China Destinations Expat Life Hangzhou Living Overseas

The Realities of Expat Life in China and Showing that off to Family

This is part 1 of 2. Part 2 can be found here

Written in October of 2014

Mikes parents used to tell people we were on a two-year vacation, living and traveling in China. They just left after a two-week visit, and we changed their minds. “I will never tell anyone that again!” (Mike’s mom at the halfway point) I’m not sure what kind of impression we are leaving people with when reading this blog. We know we are incredibly lucky to be where we are, given this opportunity to be doing what we’re doing. We are aware we are growing as people, strengthening our marriage, and learning so much about an area of the world we knew so little about before living here. It’s awesome and a fantastic experience, but it’s not always as glamorous as it may sound.

We unintentionally showed my in-laws a very accurate picture of our lives here in China.

The first few days were very average. Mike had his thesis proposal due, so he was busy at his computer. We took them to the local farmers’ market (which doubles as a fish market) and had lunch at a pretty touristy street nearby. They seemed awestruck by the newness of it all, but the thousand yard stare in Mike’s dad’s eyes might also have been jetlag. We showed off many of the beautiful places in Hangzhou, shared experiences with them, and introduced our friends. We took them to eat great Chinese food and very specific restaurants we picked out. Mike’s mom commented on how friendly the people were (they were!) along with how happy they seemed. Mike and I recently returned from Japan, so we agreed. The food was good, and the people were nice.

Farmers market crabs!

They quickly learned how much we walk. In China, we walk everywhere, all the time. Mike and I have gotten used to being on our feet all day, walking miles upon miles for both touring as well as everyday life.  Sometimes you can’t get a taxi. Sometimes it just makes sense to walk a few miles.  Mike’s mom told one of our friends, “he’s trying to kill us!!”

Hiking the ridge

I think it’s easy to show off a good view of our life in Hangzhou now, just because we’ve learned what our favorite places are and where to avoid, and we want to share all the good with our families. We don’t necessarily want them to experience the discomforts we have to deal with regularly

These things can include going to 5 different grocery stores looking for simple things like potato chips or sour cream;  spending an entire day paying rent going back and forth carrying cash between banks; eating bad food because the Chinese name for a dish translates as Happy Family or Fresh Roasted Vegetables but ends up being old cabbage fried in oil; not being able to go across the city because you can’t ever get a cab between 2 pm and 6 pm; puking on a bus because you were stubborn and took the bus even though you know Hangzhou bus drivers drive with both feet alternating between full acceleration and full stop; realizing if you leave the house for more than just a walk, you have to plan on being gone the whole day; not being able to respond to e-mails because either the great firewall blocks Gmail or just because the internet is too slow. I can go on and on.

 However, we have some control in Hangzhou, and we can do things like choosing to eat out a lot or cook simple meals when we have visitors,  not taking a taxi from 3-5pm. We can plan the day for them and save the errands we need to make for later.

I swear the restaurant is that way

We don’t have that control when we travel.


When traveling, you may you end up at the wrong train station and miss your train. You may have to take an unplanned hour long taxi to transfer between train stations in one city. You may also have to take six modes of transportation even if the distance isn’t so far. Or you may have to pass through an ugly, windy, gray smoggy and dusty city and realize you’re in one of the most depressing places on earth.

And almost all the time, you can’t get away from realities of being a Western tourist in China. A few of those include:

  • Scams. People try to rip you off constantly. Where there are tourists, there is spending money and people trying to make money. Some are not very honest, and in China, they tend to seek out the foreigners like we have big dollar signs on our foreheads.
  • People. Lots and lots of people. Unless you’ve traveled in Asia, you probably can’t even comprehend it. If you don’t like crowds…too bad.
  • Tourist behavior. China is changing very very fast, including domestic travel. Domestic travel is increasing the crowds at once serene tourist destinations. It also is increasing the chance that as a foreigner, you’re going to interact with someone who hasn’t seen many foreigners. And they want to practice the one English word they know, yelling “HELLO!” as you pass. Often they are just showing off for their friends. It’s endearing at first, then distracting, then annoying, and after a few days, it can get very irritating. Now and then, it’s easy to ignore. When it happens hundreds of times a day, it can be maddening.
  • The amenities. We try to be practical when we travel, and in China, that translates into mostly taking ground transportation rather than flying, and staying in “cozy” places rather than star-rated hotels. For the uninitiated, this takes some getting used to. The toilets are different, the food is different, the language is unfamiliar. As a Western tourist, the effect is that everything around us is disorienting and seems to be moving much faster than we are.

To be Continued.


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  • Reply
    November 25, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Hey Kim, this last article is really good…a must read. Can’t wait to read the part 2 now!

    • Reply
      November 28, 2014 at 7:03 pm

      Good article, nice looking visitors too! Thanks for being great tour guides!

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