Interview: One year as a European in China

, by Grischa Alexander Beißner, Translated by Steffi Buchler

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Interview: One year as a European in China
Picture used by Treffpunkt Europa with the interviewee’s permission.

Arnaud Boehmann spent one year living in China. For many Europeans, the Middle Kingdom that exists beyond dramatic reports and prejudice is still hard to grasp. What does daily life look like over there? What moves Chinese people? Arnaud shared his experience about living in China as a European in an interview with our German sister edition Treffpunkt Europa, and the interview is published in three parts. This first part introduces the differences between life in China and life in Europe.

Arnaud Boehmann hasn’t been back to Germany for long. The young man with the shoulder-long blond hair is still fighting off his jetlag. In total, he spent one year in China, first as a student at Sichuan University in Chengdu, then as an intern in Beijing. “Being back, the thing I need to get used to again the most is not to call after the waiters in cafés and restaurants. In China, it’s completely normal and not considered impolite. But here, I’d get a lot of bad looks for doing it,” he says with a smirk.

Only a few Europeans get to experience living in China. If you ask most Germans about China, their response often reveals scepticism and concern. Human rights abuses, mass production and the heavy foreign investments of the Chinese are often the first things that come to their mind. Many feel uneasy and a bit threatened by the economic power of the Middle Kingdom. Arnaud studies sinology, which is why it was completely natural for him to spend one, then eventually two semesters over there. The young man from Hamburg can’t seem to stop once he starts talking about China. He has been involved in the ongoing cultural exchange between Germany and China for some time now, and enjoys organising events and concerts.

Arnaud also writes articles for, an information platform about China with an interesting cultural online magazine. Half German and half French, he is used to different perspectives and navigating between cultures. He shared his impressions and experiences with our editor Grischa Beißner. The two spent an hour talking about China and Europe, life abroad and what Europeans and Chinese must learn from each other. What’s it like living in China as a European?

Arnaud: There are two ways. One of them is living in an expat bubble, which happens a lot. Many foreigners who come to China speak little to no Chinese. As a result, they only spend time with other foreign colleagues and only go to bars, clubs and restaurants where people speak English. They order the same food and rarely engage with the Chinese in their daily life.

But if you speak some Chinese, it’s easier to integrate and you have the freedom to take part in all areas of Chinese daily life. You can travel independently and discover the entire cultural range China has to offer. Moreover, you can form honest and deep friendships with the Chinese. The moment you realise you have truly arrived is when you’re talking to a Chinese friend and forget that the person in front of you is Chinese. When you no longer realise that you’re talking to a person from another country. How were you met in China as a European? Did you feel welcome? What did you like the most, and did you also have any negative experiences?

Arnaud: In general, the Chinese are extremely open and curious when meeting foreigners. Currently, there are many tourists and foreign workers in China. But compared to the overall population, foreigners form a very small group and they are still considered special. And that’s reflected in the way the Chinese react to them. As soon as you start talking to someone, they ask you about your background, what you do, where you’re from, what you’ve already seen or tried, and how you like it. Some occasionally make comments, for example when you’re riding a taxi – which you do a lot in China since it’s very cheap. Each time a taxi driver hears that you’re from Germany, their first reaction is either “good cars” or “good football”.

The second thing I’ve often heard is, “Oh, Germany, a good country, but not so safe anymore.” The terror attacks in France and Germany have been widely covered in China. Because of that, it’s become very present in the public perception and linked to Germany’s refugee policy. That’s something the Chinese are very critical of. But I didn’t have any real negative experiences as a foreigner, except for the minor detail that merchants often try to bamboozle the supposedly rich Europeans. What are the biggest differences compared to life in Europe?

Arnaud: First of all, the high population density leads to a completely different daily rhythm. You’re always surrounded by people and it never happens in China that you are somewhere and you don’t see another person. This omnipresence of other people leads to a different instinctive behaviour.

Other differences apply to how you spend your money, since food is very cheap in China. I did not cook for a year because you tend to eat out more in China – and that’s not something only foreigners do. There’s no real difference in price between cooking yourself and dining in a cheap restaurant. Coffee, on the other hand, is much more expensive. In Beijing, a regular coffee costs five euros. If you tell them that you could eat out three times for that price, you find out that the parameters according to which you spend money are different. Another major point is the handling of everything digital. China is much more digitalised than we are. It has taken the ways of using smartphones and online marketing to a level we don’t have in Europe. China has skipped the ‘modem internet’ and gone straight to the world of DSL. In many rural regions, internet lines were installed at the same time as telephone lines. Additionally, they have an app called WeChat which combines the functions of WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, Instagram and Paypal.

While people tend to leave the house with their wallet, key and mobile phone over here, in China you often just take your mobile phone with you. You can do everything with it: shop online or offline, call taxis, pay in each restaurant. It works via QR codes, which has led to even beggars having their own QR codes you can scan to send them money. For me, that was an experience that showed me the digital difference in the most extreme way. Is there a special experience you had in China which you never experienced in Europe?

Arnaud: You have to admit that China has fundamentally different social dynamics. Through the enormous economic upswing, especially in the last twenty years, China has developed a new, very well-earning middle class. In Germany, I always had the impression that a lot happens out of habit and convention – you have to work very long for everything, especially regarding promotion prospects. You only have little social mobility and the higher levels of politics, administration and economics are widely closed off. Young people don’t have access to that and it can take decades to really advance.

In China, this is different. There, society has been working via a well-developed system of social networking for quite some time. What in Europe is considered a new-age talent to be mastered has long been an integral part of Chinese culture. Everyone over there is aware of that and actively participates in it. The only downside is that the ‘commercialisation of social relationships’ is also more prominent – so you can’t see that only positively. However, that makes it possible for young, motivated and creative people in China to receive job offers rather quickly. This applies even more to foreigners than to the young Chinese. You can experiment a little, get different job offers and have the means to get things started. Young Chinese face less bureaucratic hurdles than people in Europe. There are many start-ups, young people who open small cafés, etc. – whereas here bureaucracy rather stops and hinders people, it’s doing the exact opposite in China.

In Germany, there is a lot of pessimism. If you’re a student looking at the job market to get an idea of what life could look like after you graduate, you have to be scared about finding out if there’s even anything you can or want to do with your degree. In China, this is much easier and quicker. I have also seen many people in the middle of their career, people who are successful and have money, who are very interested in recruiting young talents. They specifically look for cooperative partnerships with young people to keep things running. And it’s not all about money, since the people who do this have enough themselves. But they see what they can do and offer chances and possibilities to young people – from China and beyond – while over here, the elite tends to care more about its own profit and seals itself off. Money and status are still rather inherited.

This article was originally published in German on our sister edition Treffpunkt Europa on 4 October.

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