When deciding to live in China most teachers end up in major towns like Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu or other province capitals and that’s what we did for our first months in China. We moved to Chengdu and enjoyed a life that still felt, somehow, quite normal and not that hard to get used to. And then we moved to Ya’an. If you are familiar with the tier system in China, it’s easy to believe that this town is a tier 5 (the lowest rank). Located between the Chengdu plain and the Tibetan plateau, Ya’an is a small rural town by Chinese standards. Still, with 340.000 people living in town and 1.530.000 living in the prefecture, it’s hard to imagine this place as “small”. But living there will be a massive change compared to bigger towns.
Say goodbye to your western habits and practice your Chinese, the experience might not be the easiest one but that’s how you will learn how to blend in. If you’re ready for such a challenge, if you want to take a job in a small town in China, let us tell you how living and working in rural China feels like.
There is nothing Western about a rural town.
If you are moving to a rural Chinese town don’t have too high expectations and don’t think you will find Western restaurants or bars easily. Even if you do, the Chinese interpretation of western cuisine often leaves much to be desired. If you stumble upon a pizza place for example, then don’t be surprised if you’re presented with a sweet bread base topped by mayonnaise, corn and cheese slices. You will be lucky to get a known fast-food chain in one of these small towns, and the imported product isle in your local supermarket might not exist or restrict itself to only a few products. You might tell me that it makes sense and yes, it does, and while this is fine as a tourist, as an expat you sometimes need to find the comfort of home.
Luckily for you though local restaurants are cheap and easy to find and if, like us, your town is slowly trying to grow to a third tier area you might see some nice westernised shops appear (a real coffee shop, an Italian ice-cream stall, and an imported beer bar have all materialised in the year since our arrival)
Meet one of the smallest expat community you have ever seen.
Current count of the Ya’an expat community: 6. Including us. And in a few days time that’ll be down to just 4, as the American Peace Corps volunteers at the local university finish their tenure and return home. The need for expatriates in towns like this is usually low, because we’re not cheap and local schools or universities don’t always get the funding required to bring in foreigners, so it’s pretty hard to form a big English speaking family in the area. It does make moments like Christmas a bit tough since it is not really celebrated in China (except by giving apples during the day) and if one of your group decides to go home for that time of the year you might spend it alone.
There is, though, an advantage to such a small community: you get close faster and are usually pretty tight. It also means that you have no choice but to fit in the local community and that’s something you might not do in bigger towns.
Be ready to pay a fortune for imported products like milk and butter.
If you live in a big town then access to products like beef, butter and milk in the West of China (beef is not a very common thing in the South-West of this country) is not difficult and prices are similar to the rest, but as soon as you move to smaller areas prices go up and buying some butter is the most expensive part of your shopping.
Imported products are a real luxury and it’s also hard to find the right ones. It took us months to find a brand of milk that wasn’t sweetened, flavoured or fermented. It’s a learning curve that you need to be prepared for.
Get used to your status as a local celebrity.
With the small expat community and the lack of tourism in your town, you will be a local celebrity. Going out means getting used to being stared at, photographed and to the random “hello” but you know what? It’s not that bad. We’ve heard a lot of people complaining about those and yes it gets tiring but you are different and people do want to have something to do with you.
But your status of local celebrity might go much further than that! Since we’ve been in Ya’an we have done a publicity spot (that I hope has been buried deep, very deep), hosted our own TV show for Halloween, and have now been employed by the local government to sample the wares of the 70 best restaurants in the region as part of a regular ‘fine cuisine’ feature in the local newspaper.
We’ve been offered amazing opportunities (Robb has been recording the regional exams!) just for being the Westerners in this small town.
We always wonder what weird thing might happen to us next and those experiences are fun and would have never happen to us in bigger places. I don’t know how we will deal with going back home to see our families and not being the centre of attention in the streets anymore!
Products are seasonal.
This is something you don’t see often anymore and, I think, one hell of a good thing around here. My mother always use to tell me “try to eat seasonal” and I always found that so hard when everything was constantly available. Around here you don’t have a choice: seasonal products are all you’re going to get!
If you fancy strawberries in February well… tough! But it means that the vegetables and fruits you will get on the market will be fresh, locally produced and amazingly affordable. Huge bags of lychees for less than 10RMB, beautiful cherries and onions that are so strong they can only make you cry. I’ve rediscovered a real craving for fruits that I lost in the Netherlands because the taste was just not there.
In a small town you do want to buy your products on the market. People get to know you, you form bounds. The old lady I buy my fruit from has the habit of repackaging anything i’m carrying in to sturdier bags while I browse the fruit, for example. If I pass the Jiaozi lady from whom I buy my mince pork and my Jiaozi skin from, I will get the biggest smile whether I’m buying from her or not. So my advice: do go to your local market, they might look scary at first but they are the best.
Water, electricity, gas and internet might be intermittent.
We got so used to living in very modern areas that this has been pretty hard on us and we still curse every time this happens: don’t expect to have access to your running water, electricity or gas all of the time.
We’ve been going for days lately without any running water due to the droughts in all of China (though there is no droughts here since it rains every single day) because main cities do get priority.
Not having electricity is also a fairly common thing in winter and sometimes it’s the gas that disappears for hours or even days. Internet access is the most fickle beast of all, much of the time we’re blessed with a surprisingly fast connection, but from time to time it slows to something akin to dial-up speeds, or just dries up entirely.
It’s frustrating but there is nothing you can do about it. It’s one of the catches of living in a town like this.
You will be a part of the local community.
But through all of this there is one big positive thing that comes out: as foreign as we are, we are a part of the local community. We matter to those people and we know that if we needed anything they would be there for us in a heartbeat. We’re part of the family. We get called “Brother” and “Sister” by the local bar owners despite our very low level of Chinese, we rarely pay for a drink when we get out, we get invited to weddings when we don’t even know who is getting married, we feel close to our neighbours and local shop owners, we’re part of it all and it, somehow, feels good and helps us understand so much better the local life that we maybe didn’t get so much when we were in Chengdu.
How to survive your Western needs:
As much as we love all of it though it was hard, at first, to survive without getting access to our basic Western desires but with a few hacks you just get to live peacefully in this small town. How can you do that? How can you survive your Western craving of cheese, pizza or hamburger? 2 main solutions that you need to know of if you are moving to a small Chinese town:
Visit the Province capital once a month:
Simple solution, you will have access to some restaurants that probably don’t exist in your town and a lot of shops will let you order frozen products that you can bring home or bread. If you don’t know of anything like this, just go to supermarkets like Carrefour that are pretty common in those town and bring home all those things you wanted so bad.
Learn how to use Taobao:
This one is essential! Taobao is an online shopping site that totally revolutionised our life in China and made everything so easy! You can order Western medicine from shops in Hong-Kong, get Turkey for Christmas from Beijing, order amazing sausages from Shanghai, single malt whiskey, Belgian beer, everything is available! And often (even including delivery) no more expensive that these things would be back at home.
If you can use Taobao then you will never be missing anything.
While this post did, maybe, sound a bit negative I do believe people need to know what they are getting into when moving to rural China. If your small town is in a touristy area then you might be lucky and not encounter many problems but if, like us, your town doesn’t attract people (Bifengxia only requires tourists to go through Ya’an bus station, same for Shangli), you need to know this before making a decision.
Living in a small town in China is a great experience but you will have to live like a local. There are tons of advantages to do so but do not expect the easy life you might get from bigger towns.
Have you ever tried expatriation in a small town or in a rural area? Would you? Tell us everything in the comments!
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