I’ve been living in China for exactly two years and three months. Basically, I’ve lived here on and off since the start of 2012. By the standards of a twenty-three (almost twenty-four) year old, I’ve been here forever. While a part of me is ready to move to a new country next year, another part knows just how easy it would be to stay here forever.
On my recent trip to Thailand and Cambodia, almost everyone I met had zero interest in visiting China. Even though I was a bit sick of the country when I went to SE Asia, I felt the need to defend my Asia home. There are so many amazing things about China you just can’t find in SE Asia. There’s so much more to China than just an oppressive government, pollution and the Great Wall!
Whether you’re considering moving to China, traveling for a few weeks, or you’re curious why you should ever set foot in this country, this is for you.
7 Reasons China is AWESOME
#1 The People
Chinese people get a bad rap. People think they’re rude because they talk loudly, push and shove without apology, and cut in line. I won’t argue, sometimes this really pisses me off, especially the line cutting thing. But once you break past the cultural differences, Chinese people are some of the kindest people you will ever meet in your entire life.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been invited home for dinner. If I’m lost, rather than give me directions, Chinese people will personally lead me where I’m trying to go. I’ve been treated to a meal more times than I can count. At bars, people are so excited to have me in China that they’ll give me a free beer… or five.
Chinese people are so excited to show their vibrant country to the world. All you have to do is seem interested.
There are barely any foreigners in China compared to countries like Thailand and Vietnam. Because of this, people are excited to see you. They want you to have a great time. They want to introduce you to their hometown and feed you their traditional meals. They want to learn about where you’re from and how it’s different from China.
I will admit, knowing the language definitely helps. It’s not that Chinese people look down on non-Mandarin speakers, they’re just afraid to speak English! Learning Mandarin really helped me understand how kind and curious Chinese people are. I have long conversations with all my taxi drivers and strangers I meet on overnight trains. This usually leads to free snacks and tons of selfies.
Want to learn some Chinese? Check out my Quick Guide to Mandarin Chinese. There’s even a little video to help your pronunciation!
#2 The Food
Chinese food has always been one of my favorite cuisines (that, and Mexican food). But when I arrived in China, I realized the Chinese food I had back in America is not anything close to real Chinese food. Sure, you can find kungpao chicken and sweet and sour pork, but those dishes just scrape the surface of Chinese cuisine.
Imagine going to a “Western” restaurant in China and finding: burgers, salad, sandwiches, spaghetti, waffles, pizza, quesadillas, coffee, and weird beef slop over rice. What is this? What kind of restaurant serves all these foods that clearly don’t go together? Half this stuff isn’t even real “western” food! The way I feel about “Western” restaurants in China is precisely how a Chinese person would view a Chinese restaurant in America.
Fortune cookies aren’t even Chinese.
Before coming to China, I never had any desire to eat tofu or eggplant. Aren’t those things for vegetarians? Trust me, China does wondrous things with both those ingredients. My favorite dish is mapuo dofu, a spicy Sichuan flavored soft tofu. I didn’t even like tofu three years ago!
China also has many different regional cuisines. There’s the hearty food from Beijing, mouthwatering dumplings in Shanghai, fiery dishes in Sichuan, tender lamb in Xinjiang, and dim sum in Hong Kong. The Chinese people are proud of their food, as they should be. It’s amazing.
While I do get sick of eating Chinese food every day, at least there is enough regional variation to keep me interested. I’ll eat stir fried noodles for lunch, and spicy malatang for dinner. I can go to the cafeteria and get small dishes of fish, rice and a chicken leg bathed in soy sauce, or I can go to the soup dumpling restaurant. Wontons, chicken curry, noodle soup, vegetable stir fry, fried rice… the list goes on and on. I hope you’re hungry now.
#3 Five Thousand Years of Ancient History
China is really, really old. It has 5,000 years of ancient history to be exact. I currently live in Ningbo, a city you’ve probably never heard of. Ningbo contains the oldest library in all of China. It was also one of the port cities forced open after the Opium War. There’s a whole area of the city with cobblestone streets and Western architecture. Funnily enough, this is currently where all the expat bars are located. I guess things never change.
If you think the Opium War is old, the main section of the Great Wall was built in the 14th century by the Ming Dynasty. Think that’s old? The very first stones were set in 7th century BC.
Head to Xi’an for some real ancient history. The very first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, united the warring kingdoms of China into one unified state. After his death, the Teracotta Warriors were created. This was in 210 BC.
Head out along the Silk Road to Dunhuang, Gansu province. Here you’ll find the Mogao Caves. In this cave complex, artists arrived over the centuries to create fantastic Buddhist carvings. By visiting the different caves, you can see how Buddhist art has changed over the years. Starting with the Indian inspired Buddhist art that arrived with the first wave of Silk Road traders, all the way to the happy, fat Chinese Buddha you see today. The art spans a period of 1,000 years, starting in 300 BC.
#4 Culture Shock, All Day Every Day
I first came to China looking for a challenge. I wanted to go somewhere difficult, somewhere far from home with a completely different culture. I was looking to experience culture shock. I wanted to challenge myself. China is definitely the right place to experience all of these things and more.
Whether you’re being jostled on the Shanghai subway, or testing a fried scorpion in Beijing, China is never boring. Everything you do in China is always an adventure. Even mundane tasks like buying a new charger for your computer or taking an e-bike to the grocery store turn into awesome stories.
See entire families on motorbikes, vendors hawking bright red “Calvin Klane” boxers, and old ladies gnawing on chicken feet. Walk down the streets understanding no one. Try to order a dish at a restaurant with nothing but your dictionary phone app. Life is a challenge, but at least it’s always interesting.
Worried about getting around in China without speaking Chinese? Here are some survival tips.
#5 Being a Celebrity
In China, if you’re any ethnicity other than “Asian”, you’re basically a celebrity. Even in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing where there are tons of foreigners, you’ll still be treated like a celebrity by all of the Chinese tourists who come to these cities. This is particularly true at major tourist attractions like the Forbidden City and the Bund. You may be even more popular than the attraction itself!
A ton of people will definitely ask to take their picture with you. People may be nervous to ask at first, but after you take a photo with one person, expect a big long line. People may even jump in your group photos! Parents may also hand you their children for a photo op. Sometimes the kids will cry.
If you’re male, you may also generate a female fan club. For example, last weekend my school held a big festival called “Global Village” where the international students could run booths representing their country. My Canadian friends started taking pictures with the visitors when one girl asked if they could kiss her on the cheek for the photo. Immediately, a giant mob of girls formed, all wanting the same photo for themselves. My friends’ egos were out of control afterward. Out. Of. Control.
I also made the mistake of showing my students a picture of my brother last year. My female students freaked out and all started begging me for his email/QQ/Wechat. I told him that if he ever pissed me off, I’d give them all his email. That’s 500+ girls by the way.
If you’re black, expect some very interesting comments. One of my friends had an afro and everyone called her “explosion hair” and tried to touch it. One of my African friends is very tall, so people scream “NBA” at him when he walks by. He also gets “OBAMA!!” all the time. He looks nothing like Obama.
My favorite thing in the world is when people try to take stealthy photos of me with their smartphones, but it’s extremely obvious. When I notice them doing this, I just pose for the photo. Sometimes they squeal with embarrassment, but other times it turns into a genuine photo shoot.
While all the attention can get annoying after a while, it’s a very entertaining part of life in China. My suggestion is to never take offense to the comments. Chinese people are just curious, and with a homogenous population with such little foreigners, they just want to learn more about other people, cultures, and ethnicities.
#6 Off the Beaten Path Travel
While everyone knows of Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, there are so many interesting places in China worth visiting! Take a bamboo raft down the stunning Li River in Guilin, ride horses on the Tibetan Plateau in Northern Sichuan, feast on fiery hot pot in Chongqing, hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan… the list goes on and on and on.
China is a massive country with so much to do and see. About the size of the USA, you’ll never run out of places to visit. While you may think of China as one, massive, polluted, sprawling city, many parts of China are stunningly beautiful. China actually has some of the most incredible mountains for hiking, particularly Zhangjiajie, which was featured in Avatar as the floating mountains.
You can also experience some very diverse culture in China. Head up to Harbin to see how Russian and Chinese culture intermix, or go down to Yunnan to experience Chinese minority culture firsthand. Don’t forget Xinjiang, where the Muslim residents don’t look Chinese or speak Mandarin. Last but not least, Tibet is a mecca of religious customs and traditional culture.
The best part of travel in China: It’s easy and cheap! Not only are there budget flights (use Skyscanner, it checks all the Chinese budget sites), China also has an amazing train network. You can get just about anywhere in China with 24-hours and $70 USD.
Looking to travel off the beaten path in China? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
#7 Amazing Opportunities
China is the new land of opportunity. Investors are flocking here in droves. Fashion designers come to have their clothes made. Students come from all over the world to learn Mandarin. Musicians who can’t make it in America come to China to create a following. Want to be a DJ, dancer, model or designer? Want to start your own import/export company? China is the place to be.
Currently, I make $40 an hour teaching English to Chinese businessmen. What 23-year-old do you know making $40 an hour?? Teaching English abroad is an amazing way to fund your travels. Trust me, I’ve been doing it the last two years.
With my experience and language skills, all I have to do is sneeze in China and I can get a job. While I’ve been looking at moving to a new country, it’s so hard to leave when all the opportunities are here! For example, this week I’m interviewing for a job that is willing to pay me somewhere between $33-$37 thousand USD a year with free housing. Considering most of my friends back home spend almost half their salary on housing, that’s a pretty amazing deal! They also offer free health insurance and a free flight to and from America.
As much as I’d like to move somewhere else in Asia, I’d be pretty stupid to turn that down.
In Defense of My Asia Home
Yes China is a bit dirty and polluted. The Internet censorship is out of control. China is crowded and jarring. But to be honest, this is all part of the charm (except the Internet censorship, I really hate that).
So many people head to Asia and pass China by. It’s too big, the visa is complicated and the language is hard. Why not go to Southeast Asia or Japan?
I’m just going to be honest with all of you: YOU ARE MISSING OUT.
China is one of the most fascinating places in the entire world. China changes so much year to year, I almost don’t even recognize the country I saw three years ago.
Do yourself a favor. Pack your bags, buy a plane ticket and apply for a visa. You can thank me later.
Have you ever been to China? Love it or hate it?