A Year and a Half in Communist China – Opting Out


Although I fall short from being a complete sinophile, since I’ve been here my respect and appreciation for Chinese people and culture has shot up. That said, Chinese culture is so foundationally different to the Western culture I was brought up in, there will always be something I will not get.

For foreigners, China is generally a good place to live. On a personal level, people are interested in you, want to know you, and want your business. In more remote cities, you might be treated almost as a minor celebrity. If pedestrians don’t want selfies with you, they will stare incessantly. People are genuinely intrigued that a foreigner would want to visit their country, and are proud to show it off, and help you.

Some local bars you’ll find are appealing to foreigners directly by imitating Western-style decor and drinks offers. Owners expect the custom of foreigners as a signal that the place is hip and modern, as opposed to the Chinese-style bars and clubs where large groups of men slug baijiu and play dice.

You usually can’t stay here legally without a job, which is a double-edged sword. It means your employer has an unusual amount of power over you. They not only have the power over your employment, but your residency status. If they decide they don’t want you working for them, it could potentially mean the total upending of your life. 

However, it does mean that they are invested in your life in China. If you have a good boss, and they like you, they are incentivised to make your life in China as smooth as possible. I feel that with my boss, there isn’t much they couldn’t help me with. They assured me before I came that they have “a good relationship with the police.” Understanding that relationships are more fundamental than most things in China (as opposed to universal rules), it was a bit of a relief. Whether it’s visa issues, accommodation problems, I needn’t worry. They are even concerned about my singlehood, feeling that if I got a Chinese girlfriend, the likelihood of me staying longer would increase.

My experience is not necessarily typical, so do thorough research, A large minority of teaching jobs in China are, to put it mildly, misadvertised. Stories exist aplenty of schools that are not in the same area as stated on the ad, where workload is bigger than expected, and the pay is not as good as advertised, etc. What’s more, the teacher is stuck there, unless they can find another job pronto. 

Politically interested people might be wondering about the lived experience of living in Communist China. To be honest, day-to-day, the Communist part of that hardly comes into it. I’d describe it this way: When you’re in airports, train stations, police stations, or any other government office, you feel like you’re in communism; but, when you’re anywhere else, you feel like you’re living in a capitalist utopia. 

Now, I understand that freedom doesn’t solely consist in the ability to buy a pair of Vans. It’s most important in the edge cases, like the freedom to call the head of state a fat pig if we want. I also understand that my experience as a foreigner will be very different to that of a native. I am not ingrained in Chinese culture so do not experience the social pressure of being politically correct. I avoid politics as much as possible here, and this is a privilege.

Even informed people might not quite have absorbed the fact that China is a lot different than it used to be. To a large degree, it’s highly modern, sophisticated, consumerist, opinionated, varied, culturally clued-in, and sexy. It is however a different culture, and there are some things I will never understand, and not because I don’t want to. But understanding that difference makes you a more patient person. The cliché rings true, but exposure to different cultures and ideas makes you more open-minded and well-rounded. The misconceptions surrounding China and its culture are rife, and no-one was more guilty than me. But being here has definitely changed me.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.