First I wrote about the one thing preventing me from ever moving to China. Then I wrote about why I did a complete 180 on moving to China. Now that I’ve lived in Shenzhen (correctly pronounced “shen-jen”), China, for over a year, am I glad I made the move? If I only said “Absolutely!” it wouldn’t convey strongly enough how I feel. I’m not merely glad I moved here, but I believe it may be the most critically important move of my entire life.
Things I Miss
Just because I’m glad I moved here doesn’t mean there aren’t any downsides. Here’s what I miss the most:
- Fast internet. The internet in China is controlled, censored, filtered, etc. by the government, which in daily practice means it’s just fine if you access websites the government is okay with, but if you want to access Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Gmail, Google, or a host of other websites and online services, you have to use a VPN (virtual private network). Using a VPN slows down your internet speeds considerably. While I can access Chinese websites at 100 mbps with my current connection, accessing Facebook happens at something closer to 1 mbps, and is unreliable generally. It’s fast enough that I can make it work, but slow enough to be a constant annoyance.
- Trail running. This is less a function of moving to Shenzhen, and more about the specific part of Shenzhen I moved to. In Hong Kong we lived in the village of Mui Wo, which is trail running paradise (seriously, if you’re a hardcore trail runner you should move there). In Shenzhen there is something of a hill close to where I live, completely paved with stone and concrete steps. It’s nothing like trail running in Hong Kong, although if I lived in a different part of Shenzhen I could fix that.
- Amazon Prime. I miss being able to get anything I want shipped to my doorstep within 1-2 days. Granted, in China we’ve got Taobao, which is something like a combination of Amazon and eBay (without auctions), but it’s not nearly as convenient as Amazon, especially since it’s all in Chinese and Google Translate, while amazing, only gets you so far.
- Walmart. There’s one here, just down the street, but it’s different. When I say “different” I don’t mean that they have plastic bins of live bullfrogs for sale for food, or that you can watch a butcher slaughter a live turtle for someone’s dinner, or old women struggling to pick up the large, live fish they just caught in a net and accidentally dumped on the floor–all of which are things I’ve seen within five minutes on a Saturday morning at Walmart here. What I’m talking about is that they just don’t have the same product selection I’m used to, so when I need something I know I could get at the local Walmart in the US, I usually know I won’t be able to find it at the Walmart here in China.
- Clear skies. As I write this the weather is beautiful outside and I can see mountains far away. But at other times of year, especially in the winter when it rains less and the wind patterns change, Shenzhen fills with air pollution and doesn’t leave for so long that I forget there are mountains. The pollution isn’t so bad I regret living here, but it’s bad enough to be unpleasant at times.
The thing is, I was already missing the last three of those things while living in Hong Kong for three years prior to moving to Shenzhen, so the only real adjustment I had to make was to the slow internet (Hong Kong has some of the highest internet speeds in the world).
Things I Love About China
Everything negative about living in China is outweighed by things I love:
- No English! This is a huge positive for me, because I so badly want to learn Mandarin. I LOVE that nobody speaks to me in English when I’m out and about in China, because it has forced me to pick up a lot of the basics.
- Big and fast everything. Out my home office window I can see the new Alibaba office complex under construction. Alibaba is kind of like Amazon, PayPal, eBay, and a few other companies all wrapped up in one. The main skyscraper looks like a giant ballpoint pen. It’s huge. The complex is almost a mile from one end to the other and includes dozens of building. It’s all empty, all under construction, and it boggles the mind to see how huge it all is. Shenzhen built more skyscrapers in 2016 than all the US and Australia combined. It’s inspiring.
- Startup startup scene. The startup scene here is in baby stages, but progressing quickly. I love being here at this stage, because it’s small enough that you can get to know everyone quickly.
- Cheap food. Most Hong Kong restaurants are super expensive. I gave up caring if a burrito by itself cost $12, or if I paid $20-30 for most of my lunches and still walked away hungry. Here in China I can’t get over how much food I can get and how little it costs.
- Travel. China has 3.7 million square miles of land compared to 3.8 in the US, making it roughly the same size, geographically. That means there is just as much variation in landscape as we have across the US, and much more variation in culture, language, and food. I’ve been to some amazing places here, and wish I could spend 20 more years just traveling around to see the rest.
- Culture. If I walk to the park across the street on any evening of the week, I’ll find large group dancing, people walking dogs, kids flying kites, old men fishing, and old women talking. It’s a level of community I’ve never witnessed anywhere else. Then you have the funny random things like a bunch of elegantly dressed women in heels walking into the park with a large, heavy plastic bin full of water and live, tropical fish, and reaching in and picking up the fish and throwing them into the pond in the middle of the park and looking very hurried and sneaky about the whole business. I still have no idea what that was about.
- Living. I love the little differences in daily life. A lot of expats find them inconvenient, as I do sometimes, but mostly I chuckle when things come up. I love the chaotic nature of road traffic, which exists as a beacon of quasi-libertarian freedom within a largely autocratic regime. I laugh when our handyman comes to our house four times to fix the kitchen sink from leaking and it’s still dumping water on the floor. And I get excited when I’m running on the hill behind my house and stop to use a restroom and am surprised by a six foot long snake that may be a Chinese cobra. Fun!
But none of this strikes at why I’m so glad I moved to China, and why I feel it’s critically important for me to be here, right now, at this stage in my career and life. Yes, there’s the adoption I mentioned in my previous blog about moving to China, but just speaking professionally, I believe China has a huge role to play in the future of global civilization. I’m not saying China is better than anywhere else, I’m just saying that it’s role is going to be huge, because China is huge. It has more people than any other country (although India is catching up). It has huge landmass. It has huge natural resources. It has a rich culture dating back thousands of years. Power, in many ways, is shifting from US nations to Asia, just as it shifted from Europe to the Americas in the 1800s and 1900s.
The Most Important Benefit of Moving to China
100 years ago I would have told anyone living in the UK, “You should move to the US.” While I wouldn’t necessarily advocate that everyone in the US move to China, I strongly recommend that if you’re involved strategically in a startup or any sort of business, you should at least make a long visit to China and witness firsthand what is happening here. If you’re in ecommerce and you come here you won’t write off Chinese ecommerce any longer. You’ll see that eventually they’re going to give Western ecommerce companies a run for their money. The same is happening or will happen with robotics, AI, app development, logistics, and on and on. Everyone I’ve convinced to come here has had the same reaction after a few days in the country, they all say “I had no idea. Now I see what you were talking about.”
That’s the #1 thing I’ll take away from China when I leave. It has opened my eyes to what a tiny bubble we live in, wherever it is we live. Now I know that China is here, and it is huge, and even though I haven’t lived in India, I know that if I moved there I’d have the same experience all over again. We each create a small world around us, and we try to live safely and comfortably within it. But the future belongs to those who live in bigger bubbles, and the only way to live in a bigger bubble is to burst the one you’re in. Travel does that. Living abroad does that. That’s what China has done for me, and because of that I’ll never see the world the same way, ever again.Liked it? Share it!