Experiencing “Real China”: Being the Token Foreigner in a Fourth Tier City

Experiencing “Real China”: Being the Token Foreigner in a Fourth Tier City
Apr 26, 2014 By Owain Lloyd-Williams , eChinacities.com

“Real China” – that vague yet somehow all-encompassing term that is flung around by locals and expats alike. Whether it be hanging out in the hutongs or taking a cruise up the Yangtze, snippets of real China can be found wherever you are in the country. Even in Beijing, my current city of residence, there are still places where you’ll forget you’re in one of China’s largest, developed and most frenzied cities… But what does the concept of “Real China” evenentail anymore? Is there still such a thing? Upon my first arrival here as a fresh-faced 21 year-old four years ago, I thought I’d struck gold with regard to finding “Real China”. I chose to spend a year that I’ll never forget in a little-known industrial fourth-tier city in Guangxi Province called Liuzhou. It was here that I got my first dose of what I believed was “Real China”, albeit mostly through the locals (the ancient buildings were mostly replaced with industrial complexes). In this article, I’d like to offer an insight into my experience of being an expat in smaller cities through the perspective of my relationship to several locals.


Mike – the music teacher

During my year in Liuzhou, like many expats that find themselves in a fourth tier city, I taught English at a local school. Soon after starting, I befriended one of the school’s music teachers, a fun-loving joker-type named Mike with decent spoken English. Little did I know this friendship would offer me a priceless path to a whole new social life in the city. Through Mike’s far-reaching network of contacts across the city, I was invited to nightclubs, KTVs, banquets, and house parties, and it seemed like making friends in a city where almost no one spoke my language was a lot easier than I thought! Bonds with locals were quickly struck through the clinking of beer bottles, the sharing of cigarettes, and the murdering of various Beatles tunes in one of the city’s many KTV bars.

Being a music teacher, Mike soon became aware of my ability to play the guitar, and asked me to play in a one off gig in the run up to the 60th National Day holiday. The concert was held at a small venue in front of a crowd of laborers and local government officials. Cue the clueless foreigner on stage amid a sea of red flags playing guitar while the band belted out songs of revolution against a heavily patriotic backdrop. I thought it was fun at the time, though later on I came to realize that I was being used as a foreign face in Chinese propaganda. A consequent appearance on a local TV show and the free dinner and KTV session that usually followed such events reasserted this feeling that my friendship with Mike might have been spurred by my foreigner status more than anything else. But you take the pros with the cons when you're one of the few foreigners in a small Chinese city. Looking back on Mike though, I remember having a lot of fun with the guy, and it’s because of him that I have some of the best memories of Liuzhou. He may have benefited in some ways from having a foreign friend at his side, but if that’s the case, I can live with it.

Steve – the raucous businessman

Steve was the guy who ticked all the boxes that many of us would associate with the typical sleazy Chinese businessman. He liked people to give him face. He’d often drink his weight in baijiu. And as was slowly being made clear to me, having a foreigner hang out with you at social events in a fourth tier city with a tiny expat population was a huge face-gaining maneuver. Due to my curiosity and desire to meet new people, I usually showed up when Mike invited me to join him and Steve in their many escapades.

The first time I met the guy, he was almost on the floor in a restaurant after apparently being bested in a drinking competition. Of course, he insisted on driving us home afterward. No prizes for guessing what happened next. Steve then promptly crashed his Audi into a lamp post, after which Mike and I carried him home to his poor wife—who, judging by the expression on her face, wasn’t too surprised to see him in such a state. We then proceeded to sit and drink tea in Steve’s plush two-story apartment while he chatted away and tried several times to throw his arm around me in a bizarre expression of affection. I was slightly unnerved, but I pressed on. This was all part of the package, I told myself, all part of my quest to find “Real China.”

Other Steve-related antics included him trying to flirt with waitresses, driving around with various mistresses in his car, bribing traffic police, and somewhat disturbingly, stalking a female expat friend of mine back to her apartment after a night out. Steve was just one of many similar sleazy Chinese businessman-types I met during my time in Liuzhou, and despite being introduced to aspects of upscale lifestyle in the city, I was left with a sour impression of the social elite who rule over small Chinese cities. Perhaps Steve was a shining example not of “Real China” but of what China has become.

Fang – the lovable barbeque guy

Drunken sleazebags aside, I managed to find solace in the ordinary Liuzhou folk. On my street, I met several hospitable locals who treated me more like a human being and less like some weird foreigner showpiece. That’s not to say that I didn’t receive my fair share of staring and pointing as well. But as aggravating as it can be, I’d still take (mostly) innocent curiosity over blatant exploitation any day of the week. In fact I soon became good friends with Fang, the owner of a small barbeque stall on my street. After a night on the town, I’d often stop by and have a late night snack and one final beer. Fang was always around to share a drink and play cards, and showed a surprising talent for Uno. In retrospect, it was through my friendship with Fang that I got my first insight into the life and culture of ordinary Chinese citizens. I finally felt like I was living like a local (incidentally, I learned a lot about the Chinese language from him too).

Robert – the foreign colleague

In a similar vibe to my experiences with the locals, the members of the small Liuzhou expat community were also a varying bunch. After just arriving, I was relieved to meet Robert, another foreign teacher at my school who had been in Liuzhou for a while and was pretty familiar with the city and was willing to help me acclimate.  At school, he struck me as a chilled out guy, so we’d occasionally go out for drinks after work. After a few beers however, Robert would suddenly explode into life, though the emergence of his character as someone who was prone to sweeping (and often racist) rants made him a person you wouldn’t want to be left alone with in a bar. Despite this, we worked in the same school and lived in the same block, so I felt somewhat obligated to hang around with him. For a time, life at the school further reinforced the notion that I had to be friends with Robert. We shared the same teaching schedules and to a certain extent, relied on each other for various aspects of our lives. Nonetheless, I soon found myself actively working to distance myself from Robert and the rest of the small tightly-knitted group of expats at the school. After all, I was here to embrace a new culture, mix with the locals and to find “Real China”; why should other foreigners play such a large part in that experience?

Time for the big city

Small Chinese cities provide great respite from the bustling metropolises of places like Beijing and Shanghai. Sure, there are the frustrations of being the token foreigner in town, the lack of Western comforts, the greater likelihood of culture shock, and the sometimes-forced interactions with the limited local expat community, though for some that’s just what’s needed.

Personally, after spending a year in Liuzhou, I found myself wanting nothing more than to “disappear” into a big city, and not have to deal with the often unwanted attention that comes with being a foreigner in a fourth tier city. After I moved to Beijing, that’s precisely what I got, though I still find myself looking back at my time in Liuzhou with a smile. In my mind, all of those crazy nights out and dodgy characters, as well as the more normal folk like Fang, my barbequing friend (and even the other foreigners like Robert) paint a vivid picture of what “Real China” means today.

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Keywords: Real China


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This article is basically why I'm happy being in China as a single young guy, without a fully formed life path

Jul 01, 2015 06:19 Report Abuse



Would be nice if China had major differences in its culture, etc. throughout the nation, but sadly it doesnt. Generally, its pretty much the same regardless of which city you go. (pollution, same styled buildings, staring people, etc.) IMO, it make for one common denominator: boring.

May 01, 2014 19:44 Report Abuse



Ok, don't like it, then leave. I am sure you will be missed.

May 24, 2014 18:11 Report Abuse



its my opinion and im entitled to it. Dont like my opinion, then f*#k off.

May 29, 2014 23:38 Report Abuse



Ive traveled quite extensively on the planet for well over a decade. Its my opinion, and its and opinion based on being a seasoned soujourner. What about YOU. What is your qualifications ?

May 29, 2014 23:41 Report Abuse



Interesting experience but I could say it's still a big city compare to some places I taught. I Taught in Wenling (zhejiang) where you probably got less than 100 000 people. That is the real china. It's like the countryside.

Apr 30, 2014 11:33 Report Abuse



I liked Liuzhou when I was there - not too big, not too small, nice climate. It reminded me of home (Christchurch, New Zealand) with its CBD contained in a loop of the river, and central city park, with a bigger one on the outskirts. I'd love to go back.

Apr 28, 2014 09:23 Report Abuse



There will be a different experience if you can come to the first tier city and take a look. There are more and more expats and you can find apartments in some foreign compounds, you can make lots of friends there and won't feel that lonely.

Apr 27, 2014 22:59 Report Abuse



I rode through there on my first bike trip. I found a bike shop for a repair. They were awesome people there. After I got some supplies the shop team got on their bikes with me and rode twenty kilometers with me to show me a more scenic route out of the city. I found people in that region were much more welcoming and treated me as someone new and not as someone foreign.

Apr 26, 2014 17:54 Report Abuse



I have lived in all Tiers of cities in China and I agree that expats should get in to a smaller city for the "Real China" experience. There are little things you experience that leave extremely vivid long-lasting memories that you simply can not experience in 1st or 2nd Tier cities. I have experienced all of these characters you mention, many times over. Long lasting memories that make me glad I have come to China despite the difficulties and frustrations.

Apr 26, 2014 00:36 Report Abuse



Nice story. I was in Luzhou for a while. Didn't have sucha good experience as you, but some parts were better than the big cities. Opportunities being one.

Feb 18, 2013 23:12 Report Abuse



It is hard to figure out "the real" China. I spent a year in the town of Luohe in rural Henan. This was really a contrast between big cities. It was not uncommon for the farmers from the outskirts of town to ride down the main road on the wagon pulled by a mule on their way to sell their vegitables in the markets. I was the only white face there on a regular basis. An occassional foreigner would be in town doing some training at one of the nearby factories. Now I'm in Nanjing and it's a different China entirely. When I first got to NJ I felt like I had entered the real world again.

Feb 18, 2013 15:00 Report Abuse



Yeah nice article and I guess many of us that live in smaller cities appreciate the contrast we have with life in the city in which we live compared to say, Beijing. I enjoyed my holiday in Beijing and appreciated the more western style living you can have there and I certainly didn't miss the staring that I am subject to in Daqing. But there is a more personal aspect to life in a small town that can make you feel a bit more secure. I don't really know which size city is truly representative of "real China". There is certainly a significant difference in the mindset of big city Chinese compared to that of those living in a smaller city. In my opinion if I was asked to label that difference I would say that the people living in Beijing seem a little more westernised in their ways and are more aware of what's happening outside their immediate circle and perhaps a little more interested too while people in the smaller cities seem to be more insulated and prefer that. I think making closer Chinese friends might be easier in a small city but making friends is also a result of your own personality and desire to do so. I observe a lot of weirder stuff happening (and being allowed to happen) in a 4th and 5th tier city, that's for sure!

Feb 18, 2013 07:43 Report Abuse



Owain concentrates on social relationships [ mainly] in Liuzhou.This city has a population of 3.7 million which makes the city I recommend, Chaozhou in Guangdong province more of a 5th tier city at 2.6 million. Chaozhou is really worth a visit and is largely "undiscovered". We were there for a week and only saw a handful of Ghosts. Maybe living there for a while would be different, but I sure would like to try it. We were so impressed that we were looking at real estate. The people are frindly and take thier tea on the pavement and often invite you in for a chat. The surrounds of the city are excellent and it has the 3rd most famous bridge in China , did you know that? I didn't either. The food is great and surprisingly has 5 western restaurants. I dont have any investments or tourist interests in Chaozhou, but it will be high on my list when I go back to China.

Feb 18, 2013 06:26 Report Abuse