I had been living in one of China’s major cities, Shanghai, for several years. Never would I have imagined that I would be moving 700 kilometer away from Shanghai, into the nowhere of central China. My new home of choice is called Bozhou, a rural city in Northern Anhui, far away from the glitz and glamour of Shanghai.
Even after six years of expat life in China, I was still struggling to adjust to my new life in rural China. Here are 5 things that shocked me, annoyed me, and were just immensely difficult to adapt to.
Being Constantly Stared At
- Personally, I have good and bad days. Some people can be extremely rude. The only way is to ignore them. After all you don’t want to start a fight. However, not everyone has ill intentions. The stares are not meant to be rude (even if they feel like an intrusion into your private life). Some people are very friendly and just want to know more about where you come from. If you meet someone like this, talk to that person. It might light up a bad day.
- Even in more urban cities like Shanghai and Beijing, you will get the occasional stare, usually from migrant workers or tourists who freshly arrived from the countryside. But what I was confronted with in rural China was nothing compared to what I had experienced before. This must be how zoo animals feel like. In a city with only six foreigners, of which there is just one girl, me, you stick out like a sore thumb. People will point at you. Cars will slow down and creep up next to you to see if you are real. Motorbikes will turn around to see your face from the front. And the worst part about it is, you cannot do anything to change it. You have to deal with it or you will end up hiding in your apartment for the rest of your stay.
Having Lost the Ability to Understand Chinese
- During my expat years in Shanghai, I have become fluent in Chinese. But when I moved to rural China, I had lost my ability to understand Chinese all together. It was frustrating. Even though standard Chinese, Putonghua 普通话 or Mandarin, is taught in every school in China, rural areas still practice different local dialects. Some dialects can be like a completely new language. The city I live in now is makes no exception. The people here speak a local dialect which is very different from standard Chinese. The only way to get around is to find someone who can teach you the basics of the dialect. You don’t necessary have to learn how to speak it (even though this would open new doors), but in order to make you feel more at home, and simply be able to buy your own groceries at the local market, you should try to learn at least a bit of the local dialect.
- It is unnecessary to say that when you move to a foreign country you should learn that country’s language before arriving (at least to a basic level). Very few people in China speak good English, especially in rural areas where almost no one speaks English.
Being constantly Confronted with other People’s Bodily Functions
- I don’t have an explanation of why they seem to have the urge to do so. And even with an explanation it would still be hard to except. There is no way to change it, so you can just ignore it and give those people the deadly stare.
- Yes, after two years of living in rural China this has never ceased to disgust me. It seems socially excepted to just to spit on the street (or wherever you happen to be standing). I still cringe every time I hear the loud sound of someone spitting close by. It isn’t uncommon to see your cab driver rolling down the window to spit at 70 km/hour. You would think it is just the older less educated people who show such behavior, but I have seen young women in high-heels and fashionable clothes spitting on the side of the road.
Never knowing when the bus is coming
- Using a cab in China is also an adventurous endeavor. Sometimes the driver is so eager to talk to you that he would drive you around in circle just so he can ‘make friends’ with you and maybe even get you to teach his kids English. So be warned.
- I never look at the time. I just go to the bus stop and wait. If you are lucky the bus arrives immediately. If you are unlucky, you will wait for an hour. This means, if you have a really important appointment and the bus is not arriving, take a cab.
- Public transportation in rural China can be described with one word: Chaotic. Even though there are buses in the city, and even times written at the bus stop, the drivers must have their own time schedule. Traffic is not as bad as in the big cities, and we rarely experience traffic jams, but still buses arrive whenever they feel like.
Freezing During Winter
- Most apartments have air-conditioning which can be turned on, but during the cold winter months this is hardly enough (and strains you pocket as the electricity bill jumps to the roof). For our apartment we got two portable heaters (which use water). They can be bought in big local supermarkets or simply on Taobao (a Chinese online shopping platform), will nicely warm up your apartment and save you a lot of electricity.
- In rural areas the bitter cold will seep through your bones where ever you go. Shops, restaurants, not even schools are heated here. Someone like me, who cannot stand the cold, is suffering during winter. The only solution is to take out your long johns, wool socks and other winter clothes.
- Half of China has no central heating. And even in coastal cities like Shanghai it can get very cold during winter. However, contrary to rural areas, big urban cities usually turn on air-conditioning in public buildings.
Living in rural China can be difficult at times, but after the initial adjustment it can be very rewarding. It’s where the real China experience starts. Not in the glamorous cities of Beijing or Shanghai, no, China’s average people live in the countryside and they have lots to share.
Living in rural China can open you the door to the real Chinese culture. If you put a bit effort into it and go around with an open mind, you get access to areas of China which no other foreigner has seen before.
And on a side note, most rural areas in China come with a great Air Quality Index. If there is no close by heavy industrial area, your life can be pollution and smog free.
If you need more information about living in rural China, the ups and downs, please check out my blog for more insight.
About the Author: Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.