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.