5 Things I’ve Learned About China That I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self

5 Things I’ve Learned About China That I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self
Jun 24, 2016 By Bo Brennan , eChinacities.com

I recently celebrated my three-year anniversary here in China and it prompted a fair amount of soul searching. I started to wonder what I’d learned from my time here in China and what I wished I could have told myself three years ago, long before I crashed landed on the faraway shores of this land. Let’s look in on an elucidating, imaginary conversation that I had with myself a few days ago.

back to the future
Photo: chorleylittletheatre.com

Cultural Idiosyncrasies

Young Bo: I’m going to enjoy the rich, cultural heritage of the ancient kingdom of China! From here on out, it’s all kung fu, chopsticks and tea ceremonies!

Older Bo: First of all, I have heard the excuse, “China has 5,000 years of history” for every single thing that could possibly happen in China, ranging from the legitimate (Chinese culture of guanxi) to the absurd (the ridiculousness of traffic laws). It’s used to explain pretty much anything and everything that happens in China. Whatever the reason, get used to hearing it because it’s about to be in your face all the time.

People spitting and hocking up phlegm in the streets, children peeing in the street helter-skelter, old ayis cutting lines in flagrant defiance of order, every person blitzkrieging you before you can even step off the metro, little kids pointing out the very obvious fact that you’re not Chinese, and cranky old foreign dudes complaining about all of these things (ourselves included); these are the situations that will be displayed most prominently during your time in China—not tramping about in Qing dynasty era outfits. At first, these things will surprise you and you’ll write about them on your blog. Then they will piss you off beyond any known method of measurement. Then, like Buddha crushing Nirvana into submission under the Bodhi tree, you’ll learn to accept them and go on with your normal day with nary a negative thought. Well, until some ayiasks you why you’re 26 and not already married, then you’ll freak out.

Going Native

Young Bo: I’ve done my research, I’ve heard about the “expat bubble”. Screw that. There are no hamburgers in “real China”!

Older Bo: There will come a point during your time in China where you will desperately, achingly, alarmingly crave cheddar cheese (maybe you won’t exactly desire cheddar, but, for sure, some kind of cheese). Then you’re going to get incredibly indignant when it cost 70 RMB for a tiny-ass ball of Gouda, but you’re going to buy it anyways because China is tragically bereft of anything resembling good cheese and by then you’ll be willing to give away your firstborn for a block of decent mozzarella.

It’s a funny conversation we have about the expat bubble. Those of us who are outside the bubble look down on those of us who are in the bubble for not experiencing “real China”, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. Despite the fact that they are in China, people inside the bubble do exactly what they normally do back home, except, naturally, looking down on people outside the bubble for being too awkward to fit into their own culture. It’s a tantalizing debate. But listen, I’m not saying that you won’t regularly eat at the Lanzhou la mian place, or that you won’t learn to speak Chinese, or that won’t get accustomed to hanging your clothes out the window to dry, but there will come a day when you’ll dive into that hazy expat biosphere with greedy and wild abandon. Sometimes you’ll just want some damn tacos and you won’t care what bubble you’re in.

In it to win it

Young Bo: I’m just going to come to China for a year for an adventure! Then I’ll go back to “Real Life”.

Older Bo: China is your “Real Life”, da bendan. You come over here like a hurricane: 24 hours a week teaching English and the rest of the time is spent drinking and creeping on Chinese girls. It’s a fun time, but, alas, it can’t last. It’s a question every foreigner faces at some point in China; when do we reach that critical juncture of having to decide between ‘just having an adventure in China’ and ‘might as well stay here a few more years and see what happens’. This is an important period in your China time, and it leads me into my next, semi-related point…

The thrill is gone

Young Bo: Everything will be so exotic! I’ll meet people from all over the world! I’ll embarrass myself in another language on a daily basis!

Older Bo: You’re right; all of those things are true. China is exciting, and you will have some great memories here, but when you first come there is certainly a “wild west” mentality or “live fast and die young” mantra or whatever. You’re not worried if you throw-up in the taxi drivers’ cab, because you’re in China baby! Only here once.

Though fun, this feeling eventually fades. It takes different people different lengths of time to come to this realization, but I get the completely arbitrary sense that a year and half should do it for most folks. Hell, eventually there will be days where you forget that you’re in China at all and everything will seem so…normal. Whenever this happens, that’s when the aforementioned critical juncture will take place. Occasionally, even the longest-term expats, the Old China Hands, the dudes who have miraculously been here for twenty years, will get the itch and go on wicked benders around the town. Keep in mind, however, you’ll never be quite as free as you were when you first wandered bleary-eyed down the streets with a warm bottle of Qingdao in your hands. I think I’ll put that last line on my tombstone.

Laowai Circles

Young Bo: There will surely be other foreigners in China; it’s becoming such an international country!

Older Bo: Ah, funny that you mention this. Of course, you’ll be dealing with Chinese people in China—unless you are in the wildest, most far-flung, opulent corners of the expat bubble—but what about the other foreigners? Be prepared to make a lot of acquaintances. You’ll have your best friends early on but due to the transitory nature of expat-hood, people will slowly drift into and out of your life. It’s perhaps a defense mechanism for foreigners; consciously or unconsciously, you don’t want to get too attached to someone who is going to leave in 6 months. So, you’re friendly and sociable and will certainly have one or two or three really good, solid friends you can trust, but for the most part you’ll keep folks at arm’s length because you don’t even know when you will pack up and set sail for another land.


Young Bo: You’re not making it sound very appealing, old man.

Older Bo: China is changing fast. It may not seem like it, but as you spend more time here, you really do become more tolerant, wise, and capable. You have to be ready to accept the fact that China may be your future, at least your near future. None of the things I mentioned are intolerable. Obviously, we’re still here. These are just some tips for you to consider as you start your journey over here. Hell, they may not even be applicable and you may have a completely different experience than I had, but that’s the fun isn’t it?

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Keywords: Tell my younger self Real China expat bubble things I’ve learned about China


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Thank you for shareing your experiance.

Oct 29, 2016 23:09 Report Abuse



I think China is good. Incredible China.

Sep 14, 2016 10:53 Report Abuse



I'd tell my younger self to watch out for crappy expat websites that recycle old articles all the time.

Jun 25, 2016 22:24 Report Abuse



I just graduated high school and I want to travel - guide to china. after finishing college and being fairly well traveled already this article felt like fluff, been in China 3 years now. I hope it helps some people though, thanks for your personal insights though.

Jun 25, 2016 13:50 Report Abuse



I simply wouldn't tell my younger self. My younger self probably wouldn't have really listened... it is something you need to experience to understand. Because the honeymoon period was an amazing experience. But so was the transition into an Old China Hand. You learn to appreciate things you deemed "normal" and start to see life in various perspectives that you could not before. Nope, I wouldn't tell my younger self a thing... why ruin it for him?

Jun 24, 2016 13:55 Report Abuse



I can relate to the article.

Jun 24, 2016 10:32 Report Abuse



1. cranky old foreign dudes get lots of Ju Ci Yung Po Tang 2. the expat bubble sucks 3. those who claim they're not religious sure have a lot of superstitions 4. rich people have no class 5. Chinese culture was buried long ago

Apr 06, 2015 09:21 Report Abuse



China is a good place to travel and have an adventure, it is an extremely poor place to settle down and have a family. Which is why you have lots of younger folk here (like me) and barely any expat families. The water is absolutely filthy all I hear is them moan about air pollution in the big cities, the water is more serious... I found plenty of "ok" cheddar and mozzarella cheese at reasonable prices. The main issue I have is I don't understand why you would want to study or work here for a local company (work for a foreign company inside china). Unless you own your own business, the wages for foreign expat's are atrocious and the working hours are laughable. The degree's aren't worth much either. The average "expat" wage even for foreign teachers is like 6-7 times less than what you would get working for an American or British company (IN THE BIG CITIES!!). When you go back home after teaching english here for 5 years? Enjoy your mediocre job back home... I've always hated the food here too, it's either a love or hate thing. I'm a vegetarian (I just don't like meat), so everytime I'm out camping somewhere with a chinese group and they've got the BBQ out... I take the alcohol and skip the meal. However there are lots of good things about china, it's a big country TONS of sights to see. Amazing mountains and cool cities (even though dirty), I don't know what people are talking about they don't see the the old culture. If you own a car you can quite easily go anywhere you want in china, suggest travelling to some of the more remote regions. It's a huge culture shock and it's awesome. If you stay in Shanghai and BJ and just go out drinking and KTV every weekend then of course it's going to suck. Chatting with a drunken group around a campfire near the top of a mountain in a small forested area? Yeah it's pretty fun, can't do that where I come from. Also, learn Chinese. The beaches are okay but the water is a bit dirty. I remember a girl once told me she was going to call the police on me because I said that the people of Taiwan should make their own decisions. Chinese people are all talk and no action and a lot are brainwashed by the government. Probably second to North Korea on the "nationalist scale". That being said I've met some educated one's so can't say they are all bad just a large portion of them have no ability to think for themselves. I could go on for days about the things I've seen but I'm getting bored now.

Jun 30, 2014 14:51 Report Abuse



China Sucks Big time, I've been all over the world and China is so far the worst place on earth, Pollution, this past month the air quality index for Shanghai was as high as 560, 34 times above international limit, food poisoning, disgusting what they do with the food, cadmium in the rice, arsenic in the water, duck anus in cooking oil, the list goes on and on. Most Chinese people are so racist, against themselves first and against the entire world, the things you see in China are unbelievable, from eating dogs and cats to Chinese people eating endanger species such as Seahorses on stick or sharks. A week ago I saw a couple of grandparents having their grandson taking a shit right in the middle of the groceries store, yes, besides the apples and carrots, why not? Never heard so many lies and stupidity before in my entire life, for example the city where I lived, Suzhou, the Chinese media call this city "Paradise on earth" Nothing less, "The Venice of Orient" Really? Air quality index is an average of 384 points, so polluted! the city is very modern but everywhere you go you can see poor Chinese older ladies cleaning up the floors with a tiny piece of towel, having to crawl on their knees, or older people going trough the garbage cans looking for cardboard and cans, nothing wrong with hard working people but the locals, the middle and upper class in China treat poor people like garbage, so mean to each other all the time. Cheating, lying, being dishonest is totally OK over here, not shame at all. Oh God! I could keep on going, the list of atrocities and disgusting things going on in China never ends. I have a huge respect for all the hard working Chinese people, however, over all I think China Suck big time.

Dec 19, 2013 19:40 Report Abuse



I liked the reasonable perspective on the 'expat bubbles'. Like anything else - try and find a reasonable, healthy balanced place in life. If you come to China and find yourself living in a western building, eating western food, a year later still unable to speak mandarin and almost any friends are also foreigners? That may not be healthy. And neither is this strange idea you are too cool for the bubble or some kind of 'tough guy' who can eat any native foods and rides alone - when really, yes, it's entirely good and healthy for you to eat your native foods and want a washing machine sometimes. I wonder if we always forget moderation and common sense over petty social posturing?

May 14, 2013 09:45 Report Abuse



Well said, people should do what makes them happy and not worry about whether they are in a bubble or not. For me, I like to keep the number of chinese inconveniences in my day-to-day life to a minimum, but I had a great time backpacking around hunan and guangxi for a month last year, you see a lot of cool stuff that way, but of course I wouldn't want to live that lifestyle 24/7!

Jun 03, 2013 17:11 Report Abuse



There are always things to complain about in any country. If life was so idyllic back home, why would someone come to China? Maybe there was the perfect job waiting here that one could never find back home. After 5 years I still get a good laugh from something ridiculous every day. I love it. I love the food, I hate the pollution, I avoid the phlegm on the sidewalk like a Laotian child walking through a minefield. The 3 supermarkets within 15 minutes of me have at least 20 different types of imported cheese, beer and every other convenience I could want. Of course, they love to make the laowai pay for their desires. Kind of like a BMW, where in China it costs 5 times the prices of 'back home'. For those who say life sucks here, or that there are more bad days than good days, I'm pretty sure life sucks wherever you go. You're not going to change China. It's frantically changing itself daily. 4 years ago, riding down a major road in this city you'd find almost no cars. Now they're wall to wall, bumper to bumper at least 12 hours per day. 4 years ago, there were stares and ogling eyes due to my heighth, nose length and general European look. Today, I get barely a glance. Buying a house or flat here is 3 - 4 times more expensive than buying one back home. Rent is about the same or higher here in Shenzhen. If you want China to change, blink your eyes, it'll be different before you know it.

May 09, 2013 11:53 Report Abuse



"...I'm pretty sure life sucks wherever you go." So Paris is the same as Mogadishu? Nice logic.

Nov 21, 2013 12:40 Report Abuse



Shenzhen is a boom town what rules apply there are not universally true for all of China.

Jun 27, 2016 05:10 Report Abuse



I understand the major points mentioned in the article and I can relate to most of them. Think the one I can mostly relate to is about friends. Its so difficult to make strong bonds because people are constantly coming and going from China. No one is really here for the long haul. May it be for a couple of months to years, they eventually leave and all you will be left with is digital friends and having to constantly start over. For me personally I find it very tiring. Its been 4years am here and my studies are coming to an end. China was a great experience and I am glad to be going back to something more solid in terms of relationships.

May 05, 2013 14:38 Report Abuse



After the honeymoon is over I think people realize that the 'real china'...kinda sucks. Theres nothing cool about being poor. Chinese food is good, but limited; it reflects 5,000 years of poverty, using only the cheapest possible ingredients (korean food is the same way). When you go to a 'nice' chinese restaurant, you aren't paying for better food or or more specialized cooking techniques, you're paying for western-level decoration. I honestly challenge anyone to refute my thesis here and I would genuinely love to start a discussion on it. 'Nice' things in China are nice specifically because they are NOT chinese. My apartment is nice and comfortable because it features new, plush couches, carpeting, memory foam mattresses and big open spaces; NONE of which are Chinese things. My office is nice because it features sub-floor wiring and connectivity systems and western-style toilets rather than wires strewn everywhere and holes in the ground. The chinese know this too, which explains why respectable chinese eschew the traditional crowded, dirty accomodation for comfortable western-style homes (adjusted for space constraints of course!)

May 03, 2013 14:55 Report Abuse



I can't disagree. I've often wondered what happened in this 5000 year history when I see some of the splendor and luxury in the ancient China - some beds looked to be great. I think I might like some of the older customs and I'd probably think traditional fire-pot dinners were awesome IF my stomach could handle it. But it seems like the last few centuries have degenerated into 'shltholes' (literally) and all things dirty, disorganized or even downright dangerous. Personally, I like cheap food (so to speak.. simple basic stuff on a stick or in a bowl) and for some strange reason I'm happy in a small apartment - so for me these Chinese things won't suck. But I'm pretty sure western toilets are way better than holes.

May 14, 2013 10:28 Report Abuse



My first thought, when I hear a Chinese proudly brag about the "5,000" years of history, is how much I want to ask why, in all that time, the Chinese couldn't figure out that medical science marches on every century or so, that shitting in a hole in the floor (or on the floor itself) is unsanitary, that you are not the center of the universe, big objects moving at very high speeds are dangerous, and when you thrown trash on the ground, it makes a mess.

Aug 08, 2013 15:52 Report Abuse



When it comes to public toilets give me a squat toilet anyday. I would never plonk my arse on a conventional public toilet and would probably end up hovering over the bowl trying to hit the target. With a squat toilet I never have to worry about this. Perfect. Obviously in the home I like a conventional toilet.

Jun 27, 2016 05:06 Report Abuse



Good article. I've been here 2 years and you could easily have been writing about me and my own development. From the binge drinking and creeping around girls to the craving for cheese, that was me last year and I've certainly moved on. I have good days and bad days, sometimes I love it and feel the same excitement over the shock and awe of little cultural differences and sometimes I hate it. I never get used to spitting in the streets, even once in a classroom, or chomping of food with an open mouth. Even my Chinese girlfriend is disgusted by these habits. But I've stopped looking out of the window and thinking 'f***ing hell i'm in China' and forget how different I must look to all those around me.

May 03, 2013 10:43 Report Abuse



This is very very true : "you’ll never be quite as free as you were when you first wandered bleary-eyed down the streets with a warm bottle of Qingdao in your hands." I feel that I have more bad china days than the good ones, but maybe is because I was not been back home for more than 2 years and I will be there in 50 days. So I am so exciting, that I almost stop eating chinese style food. Really, my wife cook, but I rather eat bread and butter with some tomatoes instead. If I am going out for lunch from office, I am so bored with the choices, that I may end up with baozi in the hands. There is maybe big variety of food dishes, but the taste are almost always same, whereever you go to. Same soysauce and piles of glutamane in food together with peppers. Com'on, this is real china ?

May 03, 2013 10:15 Report Abuse



I loved Chinese food when I came here but after two years of university canteen food I think it mostly sucks. I've found a couple of nice restaurants but their a bit pricey. I agree with you about everything tasting the same over spiced or over salted. Here we call the canteen food CRAB - Cold rice and bones. There are a few western restaurants which are nice for a treat but their menus never change and even these I'm a bit jaded with. Street food is good but all fried. I had probably eaten in McDonalds less than 10 times until I came to China. Now I never miss a month without a big mac. Home cooking is nice but I have pretty limited facilities and access to familiar ingredients. Oh it sounds like a real complain, its not. After a lifetime of foreigners telling me how bad British food is I now know that its certainly not worse than here and there are some wonderful dishes my countrymen should be proud of. Isn't that part of the joy of travelling, we learn about ourselves as well as others.

May 03, 2013 10:52 Report Abuse



OH god yes. In 3 months my wife, daughter and I get out of china. I have just gone off the food again (been here 4-5 years)and just cant wait to get back to the UK. We dont just have greasy spoon fry ups and fish and chips. we also have indian, chinese (without the bones), italian, greek, mexican and just about every other country's food. Sunday roasts, ovens, toasters, toasty machines. Yeah we have a great variety of food. not just one country's food that really does taste the same. I also was not a big fan of Mcdonalds in the UK, but here I eat it once a week or so. I look forward to it now, it makes a change from noodles / rice / steamed buns with some green's. Which seems to be all there is around here. (spicy, oily or slimy)

May 06, 2013 12:58 Report Abuse



I always get overly offended when people call British food bad. Especially Chinese and especially when they have never been to Britain. I remember one person who had been to Britain told me that all there was were hamburgers??? I was like where the hell did you eat? Another only ate Chinese food in Britain. Chinese food uses the same herbs and spices for everything. It can be nice but it gets boring fast. I also never ate Mcdonalds in the UK and eat it fairly often here. The irony is that Chinese people tend to assume it is what we eat but a Maccies in China is almost always busy this isn't true in the UK. I imagine they eat it more often then we do.

Jun 27, 2016 05:01 Report Abuse



You might be surprised at how many Chinese people only eat their own food when in western countries. The main reason is that their own diet is really just rice, green vegetables and bits of meat. They refuse to eat or drink anything that's cold and so, their stomachs are just to delicate to handle eating different types of food.

Jun 27, 2016 14:52 Report Abuse