Living in China,  My Life

Feeling Lonely Among 1.35 Billion People


There are more than 1344 million people living in China, 104 million of them living in Guangdong province. Guangzhou alone has a population of 14 million, that’s 2.6 times more than in whole Finland. The school year has started and yesterday I had to wait the third bus until I was able to get in.

There are people everywhere, pushing you at the metro station, staring at you at the crossroads and asking you the same questions over and over again when taking the bus back home after a long day.

Yes, there are more than 1,353,821,000 people living in this country (2012 estimate) and I’m feeling lonely.

Making friends was easy when I was a kid up until high school graduation. After that I made a few good friends at work and university too. But then I decided to move to the other side of the earth.

Being an exchange student doesn’t do good to your relationships. During three semesters at Guangzhou University I saw friends come and go. No matter how we promised each others to stay in touch, it didn’t happen. Today I’m in contact only with one of those friends.

Starting my degree at Sun Yat-Sen University was great, especially that I knew to have same classmates for two and a half years. Almost, at least. After the first semester our two classes were mixed up again as we chose our specializations. Only three students besides me chose teaching Chinese. It’s been nice to be part of a group, even though we rarely meet outside the school.

I don’t really shine at making friends. I’m a bit introverted and feel shy when meeting new people. I prefer texting over phone calls. I’m an over-thinker and hate to make people do things they don’t want to do.

I haven’t been able to make good Chinese friends over here, despite dating a Chinese guy. In friendships I look for something we have in common, something I can relate to in him or her, something that we are both interested in. I found it easier to bond with other foreigners as they are going through the same things as I am. We have a lot to share.

I’ve met amazing people through my blog, people who I share so many things with that it’s even hard to imagine how it’s possible. One of them is Linda, who is coming back to China next year. I’m even meeting a new reader/friend this week!

Sometimes I wonder are expats mostly extroverts that flourish when surrounded by lots of people from all over the world? Or are there more like me who prefer quality over quantity?

As a funny coincidence, I just realized that the island I’m living in right now has almost the same population as my childhood hometown in Finland. Or was it meant to happen that in a city of 14 million people I will end up in the smaller one of two villages on this island?

In a way I hope that this blog will transform into a place where like-minded people can share their thoughts. I get so happy every time I receive a nice comment or an email from a reader. I hope to make friends with all of you.

p.s. For more expat friends when living abroad, check out my yesterday’s blog post.


  • Jason

    I think it’s the expats dilemma. Most people who live and work overseas do it for only a short time–a year or two at most. And when it comes to countries with really strict visa rules like China, it’s hard to become a long-term resident there.

    I have lived overseas (on and off) from my home country for 12 years. One of the advantages in life of being an expat is that you have the opportunities to meet people you would never meet living at home. When I was living in Beijing, some of my best friends included a Canadian immigration lawyer, a Dutch newspaper journalist, an Australian investment banker, and a British social scientist. With the exception of the last one, I would never run into people in those lines of work. The downside of being an expat is that it’s all temporary. Most people have homes, families, and careers back in their home country that they plan to return to.

    Another advantage of being an expat is you learn more not only about other cultures, but you learn a great deal about yourself. And in learning about yourself, you can also change and grow and improve (or retreat and return, as many do, too).

    One of the hard parts of living in China is that Chinese also see us expats as temporary travelers as well. Which is why sometimes it’s hard to find real friends. They KNOW we’re leaving, so what’s the point? They find us interesting and fun in short-term. But you have to learn the language and stick around for them to think maybe we’re going to stay!

    Anyway, I could ramble on and on about this. Can’t wait to get back to Guangzhou in February!

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I was nodding along your whole comment, Jason. I imagine meeting and saying goodbye to many more friends in the future too, like you said, most of us will go back home some point. Sure, we might go to Finland too at some point, for some time, but still China is always going to be a home for me.

    I think making real friends with Chinese requires me to learn the language in a more deeper level and really get my self immersed in the culture. Another option would be to meet Chinese who have been abroad, for studies for example, could that be easier?

    Being an expat is something that has lots of good sides and then some not so good sides as well. It’s an endless monologue in my head and also an interesting discussion.

    I’m sure Guangzhou will welcome you with both hands when you come back!

  • chinaelevatorstories

    I’m similar when it comes to meeting people. But I do have to say that it’s possible to make good Chinese friends if you try hard (it’s not easy and you might sometimes have to go out of your own comfort zone). It seems to be more difficult in first-tier cities (at least that’s the impression I get from having lived in Kunming and living in Shenzhen), but it’s definitely possible. The biggest wall you have to tear down is probably one that you might have built yourself without realizing it. There are amazing Chinese people out there – maybe they can’t share the experience of being an expat with you, but I’m sure that you can find similarities with Chinese people too. What are your hobbies? There are so many Chinese people out there that as long as you try to look long enough, you’ll definitely be able to find people with similar interests who can become your good friends. I’m not saying it’s easy – I have a hard time making friends too here in Shenzhen, but it is definitely possible. If you feel you connect with someone, ask them if they want to go for a coffee, join you for a walk in the park or if you have a kitchen you can use you can even invite them home for a Finnish dinner. You can also ask your boyfriend if he can help you. My husband is trying hard to help me find friends (I feel bad that he has to help me, but I’m really bad at starting friendships with strangers). The biggest challenge in becoming friends with Chinese people is a mindset that tells you that you don’t have enough in common with Chinese people. It’s the same the other way around. If people think you’re a foreigner and you’re different anyways, it’s impossible for real friendships to grow. But there are enough people out there who don’t think this way and if you give them a chance you might be surprised at how much you might possibly have in common.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank you for such an encouraging comment!

    I’ve spent the whole summer at home basically and there seems to be no change as I will continue to work and write my thesis at home. I’ve been thinking of some optional courses for the last semester, just for a reason to get out.

    Speaking of hobbies I’ve been thinking of finding a photography course here in Guangzhou. That could be a fun way to learn and meet people interested in the same hobby.

    My boyfriend is much more extrovert, for him the more the merrier. I do meet his friends once a while together and would like to get to know their girlfriend’s a bit better. I just would have to be more active in the conversation in order not to let everyone fall back to Cantonese. But at the same time I’m afraid that I make others uncomfortable by forcing them to speak in Mandarin just because of me.

    You’re comment got me thinking in many ways how to make friends here, so a big thank you again! I will try to explore new hobbies and places where I can meet new people.

    chinaelevatorstories Reply:

    You’re welcome and I’m glad I could help!

    That’s one of the problems that comes with writing a thesis – spending a lot of time at home alone. While on the one hand you need time on your own to concentrate, I think it’s always important to balance things out. I sometimes like being alone too – to concentrate on writing or doing illustrations or just to relax after a stressful day, but it still needs to be balanced. My husband is great at communicating with people (we wouldn’t be married if he weren’t), and since he is Chinese it’s easier for him to jugde Chinese people and the ones he thinks might make good friends for me are indeed nice people I can imagine becoming friends with. In Shenzhen I don’t have the problem you mentioned with Cantonese, so you’re right, that will definitely make things more difficult in your case.

    I do have many good Chinese friends in Yunnan (and it needed me to concentrate on getting to know Chinese people specifically, not just other expats), that’s why I’m not giving up on finding Chinese friends here.

    I think the photography course is a great idea!

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    It is different than before, now I don’t have a workplace to go to. Studies and work are all on my laptop. I’m trying to go out to coffee shops to write as it helps me to concentrate and I will at least be around other people. I’m finally starting to understand all those people who come to Starbuck’s to work, it’s great!

    Some day I will really start learning Cantonese, some day…

  • R Zhao

    I’m not really an introvert or an extravert, I tend to fall in the middle. I think it’s a good thing because I like being alone much of the time, but I also enjoy meeting up with friends or talking on the phone with people from back home once or twice a week.

    I’ve lived in China for over eight years and I’ve made such a mix of friends and I’ve actually managed to stay in touch with more people than I expected. I do put a lot of effort into it though. I try to email and call people, send them postcards, and visit them or meet up to travel after they leave China. One thing I think many people should consider, don’t simply rely on facebook. I’ve found it’s not enough to keep a friendship going long term.

    I have some good Chinese friends, but most of them are really interested in western culture/speaking English, so it’s easy to talk with them. Unfortunately, all of them have pretty much moved away too, either to other parts of China or abroad. And now that I’m 30 it’s hard to make new Chinese friends because people my age are consumed by work and family responsibilities.

    Anyways, I do think quality friendships are more important, but try to do what you can to keep friendships alive with people you felt a good connection with. Maybe push yourself to do social activities or join clubs to meet people even if it’s a little out of your comfort zone. For example, I used to be pretty active in couchsurfing and I met a lot of cool people (both foreigners and Chinese) that way. I’m sure in Guangzhou they have meet-ups and you’re likely to meet people who have a passion for traveling and learning about other cultures. Just an idea if you are feeling lonely or bored.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    You are so right, Facebook really isn’t enough to keep contact with friends. I always think of putting more effort in maintaining the friendships I have, but it seems to be one of those things that little by little fades away. I can see you’re an amazing friend as you work hard to contact your friends in different ways. I can’t wait to get back to Finland for a few weeks in January and meet all my friends.

    Thanks for the couch surfing tip! I’ve heard of them before, but haven’t really get to know the community yet. I have also heard of friends meeting new people that way. We might even later be able to accommodate occasional couch surfers when we move next year.

    R Zhao Reply:

    Hi Sara, I think even if you can’t host people, you can still get pretty involved by attending or arranging meet-ups or agreeing to show people who are visiting GZ around or meet them for a meal.

    As for friends, going home and reconnecting with people is great. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to go home every year for three or four weeks. It’s exhausting meeting up with everyone back home, but I always have a lot of fun.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    You’re right R, there are many things I could do to meet new friends. Or even start a new group or community with likeminded people in Guangzhou.

  • FrankL 世方

    Hi Sara, sorry to hear you are feeling lonely at times. I’ve never lived the life of an ex-pat, so I can only imagine how it feels to see so many people come and go in your life. I’m also an introvert and it takes time for me to make a deeper connection with people. So I can understand your disappointment at continually losing contact with people you really connect with. It must be frustrating at times for you. I’m wondering if your family members come sometimes to visit you in China? Sometimes when people from home visit, suddenly you feel as if you exist in a little piece of Finland. I know when my wife’s family visits us here from Holland, suddenly we feel we’re no longer in canada.

    It might also be a good thing that your boyfriend is more extroverted than you. My wife is much more extroverted than I am. Because of her, I’ve learned to get past a lot of things that i would normally hesitate to do out of fear or discomfort. I found that she has a way of reaching out to people that is quite natural and sincere. When i see how she does that, i try to learn from her. As a result, I’m doing a lot better in terms of my shyness and I’m much happier with social situations. :-)

    I also wanted to say that I really admire you for being able to write about the details of your life to the world. I think it’ very brave of you. I don’t handle negative comments well, so I think I would be too afraid of how people would react to my comments.

    Anyhow, I hope you can find a way to fell less lonely while living in China. Best wishes to you.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hi Frank, I really hope my family and friends could come over, but as the plane tickets are really expensive, it’s quite hard for them to come. During these 3,5 years I’ve had my dad, mom and little brother here once. But my little sister and other little brother haven’t visited me yet and none of my friends.

    There is one nice thing about China, lots of people start the conversation with me. For example yesterday at the gym people were eager to chat with me which was actually nice. I’m looking forward to going there again, it wasn’t as scary as I thought.

    I’ve always had the need to express my self in writing and by blogging I’ve found this great online community that is so supportive and that I can relate to. Of course I don’t share everything, but I hope that by writing I will help others who live or want to live in China. If I can make the transition even a bit easier to someone else, then it’s absolutely worth it.

    Thank you Frank for following my journey, your and others’ comments make a big difference to my life.

    世方 Reply:

    Hi Sara, i’m glad all the comments are helping you. My wife has a suggestion. If you can find other Finnish people to become friends with, that should help a bit with homesickness, because you can speak your own language. Also, it might be possible to cook Finnish food together. Food from home always lifts up one’s spirits. Best wishes! :-)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank your wife for me will you :) There isn’t that many Finns in Guangzhou, especially young people that stay more than one semester. And because there is’t any community for us in this city, we might not even find each other! Building a Finns community in Guangzhou is something I’ve been thinking about though. If you can’t find it, make it!

    And I just heard yesterday that there is a young Finnish professionals meeting in Hong Kong next week and I’m planning to go :)

  • xun

    From what you said, I can nearly see myself in the mirror. I’m also an introverted people, prefer chatting online rather than face to face, maybe because my English sucks….I’ve been to Europe for less than one year, no friends, when academic tasks came to me, I felt tremendous burden on my shoulder, no one willing to give a little hand. No one can say himself or herself is a genius and almighty to know everything, perhaps with some fingers to point out something that troubles you, you can solve the problem, but I don’t have that finger.

    When I came back(without graduating), I rethink about this for a long time, about friends, what is friend? In what position can I put a friend in my mind? I live for myself or others? When I was in some trouble, would my friends help me? And to what extend they can help? My answer is: you have friends because you are capable enough for other people to regard you as a friend, you are not nothing so other people will not see you as nothing. If you are nothing, people don’t need to make friends with you, because you cannot bring any good thing to them, whatever happiness or other advantages.

    Making friends on purpose is not making friends, it is a way of social interaction, people call that kind of “friends” friends doesn’t mean they really regard them as friends, deep in mind. I don’t like “making” friends, maybe some extraverted guy will think I’m an idiot, and try to teach innocent girl negative way of worldview. I don’t care, I feel bored to act like something like “smile all the time”,”do not get angry”. I am unable to do that, I’d better keep my naive, and not let the filth of society invade into my heart.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts xun. I think I understand why you don’t like searching for friends and prefer meeting them in a more natural way. Sometimes I think this whole networking boom is just for people to benefit from others. I want friends that enjoy my company, not friends who need something from me.

    But it’s also hard to meet new friends by staying at home, besides online friends of course which might grow into real friendships too. I remember that I once read that if you make your life interesting for you, live and enjoyable life, then people will naturally be interested in you and want to be friends with you.

    I’ve also noticed that in order to deeper a friendship you have to share more to your friend. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, thoughts and dreams. We Finns, me especially, might often be too timid and afraid to share our real thoughts, but for deep friendships I think it’s an important part of the recipe.

    xun Reply:

    It’s never easy to define the word “friend” in an accurate way, we are both too young(maybe too old, sure a 3-year-old kid might feel more happier and simple to make a friend) and too pure to understand the complexity of modern society. We don’t know the precise border between “friend” and “acquaintance” or “playmate”. Sometimes, loneliness comes from a sense of insecurity, without supporting group, without what people called “circle”, feels like oneself wandering in a strange forest.

    But it is no need to worry too much, it’s a prevalent phenomenon, almost each of my single(without gf or bf) friend feels like that, even non-single ones also feel unsafe, because they can’t foresee their future, the price of commodities is spiking, crazy price of house(or Should I say condominiums or apartment) in big city makes young couples crazy, especially for adolescents who just graduate from university, own a little job, get a slice of pathetic income, impossible to buy a place to live without the aid of parents if their parents have not enough money.

    Maybe it’s weird for you to imagine why people should buy apartment for their matrimony, just imagine developed European 100 years ago, you can get the answer, people do not want to marry a poor person, you marry him, then you marry all his family members. Why do people have to find a people who is promising or something else blablabla, because our welfare system is like a pile of shit, no one feels safe, we don’t have private land, every inch of soil belongs to the gov…never heard of inherit the land. That’s why money is the queen in this country(not king, power is king).

    2 or 3 years ago, just before I have girlfriend, my mom has been taught me for years to be a good guy, not be a mammonist, and blablabla, a lot of moral stuff you can imagine, but my ex-gf was a different creature, she liked expensive gift, although she SAID she didn’t want “now”, but I could feel her anger when I gave her a doll which I bought in a shop near old our high school(we were high school schoolmates), she has hidden her anger until her college roommate’s bf gave her roommates a MP5, then she broke out, and said blablablabla. At that time, I thought “what the hell is MP5? I only heart of MP4, what’s that forged machine with a new name FIVE”, from that time, I thought that kind of love is cheap, some people can sold their soul to a stupid machine called MP5. After we separated, I spent all the money with which I should buy her something in the future to buy myself a lot of stuffs, such as iphone4, ipad, itouch, good bike, anything I want.

    That is life, especially here, it is not only you ex-pats feels lonely, a lot of native people do, including me, extremely lonely, and don’t know why human society works like this, but it does.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Xun, it’s extremely interesting to hear your thoughts and opinions about life of modern young adults in China. For us it seems strange to exchange love for money, but in the other hand we are so secured and safe in Finland. We don’t have to worry like Chinese people need to, because of the differences in wellfare. Having to worry about money everyday isn’t fun, and if you have to choose between worrying the rest of your life or marrying for money, it’s not that black and white anymore.

    Just today i was thinking about the rapid transformation from student to adult Chinese have to go over the minute they graduate. Yesterday you were a college kid and the next week you have to find a good job, marry a good guy/girl and have a family. How does young adults cope with this so fast? I’ve been partly independent for almost 10 years and I still think growing up is a bit intimidating with all the pressure and responsibilities.

    I would love to hear what you think of this, Xun.

    xun Reply:

    I don’t have any obstacle or difficulty to understand you guys’s lives in developed country. I am interested in reading about history and politics in different cultures. Although, each civilization has it’s own background story and locates on different land, they have many things in common. During pre-industrial era, it was agricultural society, low productivity, people have to group-up like a big family to support, to protect women and youth, Life was cruel.

    Nowadays, china still acts like that in some degree, society is also very competitive, from age 6-7, to more than 20(about 22-23), we have to come across countless examinations. In China, entering university is not by “application”, but by a vital examination called “高考”, literally “high exam”. During all these years before entering university, people should spend all their time on studying, it is impossible for most of us to rent a house to live, we don’t have time to cook, to do anything else. Rending a house is also a burden for non-wealthy family, and safety is also a big problem due to violent crimes.

    I’m able to find a girlfriend if I want, but just because the last one makes me disappointed in believing love. Personally I think, the problem isn’t on her, but on society. Maybe I am a drama queen, because as far as I know, only highly- developed country like Finland and Scandinavia, 3 low-countries, and the famous-watch-made country are able to provide high quality of welfare to its people, oh, and New zealand, etc..

    Sometimes, I think life in China is not “living a life”, but “survive a life”,in Chinese, the first one we call “生活”, which has some sense of “enjoy” and “feel”, the second one is “生存”, ”存“ as you know, short for 存在,means “exist”, to survive and exist, to search food to prevent starving, something like this.

    I’m not working now, but staying at home to prepare farther exam for Master Programme, but many of my friends have a job, nearly everyone of them plans to go back to hometown several years later, because they have parents in hometown, it is unimaginable even for our parent, when they were young, they never said they need their parents(our grand…)to help, because most of them at that age were the son and daughter of farmers, cities is empty, no development at that time, a lot of opportunities, many holes for each carrot, but now, we see redundancy in every area, there are a lot of carrots, but there is no enough holes in the ground(I think carrot grows in soil, I hope this metaphor is correct, hahaha). With the tree that parents planted, young people are able to feel a little easier in life.

    I think my spirit has split into two extremely parts, one part, I’m looking forward real love without the dirt of substance, like my mom taught me, sure my mom has pure moral something. On the other hand, I’m horribly not believing in love, all the love and hope will be destroyed by reality, although, I don’t think my family has any financial problem, but just maybe I’m a little disciplinary moral jerk..I’m sure other people know this kind of thing in society, but most of them take it for grant, but I’m more sensitivity in this, I guess I should take it easy, because I can’t change the wheel of history.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I think that the fact you ponder these things and are interested in things around you, already makes a difference. I believe there are many that just follows the life and never takes the lead them selves.

    It’s been really interesting to read you thoughts. It helps us to better understand you and other young adults like you. Communicating and sharing thoughts like this is a great step in understanding each other.

    Good luck for your Master’s Degree examination!

  • FrankL 世方

    Hi Sara, just read another person’s post about hobbies. I think that’s a great idea. Joining in a hobby or activity with others is a great way to socialize while enjoying an activity together. My wife joins the local qigong group in the park, even though she can’t speak hardly a word of mandarin. It doesn’t really matter though because the activity is predominantly physical. She enjoys it so much and she’s missed if she doesn’t go some days. Hope you can find something fun and enjoyable that also gives you a feeling of friendship and companionship. :-)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I agree! I will be looking into some hobbies, groups or activities to find something that suits me :)

  • MM

    Hi Sara
    I think many expats understand and feel the same way,for me the difficulties is missing the friends that truly know and understand you, those friends who’ve known you for 10/20+ years. I wish there was a machine that can “whisk” you back home for a few hours for a hug, a smile and a chat over a coffee. Sometimes all we need is to be rejuvinated.
    I was in Guangzhou a few weeks ago ( I live in Shanghai) and I was most impressed with the subway system especially getting on and off the subway much more easy and “stress” free then in Shanghai.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hi MM, thanks for stopping by!

    I know, it would do wonders to have friends shipped over once in a while. It’s been 2,5 years since I’ve seen my family or friends, even though I don’t miss home, I’m still eagerly waiting for January when I’m going back for a few weeks.

    Really? How’s the subway in Shanghai then?

  • cms


  • cms


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:


    Zhao Cheng Reply:


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Zhao Cheng, 谢谢你的留言,不好意思现在才回复你。其实我跟你一样,留学之前我也没有那么认真的看看自己的国家。比如说,我一直对历史感兴趣,但对芬兰历史我真没什么兴趣。到中国以后我才开始珍惜芬兰。

    cms Reply:





    Sara Jaaksola Reply:


  • Jo

    Hi Sara, my experience is pretty similar to yours. I’m an English girl who’s lived in Zhuhai for 4 years – just down the road from you – and I agree that it has been lonely at times. Like most English I’m not a natural extrovert so large quantities of alcohol helped me to develop a core group of expat friends through the first 2 years. Of course, many have left, but I know which ones are here for the long term like me, and I put a lot of effort into nurturing my friendships with them. As time goes on you get to know more and more ‘lifers’, and they are precious. I’ve had to be patient, but now my friends and support network are so important to me that I can’t imagine leaving this small town.

    Now that I have my Chinese boyfriend, I’ve cut down on the drinking with (mostly male) foreigners, and now I spend more time with his sister, my few female foreign friends and the local girls at my gym. I started going to gym classes most week nights after feeling lonely and bored without my drinking buddies, and am slowly getting to know some of the regulars there. I’m no longer ‘the foreigner’ but just one of the girls at the dance class. Because we are participating in the same activities and we all like to keep fit, we have more to talk about than the usual ‘oh, where are you from? Can you teach me English?’ etc. This has also required patience though, because for the first few months I did feel very awkward – I’m sure you know the feeling of being ‘the only foreign girl in the room’!

    tl;dr: be patient, you will know more and more people who are here for a long time like you, and get involved in your hobbies. This all takes time for all of us. You may feel lonely but you are not alone!

  • LaBaguette

    I’m a French guy who has been in China for 5 years, I always found it difficult to make friend with Chinese people even though my putonghua is excellent, all of my friends here in China are also expatriates, not only Westerners but also Filipinos or Nigerians with who I have more in common than local Chinese people.