Experiences from an expat: 8 reasons NOT to live in China

I arrived in China in early 2014 – and left in 2019.

To everyone who asks, I describe these five years as some of the most memorable in my life. And that’s not a lie. I loved it.

However, I also understand that there are many aspects of being a foreigner in China that you DO NOT necessarily enjoy. Living in a country that is so different compared to most democratic countries is a challenge.

And in this article, I will be completely honest about the reasons why I would NOT move back to China. If you’re someone who might consider moving to the East: be warned. I’m gonna scare you a little bit.

Experiences from an expat: 8 reasons NOT live in china

Table of Contents

#1: The food

If you ask any random Chinese person in the West what they miss most about their country, you will get two answers.

  • Their family.
  • The Chinese food.

….which is why loads of foreigners are super excited to go to China and taste the fantastic Chinese cuisine. Well. I hate to break this to you… but Chinese food in China isn’t very good. Most of my foreign student and expat friends ended up constantly buying food from foreign restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai.

After spending nearly five years in China, I ate Chinese food maybe once or twice every month. Madness. But necessary to survive.

What’s wrong with the Chinese food in China?

First of all, the meat quality is terrible. So I completely stopped eating meat from Chinese local restaurants after getting sick several times. If you want to know more about this, I would suggest that you read the article called “China’s Food Safety Issues Worse Than You Thought”.

Secondly, there was about a 20 % chance of becoming quite ill every time I went to some local restaurants. That’s not necessarily a hygiene problem – but the bacteria flora is very different in China compared to my home country.

#2: The growing nationalism

I don’t want this article to become very political.

However, most Chinese people love their country. They have been taught by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to be extremely loyal to the party and to China.

When I arrived in 2014, this wasn’t a big problem. Xi Jinping was just recently coming in as a president (well…dictator). And he was not yet promoting these ultra nationalist ideas that he’s now unfortunately famous for.

I saw a big shift in the narrative towards foreigners when I was in China. In 2014-2015, most people were super friendly and nice to me and my foreign friends. They loved us trying to buy vegetables in Chinese – and many of them stopped us on the street to ask for photographs.

That changed very rapidly over the next few years.

These are only three of many examples of what we had to deal in the last year we lived in Shanghai:

  • Some random Chinese guy entered a nightclub with a lot of foreigners. While shouting “I HATE FOREIGNERS! I LOVE CHINA!” He started to go mental and beat up various white people inside the club. He was eventually stopped by the guards, but obviously not given any harsh penalties by the governments. After all: it was FOREIGNERS he attacked. 🙂
  • As I entered a restaurant to have dinner with some friends, the waiter randomly came up to me and said: “Hong Kong is a part of China”. That was literally the first thing he said to me. Completely out of the blue, haha.

    Two innocent Canadians were randomly taken hostage and put in prison because Canada arrested a criminal Huawei CFO. It tells you how far the CCP is willing to go in order to punish foreigners in China. Read more about that story by clicking this link.

Video: Growing Nationalism in China

This guy, Laowhy86, has made a video that perfectly explains the growing nationalism in China:

…and it’s a very good reason not to move to China as a foreigner.

Also read: 8 Brilliant Books to Understand China (Culture, history, politics)

#3: Air Quality

Even though air quality has improved over the last years, it’s still terrible in China. Really terrible.

In fact, researchers claim that between 2000 and 2016, more than 30 million Chinese people have died prematurely due to poor air quality. Wowzers.

Sometimes when I walked home from our university in Beijing, I could literally taste the smog inside my mouth. The walk from my university in Wudaokou to my apartment did not take more than 15 minutes.

I’ve written a long article about how it is to live in Beijing during the most polluted year in history. You can read that post by clicking here.

#4: Living cost in China is no longer cheap

If you want to eat, drink, rent an apartment and live a good life in Beijing or Shanghai – you have to pay up.

Even though I’m a Norwegian, I felt that China started to become quite expensive. At the time, I was working in a company that gave me about 15,000 RMB per month. In Shanghai, that doesn’t get you far if you want to live a comfortable Western lifestyle.

Luckily, I had a couple of other income sources. If not, I would probably leave sooner.

So make sure that you enter China with a full wallet…or have a good salary on your expat job.

Video: Living cost in Shanghai

This video features the living cost situation quite well. Some things are super cheap in Shanghai – other things are super expensive.

But let’s be real. You don’t want to buy local food and live in a crap apartment with cockroaches while you live abroad.

#5: There are always people around you

Coming from a country with less than 5 million people, I was used to walking long distances in my hometown without meeting a single person.

Let me put it this way.

Even though you are walking home at 04:00 on a Monday night from a night club – you are still meeting people at every corner. Literally. You can never take a 360 turn without seeing another person in China.

And it gets to your head. I started to feel sick by entering the subway before work. The number of people that come together will make you feel like a fish in a tuna box.

During my last year in China, I took a taxi back and forth from work every day simply because I was so sick of having all the people surrounding me.

This video uploaded from the BBC is literally how I felt every day:

If you’re not a fan of crowds: don’t go to China.

#6: The visa situation

Let me quickly break this to you. Getting a visa in China isn’t easy.

Very often, the visa agents need to do some “creative stuff behind the scenes” in order to keep you in that country. And I hate the feeling of not knowing whether or not I can stay a place – or whether I have to leave very soon.

Over the five years that I stayed in China, I actually had these different types of visas (I’m not joking…) :

  • Long-term student visa for my master’s degree
  • Short-term student visa for language school
  • Tourist visa
  • Business visa
  • Work visa

And I can be open about that now. The reason is that I will never go back to China unless something drastically happens with the political situation.

#7: As a foreigner, you’re a second-class citizen

I got so tired of being a second-class citizen after five years in China. Let me give you some examples of what I mean:

  • Several Chinese websites required a Chinese national ID for registration.
  • You always had to pay a much higher price for vegetables, etc. in the local stores.
  • It was extremely difficult to buy tickets on buses, for trains or airplanes.
  • Any legal dispute in China will ALWAYS go in favor of the Chinese person.
  • And a lot more.

As a foreigner, you will never be Chinese. And you will not be treated fairly.

#8: VPN and Internet

I like to use Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. Also, I love to read online newspapers from free democratic countries.

Guess what.

In China, that’s forbidden.

From the day I entered China until the day I left China, I was a criminal. And the crime I committed every day was to use a VPN in order to access blocked websites. Due to the increasing nationalism, press freedom in China is worse than ever.

It’s just impossible for someone who works online (like myself) to have a good working life in China. That’s one of the big reasons why I left.

Feel free to read my interesting article about the REAL reason why Facebook is blocked in China


✅Do you regret living in China?

Not at all. I learned so much during my time in China.

However, I will never return until the political situation has been sorted out. I’m not a fan of dictatorship countries.

✅What is the BEST thing about living in China?

The best thing is that you learn something new every day. Literally every day. As I took the time to learn Mandarin Chinese, I could freely walk around talking to people everywhere in Shanghai.

Also, the Chinese culture is really interesting and different from what I was used to back home.

✅What is the ABSOLUTE worst thing about China today?

The growing nationalism. It destroys the image of a beautiful country.

Have you been living in China yourself? Or are you a Chinese citizen who disagree with any of my arguments? Feel free to add a comment to the comment section below! 🙂

23 thoughts on “Experiences from an expat: 8 reasons NOT to live in China”

  1. Hi Amund. Having lived in different places across China, I agree with some things but disagree with others. Number 1 – food. Are you kidding? For me, every meal feels like I’m “eating out”, even if it’s just at a roadside stall. Almost all the food I eat is incredible. But I don’t eat meat, so maybe that’s the difference? As an Australian, I definitely agree with you on the air quality and the sheer number of people everywhere. It can feel overwhelming. You really appreciate the simple things back home a lot more. Thanks for an interesting article 🙂

  2. I have lived in Shanghai since 2008-9 to the present date of this reply (its called the numbers game in China) which includies but is not limited to all through the whole of covid, including two lockdowns 2020 and the brutal, oppressive 2022 version. 2022 was the worst year of my life because of what Shanghai did. 2022 was a year of evil doings by goons in hazmat suits and QR code health app bullshit. Author, In your list, I feel you make some valid points but like so many foreigners with as much experience as you…that is a lot but not overly loads like I have got, you are usually too nice and complimentary about the so called culture. People should be honest about this. The bottom line is China IS arrogant, conceited and could not care less about all the problems they cause the world or how they go.out of their way to do disgusting and immoral things that other countrirs do not : aka the response “this is China”. Worst thing for me is im married to one of them.(since before the 2015 days you refer to btw).So, this post from me is just a concise version of my story. A full on in your face story that I will be making public in due course … on here and other places.

  3. Robert Raccoon

    Other than the air pollution, I have not found any of these things to be true during my 15 years in China. The food is one of the truly wonderful things about China, though I do not personally prefer the food from the South as much. I eat excellent noodles, breads, mutton soup, and salads every day and the cost is very low. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money, don’t live in one of the megacities! Chinese people have been very hospitable to me, and I have easily travelled to many, many places. The only mistreatment I had was during the COVID epidemic, when I was treated with some fear. I believe that if you are truly willing to give China a chance and do not insist on living in an international city and eat foreign food, China has a lot to offer!

  4. As a person who lives in China, I agree.
    This morning I saw a person using VPN outside. Two people lifted him up and threw him in a caged van, and the person inside was crying for help. I was just an 11 year old student waiting for the bus, and I couldn’t do anything but clutch myself. This event has traumatized me as I am still a student in school.

  5. Not sure where you ate but after being here for 10 years I love the food, especially my Chinese wife’s. Nationalism is pretty bad here but it’s still much worse in my country the 🇺🇸

  6. I’m in the same boat so I can relate. I came here around august of 2018. Left, went back to Canada, and came back around august of 2019, a year later. I will leave in 16 days. Sick and tired of life here. Covid, lack of trust, lack of freedom, constantly having to wear masks and the pressure to be normal in an abnormal society. I miss normal life, I miss freedom

    Also another thing: don’t open up bank accounts. Not worth it. It’s extremely hard to get money out, it’s even worse when you have to transfer money back home. It’s impossible to do so

  7. Nowhere is perfect – no system is infallible BUT I would rather have freedom and choose my own mistakes than live in a regime that dictates my total life. I am independent and a free spirit – I don’t bring harm to others and I pay tax to support the vulnerable in society – now I want the government – all governments to leave me the 🤬 alone – And I have lived in China for 4 years – I will leave next year and will NEVER return.

  8. You don’t know anything about China. Since I came to China in 2004, I have witnessed the transformation and development of this country. China has a splendid history and culture, unique cuisine. Although corruption of a few cannot be avoided, the Chinese government has always been committed to the happiness of the people. Another point is that China is not a pure dictatorship, and China has learned the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union (although there are some words you really can’t say because it could lead to national unrest). Since the decline of Qing China in the 19th century, Chinese have tried to change this situation, and it was not until the Soviet Union spread its own theories to China that the place changed dramatically. It is undeniable that the changes in China in the 1970s changed China’s own appearance (personal qualities, transportation also improved to a certain extent) Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international community believes that communism is not good, but China still adheres to its own path. Why the emphasis on nationalism? This is like the United States, defending its own national interests. Unlike some European countries, which are protected and controlled by the United States, China pursues its own independence.

  9. Hahahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahah.
    Who’s brainwashing who?
    I don’t know what your country is but really? “The CCP is vile, the CCP is corrupted… “ You’re so funny. You’re just racist. I mean China is not perfect at all but are you saying the US are flawless? As a French-Chinese mixed blood and having lived both in China and various Europe countries, I can say that I am less biased than you. I mean, most are right and I reckon nationalism is expanding and stuff but stop it already with the brainwashing or whatnot. You know what, I don’t know if I’m “brainwashed” or not, but I can say that you, and your racist community brainwashed yourselves. Pff, bad for you, just live in ignorance than, since you only wanna believe in whatever you want. Cause yeah, nothing is wrong with the US government, right?

    1. Apparently you failed to read the part that he is from NORWAY. Not the US. What was that that you claimed about bias? Sounds like you have some of your own. 🤔

  10. 作为一个中国公民,我认为您说得没错,但在中国使用vpn并不违法
    As a Chinese resident, I think what did you say is absolutely right, but it’s ligal to use vpn in China

    1. yeah, in some place government don’t care much (open one eye and close another in Chinese 睁一只眼,闭一只眼), however it is really critical that you can say nothing bad about the government. Also Chinese ban you from watching YouTube or even playing foreign computer games which is really annoying for a game lover like me (because Chinese computer games just want you to spend money on it, they don’t really care much about quality)

  11. Similar to you, I was in China from the end of 2013 to beginning of 2019. During that time, I regularly travelled to Thailand and back home just to maintain some degree of sanity.

    Meanwhile, the universe has uniquely conspired to get me locked out of China with the onset of COVID-19. Most recently, the ESL industry has collapsed, and I won’t be returning once the border reopens. China was an experience for sure, but I never felt comfortable there but stayed for the money.

  12. If you cant even let your people access the free Internet, how can you build and develop your country?

    The sad thing is that Chinese people believe themselves that their country is somehow developing in the right direction. I guess that’s how brainwashing works.

    1. In Europe and the United States, where there is freedom of information, millions of people have lost their lives and their homes because of the new epidemic. Is this what you think is the right direction for the country? As a Chinese, we feel more proud than ever. We now live in the safest place in the world and can go outdoors and travel to other cities whenever we want. This is what you call the incorrect direction of the country.HH

    2. Haha, the CCP is extremely good at running a full propaganda show around the virus. And I can see they have convinced you.

      In my country, everyone is now vaccinated with Pfizer and life is back to Normal. In China, they shut down cities every second day in order to battle the Delta virus. Only because CCP produce a vaccine that is not efficient at all. CCP also used the virus situation to turn China into North Korea.

      I have no less than 6 (six!!!) Chinese friends who have desperately been trying to leave the dictatorship country over the last year – naturally so. All of them have been rejected. Chinese people are now prisoners in their own dictatorship country. Bizarre.

    3. yes we can,much more than google, and in google or bing, there have some picture that not go to teenager, and we are free to live in this contry.

    4. :(Google have some thing not good to teenager, and in our country, you can get free vpn what you like!

  13. Me and my husband also left China because of the growing nationalism. He comes from the US and literally didn’t feel secure in the country anymore. Donald Trump didn’t exactly help the situation. And with the Xi Dictator In Chief, it was impossible to cool down hotheaded Chinese nationalists whenever they figured out he was an American.

    Not cool. China is going back to where it was during the Mao era. Imagine how much the next leader of China need to fix from what Xi is currently destroying.

  14. I would much rather want to live in the “real” China. Taiwan.

    To live in Mainland China under the Chinese Communist Party is like asking to waste your life. My brother lived there 6 months and he described it as the worst months of his life lol.

    1. Hi. Then I would recommend your brother to try again.

      It’s fine that China isn’t for everyone. But describing it as “the worst six months of your life”…well… why not leave sooner if that was the case? 😉

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