Two weeks ago, my friends loaded up three boxes and a suitcase packed with all my possessions and locked the door to my little Beijing nook for the last time.
It’s weird moving out of your home and not being there to say goodbye. But when that moment comes after paying 6 months’ rent for an apartment you’ve never step foot in for all 2020, nostalgia takes a backseat to your bank account.
Giving up my apartment makes leaving China feel quite official. I do plan to go back for a visit eventually to get my stuff and see my friends, but otherwise, I’m done.
A year ago, I quite spontaneously decided to stay in China for another year in my China 2.0 experiment. At the time, it felt right. I was just starting to like Beijing. I was developing a really solid group of friends. I finally had the free time to get to know the city. I plan to write a separate blog celebrating the wonderful time I had in China, and all the things I grew to love.
I liked living in Beijing, despite a rocky start. But when someone recently asked me if I liked Beijing, I couldn’t give a straight yes. In many ways, Beijing is not congruent with my lifestyle. When he asked why not, I realized I had quite a hefty list.
So in the spirit of officially moving on from Beijing, here are 9 reasons it was time for me to go:
1. The Internet
I’m a freelancer and all my work is online. Most of the platforms I use (Skype, Teamwork, WeChat) aren’t blocked by the government, yet the connection was terrible. I struggled to take online language classes because my connection was always dropping out. I sometimes wasted 20-30 minutes just fiddling with my VPN in order to watch Netflix or check my email. Facebook and Instagram became obsolete.
It wasn’t just my connection. This happened with my data as well. The office wifi was far worse than mine. After leaving, I’ve had zero problems. But even recently, working out with the girls on Zoom or teaming up with friends to watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race, it’s those people in China who struggle to keep a smooth connection.
Honestly, I just don’t have time for it. Life is too short for slow internet and I felt I wasn’t exploring all my freelance options because I couldn’t trust a stable internet connection.
2. The Cost of Living
Beijing is expensive. It doesn’t have to be if you go live at the end of the subway line and only eat baozi, but I don’t want to do that. In Malaysia, my full-serve luxury studio highrise with a gym, pool, and koi pond is nearly half the price of my dingy Beijing studio with a window that didn’t open and a bathroom that smelled like sewage. If I’m not going to save my money, it’s going to be because I am living lavishly.
3. The Pollution
A few weeks ago all my friends in Beijing were posting the same videos. It was 4 pm in the afternoon, and the sky was black. I mean pitch black. Without any context, you’d assume it was the middle of the night. It lasted for a few minutes before the sky turned eerily green.
Welcome to the most polluted city in the world! Corona mask-wearing was easy because, in Beijing, we wore masks regularly due to air pollution. Buildings are installed with air purifiers. I have an app on my phone to tell me the risk level.
On a clear Beijing morning from the 27th floor, I could see the lines in the mountains outside of Beijing. On a polluted day, I literally could not see the building across the street.
4. The Bathrooms
I didn’t have an issue with the cleanliness. I lived in India. I’ve seen some horrific sights. I’ve used some horrific sights when desperate enough. The squat toilet thing has become second nature to me.
My issue was that people will sit in the stalls and play on their phones. Many employees don’t get proper breaks so they hide in the bathrooms.
There is nothing more frustrating than missing 8 minutes of your 45-minute workout because you are waiting for people to stop playing on their phones in the shared bathroom down the hall. Nearly every day, I had to go to a different floor in my office or gym because people were hiding in the stalls.
I’ve never experienced a more shallow and superficial dating scene than in Beijing. Sure, getting rooftop cocktails with a German businessman one night and sharing pizza with a government officer from Ghana the next was really exciting, but it was difficult to build a real relationship. The hook-up culture is too prominent and everyone is either just arriving and looking for fun or on their way out for good. No one is trying to settle down in Beijing.
Why not date Chinese guys?
Common question. I went on a few dates. But the number of locals who spoke enough English for a relationship was much lower in Beijing than in other capital cities, and I didn’t feel the average Chinese guy was that into me. The ones I did go out with I just didn’t have much in common with.
It was a fun year plus of dating around, I met some interesting characters, but I quickly got bored and wasn’t finding anything meaningful.
6. Not So Friendly
My Chinese friends were great. Other people were fine, but I always felt it was fair-weathered.
For example, coronavirus started IN CHINA and yet the narrative quickly changed it to “foreigners are bringing it in from abroad” (even though China closed its borders to foreigners in March).
The “nice” building security suddenly didn’t want to let my friends into my building because they were foreigners (despite them having been in China this whole time) and another friend traveling in other parts of China was scolded by Chinese people on the street for bringing in coronavirus (again, the borders have been closed for months).
I always got the sense that the government could change sentiments in a heartbeat.
How do so many people fit into one city? People. People. People. So many people. So many people packed on the streets, the subways, the bars. Too many people!
People spit on the sidewalk constantly here. Even worse than the sight is the sound. It’s not a dainty little spit. It’s a full guttural, back-of-the-throat hawking. I’ve never seen anything like this in any other country I’ve visited. In the winter, you can see the spit frozen on the sidewalk.
9. Something Deeper
I can’t put my finger on this, but I noticed it every time I boarded a plane back to China. I’d get to the airport, go through security, get to my gate, and feel dread. I wanted to see my friends, work out in my gym, hang out in my favorite spots, but part of me also wanted to stay in New York or Vietnam or Thailand or India or wherever I was flying from.
I had planned to stay in Beijing until September 2020. But circumstances dictated otherwise. Unable to return to China due to coronavirus, I’m feeling quite good about my decision to leave early.
Once again, there were a lot of things I loved about China. I loved my life in Beijing. But for now, Kuala Lumpur is really stealing my heart.
I didn’t realize your friends had rescued your things; how nice of them!
I’m glad you are no longer in China. It was great to visit there but I couldn’t abide the restrictions myself.
Oh! Yes they did! Jayson, Melody, and Kristin to the rescue. Sent them a little bit of money to buy themselves a nice brunch but also owe them a week of free drinks for whenever I get back to Beijing for a visit!
I’m with Mom, I’m happy you’re no longer in China. For all of the reasons you listed. I look forward to reading [about] the next chapter in KL!
Thank you! I’m truly hoping my next chapter in KL is more like a long book. I’m finally getting a bit tired of the roaming around thing 🙂
The discomfort I feel after reading the whole piece mainly comes not from the factual level, but from your judgmental, finger-pointing stance which betrays a certain mindset common to so many other Anglo-Saxons also when they’re in a non-first-world country. They’re there with the mindset of, or shall I say they put themselves in the shoes of, the privileged class with respect to the locals, as if everything is there to cater to their personal comfort and enjoyment. You may totally disagree at this point. Let me demonstrate what you’re essentially doing with this piece.
Say I’m a non-American who’s lived and worked in NYC for some time. Upon departure, I specifically dedicate an article to enumerating how NYC sucks: subway smelling like piss (perhaps to be found in no other city!! At least not my hometown!), so many people jaywalking, racism, not safe to walk in some neighborhoods after certain hours, barely any American I date speaks my native tongue (say Vietnamese), too crowded to situate my noble body… the list goes on and on. The gist is, my noble body and soul is somehow too good for NYC. Then I also make this visible to my NYC friends. I would think I fall terribly short of the manners of being a guest.
Are these points about NYC factually true? Some are, if not most. I have in fact lived there for some time and liked it despite these shortcomings, but when I think of NYC these things won’t occupy my mind to the point where I specifically dedicate an article to enumerating them and declare that the city not good enough for me. To do so, I would expect it to take a really egocentric & privileged mindset, so common to many Anglo-Saxons I’ve seen so far.
As someone unfamiliar with me, my life story, and my blog, I suppose I can understand how you might feel this way from reading a single article of mine. I’ve met a lot of Westerners in Asia who seem to stick up their nose at whatever country they are in and it bothers me, too.
I also lived in India, Vietnam, Argentina, Colombia, Lebanon, and now Malaysia, and never had a difficult time connecting with these countries. Likewise, I’ve been to a host of “third world” countries (although, I can’t say I would agree with calling Beijing “third-world.” Beside the term being problematic in itself, have you been to Beijing?)
There were reasons I liked and disliked all these countries as well. Give me ten minutes, and I’ll gush obnoxiously about how much I loved India. Where there things I disliked? Many!
I sure as hell don’t think I am “too good” for any country. All I wanted to do was give my friends and family an update on why I felt China wasn’t the place for me anymore since my move happened quite spontaneously due to the pandemic. I also wanted them to know this wasn’t necessarily a tragedy to me. I was ready to go.
As someone who moves around quite a lot, I can write glowing reviews of every country and every city, but honestly, that isn’t very interesting. Personally, I find it kind of fake. Every place, just like every person, has good and bad things about them. When you decide to move, it is generally for a reason.
This blog post would have existed been it Beijing, London, NYC, or Rio from which I was moving. It wasn’t so much to pick on China, but to explain why I knew the city wasn’t the place I wanted to settle down. Some people like urban jungles, other like little towns. It’s matter of taste.
Is deciding certain everyday aspects of China bother me and that I want to move a symptom of “Anglo-Saxon” mentality? Maybe. I recognize having the ability to decide to move at all is a major privilege.
I didn’t write the positives about China, not because they weren’t there, but because I simply couldn’t fit all the positives into a single post. I’ve been toying with how to tackle writing this second half for a few weeks now and decided to write a series of all the great things about China.
I don’t think Beijing should change any of the things I don’t like about it. I don’t think it makes it a less than worthy city to live in. If someone asked for advice about moving to Beijing, I would give them a balanced opinion. I would ask why they were moving there, what they were hoping to get out of the experience, and set them up to understand some of the difficulties they would ultimately face.
Again, I do get what you are saying. Perhaps if this blog was some sort of internationally-recognized page of travel advice, it would bother me, too. But that isn’t what my blog is.
If you decided after a few years living in New York you wanted to move and someone asked you why, it would be absurd to bury the negatives of the place because saying you didn’t like the city was “egocentric and privileged.” Most people are happy to share their likes and dislikes.
So, sorry you felt offended by it, but I still don’t think sharing both the negatives and positives of my Chinese experiences is a bad thing in a personal post aimed to update a global network of friends.
Hi, coming back to this after a few months. Thanks so much for your patient reply! I didn’t imagine I would get one but thanks again. They make me see where you’re coming from much better. I was rushed to reach certain conclusions, say swiping this 100% under “Anglo-Saxon” umbrella. I totally agree it’s fine to share your experiences, and to summarize reasons why you don’t stay. Let me revise my phrasing:
I totally agree with your observation about VPN, but not some others, in terms of the extent to which they hold. But I could be wrong. So suppose they are indeed true.
Still I would be particularly (perhaps extra) careful about making negatives generalizations of a place I haven’t engaged with in real depth. By that I mean living there for 5yrs+, being fluent in the language, etc.
As for NYC, I personally will choose not to write a post enumerating it’s subway piss smell, jaywalking, racism, people not speaking my native tongue, despite all these faults possibly true and of reference value for some Asian travelers. It’s perhaps not a matter of any absolute principle but of personal preference and standards regarding caution against negative stereotypes, which you may disagree with. I recognize that as (say) someone who doesn’t speak fluent English, hasn’t really engaged in the social scene in NYC (how can I proclaim to fully engage in the dating world if I don’t speak fluent English; yet complain Americans don’t speak, say Chinese, why should they know Chinese), it’s somewhat arrogant by my personal standards to write a post like that. Feel free to disagree with my standards, of course. Another reason is I prefer to be extra careful not to propagate certain negative stereotypes. You can perhaps imagine as an Asian living in the West, how many times I’ve been approached condescendingly about Asia’s “despicable” hygiene, poor air quality. But have Westerners considered how much of that pollution is outsourced by Western consumers? How much of the West’s advantageous edge in wealth and development compared with Latin America/Africa/Asia comes from centuries of colonialism? Also, having traveled to Shanghai, I find it much cleaner than NYC, but I wouldn’t make a post about it for Chinese readers – it’s a bit hard to articulate why, but maybe because it’s far from the full picture about NYC (I hear your point too that length limitation matters) and could easily cement certain partial opinions about NYC in the readers’ minds before they experience it on their own. I also haven’t noticed more spitting in Shanghai compared to elsewhere. So I always felt a (perhaps extra) need to be extra cautious about making negative generalizations and would rather err on the other side. A lot of travel blogs make negative generalizations which may be somewhat true, both Westerners and non-Westerners do, on a much worse level. And I don’t mean to be picking on your post – I totally recognize now that you just meant to offer reference, not to propagate negative stereotypes, and that’s completely fine. Just thinking propagation of such stereotypes may be an unintended consequence of negative generalizations. Maybe your post doesn’t have such an effect at all. Just explaining reasonings behind my personal preference, which may as well be motivated by personal experience and hence somewhat biased.
China has its distasteful propaganda, but it won’t lead to an American being beaten up in the street for “importing infection”. By means it’s not as bad as the anti-Asian hate crimes in the States, sometimes motivated by double-standarded, shallow stereotypes about uncleanliness, etc.
We can totally agree to disagree. And it’s great to hear about your wide travel experiences. Respect that and please keep up your good work! Thanks for making me think more clearly through some of my own reasonings too.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I see the logic in what you are saying, and I completely respect it. It seems we may disagree in the extent to which we shouldn’t discuss negative aspects of a place, especially a place that is not our own. I actually think I adhere to your mentality most of the time. When I am actively living in a place, I try not to complain that much. It’s when I leave that I feel more comfortable discussing the things I didn’t like, once I have had time and distance to consider them.
As a foreigner in New York City, if you were to complain to me about your life there, my issue would be a lot less with the specific complaints of NYC and a lot more with the fact you are complaining about something and doing nothing to change the circumstances of your life. I would feel similarly if someone complained endlessly about their job, their weight, or their relationship and yet did nothing to improve their life.
When I was living in Beijing, I was careful not to say anything negative. But all that happened was I spent a year and a half there feeling unable to express myself at all. To be clear, I started to find my stride there and came to appreciate it. I had planned to extend my stay another year but with COVID and getting locked out, I decided it was for the best. Any place in the world will have negatives and positives. To only talk about one side is, in my opinion, an unfair assessment of a place.
While I still think it was good for me to be able to express why I needed to leave China, you’re right that I could have been more thoughtful about explaining these were very personal reasons rather than just assuming no one would take the wrong message from my writing.
I definitely don’t want to propagate negative stereotypes. I also could have written more that I have no criticisms of Chinese culture or people. In fact, I’ve come to appreciate Chinese even more since moving to Malaysia and I LOVE working with Chinese students. They are constantly impressing me and I find it fun to learn from them.
More than anything, I wanted to highlight the reasons why I absolutely did not have 5+ years of living in China in me. It’s true that I would probably need at least that amount of time to feel like I had any sort of understanding of China at all. But it would mean giving up so many of the things that bring me happiness and so many goals I have for my life. Unfortuntaly, I didn’t see a way for me to become the person I want to be while staying in China. I am happy with my decision to try to stay 5+ years in somewhere like Malaysia.
But, I feel incredibly lucky for the experience. I absolutely would not change having gone there because I still feel I understand China on such a better level now. Time allowing, I would absolutely love to start taking Chinese again and am planning to incorporate Chinese-Malaysian writers in my PhD research.
[A slightly negative side note I would like to make–I obviously am not for hate crimes or discrimination of any kind, but I have to say that I had lots of foreign friends treated very horribly in China due to various kinds of propaganda and misinformation. This, sadly, is a reality I have seen in every country I have lived in (not necessarily targeting the same foreigners, and disproportionally affecting people of color). This isn’t an excuse for this to occur in the U.S. or a way of pointing figures. I just want to mention that China is not devoid of these kind of aggressive reactions to propaganda and online misinformation. I can send you links to the violence against foreigners in China during Covid if you have not seen these. Unfortunately, this seems to be a human problem. I definitely do not think this is unique to China or the U.S.]
But on a more positive note, please know that while you stumbled across a post in which I freely wrote about why I felt my mental health was crumbling being in Beijing, I am still incredibly curious to learn more about China, Chinese history, Chinese culture, and very excited to continue working with my Chinese kiddos. I took a break from blogging for a few months, but excited to continue to write about my experiences. I’ll have to go back to China eventually to get my stuff (still locked up due to covid) and know I’ll have a lot of reflecting to do when I finally return.
Also, if you have any recommendations for novels, poetry, etc… written by Chinese authors that you would like to share, I’d love to hear it. I was so busy when I lived in China and sad I didn’t read more literature by local writers. I recently started a new blog (www.thebookshelfabroad.com) in which I want to write about different literary works from all over the world. Perhaps you’d find my ideas about China through a literary lens more tasteful and more encouraging for people to think about China more holistically.
Cheers! And thanks again for your engaging comments! I hope you are doing well in New York City 🙂