Biggest surprises in China

Surprises in China abound. If your only exposure to Asia- particularly China- has come second hand then you can be ready for some surprises in China! Just like a move to a different city in your home country may challenge your expectations, a move abroad- no matter how much you think you know about that country- still leaves a lot of room for surprises. For me, China was a completely different experience than the one I expected based on my knowledge of the Middle Kingdom from the news, books, TV, and movies in the US. These are my six biggest surprises in China.

Dogs, Smog, And Transportation Surprises in China

1. One huge surprise in China- that I’m still impressed by- is how much green there is. I’m from the suburbs of Atlanta, so being surrounded by trees and landscaping is nothing new to me. Visiting the heart of Atlanta however you notice that the city itself is mostly void of any kind of greenspace planning. Sure there are places like Piedmont Park nestled away in a section of the city- but still- greenery is few and far between. My time in Bangkok gave me a similar experience

Beijing flipped this expectation on its head. It seems that every block there are least small areas for grass and shrubs planned parks and parks every few blocks. Trees, shrubs, and other green space fill every nook and cranny possible. This of course is a stark contrast to what the Western media or conventional wisdom about a massive city like Beijing would have you believe. When you take into account Beijing’s 21 million people, the amount of greenspace is a great surprise, and relief.

2. It’s not all smog and gloom. Another misconception of China, and Beijing in particular, is that it is encased in a gloomy fog like haze from pollution on everyday.

This simply isn’t the case.

Don’t get me wrong. When I first arrived I did have the ‘Beijing Cough’ for a week or two. But that was just the initial shock of coming to a city that –admittedly- has more pollution than the average city. Even America’s worst cities, Los Angeles comes to mind, don’t come close to China.

One other surprise that I didn’t realize until after I had been in China for some time; is that Beijing isn’t the most polluted city in China. In fact, Beijing isn’t even in the top 10 cities with worst air quality in China. You can read this article for more on China’s pollution

3. The ease of transportation is something that many people don’t expect either- like I said, I come from the Atlanta suburbs so my experience with public transportation is minimal. I have taken the occasional trip on Atlanta’s subway system known as MARTA but that was far and few between.

Beijing Subway, a pleasant surprise in China
To the untrained eye this may look like brightly covered spaghetti. But you’ll quickly adapt to the efficiency of the Beijing subway system.

However, this was the least of my surprises in China was minimized a little by my time  that I spent in other metropolises like Tokyo and Bangkok.

I say this to make the point that the learning how to use the subway to your advantage in Beijing is remarkably easy. And it’s getting easier all the time. Beijing is constantly building new stations and routes to better connect the city. Not to mention there is English included on virtually every sign. With just a few minutes of planning and attention to detail while you are on your way (to make sure you don’t head in the wrong direction) using the subway is no biggie and extremely cheap.

4. The cost of living as is it is in most Asian countries is amazingly cheap. This wasn’t a huge surprise to me because of some time I spent in Japan and Bangkok, but it does surprise many expats. The bigger cities, of course, are more expensive than the smaller ones. Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzen are all in the top 5 most expensive cities in China. Remember this for when you get a job offer. The pay may seem minuscule in the small cities- but it goes a long way.

However, this is not to say that even in the aforementioned most expensive cities the cost of living is horrible. The most expensive part- by far- is housing. By law you are required to pay up to the equivalent of 5 month’s rent (2 months deposit plus 3 month’s rent) up front when renting an apartment. This sticker shock certainly got me, I was not expecting this at all. Expect to pay upwards of $1,000 USD for your own place near the city center in cities like Beijing or Hong Kong.

With that being said, every other facet of life is cheaper than the west. I regularly eat meals for 3 or 4 bucks (or less), decent internet is only 10 dollars a month, and utilities are cheap as well. The main caveat to this is buying food from back home. When you get a hankering for western food (and you’ll get it) like pizza, McDonalds, Hispanic, or Italian food expect to pay just slightly more than you would in your home country. But that shouldn’t be much of a problem because you didn’t move across the world to eat a Big Mac, did you?

5. Another misconception about China propagated by western media is that the Chinese love eating dog. Contrary to that belief, dog ownership has actually become quite popular.

On my 5 minute walk from the office to the subway station I pass no less than 4 dogs. And all of them seem better behaved than most dogs in the US. Nearly all of them are able to be walked without a leash. Also, they don’t jump on you or bark at strangers. In fact, they are altogether indifferent to other people.

Dog ownership has gotten so common, in fact, that Beijing and other major cities have had to enact laws that limit the size, number, and where you are allowed to own dogs.

My Biggest Surprise in China

By far, my biggest surprise in China- that I was completely unprepared for- was how packed the subway is. In peak hours- think traffic rush hours- the subway is best compared to cattle herding. The trains and stations are packed and finding your space on one will take some getting used to- at least it did for me.

Expect to be pushed a little when the doors open to enter the subway. Expect to have no personal space once you are on the train. Expect to have a complete stranger breathing on your neck or- as happened to me recently- resting his chin on your shoulder. Unfortunately, if you have to take the subway there is simply no way around this. You will be squeezed onto a train and packed like a sardine. And for westerners like myself that are used to some resemblance of personal space this could take some getting used to. Personally, out of all of my surprises in China, this was the toughest thing for me to overcome.

Surprises in China- the sheer number of people on the subway everyday.
Just another morning in Beijing.

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