Posted by: Lotus Light | May 9, 2010


Arriving in a foreign country can be overwhelming as well as exciting.  China possibly more than most, because of the total difference in language.  No way of converting characters into something familiar, the way we can with Latin based languages.  The rush of the population in bigger cities can create a sense of isolation and definitely culture shock. 

The first few weeks spent here can easily be spent holed up in your apartment, hoping that soon you will know where to go, what to do, how to get home again.  Once you navigate past that initial sense of dislocation and begin to explore, things improve.  However, even with this progress, it is easy (and safe) to stay in your familiar neighbourhood, meet the same friends week after week, eat and drink in the same places.  Many expats will return home after their 12 month stint in China, believing that most of China is similar to their little patch.  They may have visited the ‘must do’ sites – Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors, maybe Yangshuo.  These places are easy to visit, easy to make your way around – tourist and foreigner friendly.  They may hear negative things about other areas (too polluted, too crowded, too rural….).  Most of these opinions will be from people who have, at most, passed through the area by train.  Fewer from people who have lived there and become part of the community, seeing its benefits as well as managing its drawbacks.

Staying at ‘home’ in China really means missing out on a huge amount of interest.  China is a land of contrasts.  From Alpine meadows in the far north-west of Xinjiang, deserts in Inner Mongolia, the highest mountains in the world in Tibet, to coastal islands and rainforest in the south.  The landscape itself has enormous variety and contrast.  But of even more contrast, and for me, much more interesting, are the contrasts in life styles.

Environments impact on how we live and how we see things.  Living in big cities shapes us into ‘city people’; dealing with crowds, traffic, noise and high-rise living on a daily basis.  We focus our lives around city entertainments, city eating, city concerns.  We add hours to commuting time to work to plan for the traffic jams; we stay within a few blocks of our home for most of our activities.  Our minds buzz at great speed to decide when to cross the road, how to beat the crowd in the supermarket.  We stop seeing the world around us, we are too hurried, too harried.

Living in smaller cities gives us more chance to live a slower paced life.  The daily commute is easier and shorter, the community more aware of us and we of them.  It is easy for us to leave our small- to mid-sized city and hit rural areas within a 30-50 minute bus ride.  And it is here we see the greatest contrasts in life styles. 

Villages outside the smaller cities retain their rural outlook on life.  Farmers stop their motorised trikes in the middle of the road to chat about the weather and crops, women wash clothes in the creeks running through the village.  Children leap from rock to rock, climb the hills behind their houses, sit under trees and make grass whistles.  Water is collected each day from a communal tap or well.  All cooking is done at home, over a fire.  Life slows to a contemplative pace.

If we are able to join this life, even for a few days at a time, we can lose the impatience we develop in the big city.  We slow our thinking to really take in the land and people around us.  We have time to see a different world. 

The contrasts in China cover a huge range.  Modern and old; buildings, ideas, customs.  "One eye open, one eye shut", for rules and regulations.  Fear of the police, combined with a disrespect for them.  A lack of trust contrasting with a dependence on guanxi.  Enormous wealth and grinding poverty existing in the same street. Wedding dress shops next to car repair shops. Starvation contrasted with plates of wasted food at every banquet. Amazing warmth shown to strangers contrasting with indifference to the disadvantaged. Filthy canals contrast with crystal clear, ice cold mountain streams, grey city skies contrast with skies so blue that your heart aches.  Roadside vendors selling freshly picked fruit and vegetables compete with supermarkets filled with imported out-of-season produce and tinned goods.

To gain any level of understanding of the complexity that is China, it is vital to move out of the comfort zone of the safe and known.  It is necessary to venture into the many worlds that exist in China. 

Do not let others limitations and opinions limit you.



  1. The sad part is that most people at home in their home countries are no better off as they don\’t tend to wander far from the narrow trails from home to work and back. Many in small towns rarely visit other towns and only a rare, not-too-distant city. I think this is where we find the roots of "provincial" thinking and worldview.

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