Living Like a Local: What A Chinese City Really Looks Like

As I step outside, my throat fills with phlegm. The thick smog pierces my lungs and lingers at eye level. At first I thought all this spitting was culturally customary. Now I realize it’s a national necessity. Nothing outside a one-block radius is crisp. The buildings in the distance are only a faint shadow, their lines blurred by the effluvium. It’s dirty here. Heaping stacks of trash line the streets and children play in piles of dirt down back alleyways. There are people spitting, pissing and puking in almost every direction. A small child defecates on the sidewalk as I walk past.

This is not the China you’ve seen photos of. This is not the China your 12-day whirlwind tour will traverse you through. This is the China that only few others, besides the Chinese, ever experience. This is China, living like a local.

Dirty Streets of China

There are no pointed monasteries or pagodas. There are only skyscrapers and run down buildings, the shops are nothing more than a strip of one-car garages with the door open. Some shops sell alcohol and cigarettes, others sell raw meat and fish, which has likely been sitting in the open air for hours. The Chinese must have stomachs of steel.

The restaurant downstairs serves dumplings and fried rice. Luckily for us, they’ve managed to figure out our butchered rendition of the Mandarin dialect. Most of the venues we frequent are dirty and dingy, often found down back alleyways or in what some might call the ghetto. These ghettos are even more “ghetto” than the ghetto you’re probably imagining. Rarely are they furnished or even heated. Small tables are surrounded by even smaller stools. Somehow, this hole-in-the-wall fits 20 people.

Chinese Dumplings

Every meal is eaten with chopsticks and breakfast is the same price as a beer: 50 cents; dinner usually costs a dollar. Clean water doesn’t exist outside of bottles and many meals are some form of street food, sold by vendors with carts who await your business on the sidewalk..

Street Food, China
Street Food, China

Next to the street vendors, the other shops burn their trash. Huge piles of rubbish are scattered down almost every road and most of them are on fire. I’m guessing this part of China doesn’t have an efficient way to dispose of trash, so they just burn it on the streets instead. The smoke is arresting as it enters your diaphragm. The fumes coat the food as it passes by the cart.

Alleyway, China

People smoke cigarettes anywhere and everywhere, including restaurants, barbershops and schools. A taxi driver offers us a smoke as we climb in the back seat. A 15 minute cab ride costs two and a half dollars. Sometimes the easiest way to get somewhere is in a tuk-tuk or on the back of a scooter.

Traffic laws simply don’t exist here. Cars drive the wrong way down streets and cut off police officers who make the same illegal turns. Traffic lights are merely a suggestion. Even crossing the street is like playing a real life game of Frogger. I walk right in front of police cars and ignore the crossing guards entirely. Nobody even cares.

Streets of Xi'an, China
Streets of Xi’an, China

The most remarkable thing about living like a local in China, is that I love it. This is China’s raison d’être. This is where its charm lies. The center of the city is beautiful, the architecture is stunning and traditional, and it is kept remarkably clean. This is what the tourists see. Outside of the city, however, life is drastically different.

I never thought I could grow to enjoy a place like this. It’s dirty, bizarre and totally, downright crazy. And somehow, I’m entirely in love with it.

I never would have imagined.

READ NEXT: Scenes from an Overnight Chinese Sleeper Train

About the Author

Jeremy Scott Foster

Jeremy Scott Foster is an adventure-junkie, gear expert and travel photographer based in Southern California. Previously nomadic, he’s been to ~50 countries and loves spending time outdoors. You can usually find him on the trail, on the road, jumping from bridges or hustling on his laptop working to produce the best travel and outdoors content today.
  1. Awesome post Jeremy. This is how we see China as well – no pointed monasteries or pagodas, only skyscrapers and run down buildings, dirty food street and Chinese starring at you all the time :). Last year I lived in Hunan province in a small village called Huayuan. No foreigners, just me, poverty around and dirty streets. Stayed there for 10 months. Now our base is in a huge modern city with some foreigners around and we prefer it this way :-). Enjoy China. Hope to meet you soon in Xi’an area.

    1. Thanks, Agness! It provides such a different outlet to see the world. As bizarre and totally weird as this place is, I really love it. I walk out of my apartment every day knowing that something strange lies just beyond the doorstep, and I look forward to it!

      Hoping we can catch up for a beer one of these days! 🙂

      1. Hi Jeremy,

        Thanks for the article. Regarding waste disposal. How is the general attitude regarding littering? Is it more prevelant among the lower class or is there no disparity in that regard? Is it true that China has a huge number of street sweepers who come and keep everything spick and span?

        How is traffic? Is it an endless Symphony of car horns?

        1. Hey Gary—pretty much everyone littlers. It’s a part of the culture. But they’re kind of okay with it, because the government hires street sweepers to come out and clean the streets every morning. They have no desire to change the regulations because as long as there is trash, there are jobs. It’s pretty wild!

  2. I have the same feeling when walking out of my apartment every morning. We definitely need to catch up sometimes :-). Will keep you posted on my China plans.

  3. You’re right…not the China I imagine when I think of the skyline of Shanghai, etc. Great post…

  4. Ah, this describes my life almost exactly. I remember the day when I became one who spits just like the locals … It’s good to hear you enjoy it. I definitely appreciate aspects of living in China, but there are times when it can be really frustrating.

    1. No kidding. It’s no cakewalk being a Westerner in China, but this is life-experience. This is the stuff good stories are made of, and the things I can recount to my grandchildren when I’m 150 years old.

      People call me an honorary Chinese person because I, too, spit just like they do, now! Gross!

  5. Cool..that’s the reality of the city,now,that’s the city,Xi’an exactly.I want to go out of here…but I will love it forever!!

  6. Brilliant post Jeremy, I’m hoping to be going out to China towards the back end of this year to teach english as well. I have seen the photo’s of the skyline in Shanghai and the Olympic park in Beijing but I had never been able to see this side of China until reading your post. The reason I wan’t to teach rather than just do, as you put it a 12-day whirlwind tour, is to see the real culture of countries and live like a local so this post has really reached out to me! This isn’t the side of China most people post about.

    1. Cheers, Luke! Yes, certainly this is a side of China that doesn’t get written about. When people think of China, Shanghai and Beijing are what come to mind. But there’s more to it. Depending on where you go to teach English, you’ll definitely be able to find the culture you’re looking for. Keep me updated!

  7. I agree …. the REAL China is interesting and exciting … an adventure every day. And it is charming — at first.

    However, after a few years, the charm wears off and you start wondering why you choose to live in the middle of chaos. A dirty, under-civilized and actually kinda culture-less place.

    1. I can see what you mean, Rex. China is certainly wearing me down. I love it, sure, but it’s not easy being here. I couldn’t even imagine being here for more than a year.

  8. That’s the only China I like. Certainly, many Chinese have seen/do see this side of their country, but more and more are 富二代 in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou, scoffing at these scenes yet maintaining the same lack of good behavior as their relatives.

    In other news, I’d really like to see those bbq vendors burn the midnight oil in NYC…

    1. These types of scenes are what gives China its charm! The “second generation rich” that you speak of certainly exist here, but not to the extent that they do in the center of the city, or in places like Beijing or Shanghai. Having traveled a little, I see no divide between the behavior of these people you speak of, or those in the lower classes. I guess that’s just China!

      But we love it.

  9. This has been my life for the last few years! Even in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the non-touristy areas are just like this. I think it’s all part of the charm. Last year I lived on a factory highway in the middle of nowhere “countryside” (aka industrial town), and I think most visitors to China would be shocked to see where I lived. Thanks for sharing the rarely seen parts of China in a charming sort of way 🙂

    1. I totally know what you mean. Most people can’t even fathom what that environment is like. It took me a couple months to even get used to it! But, indeed, over time, it develops its own charm, and you grow to love it. Have a wonderful time in China! 🙂

    1. Exactly, no wonder they breed and spread diseases like there’s no tomorrow with circumstances and standards like this.

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