Fact or Fiction X: Moving On Up

15 Comments

Welcome back one and all to the September edition of Fact or Fiction. Those of you who read any or all of the last seven will know, every edition I will have a guest and we will discuss a few of the big issues in China of the day. Every answer will have a “Fact” or a “Fiction” and some justification to go along with it.

My guest today is someone you may recognize from Chengdu Living, or China Travel, Sascha Matuszak. He is a West-side Laowai who spent most of his 10 years in China living in Sichuan. He is currently living and working in Shanghai with his wife and son. You can check out more of his stuff at www.saschamatuszak.com.

Sascha and I have something in common (other than being devilishly handsome), we both have recently moved from from smaller, 2nd Tier cities to larger 1st Tier ones (that being Chengdu to Shanghai for him, and Suzhou to Guangzhou for me, for those of you keeping score at home). So today we are going to talk about the perils and pitfalls of moving within China, and life in a Chinese metropolis compared to a “small town” of a few million people.  Join us today for Fact or Fiction X: Moving On Up!

Fact or Fiction

1. It is easier to live in a 1st Tier City (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen).

Glen: FACT

Absolutely! Maybe it’s just the fact that I am more used to life in this country, and I can mutter my way through a bit more of the language, but I find life in Guangzhou to be much easier than life was in Suzhou. There are far more people here who speak English, and a ton more activities in the city, both local and foreign. Of course Suzhou (and I assume other 2nd Tier Cities) are improving in this, it hardly matches the long history of development, and foreign interaction of the big guys.

Sascha: FICTION

I don’t think 1st tier has anything to do with it really. For me knowing my town, knowing where things are, having a mental map in my head that I can access at all times — these are the things that make living somewhere easy. Having said that, a 1st tier city like Shanghai has great Western food selections, whereas 2nd tier cities generally do not; Shanghai has an excellent subway system, cleaner streets and a more cosmopolitan feel than any 2nd tier city I have been to.

Not off to the most agreeable of starts, we’ll see where it goes from here…0 for 1.

2. It is harder to get to know “The Real China” in a 1st Tier City.

Glen: FICTION

I know that a lot of purists out there think that you need to live in a smaller city to get to know the culture, but I just don’t see it that way. Chinese culture is all around you, no matter how many people are around you. As I said before on here, I think that rampant development is the real China, and we are stuck with it for all of its pros and cons. Sure being in a city that has a lot of other laowais makes it easier to stay away from the Chinese stuff, but the opportunity to get immersed is very much there.

Sascha: FICTION

I agree. There is no such thing as a pristine cookie cutter suburb here in China — if anything, we have cookie cutter alleys selling counterfeit, low grade, delicious stuff and other “real Chinese” things. The real China is found in the people, not the spot.

Looks like they are right on track, “Real China” is all around us. 1 for 2.

3. The pollution is worse in a larger city.

Glen: FICTION

…or at least I think it will be. At the moment, Guangzhou is just finishing construction for the Asian Games, so there is a lot of dust in the air as a result. However, they have recently closed down a ton of factories, apparently for good. In my two months here so far I have seen a ton of blue skies (certainly more than I did in my first year in Suzhou), and I think that it is on the right track. Sure Guangzhou is hardly Vancouver or Seattle with respects to clean air, but it’s still not as bad as I thought it would be.

It gets better than this? -- Image by duffman34

Sascha:FICTION

I never would have thunk it, but yes, I totally agree. Shanghai’s blue skies crush the gray dismal armageddon-esque skies of Sichuan. Now, if we were to compare 6th tier towns with 1st tier cities….

12-14 million people are no match for a few factories apparently. 2 for 3. Let’s switch things up to see if they can continue on their harmonious path…

4. The culture shock of moving within China is worse than the shock of moving to China in the first place.

Sascha: FICTION

China is pretty much the same all over in terms of culture and society. Sure Shanghainese look down on provincials, adore foreigners, have the worst food in China and speak a weird dialect, but the basics are all the same.

Glen: FICTION

I’m in total agreement! Sure there are some large differences between Cantonese culture and other places in China, but it hardly compares to that feeling I first had getting off the plane from Canada. Now I understand a bit of the language, I know what is in some of the food, and the behaviors of the locals seems a little less alien to me. While I’m hardly an expert on anything, life is far less shocking now. Sure there are differences, but nothing like when you first get here.

Not a surprising answer all things considered. 3 for 4.

5. You feel more at home in your first city (Chengdu and Suzhou respectively) than in your new one.

Sascha: FACT

Absolutely. Chengdu is my home in China no question about that. I love the food and the dialect and although I said that the culture is basically the same all over (and I stand by that) the subtle differences between Chengdunese and Shanghainese that I detect help maintain my loyalty to the Provincials.

Glen: FICTION

To be honest, I don’t know if I ever felt at home in Suzhou. Sure I had a great job, and made some great friends, but it never quite felt like the city had “it” for me. Sure “it” may have came later with more time, but 2 years was hardly enough to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with a place. In my brief time here, I have been very excited about life in Guangzhou and I can see myself staying here for a long time…or maybe I’ll just jump to a bigger city in two years time to.

Back to the disagreeing ways. Is home where the heart is, or is your heart where your home is? 3 for 5.

6. SPECIAL NEW RULES FACT OR FICTION TOPIC: If everything else was equal (family/friends/jobs/money) list the top three Chinese cities you would like to call home.

Sascha: Tough decision, but I am a West-side laowai with peasant-slash-hippy sensibilities so I would say: outside of Dali, outside of Xichang, outside of Hotan.

Come on move to Dali, all the cool kids want to... - photo by Walter Parenteau

Glen: I always thought I was the country type, but I seem to be enjoying life as an urbanite, so I’ll go with:

Beijing: Full of history, full of culture, full of awesome!

Dali: For the country mouse inside of me. Simply perfect weather, very close to nature and history as well…and I’m not just saying it because Sascha said it!

Hong Kong: Sure it’s an SAR, but I’ll count it anyway. The city has it all: East and West, old and new, and everything in between. You’d have a hard time convincing me that it isn’t the greatest city on earth…

I have no idea how to grade this, but since they each agreed on Dali, I’ll count it for partial credit.  3.5 for 6.  Just enough to pass!

For Sascha, I’m Glen, thanks for reading!  We hope that you find a welcome home, wherever that is.  As always, we welcome comments/concerns/criticisms.  Let us have it :)

Talk on Fact or Fiction X: Moving On Up


15 Comments
  1. I would have to say, Beijing and Shanghai offer foreigners many opportunities to dine, drink and shop similar to home, but having lived in Xiamen I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

    I believe that we were extremely lucky to live on an island where seafood was fresh, commuting was no more than 45 minutes from one end of the island to the other, air was excellent (Xiamen, Qingdao and Dali, cleanest places in China to live) and people were extremely friendly. Not many laowais and felt we truly received an experience few would know.

    Having been to Shanghai and Beijing many times glad to have had the opportunity to visit, but so glad to live in a smaller, more relaxed place.

    I think you do put yourself out when there are less laowais, and places that are too familiar. It forces one to get out of their comfort zone.

    We have since moved back, and if we ever have the opportunity, would gladly move back to a smaller place again.

    • I was in Xiamen over the October holidays and loved it. It wasn’t the first time I’d been there, that was two years ago when we did all the tourist business, Gulangyu etc and it was great then for sure but this time we just hung out with friends who had lived there a while, spent time on the beach and generally lapped it up. The people were so friendly and relaxed compared to Shanghai, I loved the island vibe and everyone I spoke to had the same feeling. I’m sure the sunshine was a factor having just arrived from a chilly Shanghai but if I were to live anywhere else in China, Xiamen gets my vote. Top notch city.

  2. Good article! I would agree with living in 2nd Tier cities are more interesting, laid-back and have more of the “real” China flavour.

    Looking at your other post about etiquette in China – you talked about yes-maybe, maybe-no… Chinese people do not want to say “no” or they would lose face. However, I have seen Chinese say no right off the bat when asked for something they don’t have “mei-you”. It’s heard quite frequently and does not follow the logic you used in your posting ;) But I do understand what you mean.

  3. I like this post. It’s always fun to see how China is like in your foreigners’ eyes. It’s hard to embrace anything in our lives but I don’t think we have to pick out the “best”. Making comments about where you’ve been is good for chronicling all the memories, but better not over-generalize anything. Beijing and Shanghai are always popular while many expats don’t like living in Shenzhen, but I find it a lovable city. Nevertheless, culture shocks happen to us native Chinese people too! I was shocked everytime I visited Guangzhou from Shenzhen, hehe. :D

    • Good point Shuo! We should have stuck to Guangzhou and Shanghai instead of generalizing about all 1st Tier cities. Will do to correct that next time.

      I would be interested in knowing what Chinese thought of these big cities, or about the smaller ones too. Care to share any thoughts?

  4. Great FoF guys. Couldn’t agree more with the “real China” assessment. However, I think you might be selling the “Suzhou experiece” a bit short Glen, as at least for me, I don’t feel I live in Suzhou living where I live (and you lived).

    In my four years living here in Suzhou I’ve lived straight across the city, and the foreigner infused district that I now call home is a city unto itself. The proof being that I haven’t been to “Suzhou proper” in nearly a year — in spite of the 15RMB taxi ride it would take to change that.

    I think when you move to a city that doesn’t have quite so drastic a segmentation as a development zone creates, it is instantly more engaging than the safe and comfortable lines the 开发区 instills.

    I’m going to hazard a generalization (sorry Shuo) and say that when you live walking distance to two Tex-Mex restaurants in China, your neighbours probably aren’t as often the “people” Sascha speaks of when defining what is the real China.

    • Not sure if I’d necessarily agree with that Ryan. I know that the different areas of different cities all have vastly different characters, but they make up the whole of the city.

      I mean, I lived in a modern foreigner-heavy development zone, but it’s still very much within Suzhou. Sure it’s not full of canals and bicycles, but part of how the city is defined, for better or worse. If someone lived in the Pudong financial area in Shanghai, you wouldn’t say that they don’t live there, would you?

      And also “the people” are everywhere I think. Poverty and peopleness do not need to go hand in hand. Plenty of the people who lived in my former (and your current) appartment block where Chinese nationals. Just because they live closer to foreigners than many others, doesn’t make them any less real.

      • Profile photo of

        The irony is you’re virtually making the same argument here as I did way back when in saying that the developed China is the “real” China in reply to an old post of yours — an opinion I’ve noticed you’ve adopted over time.

        I think you’re skipping the point though — I’m not trying to redefine what “Suzhou” is — of course it is also SIP, it’s why I continue to live here. But I was commenting on your “You feel more at home in your first city” question, and specifically with how you felt Suzhou just didn’t have “it” for you. Which of course is your opinion, and I’m not at all disagreeing with it — only that I know from experience that living in different parts of the city brings with it entirely different experiences and feelings about the city.

        I felt a LOT more connected to Suzhou when I lived downtown for example. There was stuff going on all the time and the city life culture was awesome.

        Chinese nationals slightly represented or not, SIP’s culture is very much geared towards foreign-ness (as it was mandated to be), which by its very definition is not Chinese. Of course the argument can be made that all of that melds together and creates the new identity of Modern China, and I’d agree with that and support it — but on a micro-level, if the “experience” with a “city” is defined by its level of interestingness, and that is directly correlated with the amount it is different and exciting when compared to the white bread most of us are use to having grown up with, SIP definitely falls short, but Suzhou doesn’t.

        Basically what I’m saying is precisely what you said in your response — SIP is a part of Suzhou, but your experience with Suzhou is largely governed by only that small and disconnected part.

        And by no means is that limited to yourself, as of all the people who work where you worked that I’ve associated with, you were by far the most eager to get out and explore. But I’ve never got the sense that anyone who lives out here in SIP visits downtown Suzhou (or any of its outlying areas) with any more connect than a Shanghai day tourist.

        Again, I’m not being critical of that — if anything, I define it as much as any other resident of this area. Am merely trying to recognize how that fact can colour the experience one has with a place.

      • The irony is that I agreed with you then, and I agree with you now. Even if I didn’t, what woudl be ironic? Aren’t we allowed to have our views change and evolve over time?

        I know that I never lived downtown so may not be as much of an “insider” as those who have, but I think that you’re a touch off base here my friend. For starters, SIP is sgnificantly larger than downtown, and for better or worse it is part of how Suzhou defnies itselt as a city now. Sure it doesn’t have the history or culture of the central area, but I’m not living hundreds of years ago, I’m living there now (or rather, was until June).

        Plus, I went to downtown quite frequently, certainly more than a Shanghai daytripper. So I did feel some sort of connection to it, certainly not quite the same as living downtown, but it was there none the less. I know what the city has to offer, and while I liked it, I certainly much prefer what my new home has for me, at least while the honeymoon is going. How that changes in the coming months (and years) may be another thing though.

        Also, does your same argument apply to other countries as well? I mean there are certainly parts of Toronto that are geared towards Chinese or Indian communities, does that make them as much a part of the “real Toronto” as SIP is for Suzhou?

      • Profile photo of

        Also, does your same argument apply to other countries as well? I mean there are certainly parts of Toronto that are geared towards Chinese or Indian communities, does that make them as much a part of the “real Toronto” as SIP is for Suzhou?

        Absolutely. China doesn’t generally define itself by its “foreignness”, in fact if anything its policies and identity is largely shaped to be in opposition to “foreignness”. Canada’s “multiculturalism”, however, is heavily promoted as part of its national identity.

        What’s more, different cultures or not, the cultural ghettos of Canada are largely populated by permanent residents and citizens. In China, citizenship is almost unheard of among the non-China born population living in the country.

        And when I called SIP “small”, I wasn’t talking about how much land had been appropriated from farmers over the last 15 years, I was talking about its relevance to your average 苏州人. Living here it tends to feel like SIP is the city, but when living downtown or across town, I was only vaguely aware it even existed and it existed in much the same form it does now. I was just ignorant to the area, as it wasn’t relevant to me at the time. I’m sure that goes both ways.

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  6. Some one said “long history of development” and refer to 1st tier cities, which include Shanghai and Shenzhen. Shanghai and Shenzhen, and Long history don’t match. Shanghai has less then 300 years of history, and Shenzhen may have 30 years (It was a small village with a few thousand (hundreds ?) inhabitants before that). And that no match for Suzhou or Chengdu.

    • I do apologize for that, as I said in an earlier comment, I shouldn’t have spoken in general terms, as the only 1st tier city I know what it’s like to live in is Guangzhou. Which does have the longest history of development and foreign business of any city in the country.

      But in terms of Chinese recent history, and opening up to the outside world, 30 years is eons. Especially since Suzhou opened up their foreign development zone in the late 90s. Sure Shenzhen is hardly Guangzhou or Beijing in terms of interacting with foreigners, but it’s got a lot more history of it than other places.

  7. I have a slight disagreement with #2. You can’t get to know the real China in Shenzhen because there is very little real culture in that city. However, you can get to know the real China in other 1st tier cities.

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