I’m sitting in a hotel in Guangzhou, the largest city in Southern China. Even if you haven’t been here, you’ve likely heard of it. Guangzhou is known as a “first-tier city”. Alongside Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, Guangzhou is—to put it simply—critical to this country. Think of these cities as Chinese equivalents to New York and London. They’re highly international, which means there are plenty of expats, lots of businesses cater to them, and you have relatively easy access to the comforts of home. That being said, they’re more expensive to live in, and they aren’t right for everyone.
I don’t live in Guangzhou. I’m Brendan, and I teach adults at EFEC in Dongguan, a “second-tier city”. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not at fault. Dongguan is Guangzhou’s next-door neighbour and an important regional city. However, few non-Chinese have heard of it.
I thought of writing a post about Dongguan, but I’d rather compare it to Guangzhou. Most who come to China experience it from first-tier cities, looking outward. I’m here to tell you what it’s like looking into a first-tier city from the outside. Here are five observations about first-tier cities, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t live in one. Let’s start with the obvious:
EVERYDAY LIFE IS EASIER (BUT HARDER)
I approach the metro station employee. “Nihao. Qingwen C3 chu kou zai na li?”
She smiles. “Exit C3 is at the end of this walkway. It will be on the left side.”
“Xie—uh…thank you,” I stammer.
As someone who lives in a second-tier city, I have gotten used to conducting my everyday life in Chinese. Asking for directions, ordering food, and making purchases are just some of the things I have become at least moderately comfortable doing. I wasn’t going to stammer through my daily life here! That’s why I make a point to speak as much Chinese as I can. It was that, or indefinitely tether myself to one of my local colleagues for assistance.
That’s why it’s so shocking to be greeted in English everywhere I go. My fellow international teachers in Guangzhou may take this for granted, but ordering food in English is fantastic. The big chains all have staff that can speak English, and a few smaller shops do as well. Although Dongguan is becoming more and more international, it is still noteworthy to be able to order food in English.
In the more developed areas of Guangzhou, I have often felt that I have to speak English. I look for opportunities to practice my Chinese wherever I can; this is easy in Dongguan. In the international parts of Guangzhou however, I occasionally notice that my use of Chinese is met with mild hostility. I sometimes almost feel as if I’m being accused of patronising people, as if people are subtly trying to communicate, “I can speak English, you know,” to me. (By the way, I’ve never felt this stronger anywhere than I have in Hong Kong).
LOCALS HAVE SEEN IT ALL
Locals have seen it all! Even more so than people from our own countries.People from across China are increasingly flocking to its big cities to seek their fortunes. Anyone who has lived in a large city knows meeting folks from all around is inevitable. Since we international teachers are, by definition, international people, we tend to find living in a big first-tier city very attractive.
Dongguan isn’t a backwater by any stretch. However, it can often seem very innocent compared to first-tier cities. People are incredibly inquisitive and friendly, but I usually find myself reading from the same script for every new acquaintance:
“Ni shi nali ren?” (Where are you from?)
“O. Meiguo.” (Oh. America.)
“Zhende ma? Ni bu xiang o.” (Really? You don’t look like one.)
“Wo shi hunxueer. Wo mama shi tai guo ren.” (I’m mixed-race. My mom is Thai.)
At this point, the conversation either ends or takes off. It’s likely that many people I’ve met in Dongguan have never seen a mixed-race person before. People either have tons of questions or don’t quite know what to say. These conversations happen all over Dongguan. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the countryside or downtown. Locals love talking about where you’re from. And before you say it’s just an icebreaker, let me explain how first meetings happen for me in downtown Guangzhou and Shenzhen:
“Ni shi meiguoren, dui ma?” (You’re American, right?)
“Dui! Ni hen bang o.” (Correct! Well done!)
“Wo zhidao meiguo kouyin. Ni shi yingyu laoshi ma?” (I know the American accent. Are you an English teacher?)
“Zhende shi wo diyi ci jian ni ma?” (Is this really the first time I’ve met you?)
“Zhi shi wo de ganjue. Nimen waiguoren dabufen shi yingyu laoshi.” (It’s just my feeling. Most of you foreigners are English teachers.)
As for Hong Kong:
“Nei hou. Ho m hoji bei ngo jat zeong jingmaan coidaan?” (Hello. Can you give me an English menu?)
“Here you go, sir. If you have any questions about anything at all…and let me know when you’re ready to order.”
EXPATS FEEL “SORRY” FOR YOU, BUT THEY ALSO ADMIRE YOU
“You’re from Dullguan?”
This is a nickname some expats in Guangzhou have given Dongguan. I get it. Dongguan can be a very sleepy city. I’ve spent many evenings wondering where to go, only to feel preemptive disappointment toward every option. Nothing seems fun.
I jump on a bus to a random location an hour away, only to find that area to be exactly the same as my neighbourhood, but with slightly different scenery. Every neighbourhood has the requisite array of local shops and provincial spread of restaurants. It’s very cookie-cutter. Where are the cool, unique spots in town?
Well, you’ve got Qifeng Park, Yuanmei Park, People’s Park, Shuilian Mountain, Yinping Mountain, Daling Mountain, Tongsha Reservoir Lake, Songshan Lake, and many more. Noticing a pattern?
To be fair, all of these places are fantastic, and Dongguan does have a robust nightlife too. The takeaway is that Dongguan is a very wholesome place. I could write a children’s book about places in the city without having to comb through it for anything mature, objectionable, or unsavoury. In other words, it can be flavourless. How could Dongguan compete with Guangzhou or Shenzhen?
A lot of first-tier city expats who have visited a second-tier city are probably nodding their heads right now. I get it. That’s why after they say, “You’re from Dullguan?” I sometimes hear, “That’s amazing. I could never do that. You’re getting a real China experience.”
WHAT IS CHINA? (AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCES)
Except…what does it mean to have a “real China experience?” Could you replace China with any other country and say you’re having a real (country) experience? What’s an American experience? A UK experience? I understand the logic though: the more local you go, the “more real” your experience gets. Still, I’ve always found this line of reasoning to be very strange.
People assume that they’ll pick up local culture better if they don’t live in a first-tier city, but I’ve been in a lot of situations where the reverse was true. Multiculturalism contextualizes better than full immersion. A Chinese person from the northern provinces can tell me much more about the peculiarities of southern Chinese than someone from the South who hasn’t had practice explaining them. I often find myself unable to form opinions about Dongguan because, sometimes, Dongguan is all I have. Only when I go somewhere else do I pull back and think about it.
There’s also the argument that the best way to learn is to do. I agree. That philosophy forms the basis of the way I and so many other EF teachers deliver our lessons. However, as much as I enjoy being invited to a family dinner and trying my best to follow local customs, I probably won’t learn much about the why unless someone at the table has either experience with other cultures or good ambassadorial instincts. First-tier cities are full of those things.
You might think I said earlier that life is too eventful in first-tier cities to reflect on being in China. It’s more like there’s such a variety of things to do that you often temporarily forget. When you remember, however, you start to put all of it together. All of the experiences you have in first-tier cities are punctuated with chances to evaluate and compare.
First-tier cities give you ample opportunity to glimpse into the local world and adjust your ideas, but second-tier cities are a “deeper dive.” They don’t offer lots of chances to come up for air, but when you do, you learn a lot. Dongguan, in truth, is not at all a dull city. It’s normal. People go to school, get jobs, think about mortgages, have kids, and go for walks in the park. It’s the first-tier cities, with their endless variety of things to do and people to meet, that are weird.
If you think about what your life was like back home, does it resemble life in Guangzhou or Dongguan? What are you used to? What are you looking for? Perhaps you’ve already chosen where to go. I encourage you to go out and try everything. Go to other cities. Take in different customs. China is huge. Go explore it.
TAKE THE NEXT STEP
The world is waiting for you