What I learned living in China for two months after being away for five years

As I walked in the bustling train station amidst droves of people, a mixed feeling of both familiarity and unfamiliarity arose. Part of my senses became alive at the sound of the local dialects, and the other part just wanted to retreat into the serenity of the redwoods.

Despite the initial waves of counter-cultural shocks, I have been re-grounding myself in the Chinese soil. I reconnected with some high school friends, traveled to a few places, and even spent a week in a Buddhist monastery. My once neglected mother tongue got brushed up again. My tastebuds rejoiced in the heartwarming Chinese food. Even my upper respiratory system is staying strong in the smog (knock on wood).

Being away for five years means that both China and I have missed witnessing each other’s growth. Among all the changes I’ve noticed so far, three things stood out to me:

1. Life is getting much more digital.

I was surprised to see digital payment via phone apps being an option in most of the places I visited. From an unassuming bookstore where books are sold by weight to a quaint cafe tucked away in the alley, I simply pulled out my phone, scanned the vender’s QR code, and finished the transaction. There were even two instances where my cash payment met with a frown. That was out of my expectation especially when the stereotype says that we all love carrying cash! And better yet, it was done in an all-around messaging app called WeChat (Weixin in Chinese), not even a payment-specific app.

This is a small example of the how life is getting more digital in China. Apart from that, WiFi is easily available in public places, including the Shanghai metro and the Changzhou BRT (Bus Rapid Transit). People can board a bullet train by tapping their Chinese national ID card, no hassle needed for purchasing a ticket in line. Of course, there’s still a long way to go, but I’m glad at least the country is moving into an e-friendly direction.

2. Buying a house is dictating the life of many young people.

Many of my Chinese friends are between the age of 24 and 29. For the majority of them that are living in China, owning a house tops their to-do list. Those with enough financial resources are diving into the market. And those in less promising financial situations grow ever more anxious. The driving force behind this mania is the nationwide surge of housing price. From February to August, the prices in Beijing and Shanghai increased by 26.69% and 13.32% respectively. With one million RMB (about USD $150,000 as of today), one can buy 13 square meters (141 square foot) in Shanghai (Source). You can see how crazy it is.


Construction is going on everywhere.


Owning a house is regarded as a rite of passage in China. And many young people do not dare to pursue their dreams for fear of not being able to afford a house. I have been lectured on the urgency of becoming a home owner by some family elders because I do not subscribe to the collective anxiety. It is totally normal to desire home ownership. Yet it is disheartening to see young people being petrified by the increasing financial burden of pursuing it.

3. Alternative lifestyles are gaining visibility.

While many people choose to stay in the rat race, some also opt for alternative lifestyles. I was delighted to find a small number of intentional communities and retreat centers emerging in various parts of the country.

The one that I want to visit the most is Life in South (English available). It was started last year in Fuzhou as an experiment. The co-founders, Tang Guanhua and Xing Zhen, are the pioneers of self-sustainable living in China. The artists duo used to live on a mountain in North China for about five years. They grew food, weaved clothes, made soaps and charcoals, built houses and sustained themselves. They also documented the processes in a series of short documentaries available online.


Picture from Life in China blog


If successfully established according to the plan, Life in South will become the first intentional community in China where organic farming, holistic living, skill sharing, traditional craftsmanship, and art performances thrive hand in hand. I really hope this works out so more people can experience alternative lifestyles. On a personal note, I can also have one more stop to nomad to! More links available below if you’re interested.

These are the three things that caught my attention in the past two months.  Hope this brings a fresh air to you when “China Threat” dominates the news headline 🙂


Life in South links:

Videos (Chinese)

Blog (Mostly in Chinese, some in English)

The parent project of Life in South: Anotherland (Chinese/English)

4 thoughts on “What I learned living in China for two months after being away for five years

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