For those who are new to China, or never heard of this terminology, Chinese cities are generally classified into three tiers, simply: first, second, and third. First tier cities are the cities that all of us know about, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Second tier cities are those that might have similar populations as the first tier giants but are a little less famous and modernized. Examples being, Chongqing, Wuhan, Tianjin, Dalian, Changsha, and Harbin. Finally, third tier cities are China’s hinterland, far beyond the exposure of western media and influence.
When I first came to China I was offered the opportunity to take a teaching position in a third tier city, Liuzhou, Guangxi. I was nervous at first, unsure of the availability of western comforts, food and lifestyle but with a positive attitude and willingness to indulge in Chinese culture, Liuzhou offered an experience that couldn’t be matched by a bigger city.
My favorite part of Liuzhou, and that I miss the most, is how warm and hospitable the locals are. Westerners don’t make it to this small corner of China very often, so walking through the streets sometimes made you feel like a minor celebrity. While the stares and random shouts of “HELLO!” and “laowai” get annoying at times, it was a typical occurrence that a local would invite me to his or her home for dinner or a beer at a bar. Such hospitality seldom happens in the bigger cities. It is because of this warmth and hospitality, many of the local people I met during my two years in Liuzhou will remain lifetime friends.
Another great advantage of small cities is how much cheaper daily life can be. The most obvious case I’ve come across is taxi fares. In Shanghai, taxis start at 14 Yuan during the day and 18 Yuan after 11:00 in the evening. Compare this to the rates in Liuzhou, flag fall being 3 Yuan plus a 3 Yuan fuel surcharge added onto the final meter price. At this rate, I could get from my house on the outskirt of town to the city center for a mere 12 Yuan. Food prices are also considerably less. It was possible to get a bowl of the local specialty “Luosifen” (noodles in a broth plus vegetables and a bit of meat) for 5 Yuan, similar dishes in Shanghai start at 10-15 Yuan.
If friendly locals are the best part of small cities, the camaraderie experienced with the other expats follows close behind. Unless you are truly in the countryside the chances of being the only foreigner in your city is essentially zero. In a city like Liuzhou with an urban population of 1.5 million, the expat population was near 100-150 people. The fact that everyone is going through the same challenges and has similar stories draws you together very quickly. I always got excited around September and February, when new teachers would arrive at the several schools authorized to hire foreigners. During this time I was able to share my experience with new friends and help them adjust to life in their new environment.
While there are many great advantages living in small Chinese cities there are challenges to be had. The biggest challenge faced by westerners is the lack of decent western food. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese food but there are instances I just need some spaghetti. If it’s any consolation there are many western products and brands that have made their way into China. Liuzhou for example, had a McDonalds, five KFCs and two Pizza Huts. The three former are well recognized brands by every Chinese citizen as famous western food brands.
Another challenge faced is the much feared squat toilet. While slowly losing favor to the sit-down variety, squat toilets are very prevalent throughout China and greater Asia. I have heard several new arrivals claim that they refuse to ever use one but following up a few weeks later they have grown into their new surroundings and assimilated their toilet usage. Although sometimes unpleasant, this is just one of those things everyone will have to grow accustomed to during their stay in China, even in Shanghai!
In closing, if you’re considering a job in a second or third tier city my first suggestion is: go for it! Once you get accustomed to living in a small city and the challenges it brings, you’ll have the courage and know-how to live anywhere in China. Lack of good western food, squat toilets and the extra attention brought to you because you look different than nearly all the people around you, will most likely be the only hard challenges you will face. All of these things are easily overcome by a positive attitude.
Written by Matt Wiersum