China is where this whole living abroad thing started for me. Thinking back on those beginning years in Dalian fills me with nostalgia. China is an adventurous place that constantly tests your limits and shows you what you’re really made of. But life in China is not rosy. I’ve never seen another country where so many locals wanted out. That alone speaks volumes about the livability of a place.
In this article I’m going to point what aspects of China make it a poor choice as a place to live long-term. It’s certainly good enough for a year or three, but once those rose-colored glasses have finally come off, it’s not nearly as fun as it initially seems. This article is about the ten things that drove me away from settling down in mainland China. Let’s begin.
1. The Worship of Money
You thought China is an atheist state, due to the Communist government’s tough stance on religion? Well you were wrong! Modern China does in fact have a religion practiced by the majority of its citizens: money. If you want to make a Chinese person’s eyes light up with interest, just bring up the topic of money. How much money you make, creative ways you’ve found to make money, the yuan’s conversion rate, or how much money you had to bribe the official at the government office to receive any service, these are the topics modern Chinese enjoy talking about. While I can occasionally appreciate the topic of money hustling, having to talk about it so often with practically everyone I meet gets very tiring.
China is a country where people pray to Cai Shen, the ancient Chinese deity of money and fortune, on a regular basis, but do so on the grounds that they’re being “spiritual.” China is a country where money is the grease of most social interactions and relationships. China is a country where people believe the accumulation of wealth is the only way to acquire happiness and to measure one’s success in life. China is a country where people are genuinely impressed when they see someone drive by in a Ferrari or see a woman carrying an authentic Gucci or Louis Vuitton handbag. Forget the old adage “money can’t buy you happiness” when you’re in China, because the locals would never believe such nonsense.
If you’ve ever been to mainland China, what was the very first thing you noticed the first time you went? I’m willing to bet it was how incredibly rude the locals are. I’ve traveled to all over East Asia, and I can assure you that most of these piss-poor manners are unique to China. Hocking spitting sounds, the inability to queue for anything, public urination and defecation, loud hammering in the neighboring apartment at 6 AM, talking on the phone at ear-splitting levels in public spaces, nonexistent customer service, having to play the game of “chicken” with anyone walking on the sidewalk, the incessant use of car horns, public arguments – I could go on and on and on.
China is in a league of its own when it comes to bad manners, and I don’t see the problem going away anytime soon. I first went to China in 2009, but even now in 2016 seven years later, I can’t see the slightest of hints that things are getting any better. And don’t think that the Chinese keep these bad behaviors inside China. No, no, no! They bring them with them everywhere they travel overseas, essentially making the places they travel to into “no-go zones” for other tourists, as people from other countries simply cannot tolerate their bad behavior. Any time I’ve ever spoken to a fellow Westerner in Asia about the Chinese, the topic of their repulsive manners always seems to come up. And as much as I’d like to defend the Chinese, having lived in their country, I can’t, because they do in fact have awful manners.
3. Low Morale
We’ve all heard of scandal after scandal coming out of China – lead-tainted baby milk, fox meat passed off as donkey, children being run over by cars and not a soul lending a helping hand, and so on. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Sometimes reading the latest China news is like watching a wacky movie – you just can’t look away because who knows what crazy and out-of-this-world thing might happen next. But sadly on ground level, all these scandals add up to make China a very uncomfortable place to live.
One product I buy very often is whey protein powder. It’s extremely hard to find in China, and even if you can find it, it’s going to be wildly expensive. But even if I did find it, I would be very skeptical as to whether or not the powder contained inside is what the package says it is. That’s not just me being paranoid. In China you often have to assume the worst about what you’re consuming. If there’s any room whatsoever for an unscrupulous individual to make a quick kuai by short-cutting his product, then you can bet your ass there’s a real threat of foul play going into said product. Fine craftsmanship, taking pride in one’s creation, and integrity be damned! They are unheard of in most of China. Constantly questioning the authenticity of and being paranoid of everything you’re consuming – welcome to everyday life in China!
4. A Dog-eat-dog World
Everything is a competition in China, and I mean EVERYTHING. Even things that have no need to be a competition are still competitions. Waiting in line at the supermarket – that’s a competition in China. Other customers will constantly try to push their shopping carts right in front of yours without the slightest bit of shame or acknowledgement that you even exist. Because of this, you constantly have to be on the defense and “protecting your turf” (personal space).
The Chinese job market – is there any place in the world that has a more competitive job market? Boarding a train in China – watch when the gates to board the trains at the train stations are opened. Suddenly there’s a mad rush of hundreds of people sprinting to board the train. The scene looks like a stampede in the African safari. But why is this even necessary? We all have reserved seats on the train, so there’s no need to be the first to board. Why the need to make something as simple as boarding a train so stressful? And take a look at the roads when you’re in China. There’s absolutely zero cooperation among drivers. Every car has to compete to move forward or to change lanes as none of the drivers are willing to cooperate with one another.
Some people blame China’s rough history in the mid-20th century for all this aggressive behavior, but I’m not buying it. That was decades ago. Societies can make improvements if people just work together. But in the meantime just assume that when you’re in China, what would be the most simple of tasks back home is going to be unnecessarily stressful because no one is willing to help their fellow man. It’s every man for himself.
5. In-your-face Nationalism Mixed with Hyper-sensitivity
Chinese nationalism is very hypocritical. On one hand you have people who constantly ram how “great” their country is down your throat, but then on the other hand you have people who would do anything to escape from their country. Yet you can’t say the slightest thing negative about your surroundings when you’re actually in China without a Chinese person taking it way too personally.
“I don’t really like this dish. It’s too salty for my tastes.”
Reply: “I guess you foreigners just can’t handle Chinese food.”
“I hate my boss at work. He’s a prick.”
Reply: “You must not understand how we do things here in China.”
Every negative remark is taken as an attack on their country. So don’t ever get into a public dispute with a local as a foreigner in China. The inevitable crowd that forms will undoubtedly take the side of the local, no matter how wrong said local is. Got hit by a car while riding your bike on the sidewalk? It’s your fault, you dumb foreigner! Obviously you don’t know how things work in our China!
Just like their South Korean neighbors, I’m convinced that the mainland Chinese have a severe inferiority complex. In their hearts, they aren’t proud of their country’s current state, but they constantly have to put on this mask to convince Westerners (and even themselves) that their country is so great and wonderful. Anytime China gets into some kind of international dispute, like clockwork the locals get patriotic and set their hatred cross-hairs onto any obvious foreigners they see around them.
6. Disrespect Towards Nature and Animals
One thing I noticed after living in China for a year or so was how badly animals are treated in the country. I also noticed that on an individual scale, I rarely met people who even liked animals. It seemed like so many people viewed animals merely as pests, food, or medicine. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all PETA on you, but I found the Chinese outlook on animals pretty sad and upsetting because I have a soft spot for animals. Pet culture is slowly making its way into China, but sadly this culture is more of a way for people to flaunt their “status” (see number 1) than to genuinely enjoy the companionship of a loyal animal.
But it’s not just animals that are mistreated in China, it’s all of nature. Chinese don’t know the slightest thing about nature. Who cares if an entire forest is torn down to make way for some soulless and faceless shopping mall? At least now we have another place to shop! Urbanites the world over can be this way, but it’s taken to the extreme in China.
And let’s not forget the great harm traditional Chinese medicine has done to some of our world’s most iconic animals. Any time you see some kind of animals being mistreated video on the web, it’s often from China. Bears being tortured for their bile. Tigers being slaughtered to be made into an aphrodisiac. Dogs being skinned alive. You know what I mean. Animals the world over are being wiped out to keep up with the Chinese demand for “medicine” that’s arguably just placebos, pseudo-science, and status-flaunting. It’s a disgrace to humanity.
7. Insularism and Extreme Ignorance of the Outside World
Geographically large countries tend to have a distorted view of the outside world, particularly more than smaller countries. The United States is no exception. But one big difference between the USA and China is that the USA is more used to dealing with people from the outside world, whereas China is historically known as being a country that often closed its doors to the outside world. The result of this is a country full of people who don’t know the slightest thing about the world outside of them, not even their own next-door neighbors. Chinese people often believe severely outdated, overblown, or outright wrong stereotypes about people from the outside world. As a Westerner in China, this can be very tiring.
What this often results in is being treated like an alien from outer space, rather than as a fellow human being. Whether I communicate with the locals in Mandarin or English, the result is usually the same. Instead of having a heart-to-heart conversation, I usually wind up having to justify to Chinese people why all white people do X, Y, or Z.
“Why do all you foreigners date ugly Asian women?”
“Why do all you foreigners like to eat cheese?”
Yet if I do something that’s unique to my own individual personality – say holding chopsticks upside down – it’s then assumed that all white people do this. One white person does something slightly unusual, so apparently all the world’s white people do exactly the same. Makes a whole lot of sense!
It’s not just us whities that get slapped with silly stereotypes. Foreigners from anywhere in the world do. When I tell Chinese people about my three years living in Bangkok, the first thing out of their mouths is a simple:
“Are the ladyboys there beautiful”?
Or maybe I told them I went on vacation Malaysia. Their reply:
“What happened to flight MH370”?
Or maybe I’m traveling to Vietnam next month.
“Don’t go there. It’s very dangerous!”
It’s like they have this overwhelming need to put all the world’s people into different boxes based on stereotypes, but they can’t comprehend that the outside world and its people often don’t fit into these boxes.
8. Relationships Treated Like Businesses
You must call everyone you know in China your friend no matter how little you actually know them or the true nature of your relationship, otherwise you risk offending them. The ironic thing about this is that I seldom see relationships in China that in any way resemble a true friendship. Friendships revolve around one thing in China – usefulness. That is, how useful are you to me? If you’re not useful to me, then you’re no friend of mine!
One thing I started doing recently is counting down how long it takes from the first time I meet a Chinese person to how long it takes them to ask me for help for the first time. And just like clockwork, it never takes long.
“I’m coming to Bangkok, can you find a nice hotel for me to stay at?”
“Can you translate this document from Chinese to English for me?”
“Can you teach my child English? I’ll take you out to dinner if you can.”
These are some of the typical requests I get from people whom I barely even know their names, as I’ve literally only known them for a few minutes. Yet watch what happens if you don’t help these people with their requests. Chances are you won’t be hearing from them again. That is unless they want to ask you for help again later down the road.
Sometimes I haven’t heard from an old Chinese “friend” in years. Then they message me out of the blue. Yet from the moment they start talking to me, to the time they ask me for help can be counted in minutes. Silly me . I just thought they missed me and wanted to know how I was doing! Nope! They contacted me just to see if I could help them with something. Chinese don’t just do this to foreigners, they do it to fellow Chinese as well, though most Chinese see nothing wrong with this. But the way I see it, if you’re just being my “friend” to use me somewhere down the road, then no thanks. I only help my true friends who have proven themselves to me over time.
9. Shady Cooking Techniques
I’ll happily admit that I like Chinese cuisine. I wouldn’t rank it as one of the world’s best, but I definitely enjoy plenty of different Chinese dishes. Mapo tofu and Xinjiang naan bread are some of my favorite dishes in all of Asia. But just because I like Chinese cuisine doesn’t mean I like the way mainland Chinese cook their food. The dishes at their core are great, but the mainland Chinese take cheap shortcut after cheap shortcut when cooking their food.
The first cardinal sin is drowning everything in low quality cooking oils. Chinese need to see their food floating in oil, or else they will complain that the chef didn’t cook it right. These are not high quality healthy cooking oils like olive oil or coconut oil. Rather they’re crappy, bad-for-your-health oils like palm oil and soybean oil, and sometimes even the dreaded gutter oil. What you wind up with is a greasy mess of a dish that has hundreds if not thousands of excess calories. The excess oil doesn’t even make the dish any better, rather it just makes it worse. But the sins don’t stop there, as no Chinese dish is complete without throwing handfuls of table salt, sugar, and MSG on it first.
The presentation of most Chinese dishes in the mainland is pitiful. I more often feel like I’ve been served a plate of pig slop than something meant for human consumption. Sometimes I’ll even order a costly meat dish, only to be served an unsightly plate of bones and fat. I like to take food photos when I travel, but time after time I catch myself refraining from taking food photos in China, as the dishes served to me are so ugly and unphotogenic. If you want Chinese cuisine without all of the mess, I suggest going to other parts of the Sinosphere, like Taiwan, Singapore, or Malaysia. Similar flavors, texture, and style, but minus all the mess.
10. Bad Air Quality Everywhere
I think we’ve all heard enough about this one that I don’t need to go into too much details. I’ve been to many major cities all over China, and they were all pretty much the same in regards to air quality – downright atrocious. Beijing is out-of-this-world bad, Dalian and Shanghai are bad, and the smaller third and fourth tier cities range from bad to apocalyptic bad. Above average or even average air quality is rare in Chinese cities. Seeing a clear blue sky is the exception not the norm. Need I say more?
China offers an unforgettable adventure for those who can brave its storms. China simply doesn’t compare to other Asian countries. China is China. Some of the most nostalgic years of my life abroad were those spent in northeast China, but that doesn’t mean I think China is a good place to stick around long-term. Rather it’s a country you go in, get your experience, have an adventure, and then get out.
I make trips back to China annually or semi-annually, because I often can’t wait to get back to hitting its gritty streets. Yet once those trips are nearing their end, I can’t wait to get back out for all of the reasons I mentioned above. It’s sad that all of China’s positive traits are greatly overshadowed by its dark side. Even though I talked a lot of trash about China in this article, I can confidently say that there’s no other country in the world that I love more, and yet simultaneously hate more, than China. After all, I wouldn’t keep going back year after year if there wasn’t something drawing me back to the country.