As a 26 yo uni student who has lived in China for the past 6 years, I have a lot to say. I must include that Hefei, while a capital city, is considered less “advanced” or “developed” than Beijing or Shanghai. There are a lot less foreigners here, but quite a number of us nonetheless considering the multiple international schools and English teaching opportunities. When I reference Chinese people in my answer, I’m talking about those in Hefei.
I’ll list the negatives first, so don’t think it’s all bad!
1. The attention you garner as a foreigner can sometimes make normal, everyday activities unpleasant/tedious and is a constant reminder that you do not belong. I’d say I experience stares from about 60% of people, sometimes it’s very intrusive and sometimes just a quick glance. I’ve had people video me in KFC and act like they weren’t doing a thing when I asked them to stop. People say they don’t know any better when it comes to personal space, but I never see Chinese people invade each other’s (a stranger’s) personal space. It’s like they forget we are human sometimes the way they pull on our hair or reach out to touch our skin to see if it’s real. Again, it’s not everyone! Many of not most are quite respectful, or at least try to be.
2. Your experience as a foreigner is UNDENIABLY influenced by your race. The average mainlander loves white people & considers them the standard of beauty and talent. If someone tells you otherwise, they are lying. In Hefei, white teachers get paid more and sometimes black teachers are flat out refused based on skin tone, even if the ENGLISH teacher is a black American, they get passed over for a White Russian with poor English. When hiring foreigners for ads/modeling, 99% chosen are white. Doesn’t even have to be an exceptionally good looking white person. As long as you’re white (and thin), you’ll do.
4. Virtually everyone spits and smokes (mostly men). while the roads are kept clean, there is a level of basic hygiene that is ignored— I’ve seen babies with slit bottomed pants have a poop or a pee on the sidewalk, monitored by their parents/grandparents. Ive seen men spit inside buildings, into the tile. Inside elevators with other people. The admin building of my school seems like it’s never been swept or wiped, though it’s the leading medical school in the entire province.
6. Pollution EVERYWHERE. I physically grow dull being here for a more than 2 years— my skin acts up, my hair falls out— and this is a sentiment shared by many foreigners who live in my city. The environment really takes a toll on your body even if you don’t realize it right away. The pipe water is extremely harsh and the air quality is terrible. Not Beijing smog level bad, but being a Caribbean girl, I have wilted here.
7. Many a time people have gone out of their way to be inclusive, to try to make me feel comfortable. Offering me food, offering advice, trying to get me to participate and feel at ease. I’d say majority of my interactions with coworkers, employees, Chinese schoolmates or even the women in my ballet class, are very pleasant experiences.
7. People are extremely helpful. I can guarantee you that if you have a problem and ask for help, they will assist you. For instance my phone battery used to die often while I was out— if I stopped at a random store and asked them to allow me to plug my charger in or even borrow their charger for a moment, they will gladly do so. Super helpful in most instances, though they may be shy they will almost certainly help as best as they can if you ask!
8. China is extremely safe. Coming from a small Caribbean country with a high rate of violence, it’s bliss over here in terms of safety. I can walk down the road at 3am with my phone out watching a show and nothing will happen to me. I can leave my purse accidentally in a store and come back the next day to find it. They’ve done a wonderful job promoting honesty and nonviolence.
9. The country is very efficient overall. 90% of the time it’s easy to get things done— at the bank, the supermarket, a repair shop etc. Bus systems run on time, there’s an app for literally EVERYTHING. It’s an easy place to live if you ignore the firewall frustrations.
10. The language is a bit difficult to learn. You can get around fine with the basics and a translator, but of course you’ll get more opportunities with a good grasp of conversational mandarin and the people will appreciate it!
11. I have never ever been sexually harassed by anyone except a few foreigners. Not sure if it’s because I’m a foreigner or their rate of random public harassment is actually near nonexistent, which is A LOT MORE than I can say for many countries.
12. The city I live in is cheap. Quite affordable with decent housing, though most everything is an apartment. Actual houses are for the obscenely wealthy.
13. Lastly, my university— the international department treats us horribly. Not all intl schools are like this; I’ve had friends who attend completely welcoming institutions. My school treats us like cash cows and they know we have little to no rights in China as many of us come from impoverished countries anyways, and there is no democracy here. They’ve given us the most dilapidated building on the campus that constantly needs repairs to remain functioning— one MONTH during the summer, they cut the water in the entire building except a few dirty, unused bathrooms downstairs to be shared among 100+ students. Our school fee is nearly 10 times that of Chinese students, but they seldom use it to maintain our facilities. For two weeks after, they closed the downstairs bathroom & forced us to use another dormitory whenever we needed to use the bathroom in any capacity. As students, out concerns are never acknowledged much less met… sexual harassment complaints were ignored and led to my close friend and schoolmate’s suicide. They then hushed it up and forbade any of us to speak of it. They never acknowledged their actions in the end, not have they taken steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. When a first year student went to speak to the dean about something concerning his academic future (mind you, first year means your grasp of mandarin is extremely rudimentary, if it even exists beyond 你好，谢谢 and 我是__), he was told to come back when he could speak fluent chinese. This is at a school which offers an ENGLISH programme. To ENGLISH SPEAKING STUDENTS. You literally need to have English as your first language or pass something like TOEFL to be accepted. And since there’s no democracy, we (students) can’t do shit about the unfair treatment. Yes it’s China and I’m all for learning the language of the country you live in, but come on. First year? Speak fluent Chinese? In an international institution offering a course in ENGLISH?
Overall I’d say it’s definitely not a country for everyone, but it’s a safe place with many kind people and comfortable living if you can have a moderate income and ignore certain things. Living here I sometimes feel like I’m on another planet, totally separate from the rest of the world.