Smog and traffic in Suzhou, China – two big reason I'm ready to stop being an expat in China. ©KettiWilhelm2015

Letter From an Expat: China, This is Why I’m Leaving You

This post contains affiliate links. Tilted Map receives a commission for purchases you make using these links – at no extra cost to you. This helps me run the website without intrusive ads. Thank you for your support!
Help others find this article!

After living in China as an expat for more than a year, in two different cities (Jinan and Suzhou), these are the reasons I’m leaving.

This fall, the second Chinese city I’ve called home was Suzhou – Portland, Oregon’s sister city. Suzhou is an ancient, once beautiful city. Even though they’re sisters, the only thing I could initially find the two having in common is they’re both places where people like to wear eye glass frames with no lenses, for fashion. Otherwise, Portland and Suzhou seem to be on opposite ends of a development teeter-totter. 

Suzhou (“SUE-Joe”) is known within China as a clean and beautiful city full of gardens and canals – it’s even called the Venice of the East. As far as I have learned, this is all because some poet wrote about the town a few thousand years ago. Since then, everyone has been forced to memorize that poem in school, which led to lots of people in Jinan (my first Chinese home) telling me Suzhou is beautiful and I will love it, even if they have never been there and their information is a millennium old. Suzhou is now basically an industrial suburb of Shanghai.

An outdoor shopping mall near where I live as an expat in Suzhou, China. ©KettiWilhelm2015
A shopping mall near my apartment in Suzhou.

While Suzhou is indeed less smoggy than Jinan, its mess of factories makes it a pretty dull place, without much notable culture or diversity. They have lots of shopping malls and lots of boring but decent housing complexes with modern amenities. (But I did discover one little counterculture-cool coffee shop in Suzhou, which I will eventually write about. And when I say counterculture about a coffee shop in the land of tea, I mean that it feels Chinese and not like a Starbucks knock-off.)

Slowly Making Connections

But half a century ago, little sister Portland was more like Suzhou today – ugly and industrial. Only in the last few decades has Portland transformed itself into the green, vegan City of Roses, and a supposed beacon of youthful awesomeness. 

Portland and Suzhou definitely have more in common than meets the eye – just a few decades apart.

A row of shops and a polluted sky across the street from my apartment in Suzhou, China. ©KettiWilhelm2015
Shops across the street from our Suzhou apartment, some selling fresh seafood from red tubs.

I couldn’t count how many times in the last year I thought about how living in China today reminds me of the US in the 1950s: Before civil rights for minorities. Before gay rights, or even widespread social acceptance of gay people. Before women’s lib and before tattoos became commonplace – back when they were just a sign that you were definitely a criminal.

Even before littering was taboo, let alone illegal and before factory pollution was regulated. Before public buildings had to be accessible. (Which I really learned to pay extra attention to when I broke my leg in China.)

Plus, before a student would even consider pursuing a career her parents didn’t approve of. Before it was okay to be 30 and single. (Before it was okay to be 25 and single.)

Change Is Coming

I say “before,” because China is obviously in the middle of a lot of change. Some of the things I just mentioned have already started to change – in some ways, in some parts of the country.

Most of my comments about China are about the inner provinces, not Beijing and Shanghai. And my friends in Shanghai and Beijing would point out that those cities are already very different from the Chinese norm. Better public transit. More open to LGBT folks and to foreigners. Many waiters even speak some English.

These cities also have more residents who speak solid English and who are on Facebook. (Which means they’re internet savvy and know their way around government censorship). Young people in Beijing and Shanghai are more used to tattoos, more independent from their families, and less worried about settling down and having kids the moment they finish college. (Not that those are necessarily good things.)

But saying those two cities represent all of China would be like saying New York and DC are just like the rest of the US. They are separate worlds within one country.

While the government is still oppressive and the traditions still controlling, I think the internet is making change inevitable even in China.

The communists try to control which parts of the web are available, but people are constantly outsmarting it. VPNs are becoming easier to access for most people (although I did have students who asked me how to get them, and whether it was true that the programs would let them access Facebook). And people are probably figuring out other tech voodoo I don’t know about. Censorship is unsustainable. I assume this because China is the most internet-obsessed place I’ve ever been. But remember, the tech boom of the 90’s was a major part of Portland’s transition from grungy-gross to grungy-cool, so they could be on to something.

All in all, it’s been a fascinating year living in China. This country is more different from home, and from everywhere else, than any other place I’ve ever been. I love some things about it, especially the food, and how friendly and interested in foreigners people are.

But I’m ready for a change for 2016.

I made friends with this old man and his baby in the noodle shop we all frequented. ©KettiWilhelm2015
My noodle shop friend: An old Chinese muslim man, probably from north western China, who perhaps owned my favorite noodle shop in Suzhou and always wanted to see what I was writing in my notebook. (I think because he thought English looked so weird and foreign. Or maybe it was just my handwriting.)

This is why I’m breaking up with China:

I have some responsible reasons.

If I’m going to settle down somewhere, I want it to be a place I can imagine building something, which is impossible to me in a culture as impenetrable as China’s. Sure, I could learn it, but I guess I’ve realized I’m not really motivated to do so. I do have some friends here who showed up in China, burrowed in deep, learned the language to fluency, decoded the culture, and love living in China.

But for me, Mandarin made me feel like banging my head against a wall on a lot of days. I was intrigued, yes. It was a fun challenge where every new word made me feel on top of the world. And I learned more than most people apparently expected me to, but that brick wall was always there.

The pollution also gave me a rotating selection of headaches, stomach aches, sore throats, and black stuff to pick out of my nose. It’s really hard to be active outdoors there, at least in any kind of a city. It just isn’t part of the culture the way it is in the western US (I’m spoiled).

And the censorship drove me crazy, and probably would have eventually gotten me in trouble.

But If I’m Being Honest…

I must admit the reasons that are probably most important for me: I‘m leaving China because it has no cheese, no dessert, no wine, hardly any craft beer, and no dancing.

I wouldn’t really like it better here if all those things came to China.

First of all, because most Chinese people I know don’t seem to want them. And secondly, because the things that make China a challenge (for “laowai,” or outsiders) are what make it an interesting place to spend some time. What fun would China be if it was just like home in all the little ways that are nice for foreigners, but that don’t make Chinese people’s lives any better? The sisters would be boring if they were the same.

So in the end, maybe I could keep living in China with the pollution, the censorship, and not ever fully understanding what’s going on – but I don’t want to do it without dancing. I won’t do it without good beer. I will not do it without cheese. And in the real, old-school China, those are the only ways to do it.

A sunset over Suzhou and the end of my year living in China. ©KettiWilhelm2015
Suzhou sunset. Ciao for now, China.

Help more people find this article! Share on:

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Excellent blog, as usual from “the Scream.” No cheese; I didn’t realize that. But no dancing – caught you in a lie! We saw line dancing in the square in Jinan, and you know it. He he.

    1. Okay, that is definitely true! There are tons of super casual older ladies square dancing for fitness in the parks… but I always missed dancing in bars, clubs, at weddings!

  2. Just came across this article and as a Beijinger living in the states for college I relate to quite literally everything you said! Luckily my parents used to travel around a lot for work and I grew up with lots of cheese and pb&j – shocked to find out most Chinese people outside of my little bubble barely have cheese in their fridges or hit the bars

    1. Hi Alexa!

      Thanks for your comment – I’m always glad to hear I didn’t miss the mark! Living in Jinan was probably the most “different” experience of my life so far – absolutely nothing to compare it and such an eye-opener. I loved it, though, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

      Keep in touch! 🙂