What I learned my first 2 weeks in China

It’s been slightly over 2 weeks since I’m in the People’s Republic of China. I’ll share some of the things I would have wanted to know before coming here.

Cuisine

  1. There are literal millions of places to eat, ranging from pompous restaurants to ugly dirty holes in the windows and scooters with boxes of food on top of them. The rule of thumb generally is to try and eat in the places with the most locals. And even there it feels like a lottery on whether or not you’ll get sick. Often it’s a place you’d never eat in if you were just listening to your understanding of hygiene, but it’s accepted that the food there is okay. And even though there’s plenty of places to go to and you can find some food at every corner, you just risk less when you eat at the same places as the Chinese.
  2. As I’m not a big fan of eating in dirty places, no matter how authentic they are. And for a while, I didn’t have a kitchen to cook for myself. So the choice kind of boiled down to eating at international chains like McDonald’s, getting ready-made meals at stores or just getting by on bananas and dairy products. That sucks. Make sure that you do have a kitchen ASAP if you’re moving here.
  3. There’s drastically less meat than we’re used to in everything. If feels like you’re punishing your body for something by eating carbs all the time. Noodles, rice, sauces, some weird stuff you can’t identify. And the weird thing is that you get used to the carbs so you keep on eating them which isn’t all that good for you. So you better start cooking for yourself soon.
  4. If you’ve eaten Chinese food before, you won’t get shocked or really even surprised by the food here. It’s the Chinese cuisine you know. And pretty soon you’ll get tired of it. Try eating Chinese for a couple of days straight where you live. It gets old really quick, it’s not for everyone.
  5. It’s rather cheap to eat out but it’s still even cheaper to cook for yourself. Don’t worry you won’t be missing anything groundbreaking from the local chefs.

People

  1. Beijing is the capital, so generally, people are here to make money. Everyone’s in a hurry, on bikes, on cars, or bicycles, on foot, you name it.
  2. People don’t really lift their heads from their phones. They may be driving a school bus or crossing an extremely busy road, it doesn’t matter. They are always on the phone. Playing stupid games, watching tv shows with full volume on in a public place, they don’t care. The phone here really became a part of the body. Without a phone and internet connection you’re lost, without any money, means to contact anyone, without directions, transport, translator, etc.
  3. People don’t speak English. Very-very rarely can you find someone who’ll understand the very simplified sentences. Of course, there are people who have great English, but they are so rare that you’ll feel almost like they don’t exist at all. But then again, if you’re coming to a sphere like IT, it’ll probably be okay.
  4. People are very open to communication and some will want to take pictures with you. Kids will look at you in wonder. It’s fun.
  5. People sleep wherever and whenever they feel like it. When we have a lunch break, Chinese coaches just lay down and sleep for a solid hour on a football field with people running around and yelling. I have no idea how they do it.

Technology

  1. Be ready that the second you put in a Chinese sim card into your phone it will get significantly slower. I don’t know why that’s just how it is.
  2. There are cameras everywhere. Literally, no matter where you stand, if you look around, you’ll be able to find at least one camera. On the one hand, it makes you feel safe and you can be rather relaxed even in crowded places like subway, but on the other hand it’s very “black mirrory” and shows us exactly where the whole civilization is headed in terms of mass surveillance.
  3. UX, UI and user flows in apps and in other digital products are very different and unintuitive if you’re used to the way they do it in the West.
  4. The vast majority of vitally important online products and services aren’t localized for English speaking users.
  5. Beijing is extremely digitalized. Even the smallest stores and business owners prefer to get paid through WeChat and each has their own QR code printed out and ready to be used. And it really does make life much easier. At the same time, if something happens to the phones or the electricity in a big city, it will be paralyzed.

Ecology

  1. I’m no scientist and it’s hard for me to gauge how bad the air here is, but it’s obvious that even on sunny days with a clear sky, you can see that the skyscrapers in the city center are kind of in a fog. It’s not that dense, but it’s definitely there and you’re breathing it. At the same time, relatively few people wear face masks. I hear they don’t help all the much, so maybe that’s the reason.
  2. There are many parks and the air there is much better, at least it feels like it. Overall, I expected Beijing to have fewer trees while in reality, you can tell that the authorities make an effort to have more things producing oxygen.

Communication

  1. People are friendly and ready to help. But the problem is that the language barrier happens to be too high to ignore it. So you may try and try to explain something simple using your body and hands but it just isn’t enough. But then you can always turn to a translator app on your phone and it will all be all right. There’s even something comforting and humbling in surfing through millions of people, who are not just complete strangers but even won’t understand you if you use your communication instruments.
  2. If you meet someone who looks white or hear your native tongue somewhere in the crowd, it’s completely normal to come closer and meet the new people. Honestly, in 2 weeks here, I’ve met 10 times as many new cool people as I did in the last several years in Ukraine. Meeting Europeans or Americans or Mexicans, you instantly feel like they’re a member of your social group and it’s a pleasure to talk proper English or Russian. I have even met a guy from Ivano Frankivsk with whom I can speak Ukrainian. It’s extremely heartwarming when you’re that far from home.

Transport

  1. Beijing subway is very intuitive and developed, so even if it’s your first big city, you will be able to find your way from one station to another. The signs with directions are everywhere and if you have your phone with the map in your hand at all times you may even feel relaxed there. Even though the subway is really fast, it still takes a ton of time to get anywhere.
  2. There are thousands of bikes for rent laying around the public spots. You unlock them through, (once again) your WeChat and go anywhere you want. It’s really cheap and given that your destination might be an hour walk from the subway, they are extremely helpful. It feels though as if the rules don’t apply to people on bikes and bicycles. They can be riding in the middle of a highway, on the sidewalk, in the bike lane. So you got to always be aware of the possibility of some biker looking in their phone, driving directly at you and not paying any attention.
  3. People who know they are settling in Beijing get themselves electric bikes that for now don’t require a driver’s license. At the same time, you can go up to 70km on a fully charged battery and that’s more than enough for a regular working day. I’m not sure what they do in winter though.
  4. I haven’t had a chance to ride on a bus here yet, but they should also be just fine. Just like buses in any other developed country.
  5. If you’re going somewhere and can split a cab ride, it will be really cheap, but keep in mind that distances here can get out of hand, so make sure to ask or check the price beforehand.

The Regime

  1. You really feel that big brother is watching you at all times. And as long as you know that you operate in the legal field it’s fine. But if the authorities do want to find you or learn more about you for some reason, they have access to all the possible information. They know where you eat, where you sleep, what subway stations you enter and exit, where you work and who you’re talking to.
  2. Communist propaganda isn’t too aggressive here. You can see a red flag or some Soviet attributes here and there, but it doesn’t really catch the eye. The reason being that at the same time you’re surrounded by an immense spectacle showcasing all the capitalistic achievements of the world.
  3. From what I hear, to the government, Chinese people come first. So if a foreigner gets in a fight or even touches a local in a wrong way, they will be found guilty. And there are examples of people who spend time in prison for a minor misbehavior not even getting a chance to be deported. So that’s that. That’s why you want to avoid any kind of drama and conflicts here.

Final thoughts

Even though I don’t like big cities and love Ukraine, I really like it here. From the first day, it felt right and interesting. Spending some time here is definitely a perspective-shifting experience that will stick with you for a long long time, if not for life. But be ready to face at the same time a very different and very similar reality. Completely digital yet very personal, hectic but relaxed.