said she was in the city to do some modeling, which wasn’t hard to believe.
It seems like the only criteria to be a model here in China is to be decent-looking and to be in decent shape. I’ve seen lots of male and female “models” here who weren’t anywhere near looking like an actual model, and they were making really good money. I say this to encourage others who think they might not be able to do the work.
One time I went to a nearby city where I pretended to be a businessman at some conference about a new cell phone. There were four or five people at this meeting, and we just sat there for a few hours while people looked at us through glasses.
Insiders usually call those kind of jobs “white monkey jobs.”
Then I have definitely done a lot of white monkey jobs! I once even dressed as Popeye handing out advertisements outside of a restaurant. In America, I wouldn’t even consider doing a job like that, but for the prices they pay in China, I can’t say no.
Before coming to China, did you work in any other industries?
I’ve worked so many jobs! Once I worked at a concrete quarry cleaning up concrete and shoveling cement. Once I worked in a tailor shop that tailored clothes for postmen, policemen, military men, and nurses. Another one was as a supplement store manager at a place similar to GNC. That was one of my favorite jobs. And after that, I worked with my sister as a gymnastics teacher for kids. I enjoyed that job, as I’m into fitness myself. Using the savings from that job, I made my way to China for the first time.
Sounds like you’re a “jack-of-all-trades” – a person who isn’t a professional in any one particular field, but dabbles in multiple fields.
You could say that. Kinda like a Swiss Army knife – it’s not so great at any one thing, but it can cut something.
How’s the cost of living to income ratio there in Chongqing? Do you feel your salary offers you a good lifestyle?
It’s fantastic! If in one month I lived very frivolously and did whatever I wanted, maybe I would have spent around 5,000 RMB. On the other hand, if I just had fun for one month, and didn’t spend ridiculously, I might have spent only about 3,000 RMB. In either scenario, I could still manage to save at least a few thousand RMB. Your quality of life compared to how much you get paid is very high here. It would be even higher in lower tier Chinese cities.
What do you find is exceptionally cheap, and what is exceptionally expensive there in Chongqing?
Any food without meat is very cheap. For example, a bowl of noodles is only five RMB. However, meat is very expensive. The Chinese tend to use meat as a flavoring, rather than as the main course. So if I want to get something very meaty like a steak, it’s gonna cost me anywhere from 200 to 500 RMB, depending on how fancy the restaurant is.
But cooking at home can be very cheap. Two chicken breasts are only nine RMB, and rice is only two RMB. So cooking a home-cooked meal with meat is of course cheaper than if you eat out. Eating out can be very expensive depending on your diet.
I agree. In China carbohydrates are dirt cheap, but lean protein can be outrageously expensive. I’m not talking about fatty cuts of meat, rather I’m talking about lean cuts without much fat.
Compared to the Western diet, the lean-fatty meat ratio is flipped. Whereas we prefer lean meat, they prefer fat. The Chinese might eat a piece of meat that is 90% fat, and only 10% lean meat.
Often when I eat home-cooked Chinese meals, the hosts will cook really fatty meat dishes like braised pig skin or pork belly. And like you said, it’s probably 90% fat and only 10% lean meat. So they definitely have very different tastes in meat.
Another expense is taxis – they can be anywhere from 30 to 50 RMB depending upon how far you go. Whereas using the subway might only cost you five RMB both ways. These little expenses can add up.
Buying a vehicle is literally 100% more expensive here than if you bought a car overseas, but motorcycles are pretty cheap here if you’re willing to brave the streets. Other than that, it’s pretty cheap here.
I understand you’re very much into fitness and a healthy lifestyle, and several years prior to coming to China, you were morbidly obese. Can you tell us more about how you lost so much weight and got into good shape?
About five or six years ago, I was a really heavy guy – about 300 pounds! I’m 6 feet tall (183 cm), so 300 pounds was too heavy. I was very unhappy, and I wasn’t very popular with the ladies. I was very angry at myself and how I was treated by the world. So one day I decided I wanted to change myself, and I used that anger inside of me to get into shape.
I lost about 30 to 40 pounds in the beginning by simply exercising. I then started to study nutrition and got wiser about what I ate. From then on I started to get into better shape at an exponentially faster rate. It got to the point where I was putting hours into research and hours into exercising. Fast forward a few years, and I’m now 180 pounds. I’m pretty athletic, and I’ve got some muscle mass. And I’m usually in better shape than most people who are younger than me. Anyone can do what I did – it just depends on how badly you want it.
Another interesting story from you. I myself also lost more than 60 pounds over the last five years, so I understand the struggle you went through. Do you feel it’s easy or difficult to stay in shape in a country like China? What are the biggest challenges to staying in shape?
The biggest challenge is the culture. Rejecting someone’s offer here (of food, drinks, cigarettes, etc.) will give the offeror a bad impression of you. It makes you look unfriendly. Rejecting the bad drinking and eating habits of the locals will make you somewhat of a social outcast.
The second challenge is the local diet – ratios of food here are completely backwards in regards to getting into shape. You need a high protein, medium carbohydrate diet to get into shape. Here it’s high fat, high carbohydrate, and very low protein. You can’t build lean muscle well without protein.
The third challenge is how time-consuming it is to get to gyms in Chongqing. It might take you 30 minutes to walk to the gym, and another 30 minutes to walk back. And that’s not even counting the time it takes you to exercise in the gym. Gyms here are also quite expensive. There are no 24 hour gyms in China, so going to the gym late at night is usually not even an option.
This is all really good information that I can totally relate to. Most of what you said is actually not unique to China – it’s true for all of Asia. I agree that having to constantly reject food is challenging. And it seems like affordable gyms are pretty rare in China. I like doing compound weightlifting exercises (squats, bench presses, deadlifts, etc.), and at least half the gyms in Asia don’t have the equipment I need for that.
I’ve also found that sometimes trainers give you bad information. Many people in the gym here don’t have any clue what they’re doing. It’s so annoying waiting to use a piece of gym equipment when the person using it ahead of you isn’t even using it correctly!
I can’t count how many times I’ve seen really bad squats waiting to use the squat rack here in Japan! And of the four countries I’ve lived in (the United States, China, Thailand, and Japan), America is actually the easiest to stay in shape in. That’s ironic because America also has the most obese and out-of-shape people. Number two would be Japan. That’s mostly because the diet here is pretty good. Lean meats like fish really help. There’s also a mild fitness culture here.
Number three is Thailand. The diet’s moderate, and the culture doesn’t really impose any challenges to staying in shape. But the most challenging country by far would have to be China. Even traveling to China for my month-long trips, I still find it very hard to stay in shape and keep my diet under control. It feels like the whole system is against you staying in shape.
Even the air here is against you!
You and I could talk about this topic forever! Let’s move to the next topic. What everyday items do you feel are the most difficult to find in Chongqing? Any rare items you feel newbies to China ought to bring with them from their respective home countries?
Right off the bat – if your shoe size is bigger than a US size 11, make you sure you bring shoes with you. I’m a US size 12, and I’ve wanted boots for more than a year now, but I can’t find any. I’ve searched everywhere, and I’ve asked people, but I can’t find any. Sure, I could get them online, but then they’re usually way overpriced.
The second item would be stick deodorant. I’ve only found deodorant rollers and sprays here.
It’s really hard to find stick deodorant in any of the Asian countries I’ve been to.
Depending upon what kind of person you are, you might also want to bring condoms with you. The condoms in Asia are generally lower quality and don’t work so well. I’ve had some bad experiences with them!
I also recommend people moving to China to bring supplements with them. Things like vitamins, fish oil pills, whey protein, creatine, and L-glutamine are VERY hard to find in China.
Absolutely! You can find sugary soy protein at the Wal-Marts here, but you can’t find real whey protein. And even if you do, it’s so watered down with additives that it’s almost not even real any more. It’s also outrageously expensive. On the other hand, I have seen multivitamins here, but I question how genuine they are.
How’s your love life there in Chongqing? Do you feel being a white guy there helps or hinders you in regards to romance?
I’m a relationship-oriented guy, so my experiences are going to be quite different than those of guys who’re just trying to have one night stands. Guys simply wanting a one night stand often have lower standards than guys wanting a serious relationship. So trying to find a relationship here, assuming you’re looking for a woman who’s potential wife material, presents a much greater challenge.
There’s a catch 22 in trying to find a serious relationship here. You’ll often meet women who’re wanting to get out of China, and/or women who’ve been rejected by the local Chinese men. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these kinds of women, but the problem is that women who fall under these two categories are often only with you just because of said reasons. So the woman might just be using you to get out of China, and/or she has tons of personal issues, hence why the local men have rejected her.
Even if you do meet a girl who would make a great wife, chances are she’s going to be quite traditional. And traditional Chinese families want their daughters to marry very successful Chinese men. Even though you might make more money as a foreigner in China, you’re still probably not going to own a car or an apartment here. That can be a big problem, because culturally-speaking it’s not acceptable for daughters to marry someone lacking these things. A lot of parents also fear that as a foreigner, you’re going to take their daughter far away from them, so that can be a huge problem as well.
Dating here is seen as a precursor to marriage, so if most women see that you don’t have those things that they’re looking for (a car, home, etc.), then they’re not even going to consider dating you in the first place. Dating can be casual here, but that’s usually in the more Westernized parts of China.
Foreigners also have a reputation as playboys who get drunk all the time, sleep with tons of women, and then disappear the next day. So as a relationship-oriented foreigner, you have a horrible stigma to overcome. You might attract lots of party girls, but that only leads to disappointment if you’re looking for a relationship. It’s a complex situation. What you want, what you’re aiming for, and where you’re at in China all play a big role.
So from your point-of-view, do you think it’s easier to get a one night stand than a quality relationship?
I would always say it’s easier to get a one night stand than a quality relationship. However, it’s far more worth the effort to find a girl for a relationship here in China than it would be in a lot of other countries. So what you asked is not quite the point I was trying to make, but you could say that. Maybe that’s just because I’m in Chongqing. If you went to another part of China, maybe that wouldn’t be the case.
Do you feel like you’ve been successful in regards to romance in China?
I’ve had two serious girlfriends since coming to China. I would have married them both. I broke things off with the second girlfriend due to some bad judgement calls on my part, but I now admit that I regret doing that.
I think I’m a pretty decent guy. Sure, I’m not perfect, but I think I’m pretty good-looking. I guess you could say that I’ve been successful here. I would definitely say I’m more successful here than I was back in the States. No question about it.
I can definitely relate to you on that. Are there any comments you can give us on life in general as a white guy living in China (i.e. do you “fit” in, any discrimination towards you, unique experiences, etc.)?
As a white guy in China, you will always be hated and loved. You’ll never be a local. You’ll never be accepted as an equal. You’ll either be put on a pedestal, or you’ll be seen as a creature to entertain. You’ll be seen as someone to extort and get money from.
As for Chinese men, you’re never normally going to make a really close male friend here. You might be an acquaintance, or you might hang out together, but it’ll never be like back home where you have a best friend.
You always attract the dredges of society. People who are just weird or have big issues will be attracted to you because you’re both “different.”
Pretty good observations. I’ve been in Asia over six years now, and I don’t have even one really good Asian male friend. Lots of acquaintances and people I get along with, but I wouldn’t call any of them my true friend.
As for attracting the dredges of society, once again I think this is true in all of Asia, but it’s the most noticeable in China. Every time I’m in China, very strange people talk to me. Sometimes they’re cool, but other times they’re way too creepy.
Absolutely. People will also want to use you as a social icon – they will want to be seen with you or brag about having a foreign friend. Some people might think that’s exploitation, but I think that’s just the way it is. It’s the culture. I say just use it to your advantage, because it’s not going away any time soon.
Another problem here is the gay men are really aggressive. They come on to me stronger than any woman ever has. I’m not homophobic, but I’m definitely not gay either. I’ve had many experiences here where the local gay men have crossed my limits. Guys trying to get a look at my junk when using the urinals, guys trying to touch my crotch at nightclubs, and so on. That really gets on my nerves. I don’t think it’s acceptable to aggressively invade the space of someone who isn’t gay.
I feel the further south you go in Asia, the more you’re going to run into this behavior. That’s because the further south you go, the more openly gay people you will see. This is especially true in places like Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines where there’s a lot of gay culture.
Next topic. What do you like the most and what do you like the least about life in China or Chinese society?
I like the family culture the most, but it’s a double-edged sword. Family is supposed to be number one here, and I feel that’s something lacking in the West. But on the other hand, people here try to use this family culture to manipulate and control each other.
People are always screwing over each other to make a quick buck. Exploitation is the name of the game here. It’s almost a moral code here that if someone is stupid enough to let you screw them over, then they had it coming, and you’d be the fool if you didn’t at least attempt to screw them over!
I think China is a dog-eat-dog society. Far more so than any other country I’ve been to. It’s disappointing that people use each other left and right with zero shame.
So what are your top tips to have a more enjoyable experience as a newbie in China?
Concerning jobs – they need you more than you need them. There’s a million more students here than there are teachers. Don’t take jobs that don’t pay enough, and don’t accept a bunch of extra work if it’s not in the contract. If they’re not happy with you, they have to jump through more hoops to find a new teacher than you do to find a new job.
Second, learn some Chinese. Your time in China will be exponentially better if you can speak Chinese. Romance, friendships, getting around – you will gain so many things from being able to speak Chinese.
Third, know the local prices. Do your research and ask your friends, otherwise you will constantly be screwed over. It’s assumed that foreigners have a lot of money, so people don’t feel guilt over taking money from someone they believe is rich.
Also, know the feel of your city. I’ve lived here almost two years, and I have a better sense of direction than most of the locals. For things like taxi fares or getting lost, it’s crucial to know your city.
All good advice. What is your overall impression of Chinese and local Chongqing cuisine? Any favorite dishes?
Starting with country-wide Chinese cuisine, some of my favorites are also the most simple. My absolute favorite is fan qie chao dan, which is tomato and egg diced up and stir-fried together. As simple as it is, it’s just amazing! I also like baozi, which is a steamed bun with meat and vegetables inside. They’re horrible for your health, but they’re really delicious! I like dipping mine in vinegar, like they do up in Shenyang.
Another one is tian suan zhu rou, which you might know from America, but it’s almost a completely different dish here in Chongqing. Another is ma po dou fu, which is blocks of spicy tofu stir-fried together with ground meat. Sometimes they add Sichuan pepper, which makes your lips go numb. It’s really delicious!
As for the local Chongqing foods, there’s huo guo, which is a boiling pot filled with chili oil and peppers and a bunch of other spices. You put the meat and vegetables inside the pot yourself, and then boil them until they’re good to go. It’s really spicy, so normal people probably couldn’t handle it, but I’m impervious to spice, so I could eat it all day. Another good one is ma la tang, which is similar to huo guo but not entirely the same.
Shao kao, or street barbecue at night, is also really good. My personal favorite is the kebabs made Xinjiang-style. The recipe is more Muslim-style, which tastes really good.
Are there any dishes you’ve had in China that you thought were repulsive?
I’m not a fan of cow stomach, but neither are most other foreigners. I also don’t like chicken liver or chicken fetus (a half developed chicken). I’ve eaten both goat testicles and sheep penis barbecue-style, and I can tell you that I have no desire to eat either one again.
But my very least favorite would have to be silkworm pupae. It’s a white protein substance. I gave it a shot, but it’s just disgusting. There’s nothing appealing about it at all. If the Chinese like it, great, but I find it unappealing.
I have a love/hate relationship with the fish here. Fish is served with bones inside, and I find that the bones take away from the enjoyment of eating the fish. You’re always having to worry about accidentally eating a bone with every bite. The Chinese don’t seem to have a problem with that, though.
I’m a fish lover, but I totally agree with you about how the bones ruin the fish. I just don’t get it.
We’re down to the last few questions now. How’s the expat scene in Chongqing?
There are a lot of foreigners these days. I’d say there’s roughly 8 to 10,000 foreigners in Chongqing. If you do the night scene here, you’re going to run into a lot of them. There’s a large Russian and African population here, and even some Pakistanis. Other than at the nightlife areas, I mostly see foreigners at schools and universities here. They’re usually either teachers or students.
As far as the quality of said foreigners, it seems like a lot of them are very shady. I think they’re usually up to no good. Trying to get a quick lay, using the locals, extortion, etc. They’re just not great people. There are some good foreigners here, but there are also a lot of bad ones. I actually find that the Asian expats tend to be better people.
Once again, it’s the same for all of Asia. I’ve met a lot of expats here, but rarely have I met any quality ones. Harsh, but true.
Well I’m not perfect, either. I guess their “quality” all depends on what your criteria for judging them is based on. I base it on ethics, morality, and personal code. But maybe their criteria is different, and they might even see me as one of the “lower quality” foreigners. Regardless, my experiences have been pretty negative with the foreigners here.
We’re in the same boat then. What’s your absolute favorite thing to do or place to go in Chongqing?
There’s a place here on the far edge of the city called Da Xue Cheng (University City). Of course there’s a lot of universities there. The area has a lot of students and a nice Chinese feel to it. It’s not so developed yet, so it doesn’t have that big city feel to it. It’s young, and it feels different than the rest of the city. It’s definitely my favorite place to go here. It’s the golden part of the city.
During my week-long stay in Chongqing last year, I felt it was a pretty vibrant city. I didn’t like the city very much, but I admit that it’s got a lot of energy. I particularly liked walking along the giant bridges that go over the Jialing and Yangtze Rivers. They’re great places to take some really amazing photographs of the city.
People-watching while eating some roast meat from the sidewalk can also be very entertaining, especially in the club districts late at night. It’s fun watching the colorful people go by and watching people get into fights.
Where would you like to be, location-wise and career-wise, ten years from now?
I hope to be investing in real estate and making some passive income, or maybe even the owner of my own gym. Hopefully I can be making enough passive income that I can travel and not have to worry about grinding every day. China’s given me a lot of opportunity, but I still haven’t seen much of the world. Who knows – I might like other parts of the world far more than here.
I’d like to possibly work in Japan or Korea someday, but that might be hard considering my own personal situation. Ultimately, I’d like to just keep traveling and making money while I’m traveling. I don’t want to be landlocked to one location.
After it’s all said and done, would you do it all over again? That is moving to Chongqing? Any regrets or things you wish you did differently?
I probably wouldn’t have chosen this location, but at the same time I’ve gained a lot of strength here. I’ve changed a lot, and I’ve met a lot of people here whom I’m very glad I met. I also wish I would have learned Chinese more. I probably should have even hired a tutor from day one. I probably shouldn’t have broken up with my ex-girlfriend either, as I probably would have even married her. But you live and learn.
Moving overseas for the first time can really cloud your judgement and make things go to your head. Sometimes you have to just step back and reevaluate your situation. I wish I would have thought a lot more about things while I was here. Also keep an open mind when you’re here and don’t be limited by your previous life’s handicaps.
So seeing how things turned out, would you do it all over again?
It’s hard to say, but I’m gonna have to say yes. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am now mentally.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. You really had a lot of interesting things to say! We’ll surely meet again someday.