Expat Life in China | 5 Biggest Changes Over the Past Decade

Chinas has changed a lot the past 8 years I’ve been living in Guangzhou. Today we have an interesting guest post from Josh who has been living in China even longer, he arrived back in 2006.

When I first arrived in China in 2006, blogs like this were a novelty. Most of us early China writers used services like Blogspot or MySpace, which tells you a lot about how things have changed.

It’s been an unbelievable decade of growth for China and I count myself fortunate to have been here to experience it. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been an adventure!

For those who have only known China for the past few years, let me share with you some of the biggest changes I’ve experienced as I’ve lived, worked and traveled around China.


#1 Purchasing Train Tickets


Believe it or not, as recently as just a few years ago, train tickets could only be bought in person at the train station or ticket office. Not only that, but you could only purchase tickets at most 10 days in advance!

I remember in 2008 making plans to travel during the Spring Festival, China’s busiest travel season. I got up at 4am in the morning to stand in line with about 300 other people at our city’s small train ticket office. Tickets ran out the first day, so I had to repeat the same thing the next morning. I wasn’t even sure if we’d get to travel!

Now fast forward to last week, when I got on my iPhone to purchase tickets for a train that I planned to take next month. Quite a bit easier!

It’s also worth noting that train travel times have decreased significantly over the past decade with China’s high-speed train network. I remember spending days on the train – that’s days with an “s”! – to get from one city to another.

That same trip now takes 8 hours or less on a high speed train.


#2 Mobile Payment: WeChat & Alipay


As a teacher in China back in 2006, I would arrive at the finance office on the first day of every month to collect my paycheck. They would hand me a huge wad of cash and I had a special drawer at home where I kept the money locked up.

I could have applied for a bank card, but at the time those were only useful at big hotels or major grocery stores. Almost every transaction I made during the first few years in China was done in cash.

Fast forward to 2017. I have about 5 RMB worth of cash in my wallet at any given moment. At least 90% of my purchases are made with either Alipay or WeChat, which includes train ticket purchases, buying a drink at the corner store, or even taking a taxi.

Two weeks ago I walked out of my apartment and forgot my wallet. Strangely, it no longer mattered.


#3 China’s View of “Foreign Experts”


It used to be than anybody who spoke even an intermediate level of English could come to China to be a teacher. It was ridiculous, really, especially in the more remote parts of China that would accept anybody.

Because of this, being an “English teacher” in China wasn’t always something to be proud of. No matter how terrible a teacher, we foreigners always get paid 3-5x’s the local teachers’ salary.

I once had a teacher secretly confide to me that most of their co-workers were slightly bitter about the wage imbalance. That’s just the way it was, however, so there was no use complaining about it, they said.

While the term “foreign expert” is still used quite loosely in China, they have spent the past few years trying to change things. There are age limits, education requirements, and China is even starting to implement a “points system” wherein workers are given a score based on all these factors that determines whether they can receive a work visa.

More than anything, I think these changes reveal the way that China views foreigners. When I first arrived, any and everybody was welcome. Now, you have to prove yourself “worthy” of China.


#4 Drastic Changes in the Internet


I distinctly remember when everything changed in July of 2009. I was in my China apartment when I got a call from a friend about some big riots that happened in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi.

Soon thereafter, Facebook and Twitter were blocked in China. Google was soon forced to exit for Hong Kong and as recently as last year Instagram was blocked.

Ah, the good ‘ol days when everyone was using Blogspot as my blogging platform here in China. Certainly not anymore. Any such blocked content now requires a VPN to access in China.

When I first arrived in China, everybody wanted a Facebook profile and a Yahoo account.

Now, China is simultaneously blocking many foreign internet companies while forcing the world to use systems like WeChat and Alibaba.


#5 Ability to Purchase Imported Goods


In 2006, the small town I moved to in western China had one supermarket with an “import aisle”. Occasionally we could find butter, but most of the time it was a can of Coke from Japan (I have no idea how it’s different than Chinese-Coke products) and a few Korean products. Going online to purchase wasn’t an option.

For me and my wife, packages with various baking goods from family back home were like gold.

Larger Chinese cities have had access to imported goods for quite a while now, but it’s only been in the past few years that China’s infrastructure has matured to the point that goods can be easily shipped anywhere in the country.

I can now get on my phone to order chocolate chips (pending they have them in stock) and have them delivered to my door in less than a week. It may not seem like much, but that’s a HUGE improvement!


Conclusion | Changes in China


When it comes to changes in China, sometimes I feel like the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water. It’s not until I really sit down to think about it or talk with somebody else that I realize that a LOT really has changed!

China’s transportation, logistics, foreign policy and internet communications look nothing like they did when I first arrived in 2006.

I can’t even begin to imagine what things will look like in 2028.


Author Bio: Josh Summers first moved to China with his wife in 2006 and still resides in the far western region of Xinjiang with his family. He runs the website TravelChinaCheaper in addition to his travel business in China.


Dealing with cultural differences when you have Bad China Day

Group of Chinese students I met when traveling, 2014

Recently one of my blog readers sent me a question related to living in a different culture. I have seen this question popping up frequently so I decided to answer it in a blog post.

Her question is:

The longer I live in China the more I am unable to accept the behavior of the locals. They ask me all sort of personal questions the minute they meet me, but I don’t really want to share personal details about me to a complete stranger. I also feel like they want to find out if I’m worthy of spending time with, meaning if they can benefit from our friendship in someway in the future.

You are not alone in this! Living in a totally different culture to yours is tough, the way people speak, socialize, behave and make friends is different. For  those who don’t speak the language, the barrier is even greater.

First I want to write about the language  barrier in case the locals you speak with don’t speak fluent English or you don’t speak fluent Chinese. When speaking in a second language, especially if someone’s level is not that high, it’s easy to come off as too direct or even rude. Often that is because they simply lack the vocabulary to express what they truly want to say. So try to be understanding if someone is communicating with you with their second language.

Those of you who are studying Chinese, don’t get frustrated if the locals don’t seem to understand you even though you think you said it correctly. Most of the Chinese are not used to speaking with foreigners in Chinese and because of the pronunciation system, misunderstandings happen easily if your pronunciation or tones are off. I will assure you, that misunderstandings will get fewer and fewer the longer you study Chinese.

Secondly we need to remember that we can’t put our own culture and habits onto a pedestal and expect others to follow our norms or values. Asking lots of questions is a way of showing care, if you don’t do that, you might come out as cold and uncaring. Topics like money and weight aren’t taboos in China as they are in the West. When I encounter questions I don’t want to answer, I simply say “We don’t really discuss this in Finland, so I feel a bit embarrassed to talk about it.” Then quickly change the discussion to something else.

Thirdly comes the feeling of being used. Guangxi and networks are very important in China, you get things done and a lot faster when you know the right people. Chinese are also very good at doing business, so their business mode might be on all the time even when meeting friends. They spend time with friends who might be helpful in the future and not waste time with others. If you feel like someone gauging you in this way, and you feel uncomfortable, try to find other locals to socialize with. Hobby groups are usually better for making friends and networking events are mainly for business.

Last but not least, sometimes you just need a little break. When you feel it’s been too many Bad China Days in row, cross over to Hong Kong for example for a well deserved break. Then come back with new energy and an open mind.


Living in China without ayi

Life before

From Summer 2016 until Summer 2017 we had a full-time ayi, a nanny who took care of our daughter, cleaned and cooked. She lived with us five days per week.

During that year we got so spoiled! Dinner was always on the table when we got home from work, Anna liked playing with ayi and ayi would help out in the evening too if I wanted to sneak to the movies with my husband.

But then came Summer 2017 and our ayi started to talk about leaving, she said she could consider staying with a higher pay, but we wanted to check our options first.

We realized salaries for ayi had increased a lot, best ayis were now 6000rmb per month! Luckily we found a nice daycare where Anna now goes four or five days per week.

Life after

So how has our life in Guangzhou changed since we don’t have an ayi anymore?

Before I often worked until 6pm and got home at 7pm, now I finish before 5pm so I can get to daycare on time to pick our daughter.

Before my husband worked long hours, for months he did the night shift. Now he started working for him self as well, making his working hours very flexible. He is now the one who stays at home when Anna is sick and takes care of her every Saturday when I’m working.

Household work and cooking is done by both of us. During the week my husband is in charge, on weekends we often clean and cook together. During the week we often cook for two days at a time or prepare meat and vegetables the day before. During Winter hot pot has become our favorite as it’s easy to prepare.

The biggest difference is that as me and my husband are either working, taking care of Anna or doing household chores, we rarely have time for the two of us. “Let’s watch a movie when Anna is asleep” has become a joke, I usually fall asleep when I put Anna to bed!

Now that we don’t have a babysitter in hand, we decided once a month to have a date day. Our daughter usually doesn’t go to daycare on Mondays, but once a week she does. So me and my husband hit the gym, have lunch and watch a movie. Then rush to the daycare to pick up Anna.

Why to have or not to have an ayi?

If both of the parents are working it’s definitely good to have an ayi. Work days are longer in China and with the traffic it’s often late when a working parent gets home. In general apartments also get dirty fast so cleaning takes more time than in Finland for example.

Having an ayi is also a way to minimize and family debates on who does more household chores!

Our decision to not have an ayi anymore is mostly financial, we rather save money than use it all to ayi’s salary. Anna’s daycare is cheaper that hiring a full-time nanny.

Luckily our flexible jobs allow us to manage this without having help. I admit it would be difficult if my husband still worked such a long hours as before.

All in all it’s busy years for us juggling work and family, but for now we can do it without an ayi. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend to hire one if possible ;)


What should you really bring to China


That’s Guangzhou recently listed 18 Things All Newcomers Absolutely Need to Bring to Guangzhou and I would like to add a few words of my own to the list. Do you actually need to bring all of these?

1 Hand sanitizer

I don’t personally carry hand sanitizer around with me, but I have seen it being sold on Minisoto and Watson’s for example. Feel free to bring a bottle, but no need to stock up.

2 Skincare and make up

Brand products are more expensive in China than abroad so do bring your favorite products. I don’t do make up my self so I buy the skincare products I need here. I even found face cream with UV protection at Watson’s.

3 Deodorant

Deodorant might be cheaper elsewhere, but it’s easily to be found in any supermarkets, Watson’s, Mannings and so on.

4 Tampons

Difficult to find 7 years ago, but now easy to find same as the deodorant. All Watson’s and Mannings have tampons, mostly ob brand so if you prefer something else, you can consider bringing them with you.

5 Painkillers

Do bring your important medication with you, but for an occasional headache it’s easy to find ibuprofen tables (布洛芬片) in any local pharmacy.

6 Unlocked cell phone

If  you are staying long term, get a Chinese SIM card for your old phone or get a new Chinese brand phone.

7 Photocopies of your passport and visa

You should carry your passport with you, but if you are worried losing it, at least carry a copy of it with you. You might be fined if the police find out you don’t have your passport with you.


Yes! Definitely do download and register a VPN before you come. I have used VyprnVPN since 2015. Click her to get it with a nice discount!

9 Extra clothes and shoes

My shoe size is 38 and in clothes I use M or L (European size) so I don’t have too many troubles finding things to wear. I usually shop at Uniqlo and H&M. If you have a large shoe or clothing size, you probably want to bring more with you, especially nice shoes. Also if you are much taller than the average Chinese.

10 Basic Mandarin

You can learn a few phrases before you come, or even better, join me at Expat Chinese and register for my courses!

11 Baby powder

Guangzhou is hot and humid, but I’ve never used baby powder after leaving toddlerhood. I do use roll-on deodorant for my thighs to avoid rubbing the skin.

12 Antidiarrheals

Same as with number 5, take the medicine you are used to using back home too. For sudden stomach pain, Chinese pharmacies have better remedies than I’ve been able to find in Finland.

13 Portable fan

Very useful during the Summer, but much cheaper to buy once you arrive!

14 Adapters

Depend on each country, but coming from Finland I haven’t needed any adapters. Many Chinese extension cords are suitable for any kinds of sockets.

15 Gifts from home

Always a good idea to bring special gifts from your hometown, but remember Chinese have a very different style compared to Finns for example. Finnish design isn’t that big of a deal here yet so I often just buy Fazer chocolate for everyone.

16 Extra space in your luggage

Sure, if you are coming for a short trip, you probably want to do some shopping over here. If you live here, you most likely want to bring more stuff from home to China. Besides chocolate, I always bring rye bread with me.

17 An open mind

Absolutely! This is the most important thing to bring with you. China is huge, China is amazing, China is different, be ready for a culture shock. I’ve lived here more than 7 years and there are still parts of the culture that shocks me or surprises me in a good way. It’s constant learning that keeps you going when living in a new culture.

Sara’s short list of things to bring to Guangzhou or China in general:

  • Open mind!
  • A good VPN
  • Personal medicine and hygiene products you can’t live without
  • Some comfort snacks
  • Well… that’s it!

So how easy is it for foreigners to study in China?

Sun Yat-Sen University North Gate

Recently Lena from Lenaaround shared an interesting article on Facebook: White Privilege as a Western Student in China. The article shares the experiences of foreign students and what privileges they felt they got during their studies, just because they were foreigners.

I’ve done my university education in China first as an exchange student, then as a bachelor and master’s degree student. Did I get privileges as a white foreigner?

As an exchange student

Back in 2009-2010 it was easy to come to Guangzhou as an exchange student. My university in Finland had cooperation with Guangzhou University, but no one wanted to come. Officially you could stay for 1 semester with free tuition (pay for accommodation and living expenses), but I managed to stay for 3 semesters because no one else wanted to come.

Because Guangzhou and Tampere (city in Finland where I studied) are friendship cities, everyone coming from Tampere got a big scholarship each year. I don’t remember how much it was, but it must have been at least a few hundred euros.

As a language exchange student all of my classes were with other foreign students and the teachers did check our attendance. In the end eveyone did pass their exams one way or the other. But it’s quite relaxed for non-degree students no matter which university.

As a bachelor degree student

Back in 2011 I got into Sun Yat-Sen University and their bachelor degree for foreigners simply by applying and paying the tuition. There were no scholarship for the BA available. I have heard that they are making it a bit harder to get in these days, because they are losing reputation as as the 10th best university in China if they let any foreinger in.

Again I was studying with other foreigners only and our attendance was strictly monitored. But just getting in to Sun Yat-Sen University so easily can be seen as white privilege as it’s very difficult for Chinese nationals to get in through the official exams.

As a master’s degree student

Again it’s easier for foreigners to apply and Confucius Institute offers good scholarship espeically for my degree, Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. They want to educate more foreigners to teach Chinese.

Getting in definitely took more effort than for the BA. I had a HSK6 already so that wasn’t a problem. Then I needed recommendation letters from my professors. As I was a good student during my BA, the teachers had a good impression of me so they were very helpful in getting me in for the MA degree. The final confirmation came from the Confucius Institute and I received a full scholarship that included free tuition, free dormitory (which I didn’t take) and monthly pocket money (first 1700rmb and later 3000rmb per month.)

This time I was studying both with foreign and Chinese students. Compared to my Chinese classmates, I definitely got in easier and I received a big scholarship which made it sometimes a bit embarrassing to mention to my classmates.

During our courses I didn’t feel that it was easier for me to pass them as a foreigner, I was a good hard working student in any case. I know other foreign classmates failed some of their exams and had to take them again, the teachers didn’t let them pass based on the color of their skin.

Outside the campus

In the original article they mention other privileges outside the campus like free entrance and drinks for clubs. It is true that as a white foreigner in China, I do have some things easier here, but that is for another blog post. Stay tuned for more!