Moving to Small Town China
When my husband and I visited his hometown, a small town in Northeast China with our son in the fall of 2014, we only planned to stay for a few weeks. Our initial plan was to move to the seaside city of Dalian, but due to some unforeseen events, we ended up staying in his hometown of 400,000. While a population of 400,000 counts as big in a country like Austria, in China it’s not even a medium-large town.
At first, I wasn’t too optimistic about staying here. The only people we knew whom we had regular contact with were my in-laws. I became depressed soon after moving here (the move wasn’t the only reason, exhaustion from sleep-deprivation, being a new mother and knowing no-one I could connect with, an uncertain future and unforeseen financial problems all exacerbated the problem).
But now I really like living here. Living in Small Town China has shown me the positives of slowing down a bit and the things that are important for me in life. I have also become to appreciate certain conveniences, including the following:
Fewer people occupying more space
In comparison to China’s bigger metropolises, there is still relatively much space on a per person ratio. While there are many cars on the road and not a lot of parking space, it’s still easier to find a parking space than in most big cities in China. Parking space is also (still) free of charge in most places. More available space also means that it is easier to live in a separate apartment from the in-laws (which isn’t always the case for families living in bigger cities where rent prices are skyrocketing). There are shorter queues at the hospital or basically any other public institution you may have to go to.
Access to fresher produce
When we were living in Shenzhen, good quality meat and vegetables were expensive and rare. The fact that market vendors left meat and veggies in the sun for the day didn’t really help with the quality. Since there were a few ten million people competing for fresh produce daily (and that is only talking of Shenzhen, not neighboring mega cities like Guangzhou and Hong Kong who all have to import tons of produce via similar routes), good quality vegetables and meat were overpriced and hard to come by.
I searched for good quality eggs from free-range chickens throughout my pregnancy in Shenzhen and just couldn’t find any. Every time I bought a different kind of egg that advertised as coming from free-range chicken, the bad quality really disappointed me. You definitely do taste the difference.
These days we just have to call up an acquaintance and he’ll deliver eggs from free-range chicken right from the countryside to our door. It’s the same with free-range chicken. If we want to eat good quality chicken meat, we just have to call a farmer and they will bring by the meat the following day or two.
While southern fruit was fresh and delicious, fruit from the North was ridiculously expensive and usually not fresh. We still have access to relatively fresh fruit from the south now, but can also buy fresh blueberries when they are in season in the Northeast (ok, this one is more a south/north difference than a big city/small town one, getting a little carried away by the availability of affordable fresh blueberries here).
On one of the strolls through my neighborhood in Shenzhen, I saw half a pig being transported on the back of a motorcycle without any cover. The pic had turned a blue-ish color and was transported through the polluted city during the worst heat of the day. For almost two years after that incident I couldn’t eat any meat. I still only rarely eat pork in China, but we now have access to adequately priced good quality beef from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia that is four times cheaper than in Shenzhen. Part of the reason must be transport costs, but I’m sure this kind of meat is also much more expensive in relatively closer metropolises like Beijing.
Getting from A to B is a real hassle in big cities. Not only might it occupy most of your free time, squeezing in that subway or bus with 1000s of other people is quite uncomfortable. Being stuck in a traffic jam when the only thing you want to do is enjoy the rest of the evening at home is also not fun. Going to the movies when the trip will take longer than the movie itself, well, you’ll probably think twice about going.
In many cities in China, shops specializing in certain kinds of products usually cluster in one area. So if you need to buy electronics for example, you will only find a good choice in that one area in your city. In our case, the electronics area was 75 min from where we lived. The train station was about the same distance. It just wasn’t very convenient to go to most places and I was usually exhausted at arrival.
It is pretty easy to get from A to B in this small town. It usually doesn’t take longer than half an hour (half an hour would already be considered long here) and it is also much more convenient and closer to take our son to the closest vegetable market or green space than it would have been in a big city like Shenzhen. Most of the time, I can just walk there, even with a toddler in tow.
Better air quality
It depends on where you live in China, but a small town like ours that doesn’t have any industry is usually much less polluted than bigger cities. We sometimes get pollution from nearby cities carried over by the wind and sometimes from the nearby countryside in winter when people use a lot of coal to heat up their houses, but these are rare occasions and we have blue air days most of the time. I have observed that in springtime, pm 2.5 will sometimes be more than 200 when there’s a lot of sand being carried our way from the Inner Mongolian desert. It doesn’t feel as severe for my lungs as when I go to a city like Beijing and it shows a pm 2.5 of over 200 on a normal pollution day, which usually immediately gives me a cough (I guess one is pollution mostly by sand, the other by exhaust fumes from vehicles or factories).
One negative aspect of the relatively less pollution is that if we do get a bad air quality day, indoor spaces usually don’t come with air purifiers like they do in Beijing.
Sure enough, pollution here is still a multiple of a city like Vienna in Austria, we can only hope that it will get better in the foreseeable future, not worse.
Of course, a small town like ours also comes with a few inconveniences. We don’t have an airport, so anytime we need to take a flight we first have to take a train.
If I want to cook Austrian dishes, I have to plan a week in advance to make sure all the ingredients I need and bought online will arrive in time. But the good thing is that with online shopping being really convenient in China, I can still buy all the things I need for cooking an Austrian meal.
We don’t have a big choice of restaurants here. While in a bigger city you will usually be able to choose between Mexican, Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, US-American and other food, international cuisine in this small town basically means Korean food. In the less than two years of living here, I have learned to cook a lot from scratch. Thanks to being able to find mouth-watering recipes online, I have cooked authentic Indian curry as well as homemade tacos with Tejano Carne Guisada (braised beef). Since most of the bread sold in bakeries around here comes with lactose and is sweet and spongy, I also make bread at home. It’s much healthier than what you get in most bakeries not only around here but even in most bakeries in Austria, where the ingredient list has ingredient after ingredient I have never heard of before.
We have one great café here (lots of other café’s too, but most of them are so-so or have cats which I am allergic too), cinemas that play international and Chinese and movies with English subtitles, and rare finds like a private kitchen restaurant.
We don’t have all the fancy cosmopolitan places that are usually a feature of bigger cities, but all in all, I’d say it’s quite livable here. If we really do miss the big city feel, we can easily jump on the next fast train to Shenyang or Changchun, both of which are less than an hour away.
Have you ever lived in a small town in China? What was it like?