Living in China

Writing about life in China would fill shelves full of books written in small letters. I will not even attempt this; I will just state some things which left the strongest impressions on me.

Work Life

In my native Germany, we have a strong distinction between work life and leisure time. Once people are off work, they won't be checking business mails or make or receive work-related phone calls. We have five to six weeks vacations, and vacations means just that: no work, no calls from boss or colleagues. If you have three weeks off and your colleagues call you every other day, then either you didn't hand over your work very well or your colleague is deemed to be an idiot because he can't do his job without you mollycoddling him. In any case, this will be frowned upon and in most companies is even verboten by collective agreements.

In China, my impression is that there is no distinction between work and private life. Several times when I worked late and sent out emails to a business partner late at night, I received an answer within ten minutes. There is more about working in China on a separate page.


When living as an expat in China, one has to choose his life style: You can comfortably live like you did in Europe, having all the shops, food and amenities you are used to. It is just a bit more expensive (a glass of my favourite breakfast item Nutella was three times as expensive as in Germany), and you forfeit the opportunity to experience new things. On the other side, you can go completely local, eating at roadside BBQs and having a beef noodle soup at 兰州拉面  (Lánzhōu Lāmiàn, which is a noodle chain operated by members of the Hui minority and is ubiquitous in China). Such a beef noodle soup is a full meal by itself and costs less than a cup of coffee at any international coffee franchise.

The company I worked for was located almost halfway between the city of Changshu and Shanghai, and I had free choice where and how I wanted to live. I opted to stay away from the expat bubble and live in a place with only few foreigners, and that turned out to be the right choice.

After having looked at several apartments, I chose a serviced apartment right in the centre of Changshu. A serviced apartment is basically a hotel suite, so you get fresh linen and towels twice a week, the apartment is cleaned, and you can enjoy the hotel breakfast. Chinese hotel breakfasts can be quite special if you are not staying in an international five star hotel, but mine was quite good... just you have to avoid the stuff which they think is western. If you love congee, dumplings are steamed vegetables for breakfast, you are fine.

The greatest challenge of living in a foreigner-free place is that you need to speak and at best read some Chinese. The way to get around is by bicycle or by bus, and the plans at the bus stops as well as the announcements are in Chinese only. Same is true if you go eating out. Cooking for oneself isn't a big deal of fun, and eating out in China is cheaper than cooking anyway, at least if you go the local way. And it is a great way to learn and improve your language.

Eating at roadside BBQs has its own challenges, as food safety is still something where China has potential for improvement. There are some BBQs where you can pick the ingredients before cooking, so you can look at them and smell them, and once picked, they are prepared over a gas grill without use of fat or oil. I always chose that kind of BBQs, because if they use oil, you have no idea how old it is, and whether it is actually cooking oil. Another safe bet is if the place has many local customers, that is, avoid tourist places, because tourists don't return anyway, while locals will spread word about good or bad places. If you see a bunch of taxi drivers eating somewhere, that's the place to go.

Another challenge is that Chinese have very different pastimes than us westerners. Getting drunk and singing at a KTV (Karaoke place) is fun once or twice, but getting my ear drums ruptured by blaring Chinese love songs every other day just isn't for me. Also, unless you are fluent in Chinese (which I am not), hanging around with your colleagues gets boring once they switch to Chinese and share stories of people you don't know. So you need to find things you are interested in. That actually may be a reason to stay where there are other foreigners; but as I chose a foreigner-free place, I had to find other entertainment.

However, once a while I did miss having chats in my native language or at least in English, and these were some of the moments when I wished I had stayed in Shanghai. Changshu had some one or two expat bars, but there I only met those expats who hang around in expat bars too often. Fortunately Shanghai was only 90 minutes away by bus (not it must be faster as the higspeed rail line has been built since), and I visited Shanghai every other week anyway on business.

Another thing that got on my nerves was the winter. Although the temperature usually doesn't drop below 4 °C (there has been snow, but this is rare), Changshu is south of the Changjiang (Yangtze) River. The emperor has decided that there is no winter south of the river, and that means that the houses there have no heating. The cold is pervasive. Offices are cold, shops are cold, buses are cold. Even though in Germany the temperature in winter drops to -10 °C and occasionally even to -20 °C, every place you go in is heated. But sitting in a cold office all day long wearing a winter coat and sometimes even gloves, being taken home by a company bus without heating, and coming into a cold apartment makes you shiver and sick after a few days. Also, the pollution is awful. You are happy for the rain as that washed down some of the pollution, but a few days later your throat begins to itch again, and the air pollution app on your smartphone stays at 500 ppm because that is the maximum reading it can display.

I had a bicycle and after work I used to cycle for an extended time around Changshu (except in winter obviously). I got to know almost all roads and places and parks and alleys, so that I could give directions to my Chinese colleague once my colleague got lost because his GPS didn't know about the recent road works. Apart from being a good exercise, it was also a great way of getting to know places I would never have seen otherwise: I have seen the old alleys, many squares where people danced at night, many of those small and hidden places.

Another pastime was that I often sat down in a tea house, watching the old people playing Mahjong, and doing my Chinese homework.

Life in China is an experience of its own, and certainly everyone may have different reasons and views, whether one is there for business, whether one is interested in culture or history. People look for food or spirituality, some have unrealistic ideas or illusions about the country or themselves. There are people who have seen China and hate it, because they cannot endure the chaos, the crowds, or the pollution. And there are people who visit the country and just fell in love with it.