Here are my mini views into Chinese life. Anecdotal, generalizing, not-special, etc etc — simply my observations of life in Suzhou and Shanghai. It’s what you’d never read in Western media.
(To be updated over time.)
1 — Nearly every kid wears a special child smartwatch. They call their classmates and also their moms if they can play a bit longer.
2 — They also all know how to use iPads and voice commands for smart speakers or in cars. They’ll ask smart speakers to tell a Peppa Pig story before bedtime or help with homework (calculating).
3 — Chinese kids have insane homework pressure. Primary school’s from 9-16, after that they can play for an hour, after that at least two hours homework. Saturday/Sunday also 2-3 more hours of additional class which their parents book outside of school. Probably maths of English.
4— Because Chinese children study so hard, they don’t need to help in household chores. Hence some may say they’re a bit spoiled. But I see it as just a different set of responsibilities.
5 — Parents just want their kids to go to a good university. It’s seen as a 15 year process — and for many that’s more important than whether kids have playtime or not.
6 — Teachers further stimulate this. I don’t remember getting certificates for being the best of the class (I probably never was). But Chinese kids come home every month with certificates for perfect scores or being the class top 3 on a test, which the parents save in a folder.
7 — Growing up as a child in a Chinese city is very different from my tiny Dutch hometown. No forests nearby here. Just a playground. But always supervised by your parents or grandparents who are extremely protective.
8 — A big part of Chinese senior citizens are very healthy & active, from playing mahjong in the park to square dancing in the morning or evening. Very wholesome. They’ll also head to the park to play instruments together (video). Whereas another big part is just glued to the TV all day.
9 — Most Chinese senior citizens live together with one of their children. When a Chinese couple marriages, usually the parents (of the male half) move in. They take up a lot of cleaning/cooking/taking care of the baby duties while the parents work.
10 — In the Netherlands, everyone makes their own lunch, at home or in the office. In China everyone eats out for lunch, either street food, a basic eating place, or has it delivered. All cheap & fast. Microwave meals from FamilyMart are popular, but they’re still OK.
11 — Foreign English teachers make up to 2 or 3 times as much as Chinese English teachers. Parents want foreigners because they think they make better teachers. Some really do, but many didn’t really study for it and don’t plan to make it their long career. Aside accent, most Chinese English teachers are way better.
12 — Chinese are hard-trusting. Example, when ordering orange juice, someone would say “Don’t add water please, I don’t know what kind of water you guys use” or “Don’t buy non-branded products online, the plastic is cheap and unhealthy” or “Don’t order food, the restaurants use old oil a lot and it’s unhealthy.”
13 — I’ve never seen a newspaper anywhere in China except in Beijing.
14 — Chinese people love expensive stuff. Gucci and Chanel are extremely popular. A student in a fashion school class said she picked a certain fabric just because it felt expensive.
15 — Chinese play mostly mobile games. Yeah there are gaming laptops and consoles but most play on the subway. Also girls play shooters such as PUBG. Lot of guys play Hearthstone or Honor of Kings.
16 — If you drive (a car or scooter) in China, be prepared to be cut off in your lane. Most Chinese just let it happen. You can stand your ground but then waste spend hours on insurance and repairs, even if it’s not your fault. But what’s the point.
17 — 99.9% of all scooters are electric. And there are millions of sharing bicycles too on every corner of the street. Very convenient and widely used.
18 — Most scooter drivers just cross red lights. If you do it with a car you’re going to lose your license fast (camera’s will get you), but for scooters it’s OK somehow.
19 — Baidu (kinda Google) is more used as a Wikipedia. Every other search takes place in a respective app (music/food/activities/shopping/weather/etc).
20 — Not everything is *digital* ok. People put QR codes on sharing bicycles to promote their business. Online sellers put in cards to upsell in the boxes of delivery items.
21 — Life in factories is not as bad as you may think it is: clean and good lighting, with food provided. But days are hard, working from 8:00 to 20:00, 6 days a week.
22 — These ladies making clothes (for several European brands) were very cheerful. They said: “Our hands are occupied, but our mouths are free, so we talk and talk all day long. We know everything about each other.”
23 — This lady had computer training and told: “I cut out photos of famous singers and wrap them around the paper weights I use.” She was the only person to add something of her own style in that environment of icy efficiency.
24 — Nearly all Chinese live in compounds, or ‘small-districts’, fenced-off areas. This one is a big one, and has ~30 buildings ranging from 16-24 floors, with playgrounds and greenery in between and a parking garage underground.
25 — Nearly every building has something on the top, either someone drying clothes, drying pepper, growing plants or keeping a dog (or all of it).
26 — This is a Suzhou Pingtan评弹 instrument with electric sounds.
27 — This is school out and mostly grandparents picking the kids up.
28 — The countryside is more relaxing. This is Chen who works in the big city but grows grapes as a hobby (he insists we try grapes of every in a dozen shades from green to red).
29 — Many don’t like working for a boss, and many who have savings spend it on opening their own coffee store or some other offline store. Many of these companies sadly are no match for high rents and competitors like Starbucks, and when their savings run out, their doors close.
30 — There is little religion in China, really. Some young people wear a cross, even less people attend church — which is held in office buildings, like meeting rooms like this one.
31 — Chinese love fresh food. Wet markets are really a part of Chinese culture, and they’re not like what Western media make you think they are. If you know where to look you’ll also find plenty of them in Shanghai.
32 — In summer, Chinese girls/ladies hold umbrellas or wear long sleeves not to tan — to stay cool but mostly not to tan.
33 — There’s not a drinking culture like in Europe with cozy/old bars — instead it’s much more modern, half-eating half-drinking places with live music and everyone seated on a table. There are more exceptions too — most Chinese (men) just drink alcohol during dinner.
34 — Basically everyone in Shanghai & Suzhou is Han Chinese. But they can be racist towards their countrymen. I hear a lot they don’t like people from 安徽 (Anhui), that they park their cars like idiots or that they’re low-educated. And they say a lot of prostitutes (both male & female) come from this area.
35 — There are a lot of fake pagodas and temples in China, but they’re just as much part of today’s culture as the old ones are/where. Chinese people don’t care and eagerly take selfies with them.
36 — Chinese are pragmatic in the way that monks can also wear Adidas socks and flip out their iPhones once their ceremonies are over.
37 — Chinese are seen as shy or indirect, but sometimes are extremely direct. Without doubt or shame they’ll ask: “You married? Do you have babies? When do you plan to have a baby? Why wait? How much money do you make?”
38 — WeChat is used for work and private life and it gives pressure to be always online, always ready. It’s difficult to leave house without a phone though, because you use it for paying and literally everything. A girl told me: “I like hiking because then I have no signal.”
39 — In new modern high-rise buildings (~25 floors), nobody really knows each other. But older neighbourhoods with low-rise streets are more cosy. In warm weather, it’s as if the living room expands outdoors, with clothes drying and plants and chairs being put on the street.
40 — Universities often supply dormitories (I guess is common in the US but not in the Netherlands). They’re strictly segregated on gender, boys cannot enter the girl’s compound. The first to have a boyfriend or girlfriend will get many curious questions from her/his roommates.
41 — Lots of small villages within 2 hours driving of bigger cities (e.g. Suzhou or Shanghai) seem to rely either on tourism (modern guesthouses) or small factories, in which half the village works, that create local dishes to be sold online. Like San Pellegrino but smaller.
42 — On filial piety: Long blue rubber gloves
43 — Not sure if on purpose (probably) but on the subway it’s so obvious who has money & who hasn’t. Gucci bag, Omega watch, glittery nails, iPhone 11 Pro Max, etc. And at the Nio charging station (charging 400K RMB/60K USD cars), people know they’re very ‘cool’ and walk like it.
44 — The high-speed train is affordable (33 RMB, 4 USD) from Shanghai to Suzhou) in 30 minutes (which is 80 minutes by car). It’s also a political symbol in China for its progress. Many posters will have the typical aerodynamic white bullet trains on it.
45 — The most progressive (the right word?) thing in China are private cinemas. A private room with a sofa or a real bed and a projector screen. Pay by the hour, and you can watch any movie you want — but I doubt watching movies is all people do there.
46 — Many young Chinese have three names. Their Chinese one by birth, their English one, and what they call an *online* name on WeChat. And their English/online ones are pretty cool, like Hunter, Tricy, and Surk. Some picked their names on WeChat starting with an A, like Aaron or Ava, so they rank on top of everyone’s contact list.
47 — Delivery guys sometimes tap on the app that food has already been delivered while it hasn’t, because if they are late they get a penalty. Eventually, the food arrives anyway. And many Chinese customers are understanding and fine with this, because the work of a delivery guy is hard & dangerous.
48 — In fact, many Chinese are also very understanding when it comes to rude or noisy or messy people. They’ll say: “Ah, they have no education!”, or “Ah they’re from a rural place”, don’t mind them.
49 — The only exception I keep hearing is people from the Anhui province. If you’re from Anhui, whatever you do, it’s your fault, because you are from Anhui. Apparently, they all carry knives, kidnap kids and double-park.
50 — I have never ever seen anyone wear a seatbelt on the backseat of a car.
51 — Food is important but never explained why. I know but also don’t understand is that Chinese will literally wait hours in line for a popular restaurant, ranging from 30 minutes to 3 hours. “There are many people, if you want something good, you’ll have to wait!” they’ll say. Aside from waiting, driving 50 minutes is also not unheard of — whereas that would be insane in the Netherlands: you’d cross half the country.
52 — Chinese has a kind of innocence towards war. There’s a park in Shanghai with bombs and fighter planes and an aircraft carrier. Kids are also allowed to watch bloody war movies, and visit the war memorial in Nanjing with bloody photos of the deeds done by the Japanese. And there are gun ads in elevators.
53 — Lots of stores are designed to be photographed/selfied, e.g. a bookstore with beautiful (but not so functional) shelves. Not even half the people actually come to buy books.
54 — To my knowledge, in the whole of Shanghai & Suzhou (37 million people) there’s not a single football store to buy e.g. football shoes. This could be a massive gap in the market: a store purely for football lovers. But now you can only buy football shoes at Nike/Adidas/Puma/etc stores respectively. I think because people don’t trust third-party sellers to sell genuine products.
55 — Shanghai has thousands of coffee stores, but Chinese ppl don’t drink as much coffee as e.g. Dutch ppl do. Dutch ppl all have coffee machines in their homes & offices, while in China most people don’t. If they do it’s a Nespresso and they still prefer to order coffee outside.
56 — A similar thing with ovens. Every middle-class shopping malls have cooking events for cupcakes, because Chinese homes don’t have real ovens. If they do it’s like a combi-microwave.
57 — Two guys kissed each other on the street here in broad daylight, outside of downtown Shanghai. A girl saw it and screamed out loud: “OMG FIRST TIME I SAW IT!!!”
58 — (Some) young people watch series super fast. Another girl: “Yehr I saw Squid Game (鱿鱼游戏) yesterday, at 2/3x speed. No sound, I just read the Hanzi. Otherwise, it’s so slow.” Also on the subway, I see a lot of people speed viewing movies/series.
59 — Most people don’t have a vacuum cleaner, they think it doesn’t work well enough so they mop the floors.
60 — Not all people (drivers) move out of the way for an ambulance with sirens.
61 — Car stickers are more common than in Europe. Especially Pikachu stickers.
62 — More than in Europe I see many people, especially couples, spend some time in the weekends in cafés doing homework, either studying a course or English. Sometimes one of them is playing video games though.
63 — Despite everything being digitalized in WeChat or other mega apps, paper coupons are still very common. Someone gave me 10 free cups at Starbucks, but there are coupons for many things.
64 — Unlike Dutch people (& many others?), Chinese people never wash underwear in a laundry machine, but always by hand. More hygienic.
66 — Chinese people “camp” a lot, they just don’t stay the night. Bring a tent, a football or frisbee and hang out the whole day. (This is 长兴岛, February.)
67 — Chinese people use special sleeping mats & pillow sheets in the summer, made of rattan. It’s amazing because your body heat doesn’t creep into the mattress. I already know I’ll never use anything else when it’s warm.
68 — I feel Chinese people are extremely good at remembering phone numbers. It’ll take me three weeks to remember my own number when I have a new one it changes, but Chinese people can remember it after you repeat it twice or thrice. Same with codes for packages or addresses.
69 — Lots of videos or TV in China comes with subtitles. Useful for in the subway, or seniors watching TV when the younglings have already gone to bed.
70 — Life in tier-4 cities is a lot less glamourous than tier-1 cities, despite still being dense in population. Read more about Danyang (a tier-4 city near Shanghai) here.
71 — Chinese people in their twenties without kids (in Shanghai) work extremely hard. So hard that when they finally have a holiday (usually ~5 days), they just sleep most of the time. They don’t really know the term ‘burnout’ I think, but it’s not uncommon for young Chinese workers to develop some health issues: eyes that hurt or just being tired or ill most of the time — possibly from just overworking themselves. Then they go back to their hometown to recover for half a year.
72 — Jobs in China seem even more gender-divided than in the Netherlands. Primary school teachers and nurses are always female, security always male. Doctors can be both. A small minority of couriers is female, same for police.
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