How 10 Game Changers in China Changed My Life

image of a ball of glass on street view to demonstrate perspective

This blog post includes a list of ten game changers I discovered in China that have powerfully influenced my thoughts and actions. Please note this post is my personal experience, thoughts, and questions. It does not reflect an alignment of any political issues. 

Game Changers

  1. Garbage and Litter
  2. Bathrooms in Restaurants 
  3. Napkins
  4. Tipping
  5. Toilet Paper
  6. Online Shopping
  7. Payment Methods
  8. Mail Delivery
  9. Teaching English
  10. Online Lessons

Moving to China

I moved from Alberta, Canada, to Beijing, China, in December 2019. Although well-travelled, I had never been to China or Asia before this move and did not know what to expect. At one point during my preparations for this life-changing move, I thought, “is this the craziest thing I have ever done?” I reflected and decided it was fear popping up, so I changed my narrative to, “I am doing something I have never done to experience things I have never experienced.” Today, the answer to my initial question is a resounding “Yes!”

Background

I am a grassroots Canadian. Born and raised in rural Saskatchewan, I grew up in a small northern hamlet and went to grade school in a one-room classroom with one teacher. Dore Lake, Saskatchewan, was and still is a community embedded in tourism, commercial fishing, and the forestry industry. 

Dore Lake, Saskatchewan

The Dore Lake community sits at the base of five hundred and fifty square miles of a freshwater lake in the middle of the boreal forest. Pristine views from all angles and wildlife throughout. We were respectfully aware of our role as humans and did our best to preserve nature. We spent most of our time outside, even in winter. 

Our small hamlet in Dore Lake was two hours from groceries, doctors, police, and emergency services. We were right in the middle of a boreal forest with gravel road access that was sometimes inaccessible due to heavy rainfall or snowfall. We typically travelled one hour to a local small town for mail and two hours to a larger town for supplies, doctors, hairdressers, etc. 

Lethbridge, Alberta

After leaving Dore Lake to pursue post-secondary education, start my career outside the tourism industry, and raise our family, we landed in Lethbridge, Alberta. Lethbridge is a small city of approximately 100,000 residents. The demographics reflect a community with one large university and one community college, government offices, and construction and trades. Farming and ranching are rich in the areas surrounding Lethbridge. After living there for 23 years, it was hard but necessary to say goodbye. 

Deciding to Move

So, why did I decide to move to Beijing? The answer is simple, and the decision to move abroad came after massive changes in my life. Our children were grown and thriving on their own, my oldest daughter married, and my youngest was playing college volleyball and established. My husband and I divorced in 2018 after spending a quarter of a century together, and it was time for me to venture out on my own and set myself up for myself. 

Taking Action

Following a soul-searching conversation with my soul sister, Karen, in July 2019, and then my daughters, I decided to make a move and started planning. The first order of business was to find a job. Starting with Google searches and then LinkedIn, I found many openings at various schools across China. I reached out to some contacts, some I knew, some I didn’t, and started asking questions about China and what to expect. 

I started the heart-crushing task of dispersing all my personal possessions. I sold, gave away, donated, and recycled everything that didn’t fit into two suitcases and one carry-on. Five months before my arrival in Beijing, I stayed with a friend, then moved into Airbnb and my soul sister’s rental suite above her store. I also took public transportation or walked to work.

Some people thought I was in a midlife crisis. But, for me and those close to me, I was in a state of change and a soul awakening. Shedding old layers of myself and reconnecting with myself profoundly to make my way in life on my own. I was a parent at 19 years of age and spent my adulthood up to this time in the primary roles of mother and wife. This was my time to be whoever I wanted to become, and I was ready. Call it whatever you want. For me, it was an awakening I embraced wholeheartedly. 

Divine Intervention

At the end of July, I secured a job in Changsha province to teach high school at a private Canadian school. Unfortunately, once I started the paperwork process, I realized I needed to get several documents and degrees updated with my new surname. This took time, and I had to let my prospective employer know I wouldn’t be able to arrive at the end of August as initially planned. 

I received my updated documents in early September with my name changes reflected and started looking for another job. My initial thought at this time was, “Is the Universe trying to tell me this isn’t the right move for me?”. However, always having been a spiritual person who recognizes when things become difficult, stops to reflect, and adjusts accordingly, I needed to take time for myself again to feel assured this was the best move for me.

Forging Ahead

Through reflection, I discovered my options felt limited in Lethbridge. I needed a change in my physical environment and job. I was at a crossroads in life for moving forward. I could have chosen to stay in Canada and move to another city, or I could fulfil a lifelong dream and relocate abroad. 

My youngest daughter said, “Mom, you have always wanted to live abroad. So what’s stopping you now?” I was afraid. I was terrified of the unknown. I didn’t know the language, had limited knowledge of the culture, and had never been away from what was familiar. Yet, something deep inside of me told me to do it anyway. 

Making the Move

After securing a job in Beijing, everything seemed to fall into place. My employer connected me with a real estate agent to help me find an apartment. After a few days of contact, I had an address. 

This video was recorded minutes before I boarded the plane from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Beijing, China:

Culture Shock

Once I was settled in my new home, I started to venture out into my new neighborhood during the days. It was a surreal time for me as I was still adjusting and settling in. Most days, I’d return home dumbfounded and curious about something new I had seen. Missing my family and friends, I spent nights on FaceTime calls and seriously contemplating my life decisions.

My first view of Beijing, China.
Jet lagged and shocked on my first morning in Beijing, China.
FaceTime with my cubs is a lifeline.

The first month was the hardest and each passing week became easier. That is until the end of January when COVID-19 broke out, and the world changed into something entirely different from what we all knew. 

The view from my Beijing apartment (27th floor).

Game Changers

After a few weeks, I started to feel confident and asked my boss and colleagues about the things I saw. The following is a list of the top ten game changers that changed my life and altered my thoughts and actions.

Game Changer 1: Garbage and Litter

This was the first thing I noticed in the taxi from the airport to my apartment when I arrived in China. You can drive, bike, or walk down most streets, and you will not see garbage or litter on the roads or sidewalks. The same goes for subways, shopping malls, apartment complexes, beaches, parks, and other public spaces I have been to in China. However, garbage containers and recycling bins are scarce, and you may see one every city block. This is because each community and neighborhood have an ‘Ayi’ (means’ auntie’ in Chinese).

Street sweepers work tirelessly to keep garbage and litter off of public spaces in Beijing, China.

Ayis comb each street and building for garbage and litter. They carry a broom and a bucket or cart for what they pick up. All Ayis wear a uniform and are noticeable everywhere you go. When I was in Beijing, the street sweepers were mostly men. However, since 2020 I have been in Hainan and have noticed they are primarily women. All later in middle age or retirement age, these people work tirelessly to keep streets and public spaces clean. It’s pretty remarkable, and I am astounded by the hard work of these individuals. Can you imagine? Cities and communities employ full-time people to ensure the environment is free of garbage and litter. Makes sense to me. 

All streets and sidewalks in Beijing, China is free of litter.

Game Changer 2- Bathrooms in Restaurants

When out for lunch with my boss, I asked where the bathroom was located. She politely laughed and said, ‘Suzannah, most restaurants don’t have toilets.” I was stunned, initially thinking it was a language barrier, but she did say ‘toilets,’ so I was left confused. No toilets in restaurants?

It turns out that most smaller restaurant establishments in China don’t have public toilets. Instead, public toilets are in small trailer-like portable facilities throughout the neighborhoods. This is true for supermarkets and other places of business in China. But, of course, shopping malls and more prominent places like Starbucks usually have one inside the shop or close by. 

I couldn’t resist the urge to ask why and explained how it is commonplace for all restaurants to have a public bathroom with accessibility services in Canada. The answer was simple: people are in a restaurant to eat. Makes sense to me. 

Dining with my boss and colleague in Beijing, China.

Game Changer 3- Napkins

The second thing I noticed in China is smaller restaurants do not offer customers napkins. Some of the larger ones have one on the table, or you can purchase a travel-size box of tissues for a nominal fee (2-5 RMB = $.40-$1.00). Again, using Starbucks as an example, they have the station all Starbucks do where you can get extra sugar, a stir stick, and napkins. But most places do not offer napkins. 

When I asked about this observation, I was told that it is better for the environment, and if people need napkins, they can bring along their own. Makes sense to me. 

Downtown Beijing, China.

Game Changer 4- Tipping

This is an interesting observation. China does not have any mention or practice of tipping service providers. Following my story about lunch with my boss, at the end of our meal, I reached in to pull out a few notes to leave as a tip. My boss immediately asked me what I was doing, so I told her I was leaving a little something for the servers. She politely smiled and told me tipping is insulting in China. What? She explained that when servers are offered a tip, they are offended because it means the customer thinks their boss doesn’t pay them enough money to support themselves and their families. Whoa! This was a new concept. Having grown up serving coffee, checking tourists in, and receiving tips, this thought never once occurred to me before this experience. Dumbfounded at this new concept, I quietly picked up my notes and put them back in my wallet. This experience changed my perspective on tipping. Makes sense to me. 

Game Changer 5- Toilet Paper

Once we finished our lunch, we headed out to find a public bathroom. As I was squeezing myself into the stall with an unappealing squatter toilet, my boss handed me a few napkins. I was puzzled, took them politely and thanked her. Then, I thought, ‘that’s weird?” Once settled and properly balanced, I noticed no toilet paper in the stall and no dispenser for toilet paper. Thinking back to our conversation about napkins, I decided the lack of dispensers for toilet paper was for similar reasons. If people need toilet paper, they will bring it to the toilet with them. The same goes for any sinks for washing your hands. No paper towel and no soap. If you need soap, bring soap. Makes sense to me. 

Game Changer 6- Online Shopping

One of the first conversations I had with my new boss and colleagues was about how to get everything I needed in China. They asked me if I was on Taobao, Pin Duo Duo, or Jin Dong. Huh? One by one, they immediately rallied my phone to install online shopping apps and explained how most people in China shop online. My world started to expand, and I was excited about online shopping the more I learned about it from seasoned online shoppers. 

I explained how we would order something from Amazon or another shop in Canada, and it would arrive in 5-14 business days. In addition, you must pay high shipping costs. For example, ordering food could take up to an hour for delivery and fees. They all laughed and said in China, when you order something, it will arrive in 1-3 days, and there are no shipping costs. When making local orders, a delivery usually arrives in under forty minutes, and there are no delivery fees. If there ever was a time for heaven to open wide with a choir of angels singing, this was the time. 

Joy City spans 2-3 blocks in any direction and is many stories high. It is one of the largest shopping centers in Beijing, China.

Learning Curve

My learning about online shopping was steep. All the online shopping apps are in Chinese, and I knew how to say ‘hello’ in Chinese at this point in time. Nevertheless, I embraced the challenge, downloaded more Chinese translation apps, and dove into the world of online shopping. My life has changed.

In China, you get anything delivered to your door in record time. Local deliveries like groceries, household items, and food will arrive at your door in under forty-five minutes. McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks usually arrive in under twenty minutes. No delivery fees, no tipping, and remarkable convenience.

Quality of Life

Through online shopping, my quality of life has been exponentially enhanced in China, and I have more time to do what I enjoy. No longer making the two-to-three-hour shopping trips to Costco each week (including travel time and snacking time), I am free to use that time however I choose. Makes sense to me. 

Game Changer 7- Payment Methods

In China, payments are made by scanning a QR code on WeChat or Alipay. These accounts are linked to your Chinese bank account, and transactions are taken immediately, as with using debit or credit in Canada. 

Everyone uses these methods for payments, and seeing cash exchanges is rare. When at the market or purchasing from a street vendor, they have a code you scan, and once you enter the amount and click to pay, they receive the money. You can also send money to others within these apps by clicking on their name to create a new chat box. Then under the chat box by the keyboard and emojis, you can add a transaction. This is how I pay rent to my landlord each month, order water from the water delivery guy, and send and receive money for splitting a bill with friends. This method of payment is ridiculously efficient. No more purses, wallets, or cards. You just pull out your phone, scan, and poof, and you’re done. Makes sense to me. 

Everyone has a QR code for receiving payments. Each merchant at this small street market in Beijing, China receives payments by WeChat or Alipay.

Game Changer 8- Mail Delivery

This is one of my faves in China. Packages you order or are sent to you from abroad are either delivered to your door or placed in a cabinet by the security gate at your building. There are little boxes, and as each item is set, the delivery person scans your parcel and enters a code into the system. Once the delivery person completes their process, you immediately receive a text message with a code to go and pick up your items. You have 24 hours to pick up your delivery. Otherwise, overdue fees accumulate as time goes by (0.50 RMB – 2 RMB = $0.10 – $0.40). This system for mail delivery is efficient and convenient if you are not available when the delivery person is at your door. Makes sense to me.

This video shows an example of how the system works:

Game Changer 9- Teaching English

I moved to China to teach English. Once here, I learned that Chinese public schools begin teaching students English in primary school. Teaching business leaders in Beijing taught me how, as a native speaker, I take language nuance, metaphor, and figurative language for granted. Learning about the Chinese language has shown me the similarities and vast differences between the two languages. The structure is one of the areas of the English language where the differences are most notable. 

Structure of Language

As a native speaker of English, I never considered the importance of structure before moving to China. I mean how we explain events, time, and space by arrangement. English speakers typically cut to the chase and give the meat and potatoes about what we want to discuss. In Chinese, the language is structured from biggest to smallest. For example, if someone asked me when I moved to China in English, I would reply, “I arrived in the middle of the afternoon on the 14th of December 2019”. In Chinese, I would answer, “On 2019, December 14th, afternoon I arrived in Beijing”. The same goes for when someone asks when you woke up today. In English, they would ask, “what time do you get up?” In Chinese, they would ask, “Today, this morning, the time you woke up?” Biggest to smallest, with time always being first, is the order of structuring conversations in Chinese.

This insight has helped me to become a better English teacher. Although I am still learning Chinese, I am fascinated with the similarities and differences. Communicating these similarities and differences has helped my students with their language development and has helped me with mine. Makes sense to me. 

This video does a great job of explaining how China came to be the largest English-speaking country in the world: 

Game Changer 10- Online Lessons

When I was teaching English online in Beijing, I thought I would have classes of 5-20 students. Although this was the case for my weekly course load, there were some special introductory classes my company asked me to facilitate. So one day, when I was getting ready for classes, my boss came in to ensure the online class’s network connections, video, audio, and lighting were working. Scheduled for 90 minutes, I was prepping my lesson and loading it into the online platform. While preparing for the session, she debriefed me about the company and the group’s demographics. She told me they would be upper management for an international bank, and participants would be bank managers in various countries worldwide. Puzzled, I asked, ‘how many participants will join the session.’ She said, ‘One moment and looked at her chat messages from the coordinator at the company. Then, without hesitation, she said, “there should be about 5,000 participants, possibly 7,000.’ Pale with disbelief and horror, I replied, ‘What?’. She said, ‘Suzannah, this is online teaching in China.” And we were off and running!

Online lessons in China are meant to meet the needs of the masses. Given the population size and reach of people in business interested in learning English in China, it makes sense that some of the classes include numbers of participants into the tens of thousands. In speaking with our Vice President following this session, we discussed the differences in online learning in Canada and China. He told me that the English lessons he facilitates online include up to 100,000 participants. This delivery model for online teaching is accessible and efficient. With tech companies in China developing learning management systems for these numbers, the potential for reaching all people interested in online lessons is realistic and achievable. Makes sense to me. 

Teaching classes of 5-30 participants in Zoom while in Beijing, China.

Reflection

Moving to China has expanded my worldview. Growing up in a small hamlet and raising our family in a small city in Canada gave me a foundation for the value of connection. However, living and working in one of the biggest cities in the world has shown me another perspective. There are systems for efficiency that make sense, given the population size.  

Putting it in perspective and reflecting on Canada, I am curious about our willingness and abilities to adapt to some of the game changers I have learned about in China. Here are a few questions I have considered since my experiences in China:

  1. What would our environmental footprint look like if we removed bathrooms, toilet paper, and napkins from restaurants? 
  2. I recently read an article by CBC News, ‘Tip-inflation has some restaurants asking for up to 30% in tips’ (Aug 22, 2022), about Canadian restaurants increasing gratuity fees. This is a short-term solution to a long-term issue about our system in Canada. Our approach is flawed when minimum wage hikes and rising gratuity fees still do not meet the basic needs of Canadian workers. I’m not an analyst, so I offer no solutions, but a conversation needs to be had around this issue. These solutions will not fix the systemic problem, and this problem affects housing, the local economy, and the quality of life for Canadians. The service industry needs holistic solutions for real and lasting changes. 
  3. What would the Canadian workforce look like with open access to professional development training delivered online, accepted by employers, and fees comprised of nominal membership fees?

Thanks for stopping by! Please leave a comment and share your experiences in China or elsewhere. 

Until next time,

Suzanne

References

Nerman, D. (2022, August 22). Tip-flation has some restaurants asking for up to 30% in tips. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/costofliving/tipflation-gratuities-1.6555135/

The world’s English mania – Jay Walker. (n.d.). http://Www.youtube.com. Retrieved August 26, 2022, from https://youtu.be/ZpILR21GWao

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  1. Thanks for sharing!

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