An American actually asked me this very question years ago when I confessed my plans to move back to the Middle Kingdom. It didn’t matter how many good reasons I gave her – she stared at me with incredulity, as if I had just proposed rocketing straight to Mars and not a country on this very planet.
Of course, she’s not the only one guilty of being down on China. “Bad China Days” are a phenomenon for every expat who lives here, even me. In the worst moments, it can be easy to forget why we’re here or even why we love this place so much, warts and all.
But the truth is, there are actually some pretty incredible things about living in China. Things that, on balance, are better than America. Here are 7 of my favorites:
#1: Doing your entire grocery shopping online, with fast home delivery and no shipping charges
When I was back in America last year, I happened to tell my uncle about how I was doing my grocery shopping in China online, courtesy of Taobao’s Tmall online supermarket. “They deliver straight to your door the next day. You can order almost anything from them – even fresh fruits and vegetables.”
He was astonished, as if I was speaking of some magical Shangri-La of online shopping.
No, I didn’t need to be a VIP. And no, I hadn’t joined their paid premium club. All I had to do was order at least 88 RMB (~$13) worth of groceries for free one-day shipping.
Not even Amazon Prime or Walmart (which both offer two-day shipping in the US) can beat that.
And did I mention the delivery guys for Taobao’s Tmall always place the boxes inside our apartment (never leaving them tossed outside the door) and offer to take the garbage out too, for no extra charge?
#2: You don’t need to own a car to conveniently get around
As much as I love the freedom to drive around, sometimes you’d like to leave the driving to someone else.
But in America, outside the biggest cities, you don’t have a lot of options. Want to get around town without a car? Good luck catching the public bus with its limited hours and stops. Want to travel to another city or across the country? If you’re not flying, the only options are those grimy Greyhound buses (which make lots of stops at often dodgy stations) or Amtrak trains (which, apart from the East Coast, are really inconvenient and slow).
In China, you always have plenty of public transport options everywhere you go – even smaller cities. Public buses are frequent and convenient, and so are long distance buses too. High-speed trains can zoom you across most of China and they always leave on time (unlike flights). Bicycles you can rent with your smartphone have popped up all over major cities in China too (including Hangzhou), as well as docked bicycles you can rent out with your bus pass.
It’s gotten to the point that, when I want to visit Hangzhou’s legendary West Lake, it’s usually easier (and more fun) to bicycle or just take the bus.
#3: Authentic Chinese food
I know this is so obvious you must be wondering, why would she even bother pointing it out? Simple – if you are an aficionado of Chinese cuisine, as I am, you feel a sense of deprivation whenever you’re away from authentic food for too long.
When my husband and I used to live in America, I can’t tell you how many times we would reminisce about all of our favorite Chinese dishes that we just couldn’t find in America. Like that secret-recipe smoked tofu from Jun’s hometown, or the slender Asian eggplant deliciously stir-fried with green peppers, or even Jun’s mother’s homemade fried flatbread (it’s like Chinese pizza…mmmmm). You can’t walk up to your American “Panda Express” and find this kind of stuff among the deep fried “General Tso’s Chicken” (a dish that doesn’t even exist in China) and fortune cookies.
Even when we attempt to recreate authentic dishes from China, it never tastes the same. In America, we don’t have the fragrant rapeseed oil that my Chinese mother-in-law harvests and cold-presses herself. The soy sauce is different, too. And good luck trying to find those local ingredients like fresh bamboo shoots, winter melon, and red bean paste. (Even when we do find them, they’re often not fresh enough to justify the purchase.)
So if you’re as addicted to authentic Chinese food as I am, why live anywhere else but the country that does it best?
#4: More authentic food from other Asian countries
Whenever I visit my family back in the US, you can guarantee we’ll be going out for Thai food at least once. There’s a wonderful little spot right up the street from my parents’ home, where a dinner of pad thai and fragrant green curries makes for one delicious meal.
But as much as I love the food, I have to say it – it’s not that authentic.
I should I know. My husband and I visited Thailand years ago, where the succulent red, green, yellow and Massaman curries we had were as much of an attraction as the temples, ancient ruins, and azure blue shores. The food in Thailand is so incredible you could tell people you were traveling there just for the dining experience and they would believe it.
While I can’t travel to Thailand every time a curry craving strikes, living in China means I have the next best thing – authentic Thai restaurants. Here in Hangzhou, there’s nothing better than an evening at Sawasdee in the five-star Wyndham Hotel. You can enjoy an elegant and surprisingly affordable night out of delectable Thai curries, transporting you right back to Bangkok and the beaches.
#5: You can pay by mobile phone almost anywhere
In the US, a mobile wallet is still a dream for most consumers. And every time I’m back in America, I still have to lug around my credit cards.
But here in China, we pay almost exclusively by phone almost everywhere we go – from shopping at Wal-Mart to buying clothes at our favorite clothing retailers to going to out to eat to even getting our hair cut. It’s so ubiquitous that my husband once ran into a street peddler selling rice cakes who could offer pay by mobile phone.
I love the freedom and convenience – just grab your mobile phone and shop!
#6: It’s easy to get everyday things repaired and improved
In the community where we live, there’s a guy who goes around singing out his knife-sharpening services. For the equivalent of a few US dollars this guy can magically transform your lackluster kitchen knives, making them slice and dice like new.
There’s also a guy who sits around the gate offering to repair umbrellas, and someone else out there who repairs bicycles. Around the fresh market, there’s even someone who repairs your shoes.
In America, it’s tough to find someone who offers these simple – but very useful – repair and improvement services. If you want sharper knives, you probably have to buy a grinding tool (which, trust me, won’t do nearly the job this guy did with our knives). There’s no such thing as umbrella repair over there. And if you want someone to fix your bicycle or your shoes, you’ll have to venture out to a professional store for that (assuming such a store even exists in your town).
Besides, even if America had them, I doubt you’d ever hear someone advertising with such a beautiful song as the professional knife-sharpening guy. (Here’s an example of the melody our guy sings when he canvasses the community.)
#7: Traditional Chinese medicine is always available and can be affordable
In America, traditional Chinese medicine providers are out there. But good luck finding a convenient one – or even someone affordable who accepts your insurance.
Not here in China, where you’ll find traditional Chinese medicine options at the average hospital or even your local pharmacy. I’ve often found them to be reasonably priced, by and large. And if you have insurance, traditional Chinese medicine is usually covered by the plan. How great is that?
What do you like better about living in China?