How to Live in Chengdu

I read somewhere it takes approximately three years for an expatriate employee to become as productive in China as at home. The first year is spent adjusting (in many cases positively) to the culture. It can be like a honeymoon for many. The second year can often swing in the opposite direction, as the less-colorful traits begin to take their toll. Little things that don’t bother you at first become unbearable: the constant noise, public spitting, blatant disregard for nearly all traffic signs, lanes and laws. The third year is when you become accustomed to how things work and settle in. You adjust to a new reality and live in it.

My favorite example of how accustomed I’ve become to China happens every time a friend visits and we take a taxi. Over Spring Festival my brother and I headed into town from the airport in heavy traffic. We spent half the trip in the wrong lane. I happily told my brother about my plans for his stay while he white-knuckled the door handle and prayed to whomever an atheist prays. The large industrial vehicles coming straight at us as we occasionally used either shoulder to pass traffic in construction zones failed to distract me.

It’s Impossible to Generalize China

The country is too populated. Income gaps and access to modern technology create cities like Chengdu, where uneducated migrant laborers from the countryside share intersections with men in Bentleys returning from corporate meetings in Europe. One can’t look at these two men and say that China is uneducated or that China is too materialistic. Over the past 20 years of struggling to understand China I’ve probably learned more about myself than about this culture.

Ferrari in China

Perhaps nowhere will you find contrasts more stark than in China

Things become apparent though. One of those things is how foreigners deal with culture, and how I think one should approach dealing with it. I meet all types of people here, from all over the world. Many of us are happy to be here, enjoying the adventure of soaking in another culture. But how should we act? How do we avoid proving true the negative stereotypes held by some Chinese nationals whose understanding of foreign culture comes only from Hollywood, Weibo and China’s news networks?

Four Tips for Adjusting

The following four suggestions represent what I’ve learned about how to act as a foreigner in China. I’m sure they won’t work for everyone, but they help maintain balance and sanity in a country that challenges us with a cultural tightrope.

#1: Avoid Complaining

Chengdu hotpot

The spiciness is just right.

I try to avoid complaining in China unless I’m speaking with close personal friends, regardless of their nationality and cultural background. I could be wiping spit off my work shoes at the time and still I would respond to “Don’t you miss living in the US, where everything is so much cleaner and more modern?” with “No, because the hot pot isn’t spicy enough there, and I don’t get to learn as much about a new culture.” My grandmother used to tell me “Nobody likes to listen to a chronic complainer. Now eat your peas.” I think she was right. Chinese culture seems indirect enough that saying something like “I’m sure China is working hard to improve its air quality” is already a scathing indictment. So I stick with being positive.

#2: Keep Cool

Try not to blow up. I am proud that in the past 15 months of living in Chongqing and Chengdu, I’ve only half-lost it one time. I couldn’t get connected to my home internet. I went to China Telecom and got this colossal runaround. I was sent upstairs to talk to a complaints guy who was overloaded. It was almost closing time and I was going to be ushered out of the office and asked to come back the next day. All I wanted was for them to send someone to my house to take a look at my connection. I had already bought a new modem as they suggested. I went back downstairs and said “Can you just arrange to send someone to my house?” They were confused because they had told me to go upstairs. Why didn’t I just go back upstairs? I, on the other hand, was confused because they didn’t have anything else to do and they were customer service reps. I angrily blurted out a few frustrated sentences and left. Eventually I found out the problem was my laptop. I should have held the anger in and gone home to sit and meditate, which brings me to item #3.

#3: Center Yourself

Chengdu Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu in Yulin

It might be yoga. It might be a beer at Machu Picchu. It might be drawing daisies on the bottom of your foot with a red ink pen while listening to Burle Ives. Personally, I try to spend about 10 minutes every week standing in my shower taking stock of my current situation. What am I happy about? What am I angry about? Would I leave China if I had a chance to work at home in a dream job? The answer to that third question has always been “no”, even when I got a dream job offer a month ago. Doing this helps me deal with item #2.

#4: Be Nice to People

About a year ago I met an American who had lived in China once before for a year and could speak Mandarin pretty well. He was in his mid 20s. He was boisterous and outgoing. Like me, he had just come back to China and planned to stay awhile. After about two days I wanted nothing to do with him. Why? Because he just didn’t seem to get it.

He talked incessantly about how everyone was trying to cheat him and rip him off. He was rude to a lot of people. A few of us had lunch at a Korean BBQ. When the cleaning lady came by she spent her time wiping our table down by asking us all the standard questions: “Where are you from?” “How do you speak Chinese so well?”, etc. He was extremely rude to her and eventually she realized he was being sarcastic and walked away hurt and embarrassed. Shortly after that a very cute girl who probably wouldn’t have looked twice at this guy in the States smiled at him and he immediately started chatting with her, answering all the same questions he’d just been asked by Auntie Countryside.

In China, you’re as close to a celebrity as you’re going to get. If you abuse that and belittle people you’ll end up about as loved as Lindsey Lohan. But if you’re as kind and patient to everyone as you can possibly be, in the long run you’ll be happier because most people have a positive experience interacting with you. Mother Theresa was a lot more respected than Paris Hilton ever will be. So was my Grandma.

Closing Words

So that’s my unsolicited advice to all of us. It’s not prompted by any event and it’s not a complaint about how we behave. It’s advice on how to remain sane. We’re guests here. We are largely treated with curiosity, respect and a mild amount of awe. On the rare occasions that we’re treated with derision, it is our duty to be gracious. In the long run, it’ll result in a better experience.

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Ben Brown

About Ben Brown

Having recently relocated to Chengdu from Chongqing, Ben has been in China for 5 years, acting as an advisor to a Chinese company in the automotive industry.

38 Responses to “How to Live in Chengdu”

  1. Mr. Klink

    Excellent pointers. I was about to remark on the ones that I really felt were most in line with what I agree to be necessary for enjoying the experience of living in China when it occurred to me they all have their place.

    Complaining in particular because it’s one of the first things to happen that begins to perpetuate negativity. It creates a sort of domino effect with everything else, and worst yet, it puts others in a mindset to have an unpleasant experience, no matter what their independent experience may be. (Unfortunately I still catch myself doing this from time to time.)

    • Spot on with these points, I have lived previously for 2 years in Yunnan and most of that time really out in the sticks. I will be back in Chengdu soon for a new experience and will try to remember these points. You are right about those that ‘don’t get it’ I have experienced this with travellers fresh from South East Asia, China is at times confusing, frustrating, irritating, maddening but ultimately the highs are worth the downs. I often tell people that life in China is a roller-coaster ride and great fun!

    • Ben Brown

      I know what you mean. Last night I couldn’t sleep. Just did the ceiling stare for hours on end. Then this morning I biked into work and suddenly felt like everyone was out to get me, everyone was stepping in the lane maliciously. But it was all normal. My own perception had changed because of my mood.

      Usually, that means I need to stop by Natooke for a beer. Or maybe pick up a bell so I can warn people when I’m cranky.

  2. Ben, many thanks for the article. I think you pretty much nailed it–a good reminder always adhere to these four commandments. P.S. as you alluded to, it is indeed true that just because one may have good Chinese, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one is a “China expert”. Being nice to people is at the pinnacle of importance.

    • Ben Brown

      Haha, I’ve generally found the people who understand “humble” in China doesn’t necessarily equate to “weak” (not by a long shot) seem to get along better here than those who want to try to “fix” things.

      About a year ago a coworker told me her foreign buddy in Tianjin who speaks fluent Mandarin would always speak English at Starbux, McD’s, wherever people would view him as being incapable. When she asked him why he didn’t speak Mandarin to them, his response was “They get how many chances to practice each day? I don’t need to practice with them. If I speak Chinese to them it’s just me propping up my own ego.”

      I tried to follow that sage advice, but it’s not easy to do.

  3. Larry

    Very well written Ben. #4 is particularly poignant because grumpy people tend to lose it and complain as a result of their poor attitude. Cycling around Chengdu traffic every day with all its obstacles, chaos, silly traffic officers with their little red flags, etc. I find that the slightest nod of the head and smile to a automobile driver who yields goes a long way. The return acknowledgement of the gesture and astonishment on the driver’s face makes the remainder of any ride around town and um-teen instances of being cut-off nearly unnoticeable.

  4. Collin

    Great article Ben. I’ve fallen into the habit of complaining a lot lately and it really needs to stop. Living in China isn’t always easy and throughout the day there are lots of opportunities to lose your cool, but ultimately the experience is worth the minor irritations. Chengdu is an amazing city that is changing faster than anyplace I have ever been before and we are all lucky to be here and experience it.

  5. This post is a great contrast to the China Blues that all expats get at one time or another. I don’t think that China is for everyone, not only because of the occasional discomfort that comes with the developing world, but not everyone is prepared to approach the everyday challenges that we face with a positive attitude. It requires a certain humility, especially when you first arrive and are collecting your bearings.

    Although I find Chengdu tame in comparison to other big cities in China, you need to roll with the punches, as you say. Although it can get frustrating confronting the same questions and situations repeatedly, #4 is great advice – match the kindness of people around you and you will reap the rewards. People in Chengdu (and Western China in general) are some of the kindest that I’ve seen.

  6. Ben Brown

    I agree with all of these comments. People ask me what I love about living in China. I tell them it’s because when I wake up in the morning, I know before my head hits the pillow again something will happen around me where I’m left saying “Why the HELL did that just happen??!”

    All the Chinese people around me take no notice. As a result, I learn something about another culture and probably more importantly something about myself.

    I still do end up laughing maniacally from time to time, but hey, what else can you do, right?

    • I know exactly what you mean about that feeling. In recent years I feel that I might be addicted to it.

      The US is really comfortable and I enjoy visiting once or twice a year, but it’s difficult for me to imagine living there for a few reasons. One of the major ones is I feel that a part of my brain would shut down from not having to figure out all these small things everyday living in China. There’s never a boring day. It’s a constant adventure, and there’s always more to learn.

      • Ben Brown

        Haha! I was thinking yesterday about how, slowly, I no longer try to select “English” most of the time at the ATM because I’ve learned all the jargon for financial transactions.

        In Seattle I worked at a nonprofit helping recent immigrants become accustomed to the financial systems in the US. I knew it was tough for them but now I really get it. At first it’s like trying to listen to a children’s band recital from the bottom of a swimming pool.

  7. Yan Lingyue

    These wonderful four tips are not only for expats but all newcomers here. A positive attitude towards life is a necessity for anyone. As a matter of fact, spitting, smoking in lifts, littering, etc. are not a kind of culture shock you expats suffer, lots of Chinese being also annoyed much by those conducts. But as you advised above, center yourself and stay positive after all.

  8. Dana Garber

    Always nice to read something positive about china! For my husband and I, who are very happy go lucky people, China is just down right ridiculous! However, we are addicted! We have had many successes in the country and many of those come from the pure nonsense of day to day life in china. We give expats, or pretend to, an ear to unload their frustrations on. A strong drink makes anything better, at least for the moment.

    No other country can make expats go off in a rant like china. In the end, of course, most of the expats are living in china voluntarily and look like idiots complaining when they can just jump a flight out…if they can afford it! But most of it is just good humor.

    We keep our family and friends laughing for hours on our doing business in china stories. My personal favorite is a recent landlord we were dealing with. He showed up in a Bentley complete with hello kitty seat covers. Where else does this happen?

    And walks away after not being able to answer simple questions saying he is too busy for this ‘small deal’. Hummmm….

    Mr. China by Tom Clissord is a well-written book about an American doing business in china. Check it out!

    • Ben Brown

      Haha! I’ve actually read that book. It was part of the required reading for one of the classes I took in HS.

      I bet the landlord knew you were Laowai and wanted to stop by for a peek, then realized you were going to try to negotiate just like everybody else in China.

      One of my personal favorite books about life in China is “Coming Home Crazy” by Bill Holm. He was a Minnesota professor who taught English in China in the 1980s. It is a great and often hilarious, sardonic look at life here back then.

      One of my friends lived in Zhejiang at a foreign teacher complex that had a courtyard in the middle. Every Tuesday morning four elderly ladies would come out and play majiang. One morning he noticed one lady sitting there alone with the table set up. When nobody came out to play after about 15 minutes she wordlessly gathered everything up, then took a hatchet and chopped the table and stools to pieces and left them in a pile. They never played majiang again.

    • Minor point but it’s Tim Clissold and he himself is English, it was his business partner who was American.

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  10. Adjusting to any culture is a difficult task and the first year is difficult. Agree with many of the ideas on this list. Having a positive attitude will take you far and help you adjust in difficult times.

  11. I always believe that be nice to people is the best method of getting along with others. But in China, you should be careful.

  12. Ben Brown

    That’s true, but I think it’s true everywhere. I try to be nice to people and offer them my trust right away. If they abuse it, I don’t trust them again until they earn it. I do that in the US and in China. Sometimes I have been burned. But many more times people are probably nicer to me than they would have been if I were not immediately trusting. I think everybody has to go with what makes them the most comfortable.

    • Cynicism just gives a pale cast to all you do. I always trust people until they give me a reason not to. Foreigners in China are too worried that someone is going to rip them off for a few jiao. So what! They probably need the money more than you do anyway.

      I checked in to a lodging in rural Sichuan and they were oh so friendly and told me to make myself at home, and so I didn’t even feel it would be right to bring up the subject of price. We sat around talking most of the afternoon and evening. Once they started feeding me these amazing meals, I did get a little nervous. I 短信ed a Chinese friend and she said I was crazy and I needed to demand to know what this was costing me. But I stuck it out, and when it finally came time to check out, they refused any payment, saying I’m a “friend” and they just couldn’t charge a friend.

      • Ben Brown

        That’s an awesome story Jim!

        I am always thankful that I grew up in a really small town in Central Minnesota. It helped me out living in China. I’ve been ripped off a number of times, almost always for a small amount. There was a brief period where I used to get very offended by this. Now, I just let it go. For the very reason you mentioned above.

        I get treated very well here by a majority of the people most of the time. It’s amazing how much further a smile goes here than it would in say, LA or NYC.

        This noon I was walking to the noodle shop near my house and passed by two 7-year-olds. One of them I know, and the other I don’t. They were boys that live in the area and they had a box of toys. Without a word I stopped and picked up all the toys out of the box and started to walk away. Just as I knew the kid who didn’t know me would probably start to either get angry or cry, I stopped, smiled, said “I’m just kidding” in Chinese and put the toys back in the box for them to play with. That’s when I noticed there was a whole family sitting just inside the door of the shop we were in front of. I’m pretty sure they were the kids parents, grandparents, etc. They all burst out laughing. The whole thing lasted about 5 seconds but when I finished lunch a half hour later and walked back, everyone smiled.

        It doesn’t take much effort to make new friends here. Especially if you’re good at smiling.

  13. Patrick Picklesimer Reply September 11, 2013 at 1:42 am

    When I was younger, I traveled so much more. I lived in Singapore, Korea, San Francisco, New York – etc. I got married – and had kids – and now I am divorced and find myself thinking about going back overseas.

    I don’t have any Chinese language background at all. Zero. However, your article re-kindled that over-whelming since of adventure and awe I had every day I stepped out my door when I was over seas. It was just awesome!!

    Anyway, can you give me some indication on language adaption for Chinese. I know it is formidable, but I am fairly diligent when it comes to studying. Additionally, I heard there is a distinct separation between written Chinese and spoken Chinese. – i.e. what you need to be able to say in order to interact with people for common exchanges, etc.

    Thanks very much in advance. I loved your article!!

    Patrick

    • Ben Brown

      Hi Patrick! Very sorry for the late reply. Learning Chinese is not super easy, but not nearly as tough as a lot of people make it out to be. The best method I know is to simply get a phrase book or lesson book that teaches simple, useful MANDARIN, and make sure it has a CD or website attached where you can hear the words pronounced. Then, just practice over and over. Spend about 30 minutes per day and after a month you’ll probably have enough to ask simple questions, order food, and get around the country. Repeat this habit daily for about two or three years and you’ll be in pretty good shape. Find a Chinese language group that meets regularly in your city and get together with them to practice. Aside from getting a tutor, that’s the best approach in my humble opinion. And if you come over to Chengdu or Chongqing, look me up via this site. Cheers!

  14. wangshuai

    Great post Ben. I learned more from this article and your personal experience than many of the books I have read on China.

    I love that you stress the importance of humility. Being humble is such an important characteristic while living in a foreign country, and coming to the understanding and acceptance that people do not do things the way you “believe” they should be done.

    I think you summed it up perfectly in your closing comments that we must remember we are guests in their country.

    I also love the part..
    “Would I leave China if I had a chance to work at home in a dream job? The answer to that third question has always been “no”, even when I got a dream job offer a month ago.”

    It is people with an attitude like that who will truly succeed in China, long-term. My parents, colleagues, friends, etc, will never understand why I would want to live my life in China, but then again, they are probably the same people who could not find that sense of humility and would end up complaining often leading them back home to the US!

    Great Post!

    • Ben Brown

      Thanks for the props Christopher! I constantly tell people that what I love most about this country is the fact that each morning when I wake up I learn something before I go to sleep, either about China, or about myself, or both. As an example, I recently tried to tell my wife, who is from Chongqing, that I love Pandas. I used my Mandarin, which is pretty good, but I mis-used the tones. Apparently Xiong Mao with a rising tone followed by a flat tone means “panda”, whereas what I said was “xiong mao” with a flat tone followed by a rising tone.

      I said “I love chest hair”.

      That was followed by an interesting conversation.

      But on the upside, I will never confuse those two tones again.

      Have a great Spring Festival!

  15. Althought I am a Chinese, this article gave me something. I’v spent my past 8 years in Hangzhou, a beautiful coastal city. And I just moved in Chengdu because my brand new husband workes here. But he went to Tianjing for business the very next day.
    No friends and very strange accent that make me like moving in a completely different country.
    Really hope it will getting better.

    • Ben Brown

      It’ll get better Dora. The loneliness of a new city can always be replaced by just going out and exploring.

      This site is also a great way to meet people. The “Chengdu Forum” tab can lead you to a ton of new experiences.

      Hope you’re having fun in Chengdu!

  16. Good post! Allow me to add one more advice: open your mind.

    I think this is VERY important as people from foreign lands come here with their own cultural baggage. It’s better to leave those baggage at the airport because otherwise you end up always trying to fit the local culture into whatever preconceived boxes that have been programmed into your brain.

    • Ben Brown

      Excellent advice! When my friends ask me what they should expect when they come to China I always tell them this:

      “Expect only that things will not often happen as you expect them to happen, and you’ll have a great time.”

      When I first arrived here I was often treated in ways that I felt were rude. Then a friend of mine with more experience told me to ask myself whether that person is really being rude, or whether my own cultural baggage leads me to believe that is the case.

      After receiving that advice, I realized that 99.99% of the Chinese people I interact with on a daily basis are amazingly polite and helpful. I try as hard as I can to be the same way.

      Cheers.

  17. Scorpion Traveller Reply January 4, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    Having lived here for 7 months, I find it easy to get around and not too difficult to immerse myself here (even with minimal ability to speak Mandarin). People are generally nice, compared to many other parts of China. As a Malaysian, we are used to general courtesy which (sometimes) I find it daunting that a large number of young, educated individuals seem to lack of basic manners – super annoying. When faced with inconvenient situation, I would suggest them to say “Excuse me”. There are good days and bad days. Good days – they would ask “Where are you from?” ( I look Chinese). Bad days? Puzzled look :)

    • Ben Brown

      Hahaha! Yup. My good days and bad days here generally revolve around whether or not I have had to drink baijiu with businessmen the night before. Those nights can be fun. But the next day is invariably a “bad day”.

  18. I lived in Chengdu in the stone ages (1990s) and the dynamic was the same. The big noses who moaned about all usually left after not long. I remember the great Sisters Restaurant (I date myself) and I used to meet a prof there from Germany.. she used to yell at foreigners who acted like all Chinese were ripping them off. If all you want to do is say how it is not like the US or wherever in China, and are on guard at all times about being fleeced, stay home.

    Chengdu has changed a lot in terms of infrastructure, but the dynamic is the same. My Mandarin never that good, but for the vast majority of the time the locals would tolerate me if I had a bit of friendliness.

    • Amazing stuff, Mr Xiao. I can online imagine what Chengdu must’ve been like in the 1990′s. At the same time, what you said about the dynamic remaining while the infrastructure has transformed makes a lot of sense. I feel the same way about Chengdu in recent years. The physical change has been dramatic but the city feels nearly the same as it always did.

  19. Ben Brown

    I totally agree Mr. Xiao. I was in Chongqing in the late 90s. I was there again in 2012. The dynamic was generally the same. There were small differences. I think foreigners actually interacted with locals more often back then than they do now. There were just fewer foreigners to talk to. Almost all of my close Chinese friends are people I met back then rather than people I met in 2012. But generally that sense of adventure, of learning about a new cultural difference at least once per day, of being caught off-guard by both the beauty and the insanity of living here, none of that has changed. I’m glad it hasn’t. I like being able to grab a good western meal every once in awhile and I love the fact that I can buy stuff on taobao.com that I couldn’t imagine having access to back then. But I love that things are generally, culturally, unchanged.

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