A recent report that China has 102 cities with over a million people brought home, yet again, the immensity of the Chinese population. Few people will travel frequently enough to visit them all one, whereas in the UK there are only two urban centers over a million (Birmingham is the second, which is sometimes forgotten), and even the US only has ten, with cities as famous and culturally important as San Francisco, Seattle and Denver not making the list. Even ancient old Boston only has 660,000 residents, about the same as Chinese backwaters like Panjin in Liaoning or Puyang in Henan. (Which, of course, I had to look up just now, having never heard of them).
I am always thankful that my experience in China included all three tiers of city. I first came to live in Huai’an, a Tier 3 in Jiangsu province, which I chose partly on impulse, partly because it looked small enough to be manageable, and partly because they were simply the first with a firm job offer. After a year, I moved to Tianjin, first downtown (Wandezhuang Dajie) then in Tanggu. Finally I moved to Beijing, inexorably drawn by the challenge of its immensity and opportunities. Here are some generalizations of the foreigner’s experience in each Tier.
There are maybe ten to twenty foreigners in the whole city, who you will cling to until you get despair of them. Every Chinese male aged 15 to 25 says “Hullo!” after they have passed by. Everyone stares at you – people will stare at your shopping basket, and come into the doctor’s room when you are getting the results of an X-Ray. There are no Western bars or restaurants. Western food in local restaurants is a thing of perplexing wonder. There is no Western food in the supermarkets, which themselves are relative novelties to locals more accustomed to wet markets, and have tanks with frogs, eels, and turtles. The few bars and clubs there are hideously smoky, and have the filthiest toilets ever seen outside an IRA prisoner’s dirty protest cell. There’s no subway but taxis are absurdly cheap, so you feel like you travel like a king. The main streets are nearly all self-owned stores rather than chains, with broken speakers at overly-loud volumes somehow drawing in customers. For entertainment, there is KTV, a bath-house, a snooker hall, and a few parks – the subterranean internet bars have mostly died out now. The parks are surprisingly nice. Most Chinese will be very approachable, some too much so: some will simply want to be friendly and some will want free English lessons. Life is sedate, inexpensive and generally pleasant, if limited in its options.
These cities are large enough to have a foreign culture and sustained presence, which nonetheless remains unobtrusive. They will have an expat magazine or two, maybe even a website, to help you navigate your way. You won’t know every foreigner, but they’ll only be one degree of separation away. The city has a sense of history and of culture, even though 80% of the buildings have been erected in the last ten years and there are few antiquities to actually “see”. There are numerous foreign restaurants; many come and go, binning expensive foreign staff once they’ve burned through start-up capital. Hardy perennials become much-loved haunts, even too much so. There is a terrific range of Chinese cuisines, which once you get your bearings become far better destinations. The subway is mostly new and expanding rapidly. You shake your head in wonder as lines open annually. Shopping options are generally adequate, especially in sports, but anything cultural will be severely limited. Only adolescent boys say “Hullo!” and it comes as a surprise. There are foreign food stores, pricey enough to cause resentment when compared to back home but which you still want to buy everything from, anyway.
Tier 1 cities have substantial foreign populations, large enough and wealthy enough to as widely segregated: from fresh-off-the-boat English teachers to hugely rewarded financial and business executives. Social contempt and envy rise their head again, but within your own class there is still often a camaraderie. The opportunities out there can feel limitless – this can be intoxicating and induce a New York-esque pace of life and mania for work (it certainly did for me), though this seems to be just accepted as part of urban life by most young locals striving to make a living. Leisure facilities and opportunities can feel equally endless – restaurants as variable as Hungarian and Moroccan, bars from sleek Japanese whiskey bar to craft beer to rough and ready backpacker dives, every sport you can think of, most music styles amply catered to (jazz, for instance, is surprisingly popular), and events from hackathons to Chinese history seminars going on. This is dazzling. Social events however can have a certain rubbernecking quality to them. Daily life can sometimes be a grind – the subway, the pollution, food safety concerns. Yet for the size of the cities, they feel less hostile than London or New York, say – your neighbors will be friendly and the local shops and restaurants will be glad of your custom. But it can be hard to put down roots. People come and go, and property ownership or educational access can be intolerably difficult. Yet living there is an experience that will mark you forever.
Each tier thus presents a unique experience, and time spent in them all gives a greater appreciation of China’s many facets. But this isn’t even to consider the countless distinctions between north and south, east and west, or coastal and inland. Happy exploring!