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?
26 comments on “Things I Love About China (After Two Full Years)”
I’ve always wanted to go to China (ok, originally only because of Pandas but it’s still a legit reason) and people always ask why… China looks and sounds AMAZING. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to go…especially now since you’ve listed all these fab reasons ;)
That’s how I feel! Living in China long-term can be a bit rough, and it’s not always easy, but I think China is an awesome place to visit! There’s so much to see and do, and it’s so different from home. Also, pandas are definitely a legit reason to come here.
I’m southeast asia now and backpackers are all like “oh china doesn’t interest me” and I always want to slap them. It’s SO amazing. Though travel here is ridiculously easy compared to china I guess. I don’t have to wave down busses at intersections anymore :) I
Every time I’m like “what’s wrong with you??” Then they point out that China doesn’t have amazing beaches. Is the beach the only reason you went to SE Asia? If so, I’m sure you could find a beautiful beach a lot closer to home…
So many things to love! And all those opportunities! I have had many friends go to China to teach English and they have nothing but great things to say!
That’s awesome! Life in China definitely isn’t perfect and it’s not always easy, but there are definitely so many things to love… and my life is never boring!
This made me miss China so much! I agree with you wholeheartedly on this post :) I taught English for a year in Tianjin (five years ago now, time flies!), and it was such an incredible experience. Yes, it was frustrating at times, but as you say here, every little thing you do is an adventure in China. (I’m also super hungry now, after reading about all that delicious food!).
I just had Sichuan for dinner last night. It was amazing!!
It’s funny how when you’re in China, sometimes you get sick of everything and you just want to travel or go home. But then once you leave China you really start to miss it again. Hopefully you can make it back here sometime soon!
Yeh Its a shame so many people skip Chin. But I guess I’m someone who wants to go absolutely everywhere and some people have different interests. I’ll have to disagree with you on the ‘celebrity’ thing though- I find people commenting on my skin and hair colour and wanting to take my photo really ignorant and racist and I think that “explosion hair” thing is super racist and ignorant! Can you imagine if you went up to a Chinese person at home and started touching them and making comments on their racial differences? Sorry for the rant I just feel really strongly that people need to stop doing that. I’m going to write a post on that at some point soon. Agree on the rest though chic :-)
I totally agree that a lot of the comments made to black people are super racist. Chinese people’s comments in general can sometimes be so rude. For example, commenting on someone’s weight or acne, etc etc. It was definitely rough sometimes for my black friends last year. I was thinking of having one of them right a guest post about it. Sometimes the comments and attention really bother me, but other times it’s kind of funny.
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But you should probably mention as a warning to white women that China is a land of desolation for dating. The white guys in China won’t date white women because they have virtually an endless supply of Chinese women throwing themselves at them; and the white women either can’t find any eligible prospects amongst the locals or simply have no interest in dating them. So any white woman thinking about going to China for an extended period should be prepared for a lonely existence.
While I don’t 100% agree, because I have met a lot of great guys in China, I definitely understand how difficult it is to have a long-term relationship here. Especially since the only expats that seem to stay long-term are dating Chinese women. I actually wrote all about my horrible dating experience is China already: https://www.adventuresaroundasia.com/2015/03/24/travel-is-ruining-my-love-life/ but this post was supposed to be a little more positive :)
I just finished a year in Japan teaching English and decided there was no way I could skip China before heading to SE Asia, especially after hearing all of the strong “opinions” that the Japanese have about the country.
Hahaha! I haven’t been to Japan, but the Koreans, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers also have their own, equally strong opinions about China. China is super different from Japan, but I think you’ll have a great time if you’re open to it. Be sure to try and get off the beaten path too, maybe to Sichuan or Guilin and Yangshuo. If you go down south it will be easy to cross the boarder into SE Asia from there. There are also really cheap flights to cities in SE Asia from Hong Kong :D
I’m expecting the complete opposite and trying to have no expectations. I will definitely be headed south and west, hoping to spend a lot of time in Yunnan.
You’ll love Yunnan! I really liked Dali and the Tiger Leaping Gorge (it was so beautiful!!). One of my friends actually traveled around Yunnan by motorbike staying in small villages. I wouldn’t do it solo but if you can find a friend I think it would be an incredible experience.
A very patriotic post :) I have no doubt that China has SO MUCH to offer. I’m currently dealing with the annoying visa regulations as well as the yellow fever shot I’m forced to get because I’ll be in contact with ship crew who move in and out of many countries. Even if I were to not disembark in China, it’s mandatory to have the shot and visa. That nuisance aside, I’m very excited, scared, curious and waiting to mess up my comfort zone, even if I can only be in shanghai or Ningbo for a couple of days.
I remember when I first came to China I had to have a crazy amount of shots! While the visa red tape can be annoying, it’s worth it when you get here!
We are in China at the moment and the culture shock is quite exhausting for two Swedes. Nobody speaks english, or speak but doesn’t understand us. But even so, yesterday we tried to find our inn and literally got help by 10 people. In Sweden, that would never happen.
Your blog helps a lot! We started reading it on the airport just to get a grip of the country. Thanks a lot!!
Thanks so much! I love your comment name hahaha. China is definitely a tough destination, but it’s very rewarding. If you need a little help getting around, I really suggest you check out my post How to Get Around China Without Speaking Chinese. I also have some other good tips in my China Hacks section. Good luck!!
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I’ve wanted to visit China since I was a little girl. I finally made it 3 years ago. My #1 destination was Guilin and the Li River. It didn’t disappoint. We took our grandson with us who was 11 at the time. He was most definitely a celebrity. The loved his blue eyes and dimple, especially the teen girls. We now have a Chinese exchange student (from Guilin!) who’s back with us for the second year (and he’ll be back next year for his senior year in high school). He has become part of our family and we’ll be going to China next summer to visit his parents. Our grandson lives with us, so it’ll be all three of us again. Can’t wait!
Wow that sounds so nice! That’s such a great story, and I’m glad you finally made it to China. I’m sure you’ll love your trip to meet his family!
I think the reason is because many of westerners think of China as a very strict country. I think they couldn’t be more wrong. China is a police state, no doubt about that. But in general, China let its citizens do whatever they want as long as it didn’t disrupt the “harmony”. I have been to China several times, hardly see any police on the street. What amazed me of course is the safety, I can walk around at 3 a.m without having to worry someone mug me.
As for beach, China do have beaches, one of the best is in Hainan Island.
I totally agree! China is definitely not a strict country especially when it comes to traffic, ebikes, jaywalking, drinking in the street etc. I’ve also felt very safe here, especially compared to when I lived in DC! As for the beaches, I’ve been to Hainan twice and it’s so beautiful, but I usually just go to SE Asia if I’m looking for a beach. It’s cheaper!