15 Idiosyncrasies of the Day-to-Day in China

The Great Wall… one of many reasons to check out this awesome country. Photo from August 2018.

So, you want to live in China? Here are some little-to-big things to be aware of before you make the leap–or, if you’re just interested in how life in a different country compares to yours, read up!

Yesterday, I shared the specific perks of my job, and in the next post, I’ll share the perks of life in general here. There are some life hacks that the Chinese have figured out that America lacks, but there are also things that might feel strange to someone from the U.S. (and perhaps from other Western countries).

One of the many lovely sites available to those who stick around. This was in Jingan Park, Beijing.

I must mention again that if you go to China with a large corporation or government sponsorship, your experience will vary. When I get to my Beijing 2015 vs. Fuyang 2018 post, I’ll describe what I mean in more detail. In the meantime, the linked article–recommended by Andy of Marriage, Kids and Money.com, on the March 26, 2018 episode of ChooseFI–does a good, quick job of explaining what it can be life in the crazy-luxe lane. 😉

In addition, life here now is different even from 2015. People who lived here ten years ago would find some things far more developed, but others the same.

That said, none of this will surprise anyone who has lived here for any length of time. They also might seem embarrassingly mundane or detailed, but these are things that would have painted a fuller portrait of life as a resident before I came. I want to put it out there in case it’s worthwhile to someone who appreciates knowing such things.

Gratuitous shot of my gorgeous workplace. ❤

1. THE GREAT CHINESE FIREWALL.

This is one of, if not the, most defining, unique facet of life online that impacts foreigners in China. Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and many Western news sources are blocked here. The Apple News app sends headlines, but when you click on them, it says…

There are 100% ways around this, but I bring it up to add one note: while you may think you can handle this easily, in day-to-day life, you’ll be amazed at how many things Google has its hands in. You can be on a perfectly unrelated site to social media, Gmail or Facebook, but–wait! The site uses Google Analytics to track visitors or present ads? You’re stuck waiting 5-10 times as long for the site to load. In addition, any site that simply has buttons on it for people to use to access that company’s social media profiles takes much longer to load.

I love Khan Academy and use it frequently in my classroom. Unfortunately, it sometimes uses YouTube to host its videos, so students get an annoying error message, even though they’re not trying to do go to blocked sites.

Ultimately, you have to pick a search engine that the government approves. Bing.com usually works, and baidu.com is kind of the Chinese Google.

* FYI: Nothing Apple is blocked, although iTunes occasionally works better with a VPN. *

As a result of this firewall, and its own huge population, China has its own messaging app, to be covered later.

2. CENTRAL AIR IS NOT COMMON.

One colleague lives in a gorgeous two-floor apartment, but her landlord decided not to put wall units on the main floor. Her master and guest bedrooms, thankfully, both have units.

My little studio doesn’t need anymore than it has.

My blessedly competent wall unit.

3. BATHROOMS ARE NOT TYPICALLY HEATED OR AIR-CONDITIONED.

In Beijing at work, in homes and now here, at my home and work, there is simply no unit near that space. In addition, the placement of my bathroom in my studio ensures that it’s always 10-20 degrees F cooler than the rest of my home. At work, we have an open-air layout for the halls, and while our classrooms have giant units that can heat the rooms fairly well, the bathrooms are in separate areas of their own. Thus, they’re quite hot in August and September, and now cold.

My beautiful shower-with-a-lip.

Even in the area where we eat lunch, attached to enclosed hallways, they’re colder. But still soooo much warmer than Beijing!

4. CLOTHES WASHERS ARE GENERALLY INCLUDED IN FURNISHED APARTMENTS, AND ARE TOP-LOADING, BUT WITHOUT A MIDDLE AGITATOR.

That middle part is not in the traditional Chinese washer. Picture from appliancerepairquestions.com

This means your clothes are often tangled together when they’re done, but it’s nice to have this appliance at all.

5. CLOTHES DRYERS ARE NOT TYPICALLY USED.

Drying racks are more common, and many of the apartments in my building have rods attached high above the enclosed balcony areas. Mine includes my refrigerator, too, and I choose to dry most of my clothes indoors due to a rat scare a few months ago. More on that later.

In the summer here, and in Beijing most of the year (because it’s drier), stuff dried fairly fast. Here, now that it’s gone to a more gloomy, foggy and wet time of year, it’s taking a lot more time for things to dry.

In general, this doesn’t really bother me. I do wish that I could heat-dry my sheets and towels, but it’s been almost four months now, and I’m not any worse-for-the-wear (pun intended). In addition, this is a built-in “frugal life hack,” dating all the way back to the godfather of FIRE himself, J.D. Roth, in 2008 (and, y’know, for thousands of years before 1938 or so).

6. DON’T EXPECT BATHTUBS.

The bathtub vs. shower debate is a popular one in culture, with one camp eschewing the former due to its perceived uncleanliness or status as a gross waste of time–but I am firmly on the other side of this argument. I enjoy a hot bath with a glass of wine or hot chocolate. It’s one of my favorite treats, but typical Chinese homes do not have one.

AirBnB provides relief, though, if you get really desperate.

On a different note, older, traditional Chinese bathrooms have a “wet bath,” meaning that your shower shares the same floor with your sink and toilet, with no ledge to keep the water in the shower from running onto the floor. While most bathrooms of colleagues here have a main restroom with a shower that has a lip, some of their guest bathrooms do not.

7. CHEAP, ABUNDANT GOODS ARE AVAILABLE ONLINE…IN CHINESE (DUH). AND YMMV (YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY).

Taobao is an incredible website–similar to Amazon and eBay combined–but it’s in Chinese (of course). The adventurous (🙋🏻‍♀️) can figure it out using Google Translate, other tools or (gasp) actually learning the language, but I’ve also met foreigners who have lived here for years and just never wanted to mess with it, OR who are repeatedly denied access for reasons beyond their control (you have to hook it up to one of two main ways to pay in China, and the information has to perfectly match what’s on your bank account).

The beauty of the world at your fingertips.

In addition, there are people all too happy to help English-speakers choose what you want, but in my research, it vastly limits the goods you can easily purchase, and you CAN search in English on the site. It just requires more time. (I plan to have a friend who’s comfortable using the English-language versions do a guest post in the future–maybe we’ll both learn some things!)

Finally, you just need to be prepared to take what you receive. Especially when you’re functioning in a second or third language, you are going to get things that are different than they appear online, or at the very least, may be of inferior quality. As in the U.S., you get what you pay for, to some extent.

If it’s a foreign good unfamiliar to most Chinese vendors, you might get a great deal for a quality product–or you might get a totally different version of the product than you expected. It’s not as bad as it sounds; as a bourbon aficionado, for example, there have been a few times when I thought I was getting a rare, older version of certain bottles, only to find that the vendor simply hadn’t updated the photo in 4-5 years. He (or she) figured, “It’s the same basic product; why would they care?”

On a positive note, they’re often willing to remedy mistakes, and having a Chinese friend or colleague willing to help can go a long way towards fixing errors. Once, when the same vendor sent me porn-star gold-and-silver sheets twice when I just wanted gray ones–and also, had sent me the wrong size–I had to insist that no, I really did want the color (and size) I’d chosen, even though he said, “These other ones are prettier!”

Just not my style! No matter how classy this lady and her fancy bedroom make them look.
Call me high-maintenance, but I wanted them to fit the bed.

Once I said, “Thanks, but I really want the original color (and right size),” he sent me the money via red-envelope in Whatsapp (one of the two main ways money is exchanged) for return shipping, and I got the sheets I wanted about a month later. They’re not amazing, but they feel like silk, which was the point–they dry much faster than cotton sheets here, and feel great during the summer months.

But, as I hinted above, you get what you pay for. China is uniquely talented at the mass production of goods, and it’s good at manufacturing facsimiles of those same products. Do not expect a phone charger you buy online to last forever, or for the suit jacket you bought for 20 RMB (about $3 US) to have inseams. It just depends. But sometimes, it’s incredibly fun, as when I got a bottle of 13-year-old bourbon for around $35 that’s not available at all in the States, and is currently listed at over £100 on The Whiskey Exchange. (Of course, in honor of my debt paydown, I’ve cut out such expenditures for now.)

The rare whiskey—finished with colleagues at a party. Worth the cost.

8. LANDLORD-TENANT SITUATIONS MAY VARY.

How much are your utilities? Who even knows? Our go-betweens have told us, “When they want the money, they’ll ask for it”–totally fine, because it’s generally under $50 for three months of gas, electricity, water and Internet.

On the other hand, prices vary wildly. I myself was quoted 300 yuan for Internet for the year, and later, 1000. I was told I’d pay the landlord directly for utilities, and then discovered I’d pay 20-30 yuan ($3-5 USD) every so often for water to the lady downstairs. No big deal, but you can’t expect consistency all the time.

It’s also important to know that if you need an appliance replaced, the landlord might say it’s your problem. One coworker spent two months chasing her guy for a refrigerator that worked consistently, while in Beijing, I had an unpleasant experience of my own. When I was freezing due to an old and outdated heat/A/C unit and asked for a replacement or a space heater, she sent me pictures of ones that I could buy. It’s just more hands-off here, although some Chinese friends also vehemently declared that it was her problem and I should push for her to fix it. (She also frequently harangued me for not knowing Chinese–perfectly acceptable if I weren’t already working hard to learn it, and if she hadn’t met me and chose to lend her place to me when she knew who I was.)

On the upside, when I decided to move due to construction, she let me out of my contract three months early and repaid my deposit fairly quickly. The bottom line is that there is more flexibility in both directions, but no legal precedent that landlords have to fear.

Here in Fuyang, thankfully, my landlord has been amazing.

9. TEA IS THE DRINK-DU-JOUR, NOT COFFEE.

Chrysanthemum tea.

Surely, you know this already, but it bears showing what “tea” can mean. Generally, tea here is served looseleaf, and it can include flowers! In formal settings, it’s presented with elaborate ceremony. It’s a huge part of the culture, and one that I have yet to fully enjoy.

For coffee fans like me, there are many coffee shops now–a huge shift from when I lived in Beijing–but bagged coffee is still expensive. Whole bean is even harder to find. Generally, they consider instant coffee totally fine, so you have to dig a bit if you’re a coffee fiend like me to find anything other than Starbucks, which runs around $15 a bag (NOT okay). (Again, Taobao to the rescue! I also bring bags from the States to last me for the first month or two.)

10. DAIRY AND BREAD ARE NOT STAPLES. If you want them, you’ll need to track them down online or be willing to pay high prices. Out of the four nearby grocery stores, maybe one will have fresh bread or real cheese available on occasion. On the other hand, if you don’t really care, you’ll find cheaper facsimiles of these satisfying, and some colleagues make their own bread.

Triumph! At only … six dollars 😬😬

Of course, I use Taobao to get around this! Teachers at our school team up to get cheese cheaper by splitting the 2-5 kilo blocks of it that one vendor sells, and I’ve also found a few things to buy on my own.

This scarcity applies to sour cream, whipping cream and half-and-half, but real milk IS available at local places for inexpensive prices. The amount of special promotions on it and vendors who stand by the milk aisle and push it make it seem like it’s a relatively new phenomenon, though–as is the huge grocery store itself. (Fuyang has been immensely built up in recent years.)

11. GEO-TAGGING CHANGES EVERYTHING (though of course, there are ways around it).

Unlike the Great Firewall, this challenge is not unique to China, and I first encountered it when I studied abroad in Buenos Aires. Content produced in the United States is only supposed to be shown there, officially, and companies like Netflix, Hulu and network apps (CBS All Access, for example) have different agreements with different countries. Whether you’re in Canada, Kuwait or Colombia, your viewing options will change.

This is altered via a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, which is easily and cheaply available in most countries. However, smarter companies can tell when you’re using a VPN, and won’t let you use the apps there, even with a program that places your IP address in the U.S.

On a separate note, my peers use Netflix and CBS All Access fairly easily, but they didn’t work so well for me. That said, do you remember how I said there are often facsimiles of products in China? They have their own YouTube and Twitter. etc., and while they’re cracking down more, let’s just say that there are alternative ways to access content while you’re here. In addition, I’ve been watching TV less and reading more on purpose, and canceled my subscriptions to save money, so that’s not the worst thing in the world.

We also have dirt-cheap cable included with Internet. It’s mostly in Chinese, but several coworkers have smart TVs included in their homes that show thousands of movies for free. (A smart TV came with my own place, but I rarely turn it on.)

12. EVERYONE USES WECHAT & WHATSAPP IS BLOCKED.

Poor WhatsApp.

WeChat is used both to chat and send money. It also serves as a major social media platform with its Moments function.

Remember those animated GIFs that came a few years ago to iPhones? WeChat did ’em first. In fact, this is one of the areas where Apple copied Chinese technology. Many of the features in iMessaging originated here.

The app most used by expats abroad is WhatsApp, for very similar functions, but it’s blocked here/very hard to access without a VPN.

WeChat isn’t just used to message people, either; it’s a way to pay for everything and to order fresh food right to your door, often within fifteen minutes. Taobao can be used the same way. (More on this in the next post!). It’s vital to life here.

Finally, WeChat also offers an in-app translator that is LIFE-CHANGING for both locals and expats who want to communicate with one another.

Talking to a Chinese friend about my traffic accident (to be covered in a future post).

13. PUBLIC URINATION AND SPITTING DO HAPPEN, BUT LESS THAN IN THE PAST.

Signs in Qibao Water Town in Shanghai warn against public urination and defecation.

A public campaign is underway to lessen these occurrences, and it’s had a strong effect–that, or it’s just less common, even in my small town. But it still happens. In addition, potty training still often occurs by having kids wear pants or shorts with slits under the rear, and when they need to go, they can go in public.

14. PEOPLE DON’T USE MAILBOXES HERE, & YOUR PHONE NUMBER IS SUPER IMPORTANT.

This is somewhat puzzling, because addresses work in much the same way as the U.S. I live in a specific apartment complex with a building and apartment number that I use to send packages. There are even mailboxes in the lobby, and they were also in my Beijing apartment complex. Yet people didn’t use them then, and they do not use them now. (The one time I had a package delivered to my home in Beijing, I had to walk to the local post office and make my way down to a tiny corner of the building–evidently the International Delivery section–where they recognized me on sight because they had so few packages come to that neighborhood from America!)

Things are far less archaic now; there’s an incredible, futuristic delivery system in place, and I’ve had two packages easily delivered to me from the U.S., as well as dozens of products from Taobao. But it’s all done via WeChat and your accompanying phone number.

When you sign up for your bank account as a foreigner, your name must be written in all caps, exactly as it appears on your passport (Chinese names typically consist of only a few characters, and Romanized names are hard to decipher. Capital words resemble characters more closely). In addition, your phone number must be exactly right. You need it anytime to make a wire transfer, you get alerts that way, and anytime you receive a package or have a food or large delivery en route, they will usually call you to confirm or to tell you that they are on the way.

If you get locked out of WeChat, you must be able to get back in via your phone number, or a separate person will have to vouch for you.

In essence, it serves as your billing address here in China.

15. WATER ISN’T POTABLE, SO YOU MUST EITHER BUY AND LUG HUGE BOTTLES OF IT, OR BUY YOUR OWN FANCY MACHINE.

Oo la la.

Most people use the tap water to shower, brush their teeth and cook with (boiled), but to drink, you need something else.

Tabletop dispensers are around 70 yuan, while stand-alone versions are twice that. You pay a deposit of 40 RMB for the huge bottle and 18 kuai to refill it. I message the supplier on WeChat, and he usually has a new bottle to me within hours. It’s like magic! Cheap magic that you pay for!

Messaging with my water supplier on WeChat.

Much in China makes it easy to be lazy.

Like this guy. He’s happy!

There is so much more, but we’ll stop here for now. I hope helps fill in the gaps as to daily life here! One day, in Part 2, I’ll describe the kitchen situation, toilets, pollution, and more about the food.

As I’ve suggested, there are workarounds for major challenges, the negatives are improving, and there is a whole lot more awesome stuff that you can do here that you can’t, or that is less efficient, in the U.S. But that’s for a future post.

If you have lived in China, what advice do you have?

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