Plaza Bayi, Nanchang
Excited that you got a job offer in China but then you find out it’s going to be some city called Zhengzhou or Yantai? Disappointed that your international job transfer is to Nanchang instead of Shanghai?
Admittedly, in the 3rd tier cities of China there is a preponderance of people that some expats deride as “nongs” (short for nong min gong, meaning a former subsistence farmer who is now a migrant worker in the city), who may spit and shoot out snot rockets at unexpected moments and in unexpected places, yell into their phone in public, cut in front of you in line, and blow cigarette smoke in your face while riding the elevator.
Admittedly, the traffic is horrible for there are many homemade weird vehicles that look like they came off the set of Mad Max-Fury Road driving on the wrong side of the road at night with no headlights on, and everyone’s hand is seemingly glued to the horn.
Admittedly, you will be seeing dogs being butchered in the late evening on the main shopping street to be served the next day cooked in gutter oil (di gou you, in Chinese).
Admittedly… Wait, am I getting a little sidetracked? This was supposed to be about the good aspects of life in the lower tier cities. Bear with me, there really are some good things about living in the dreaded 3rd tier. So let’s try again, in defense of the lower tier cities of China…
But First, What Exactly Do I Mean By “1st, 2nd and 3rd Tier” Cities?
There is some disagreement on the terms and no official Chinese government position on the composition of each tier, but most people agree that Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are 1st tier—collectively referred to as “Bei Shan Guang Shen.”
These metropolises are huge in both population and land area and are more developed in terms of infrastructure as well as educational facilities and receive the benefit of the most money pumped in by the central government. These cities always get new things first, but the 2nd tier cities, like Hangzhou or Nanjing, are usually just a few years behind.
The 3rd tier cities in turn are generally five to ten years behind the 2nd tier ones with respect to conveniences like the building of subways, modern “bullet” train stations, air conditioned buses, as well as the arrival of Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Metro Supermarkets. In many ways, the biggest changes in China are happening the fastest in 3rd tier cities since they are trying to copy their more developed 1nd and 2nd tier big brothers at breakneck speed.
As an aside, in China you may also hear of “National Civilized Cities”. These are designated by the central government and currently include cities like Xiamen and Qingdao because they have “civilized” policies such as making sure there are workers to sweep up the streets, actually have a few trees permanently growing in the city limits (as opposed to only being imported temporarily for the party chairman’s visit); they don’t allow burning rubbish or slaughtering dogs in the middle of the street, and encourage good behavior like not screaming into your phone and cutting in line. These are usually, but not always, 1st and 2nd tier cities (Shenzhen temporarily lost its civilized status when its mayor was sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption).
Aside from Xiamen and Qingdao, the 2nd tier includes other large and relatively famous cities like Nanjing, Xi’an, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, and a few other provincial capitals of well-off provinces such as Jinan (note: some lists consider all provincial capitals to be 2nd tier).
The 3rd tier cities are still often quite large, like Nanchang with over 5 million people or Dongguan with 6 million, but there’s definitely a different vibe in these “wilder” cities that are just a little off the beaten tourist track. As a rule of thumb, if a city has 1 million people or more but doesn’t fall into the 1st or 2nd tier category, it’s a 3rd tier city.
I should mention there are also 4th tier cities and even 5th tier (which are often just called villages) but things get quite murky in more ways than one in these cities. Basically, you need to be really hardcore to live there.
Get used to only eating Chinese food because there are no foreign markets and your only international food option is KFC, if you are lucky to even have that. These are the towns where you will be stared and pointed at and may even feel like the pied piper as you will need to get used to growing crowds following you around because you may be the first foreigner they ever saw in person.
Every action you take will be observed and discussed at length all around town. Taxis won’t stop for you because they are afraid they can’t communicate with you – and they are probably correct because many people there can’t speak Mandarin, – so all your Chinese studies will have only limited benefit. If you are interested in romance, forget about it for down in the 4th tier: you are just too weird to accept.
But with this article, I want to focus on that sweet spot in between—the benefits of the fabled 3rd tier.
Hold Celebrity Status
If you arrive there as a foreigner, the first thing you will notice is how few other foreigners there are and that leads directly to this benefit. This is one of the more controversial “benefits” of being the rare foreigner in a Chinese 3rd tier city, but this article would not be complete without discussing it so I will address it head on.
In many ways, a foreigner is a celebrity in the third tier. If you live here you may find yourself being invited to drink with government officials, university presidents and the like. There may very well be requests for radio interviews and features in the local daily newspaper. Not only are these experiences quite interesting and educational, the relationships formed can be helpful if you are interested in starting your own business or otherwise establishing yourself in China.
If you are a man and romance is on your mind, the 3rd tier is the place to be because the local ladies are exposed enough to Western culture to not be scared of the idea of dating one, and can gain “face” since you are so special, while at the same time they have not seen so many foreign men for the novelty to wear off as they have in the 1st and 2nd tier.
I have to admit though, while it feels fun at first to constantly have people ask to take pictures with you and the media interview you, it does get old after a few years. Some days, you get up and simply want to get some dumplings. You may have just gotten out of bed, hungover, and this isn’t the time for an impromptu photo shoot, but you never know when the paparazzi may strike.
Everyone is More Friendly — Both the Locals and Other Foreigners
If, like me, you enjoy meeting new people but are a bit shy approaching strangers, the 3rd tier is a great place to be. There are prevailing stereotypes that Shanghainese and local Beijingers are quite haughty and disdain speaking with outsiders, but that’s not the case down here.
In the 3rd tier, the locals may be rough and rugged but are also more passionate and welcoming. Some of the most fun times I’ve had in China took place when I was having dinner with a co-worker at a small restaurant and a nearby table of Chinese men will notice us and literally pull us over to their table for gan beis of their Baijiu (Chinese hard liquor).
Next thing we know, it’s already 2am and we are still eating and drinking with them, playing cards and now they are dragging us out to the best KTV and dance bar in town. This doesn’t generally happen in Shanghai, but is par for the course down here in the 3rd tier.
I think many foreigners discount the possibility of building real lasting relationships from random encounters with locals. A relationship that may feel that it’s starting quite hollow and only due to your “foreign status” can develop into much more.
A college student who walked up to me seven years ago and literally said: “Can I have your phone number because you are foreigner and I want to tell my parents I have a foreign friend”, eventually became one of my closest friends. He has visited my family in America, we have traveled extensively together, and he was even a groomsman in my wedding. And to think of it, back then I almost told him to get lost.
It’s not only the locals but also your fellow foreigners who are more friendly in the 3rd tier, certainly at least in part because of the instant comradery we feel from seeing someone who is also “different.” In a 3rd tier city, we will cross the street to say hello when we see a new foreign face, exchange numbers and likely invite them to join us at the bar the same evening.
And if an “old China hand” foreigner sees you struggling getting your point across in Chinese, he will be glad to jump in and help explain the situation or otherwise solve the problem. When Western holidays roll around, generally every foreigner in town will know who is hosting the Halloween, Christmas, and New Year’s parties.
(Almost) Everything is Cheap
Your money goes much farther down here in the 3rd tier. Below I will note some prices of common expenses in Nanchang, the 3rd tier provincial capital of Jiangxi where I’ve spent some time, as compared to Shanghai, an indisputable member of the 1st tier.
- Bottle of water: Nanchang 1 Yuan vs. Shanghai 2 Yuan;
- Baozi (steamed breakfast buns): Nanchang 2 for 1 Yuan vs. Shanghai 1 to 1.5 Yuan for one bun;
- Taxis: Nanchang starting rate 6-8 Yuan and 1.9-2.1 Yuan per km vs. Shanghai 14-16 Yuan starting rate and 2.5 Yuan per km;
- Apartment rentals: Nanchang 1000-3000 Yuan a month for a 2-bedroom apartment vs. Shanghai 5000-10000 Yuan for the same size.
By the way, SDC is running a costs survey across a range of cities in China which will make the price ratios more clear and promises to be a very helpful resource. Click here to check the survey’s results and/or take the survey yourself.
The good news doesn’t stop there. Not only are the prices lower but the salaries are not proportionately lower to the cost of living. For instance, a foreign teacher with a bachelor’s degree at a university in Nanchang will start at 6,000 Yuan a month, while in Shanghai it may be 7,000.
And a private training school like Web International English will pay new teachers 12,000 Yuan in Nanchang and 14,000 in Shanghai. So you may earn a little less money but you can stretch it much farther. In the case of engineers and managers working at foreign companies, you may find yourself getting paid more in Nanchang because of the additional “hardship” premium.
However, as I found with China in general: the cheap things are cheaper and the expensive things are more expensive. This means that if your tastes run toward BMW, LV and XO, you will be paying more for luxuries here than in the 1st tier, and much more than you’re used to paying in Europe or America.
You Can (i.e. Must) Learn Chinese Faster
As with some other features of living in a less-developed city, what is a benefit to one is a hindrance to another. If the first place you land in China is a 3rd tier city, and you have any interest in learning Chinese, you are going to learn it… because you have to.
With so few foreigners there and even fewer Chinese with experience traveling or living abroad, finding people who speak English will be quite difficult. But this immersion in my case was a boon. Chinese is hard to learn, and it was the necessity that motivated me to learn.
Even though I don’t have a particular gift for languages, within nine months of arrival in my 3rd tier city, I was able to initiate and hold conversations about everyday life matters with local people. Some of my friends whose first experience in China was Shanghai or Xiamen never felt that “push” to learn Chinese and so they didn’t learn, or they started to, but quickly gave it up.
Many expats like me have been enjoying and have come to expect the wild freedom of China, for in many ways it’s one of the few cherished pluses to living here. I guess we feel that this freedom at least in part makes up for the pollution, fake and low quality goods, suppressed media and other less desirable aspects of life in China.
But when we hop off the train in Shanghai, we start to feel much more like we are in New York or London with metal detectors and police in SWAT team-like attire, and we hear news of bars and private parties being raided and passports being checked. Not so in the 3rd tier.
Police care much less about enforcing laws here than in the 1st tier cities. Not that I recommend breaking any laws, but I can tell you for instance that in most 3rd tier cities, if you want to ride a motorbike, you don’t have to concern yourself too much with getting a driver’s license, license plate or wearing a helmet (notice: I do recommend you to get a driver license and wear a helmet!) because the lower ranked the city, the less motivated the police seem to be.
This goes double with respect to foreigners because the policeman will be embarrassed that he can’t make himself understood and the paperwork is more complicated to fill out. This can be good and bad, for “every coin has two sides” as Chinese young people love to say. In the 3rd tier, the police will also ignore blatant thievery and the traffic cops don’t care about vehicles driving any which way at any which speed.
Similarly, while of course you should always have a working visa to work, the reality is many foreigners supplement their income through part-time and tutoring work. Unlike the top tier cities which have recently faced crackdowns on working without a visa, this is still not an issue down in the 3rd tier.
Try The Third Tier Before It’s Too Late
Many foreigners like traveling all around China but in reality they usually end up seeing only the 1st tier cities and the famous tourist sites like Guilin, Mount Huang or Lijiang. Try something truly different and check out the 3rd tier.
But you need to do it soon and here’s why: China is changing and quickly! Even eight years ago, the 2nd tier cities looked much like the present 3rd tier cities, but today strongly resemble the 1st tier, or to put it another way, the Guangzhou of fifteen years ago looked like the Wuhan of eight years ago and like the Nanchang of today.
The 3rd tier cities are trying to catch up and (unfortunately, in my view) are actually on their way to becoming carbon copies of Shenzhen, with indistinguishable road and subway designs, identical Wanda shopping plazas and Greenland skyscrapers. So I suggest you grab the opportunity to visit, study or find work in the 3rd tier before these cities completely lose their wild characteristics.