The Most Annoying Things About Living in China

Today I’m writing a list of the most annoying things about living in China. Generally, I’ve tried to keep this blog mostly positive. It’s pretty easy to read plenty of negative things about China these days. It’s harder to find people saying genuinely nice things. Culture shock can make the most optimistic of us turn into negative creeps.

But the weather’s been grey and cloudy for the last few weeks. Work’s been busy and stressful. I’m in a bad mood. I’m gonna just dive in and get negative. Here is my list of the most annoying things about living in China.

Garbage Sorting

Shanghai recently initiated some new efforts to promote recycling and composting. In fact, composting and recycling are now mandatory. You have to sort your garbage, and there’s a dude that hangs out and makes sure you sort it properly. I think he also collects the recycling and sells it for some extra cash.

A typical garbage area isn’t nearly this nice.

All of that is fine. In fact, it’s more than fine. It’s great. I no longer feel guilty about not eating that last moldy grape in the back of the refrigerator, because I know it isn’t going to rot away in a landfill.

The only problem, is that the garbage is only open for a few hours every day.

That’s right. I can’t take my trash out at 10am, or 10pm. The garbage in our building is only open between 7:00 – 9:00 in the morning, and 6:30 – 8:30 in the evening. This is especially annoying since I usually work from 2:00 – 8:00 P.M. on weekdays. I never make it home by 8:30, and taking out bags of stinky trash is the last thing I want to deal with when I first wake up in the morning.

At least the guy who sorts our garbage is pretty nice.

The Chinese Work Ethic

I’m surprised, though, that our garbage guy is only on duty for four hours a day. Work is probably the most annoying thing about living in China. (To be fair, it’s often the most annoying thing about anywhere.) But holy shit do the Chinese work hard.

My boss’s husband is a manager at a chemical factory. He’s scheduled to go into work six days a week, and will often go in on his off day just for fun. We took a little weekend trip with them, and they spent a big chunk of the time working in the hotel [Chang Xing Island]. Every year they go to Thailand together. They post pictures of their “vacation”, where they’re sitting in a hotel room with work spreadsheets on their laptops.

They work hard, they play hard.

The teaching assistants at our jobs send work messages at all hours of the day and night. It’s easy enough for me to ignore them, if I must, but those poor things are responding to parents’ questions at 11:00 at night sometimes.

That includes during holidays, which are a big deal, but they aren’t really days off. Let’s take the upcoming Mid-Autumn holiday for example. I get next Sunday off, which is great, and another upcoming Sunday as well. Great?

Except, I don’t really get those days off. I have to make them up a week later… so, in order to have two straggling days off, I need to work 8 days in a row.

The only real holidays people get in China are a few days for the National Day in October and about a week for Chinese New Year. For many migrant workers, this is the only time they ever get to see their families.

I really can’t complain. Since English Teachers are in such high demand, most places are pretty flexible with foreign teachers taking time off. Still… god damn make up days.


The next most annoying thing about living in China is the traffic. I don’t drive here. You couldn’t pay me enough RMB to drive here. There isn’t enough RMB in the world for me to drive here.

I do ride a bike quite often, though. Some days peddling down Shanghai’s tree-lined protected bike lanes can be quite pleasant. Other days, it’s a fight for survival.

I’ve never actually seen it this bad, but sometimes it feels like it.

There’s the constant din of scooter horns blaring at you from every direction. Bikes, scooters and cars in front of you stop suddenly and for no reason. Pedestrians will just walk out into the street with no regard for who or what might be speeding towards them.

Left turns are the absolute worst, though. I’m biking straight, and some taxi starts coming at me. And they don’t stop. They don’t slow down. I need to make a split-second decision. Do I swerve out of the way? Do I speed up? Or do I get off my bike, curl up in the fetal position and start crying in the middle of the intersection?

Thus far, I’ve survived all these encounters. But, sometimes I feel like every commute home might be my last.

To be fair to China, it ain’t nearly as bad here as it is in some other parts of the world. (I’m looking at you, South East Asia.) And… traffic sucks everywhere. I blame Jean Joseph-Etienne Lenoir.

Night Construction

It’s been a long day at work, and a harrowing commute home. You brush your teeth, lay down on your comfortable pillow and shut your eyes. You drift away, about to be carried off to dreamland by the sandman and his cronies. Suddenly, the sandman drops you and you’re jerked awake by the thud thud thud of a jackhammer.

This is the land where skyscrapers sprout like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Hospitals can be built in ten days and 2.2 billion metric tons of cement are used every year.

There’s almost constant street work. Holes are being dug and filled. Pavement is ripped out and replaced. Things are fixed that aren’t even broken.

Go to bed you guys!

I’ve heard that a lot of the street construction is actually not strictly necessary. Rather, it’s part of a government employment program. Instead of just doling out welfare, they hire people for not quite necessary construction work. To be honest, I don’t think that’s a terrible idea.

The problem comes from a combination of work ethic and traffic annoyances. Nobody wants to close down streets while they do construction. And people are willing to come to work after business hours. That leads to…. me not being able to sleep because they’re jackhammering the sidewalk in the middle of the goddamn night.

The Language Barrier

Okay, so this one is really my fault, not China’s fault. I’m not going to blame a whole country for not learning my native language. Still, despite my studying, the language barrier is probably the number one annoying thing about living in China.

There are just so many small daily communications that you don’t even think about until you can’t do them. Like telling the taxi driver to pull ahead a little bit. Or what happens when the guy delivering your food can’t find your apartment. Or, you know, seeing a doctor.

Sometimes the meaning is obvious.

I’m taking classes now, and I’m improving, but I still run into difficulties on a regular basis. Add to the fact that many people in Shanghai still speak Shanghainese, and not Mandarin, and you get a whole other layer of difficulty.

I’m in a weird position, where I still can’t speak or understand enough to have a whole conversation, but I know just enough to realize when someone is making fun of me.

The other day I was buying groceries, and an older woman came up and asked me something about a package of tortillas I was buying. The cashier told the woman “oh, he’s a foreigner, he can’t understand you.” The old lady and cashier then chattered back and forth about how I couldn’t understand, and laughing at me as I was standing right there. I went home and used those tortillas to soak up my tears.

Other Foreigners

When I feel bad about my Chinese skills, I try to remember the woman we met who’d lived here for three years and still could barely say “nihao”. There’s a joke amongst expats here. “I came to Shanghai to study Chinese and my English improved.”

Imagine running into this guy at your local 酒吧.

It’s true that Shanghai is easily China’s most international city. There are city blocks full of douchey vegan cocktail bars and pop-up artisanal coffee boutiques that rival any hip young city in the West. And they’re exactly the same as they are in the West, too. Gentrification knows no borders.

I can understand feeling homesick and wanting some avocado toast (or in my case, a hamburger) from time to time. But I know people who only eat at Western restaurants. They only hang out in Western style bars and neighborhoods. They’ve traveled to the other side of the world just to stay home.

It wouldn’t be so bad, except these people also constantly complain about everything. This waiter took too long to bring coffee. The pavement on the sidewalk is too uneven. And yes, I realize the irony of me complaining about people complaining in a post titled “The Most Annoying Things About Living in China.”

Everything is China’s fault, for these people. “That’s China” is repeated like a mantra every time anything doesn’t go quite right. Missed the subway and are running late for work: “that’s China.” Can’t find a date: “that’s China.” Drink spilled all over the front of your pants: “that’s China!”

And it’s not just what they say, but how they say things. There’s this haughty sense of superiority from a lot of Westerners here. Like they feel the country owes them something; as if the Treaty of Nanking is still in full effect and should be applied to them personally.

These neo-colonialists actually get kind of upset if you say anything positive about China. Or anything not negative. I’ve been told, multiple times, “if you still like it here after two years there’s something wrong with you.” I don’t know, maybe there is?

Shanghai’s Jing’an district, circa fall 2019.

That’s China!

There are four stages of culture shock, initial euphoria, irritation and hostility, gradual understanding, and adaptation. A big chunk of the foreigners living in China never get past the irritation and hostility stage. Add to that a dose of xenophobia and repressed racism and you get a big swirling whirlpool of misery. It’s exhausting spending time with those people, so I try not to as much as I can.

I’d put myself somewhere in the gradual understanding stage, or maybe near the adaptation stage, despite the fact that I just wrote a whole post doing nothing but complaining.

Yes, there are plenty of annoyances. However, if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that you sometimes just have to sit back and accept the fact that everything is completely out of your control. In fact, don’t just accept it, embrace it.

Being in a new country and in a different culture, I’m forced to be out of my comfort zone on a near daily basis. In fact, I think I’ve come to realize I’m at my worst when I’m in my comfort zone. Annoyances aside, coming here was probably the best decision I’ve ever made.

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