China Elevator Stories

4 Conveniences of Living in Small Town China

What are the advantages of living in a small town in China compared to living in a metropolis?


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


Moving to Small Town China

When my husband and I visited his hometown, a small town in Northeast China with our son in the fall of 2014, we only planned to stay for a few weeks. Our initial plan was to move to the seaside city of Dalian, but due to unforeseen events, we ended up staying in his hometown with a population of 400,000. While a city with a population of 400,000 would be considered a medium-large city in Austria, in China it would be considered a small town.

At first, I wasn’t too optimistic about staying here. The only people we knew whom we had regular contact with were my in-laws. I became depressed soon after moving here. The move wasn’t the only reason, exhaustion from sleep-deprivation, being a new mother and knowing no-one I could connect with, as well as a very uncertain future and unforeseen financial problems all exacerbated the problem.

I appreciate living here now. Living in Small Town China has shown me the positive aspects of living life at a slower pace and since I am a mother now, things that didn’t matter in the past have become more important. A small town in China offers many conveniences compared to a big city, including the following:

1. Fewer people occupying more space

In comparison to China’s bigger metropolises, there is still relatively much space on a per person ratio. While there are many cars on the road and not a lot of parking space, it’s still easier to find a parking space than in most big cities in China. Parking space is also (still) free of charge in most places. More available space also means that it is easier to live in a separate apartment from the in-laws (which isn’t always the case for families living in bigger cities where rent prices are skyrocketing). There are shorter queues at the hospital or basically any other public institution you may have to go to.

2. Access to fresher produce

When we were living in Shenzhen, good quality meat and vegetables were expensive and rare. The fact that market vendors left meat and veggies in the sun for the day didn’t really help with the quality. Since there were a few ten million people competing for fresh produce daily (and that is only talking of Shenzhen, not neighboring mega cities like Guangzhou and Hong Kong who all have to import tons of produce via similar routes), good quality vegetables and meat were overpriced and hard to come by.

I searched for good quality eggs from free-range chickens throughout my pregnancy in Shenzhen and just couldn’t find any. Every time I bought a different kind of egg that advertised as coming from free-range chicken, the bad quality really disappointed me. You definitely do taste the difference.

These days we just have to call up an acquaintance and he’ll deliver eggs from free-range chicken right from the countryside to our door. It’s the same with free-range chicken. If we want to eat good quality chicken meat, we just have to call a farmer and they will bring by the meat the following day or two.

While southern fruit was fresh and delicious, fruit from the North was ridiculously expensive and usually not fresh. We still have access to relatively fresh fruit from the south now, but can also buy fresh blueberries when they are in season in the Northeast (ok, this one is more a south/north difference than a big city/small town one, getting a little carried away by the availability of affordable fresh blueberries here).

On one of the strolls through my neighborhood in Shenzhen, I saw half a pig being transported on the back of a motorcycle without any cover. The pic had turned a blue-ish color and was transported through the polluted city during the worst heat of the day. For almost two years after that incident I couldn’t eat any meat. I still only rarely eat pork in China, but we now have access to adequately priced good quality beef from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia that is four times cheaper than in Shenzhen. Part of the reason must be transport costs, but I’m sure this kind of meat is also much more expensive in relatively closer metropolises like Beijing.

3. Shorter distances

Getting from A to B is a real hassle in big cities. Not only might it occupy most of your free time, squeezing in that subway or bus with 1000s of other people is quite uncomfortable. Being stuck in a traffic jam when the only thing you want to do is enjoy the rest of the evening at home is also not fun. Going to the movies when the trip will take longer than the movie itself, well, you’ll probably think twice about going.

In many cities in China, shops specializing in certain kinds of products usually cluster in one area. So if you need to buy electronics for example, you will only find a good choice in that one area in your city. In our case, the electronics area was 75 min from where we lived. The train station was about the same distance. It just wasn’t very convenient to go to most places and I was usually exhausted at arrival.

It is pretty easy to get from A to B in this small town. It usually doesn’t take longer than half an hour (half an hour would already be considered long here) and it is also much more convenient and closer to take our son to the closest vegetable market or green space than it would have been in a big city like Shenzhen. Most of the time, I can just walk there, even with a toddler in tow.

4. Less days with severe pollution

It depends on where you live in China, but a small town like ours that doesn’t have as much industry as a metropolis such as Beijing, for example, is usually also less polluted. We still have days where the air is polluted heavily, and our city is sometimes polluted because of the pollution carried over from nearby cities by the wind, as well as from the nearby countryside in winter when people use a lot of coal to heat up their houses, and when fields are being burnt, but all in all severe pollution is usually less than in cities such as Beijing (albeit still much more polluted than the air in Austria, which is one of the main reasons I do not want my children to grow up in China).

One negative aspect of living in a smaller city, where the general population lacks awareness of the negative health related impact pollution has on your health is that indoor spaces usually don’t come with air purifiers like they do in Beijing. I have found that there is a lot of denial that pollution even exists.

Sure enough, pollution here is still a multiple of a city like Vienna in Austria, and I can only hope that it will get better in the foreseeable future, and not worse.

Of course, a small town like ours also comes with a few inconveniences. We don’t have an airport, so anytime we need to take a flight we first have to take a train.

If I want to cook Austrian dishes, I have to plan a week in advance to make sure all the ingredients I need will arrive in time. But the good thing is that with online shopping being really convenient in China, I can still buy most of the things I need for cooking an Austrian meal.

We don’t have a big choice of restaurants here. While in a bigger city you will usually be able to choose between Mexican, Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, US-American and other food, international cuisine in this small town basically means Korean food. In the less than two years of living here, I have learned to cook a lot from scratch. Thanks to being able to find mouth-watering recipes online, I have cooked authentic Indian curry as well as homemade tacos with Tejano Carne Guisada (braised beef). Since most of the bread sold in bakeries around here comes with lactose and is sweet and spongy, I also make bread at home. It’s much healthier than what you get in most bakeries not only around here but even in most bakeries in Austria, where the ingredient list has ingredient after ingredient I have never heard of before.

We have one great café here (lots of other café’s too, but most of them are so-so or have cats which I am allergic too), cinemas that play international and Chinese movies with English subtitles, and rare finds like a private kitchen restaurant.

We don’t have any of the fancy cosmopolitan places that are usually a feature of bigger cities, either. If we really do miss the big city feel, we have to visit nearby cities such as Changchun or Shenyang.

Have you ever lived in a small town in China?