A decade can seem like a short period of time in most countries, but in China, it can feel like a lifetime. Whether it’s in technology, transportation, or education, the Middle Kingdom has revolutionized itself like nowhere else. Here I look back on five of the biggest changes I’ve seen after 10 years as an expat living in China.
A decade ago, we were all using QQ Chat in China. Chatting to friends or co-workers involved firing up the computer and logging into the MSN Chat-style program. Every time you received a message, there was an annoying beeping as the little penguin flashed in the icon tray. There was no real feature to share your photos or post statuses, and the only other real use for QQ Chat was emails, the addresses of which had a tendency to be longer than most telephone numbers.
Today, the lives of expats living in China revolve around WeChat. No longer are we logging into our computers to chat. Now we have our friends 24/7 on our phones, in our hands. So popular has the Tencent app become that it has effectively replaced the act of making phone calls and sending text messages. It’s rare to ask for someone’s phone number these days. It’s all about scanning QR codes to add each other on WeChat.
WeChat is so much more than just social media, though. We use it for everything from splitting a bill with friends at a restaurant, to paying for our taxis, to registering our address with the local police, to counting how many steps we walked that day. While we use WeChat in every aspect of our lives, the QQ penguin has been forgotten, sitting sad and lonely in desktop icon tray.
China has always been a paradise for bargain hunters. When I first moved here, you just needed to go to the right mall or shopping street to find all the fake football shirts, convincing fashion knock-offs, and pirated DVDs you could dream of. Foreigners would fill entire suitcases with gifts for family and friends every time they headed back home for a holiday.
Negotiation was king, however. Nothing had a price tag and every purchase involved embarking on a small trade war with the shop owner. As an expat, you could expect to pay the “foreigner tax” on every product, and it would take some seriously good Chinese and several bluffs to drive down the price to anywhere near what a local might pay. Most the time, foreigners would give up and end up paying over the odds.
Those days seem like a lifetime ago now as we visit the delivery box in our compounds every day to pick up our packages from Taobao. While prices are perhaps no longer as cheap as they once were for master hagglers, Taobao has created some sense of order to the system. There’s a greater assurance of quality, there’s so much more variety, and, best of all, there are no more time-consuming negotiations.
While many have closed, you can still find some of those fake-packed malls and shopping streets. Where once every outlet would be teaming with merchandisers, however, now only a few remain. Most are watching something on their phones, taking naps, or selling their goods on Taobao. Some have even started to label products with prices. Pity it’s too late now.
Ten years ago, taxi drivers were the bane of the lives of many expats living in China. A necessary evil that was accepted begrudgingly. Trying to get from A to B turned into a battle every time you hopped in the back seat of a cab. Many drivers would refuse to turn their meters on and insist on a heavily inflated price.
On the rare occasion you got a driver who would turn the meter on, the meter might be rigged to go fast or the driver might try to take you the longest way possible. During rush hour, you may even be refused based on your destination as drivers tried to get one last big fare before changing shift.
The only alternative to taxis was “black cabs”, unregistered drivers with regular cars. They might offer a cheaper price and they might be available during rush hour, but with no taxi license, insurance, or tracking capacity, this type of transport posed plenty of other risks.
While the rise of Uber was greeted with a mixed response in the West, in China, its arrival (and subsequent takeover by Didi) was an absolute godsend. Suddenly, expats living in China were no longer at the mercy of the taxi drivers. Rides can be booked in advance and fares, which often work out cheaper than regular taxis, are automatically set in the app.
Some of the main arguments against ride hailing services in the West is that taxi drivers have a better knowledge of the roads and are more professional. But those arguments don’t hold true for China. Whereas before the taxi drivers would often go the wrong way and try to negotiate on the price, Didi drivers usually follow the directions in the app and there is never a conversation about money.
4. Train Travel
Long distance trains from Guangzhou to Beijing to see the Great Wall of China. Traveling second class from Shenzhen to Xi’an to visit your partner’s hometown during Chinese New Year. Ask some Old China Hands about what the trains used to be like 10 years ago and you’re likely to trigger some serious PTSD.
While the process of building a high-speed train network was already well underway by that time, China was playing catch up with the kind of economic growth and worker migration that has never been seen before, and likely ever again. The only way to get across the country without paying for a flight was to take one of the old slow trains.
Tickets could only be bought at the station and only a few days in advance. They sold out fast, meaning that expats living in China were often forced to negotiate with touts. Even if you were lucky enough not to be sold a fake ticket, you’d still be paying well over face value.
The trains themselves were also massively overcrowded. Seat reservations were rare, and even when they were issued, travelers usually ignored them and sat where they liked. When the seats ran out, people sat wherever they could. In the aisles, on their suitcases, outside the toilets. The journeys could last a day, sometimes two, and over that time the trains would fill with the smell of instant noodles, hometown snacks, stale sweat, and uncleaned toilets.
As tough as those train rides could be, however, it was not unusual for passengers to show kindness to each other, from sharing snacks, to taking turns to use a seat, to teaching each other card games. Some expats have fond memories of those train journeys in the same way a soldier reminiscences with old war stories.
You would hardly recognize the Chinese train network today. The creaking and overcrowded carriages of 10 years ago have been replaced with sleek and clean high-speed trains that look like they came from the future. With trains reaching speeds of up to 400 kilometers per hour, journey times have been reduced by half or more.
Train travel is no longer the last resort it once was. Although prices have increased, it’s still considerably cheaper than flying. And unlike many domestic airlines, the trains generally run on time.
Maybe you won’t get the same war stories that you use to, but train travel in China has been completely revolutionized. Whisper it, but China now boasts arguably the best train network in the world. Sorry, Japan. It’s true.
When I first moved to China, a Chinese person who spoke good English was like gold dust. Schools had been teaching English for years, but learning involved memorizing words in text books rather than practicing speaking, so most locals had a limited working proficiency.
Back in those days, coming to China as a foreigner who didn’t speak Chinese could be tough and often lonely. Unless you were working in one of the big cities – and many of those in teaching and manufacturing were not – you could go days, weeks, or even months without meeting someone who spoke English well. Taking taxis would be hard, going to a restaurant awkward, and making friends seemingly impossible.
At the same time, there were some foreigners who rose to the challenge. Seeing that most locals could not speak English, they dedicated themselves to learning Chinese. During this period, there were a number of foreigners who came to China and, having taught themselves Chinese, were catapulted into lucrative careers. The low English proficiency level among locals was a huge opportunity for foreigners willing to put in the work.
The level of English proficiency has increased so much in the past decade that it’s almost hard to remember how things once were. The school system now does a much better job of teaching English, language centers for children and adults are massively popular, and many locals have returned from studying at universities overseas. All these factors and more have come together to greatly increase English proficiency in China.
Where once you could talk openly with your expat friends in public, now you need to be more mindful of what you’re saying because you never know who around you can understand English. Some of us have learned that the hard way after being embarrassed on the subway!
But with so many locals now speaking English, are fewer expats learning Chinese? The answer is hard to know, but anecdotally at least, expats, who 10 years ago would have had to speak Chinese every day, can now get by without speaking any at all. Learning Chinese is no longer the necessity it once was, but hopefully foreigners can still see the huge benefits it provides.
What changes have you seen in China since you’ve been here? Tell us about them in the comments section below.
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Keywords: Expat Living in China
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By the end of 2018, China’s national railway mileage was about 132,000km, 5 times of that in the early China, among them, high speed railways reached to 29,000km, ranking the longest in the world. In the past 2019, China has constructed more than 5,000-km high speed rails to connect more destinations, increasing to 35,000km and keeping the world’s top 1 record ( 70% of global HSR length). In the following year of 2020, China builT 2,000 km new high speed lines to complete the network. With the longest high speed rail network in the world, China has achieved the goal of the Four Vertical and Four Horizontal High Speed Railway Plan with a total length of 25,000 km/15,534 miles high speed rail (HSR), about two-thirds of the world's high-speed rail tracks by the end of 2017. Based on the existing lines, China will expand the rail system into 8+8 HSR Grid to link cities that had no railways and upgrade the conventional railroads. Featuring high speed of 250~350 km/h, China’s high speed rails has greatly cuts down the journey time and attracts numerous travelers for its comfort, convenience, safety and punctuality. In China, most major big cities are connected by high speed railways, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Guilin, Chengdu, Chongqing, Hong Kong, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Kunming, Guiyang, etc. Except those, you can get to more than hundreds of destinations by high speed train
Apr 16, 2021 10:51 Report Abuse
It's always a shock how much things change when you stop to consider them. I spent almost 3 years in China before making a trip back to the UK. By the time I got back, Britain felt like an alien planet compared to what I was used to in China, lol.
Oct 08, 2020 03:12 Report Abuse
you are not the only expat to have lived in China that long so what you should do is not play the numbers game and think you are better because you have reached 10 years. Your list is pretty bland and misses out quite a lot of stuff. Wi-fI for instance which is the biggest change in the last decade, followed by smart phones. Then, paying for things using a phone. Them three alone should be in your list. Don't play the numbers game, it is not a cool thing to do. Just the same way it is not cool for ESL teachers in China to think they are real teachers. Are you one of those?
Sep 22, 2020 11:12 Report Abuse