Chinese Language Blog

Culture Shock in China – Apartments Posted by on Apr 3, 2014 in Culture

It’s been a while since we’ve talked about culture shock in China, so here are the links to the past posts for those of you who may have missed them:

  • Eating: Many Westerners arrive in China shocked to find some of the things that Chinese people like to eat (mmm… chicken feet).
  • Drinking: From funky mung bean milk to the rocket fuel known as Chinese bai jiu, drinking in the country can give you some serious culture shock.
  • Getting Around: Ride the Beijing subway at rush hour for a serious jolt of culture shock!
  • Bathrooms: Squat toilets and BYOTP facilities often freak Westerners out when they visit China.

While all of the above examples happen to people just visiting China, many foreigners choose to make the Middle Kingdom their home and have the pleasure of continuing their culture shock. For those wishing to spend some serious time in China, an apartment hunt is sure to give you some serious shock. Let’s take a closer look…

Apartment Hunting

My girlfriend thrilled at the prospect of seeing more crappy apartments.

My girlfriend thrilled at the prospect of seeing more crappy apartments.

Finding an apartment in a Chinese mega-city seems easy enough – there are high-rise buildings everywhere you look, after all. Not so fast, though. This is China (TIC), and nothing comes easy. You may browse through online ads and see a nice looking pad that fits your requirements, and you’ll excitedly call up the number on the ad. Although the ad is written in English, the loud voice at the other end of the line is sure to not speak a word of it. A great chance to practice your Chinese, but not what you were expecting! After much struggling, you finally manage to agree on a time to see the apartment. Of course, you are given horrible directions and it ends up taking you an extra hour plus a few more phone calls to find the place. It turns out that the “near the subway” part of the ad really means a 30-minute walk. Upon entrance into the apartment, you’re shocked to find out that it looks absolutely nothing like the pictures from the ad. You pull out your phone and show the pictures to the agent:

“This is not the apartment I wanted to see. I wanted to see this one.”

“I know, but I wanted to show you this one first! It’s very cheap, and it’s just as good!”

“But I didn’t want to see this apartment. I took the morning off of work to go see this one!”

“Ok, ok. We can go see that one now. Are you sure you don’t like this one?”

Welcome to the horrible world of Chinese real estate. Agents are eager to rent out their most dilapidated and crummy units first, as chances are they’ve been sitting on the market for quite some time. Since you’re just a dumb 老外, you get to be taken on numerous tours of these hellish apartments that make some jail cells look appealing. During our last apartment hunt in Beijing, my girlfriend visited over 30 places with agents before we finally just inquired about available spots in the head office of a complex where some friends were living. If you should find yourself looking for a place, this is your best bet. Use of any real estate agent is sure to result in numerous visits to disgusting places that you wouldn’t want to live in in a million years, and should you actually find one that isn’t downright awful, you’ll be forced to pay one month’s rent as a finder’s fee for the agents.

Apartment hunting with Local Laowai.

Big Man on a Little Bike – a friend of a friend gets a ride on an apartment hunt in Beijing.

Chinese Apartments

A common apartment complex in China.

A common apartment complex in China.

Leave your preconceived notion of what an apartment should be back in your home country, because unless you’ve got the big bucks to throw down on an international place, you’re going to have to get used to Chinese standards. Here are a few things about Chinese apartments that might give you some culture shock:

  • Tiny kitchens: Despite their love for food and cooking, Chinese make their kitchens incredibly small. Two is a crowd in a Chinese kitchen, so forget about cooking with a friend. You won’t find any of your creature comforts from home here, either – no dishwasher, no garbage disposal, and no oven. Most Chinese kitchens come with nothing more than a sink and a small two-burner stove. Chinese cook everything in one wok, so you might as well get used to this as well (or buy a toaster oven like us). Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention your fridge. You’ll have one, but don’t be surprised if it is in your living room. It will be tiny as well, so forget about buying groceries to last you a few weeks.
Yep... this is a kitchen.

Yep… this is a kitchen.

  • Bathrooms: The most notable feature of Chinese bathrooms is the lack of a bathtub. You’ll only find these in the aforementioned international apartment complexes, so chances are you’ll have to deal with the Chinese style. Your bathroom is a sink, toilet, and shower head on the wall, and that’s it. This is convenient for guys, as you can shit, shower, and shave at the same time! As your floor will be soaking wet after you shower, you’ll need to buy a squeegee to clean it up. Another interesting feature of a Chinese bathroom is the fact that there’s no medicine cabinet or storage space whatsoever. You will, however, probably have your small washing machine in there. This brings us to our next point…
Run of the mill Chinese bathroom.

Run of the mill Chinese bathroom.

  • Laundry: Enjoy the last load of laundry you do at home, because things are done differently in China. You’ll have a tiny washing machine, which will be a great way to practice your Chinese reading as all of the buttons will be in the local language. Get used to hang-drying your clothes as well, because your Chinese pad will most certainly not have a dryer.


  • Utilities: Back in the US, we were used to paying our bills once a month. We’d enroll in automatic bill payments, and every month our electricity, water, gas, and cable/internet bills would come out of our bank accounts – nice and easy. Not so in China. For electricity, you will get a little stick or card and pay it forward. This involves going to the bank or your apartment’s management office, putting X amount of RMB on it, and then plugging it into the grid in your apartment. It’s best to put a lot of money on it every time to save you trips and to keep from running out of power. All too many times we found ourselves in the dark at night and having to wait until the morning to visit the office. As for your water bill, a nice Chinese lady will show up at your apartment at some random hour once every few months to check some numbers and write you a bill. For TV and internet, you pay for both of these by the year, so hopefully you’re staying long enough to make it worth your while.


  • Uncomfortable furniture: I’m convinced that all Chinese people sleep on box springs and have yet to discover mattresses. Chinese people must love sleeping on hard things, because the only soft beds we’ve come across in the country have been in upscale hotels. Get ready to splurge on mattress pads in IKEA to avoid waking up sore every morning. Chances are you won’t be spending much time on your couch, either. That is, of course, if you even get one. My first apartment in China had more of a bench than a couch, and my poor friend had to sleep on it for a few weeks while he was looking for a place. At least your painful furniture will encourage you to get out of the house more!
You call that a couch?!

You call that a couch?!

Now, aren’t you excited to move to China?!

Here’s a hilarious dialogue about a guy renting a room.

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


  1. raymond lambie:

    I could live like that, if i could be helped to sleep each night with a Lire of Brandy.

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