I moved to Shenzhen a bit over three years ago without giving it much thought at all.

It’ll be an experience, I thought, and boy was I right! I’ve definitely changed a lot living here.

I decided to compile a list of my own personal changes during my time in Shenzhen. My realizations, my lessons, my habits.

Perhaps you can relate to some of them or perhaps you think I’m totally wrong. Or, my experience may even sway you to make the move to China yourself.

As always, feel free to leave a comment at the end. I love to hear about other people’s journeys.

Anyway, here it comes, 10 ways living in Shenzhen has made me a better person.

1. I’m more patient

There are so many people in Shenzhen – 12 million at last count. So, it’s natural that daily life can be a bit chaotic, busy, hustle and bustle, even infuriating.

For this reason, there are many rules and structures in place to keep some sense of order.

However, you may begin to notice that these rules are not strictly adhered to.

For example, there are clear, distinct places to line up at the tax office, but at least three people will skip ahead to the front of the line and nobody will bat an eyelid.

Or, when you’re travelling anywhere during rush hour.

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The sidewalks in Shenzhen are jam-packed with people and bikes, usually going very slowly. Seriously, I’m on a pedal bike and you’re on a scooter, how are you going slower than me?

Shenzhen Metro stations will have long lines outside of them.

You could wait 10 minutes to even get inside the station doorway, then have another 15 minutes of shuffling along in a sea of people to get to the platform!

Elevators are another unique experience. They will be filled to the brim – think sardines – and will probably stop on every single floor. Waiting for then the elevator at my office adds around 10 minutes to my daily commute.

Busy Shenzhen street

In crowded Shenzhen streets like this one, you learn to be more patient. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

At the end of the day, more people ultimately means things will take longer.

With time, you’ll become used to waiting for things, even when you’re in a rush.

Hopefully you’ll also become somewhat immune to the seething rage you once had when someone cuts the line. I say hopefully because I for one am not quite there yet.

Overall though, I can say my patience level has improved somewhat by living in Shenzhen.

2. I’ve developed Chinese language skills

Immersing yourself in an entirely new culture is one of the best ways to learn a new language. If you’re here for any length of time, it’s hard not to pick up survival phrases such as:

  • Thank you (always a good word to have in a new country as it shows you’re at least trying to be polite despite it all)
  • Numbers (at least up to 10) – great when dealing with Chinese money
  • I don’t need/want
  • I don’t understand.

While living in Shenzhen, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to learn basic Chinese and then practice it in real-life situations daily.

If going back to school for formal language classes (like at one of these) doesn’t appeal to you, then fear not!

Despite actually living in China, I take online Mandarin classes tailored specifically towards my goals. I love being able to learn from the comfort of my own sofa. The future really is now.

Outside of the classroom, you’re bound to find locals – colleagues and friends – who will be more than happy to teach you a phrase or two.

At my local tap room, which has some amazing Chinese craft beer, I’ve picked up some helpful phrases that I now use all the time.

Learning Chinese online

I’m learning Mandarin at home, then I can practice outside. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

Large cities like Shenzhen even hold language mixer events, giving you the perfect opportunity to brush up on your new skills while making friends.

Using a Chinese app like WeChat is great because you can meet online first, then meet them in person or at a mixer.

Slowly but surely you’ll begin to notice that you understand more around you, or can get by for longer without relying on a translation app.

Apps like Duolingo and HelloChinese are great for consistent practice and building up your vocabulary while you’re on the go, but may not always teach you the most practical phrases straight away.

If you commit to learning Mandarin, you may even end up with a bit of a shock at just how complex the English language must be for learners.

My analogy is as follows: English is like putty that can be stretched, twisted, squashed and molded. Chinese is more like building blocks that you can rearrange but essentially the blocks don’t change.

Both have their pros and cons.

3. I’m more self-confident

Visiting, or even moving to, a new country can be daunting. You definitely need some cajones to do so!

Huge cities like Shenzhen are, at times, overwhelming. That is unless you’re completely Zen, in which case please give me your secret.

As I’ve mentioned, Shenzhen is busy and loud and bright. Depending on where you visit, there could be relatively few foreigners so you may receive a bit more attention than you’re used to.

It’s a lot for a little girl from a small Scottish town.

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Now I know it’s easier said than done, but you just have to own it.

Yes, you may look different, sound different, dress differently, eat differently and yes, people might point that out. But so what?

You are you and you are here to experience new and incredible things. Get over that fear of staring and pointing and bloody well enjoy every moment of it.

I’ve had friends who won’t eat out because they’re too afraid of using chopsticks incorrectly, friends who taxis everywhere because they don’t want people on the metro looking at them.

I’d say 9 times out of 10, the additional attention is because people are intrigued and excited to see you, not because of whatever negative reasoning you’ve come up with in your head.

4. I have a new-found respect for Chinese cuisine

Okay, so maybe it’s more of a deeper understanding, but I love food and so in my experience it was understanding into respect.

I’m actually a bit spoiled for choice when it comes to food. Shenzhen is a relatively new city and so a lot of the residents aren’t actually from Shenzhen, they’ve moved here from other cities in China.

Thankfully they brought their diverse and delicious cuisine with them. I’m constantly thinking about my next meal, but with so many options, I just never know what to choose.

In Shenzhen, I can eat dim sum one day, Mongolian lamb the next, spicy soup, Beijing roast duck, dumplings, barbecue skewers… I’m sure you get the idea.

Of course, Shenzhen also has a plethora of Western restaurants to ease the occasional bout of homesickness, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Malatang spicy soup

Chinese spicy soup called ‘malatang’. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

I’ve also been lucky enough to travel to many corners of China. 

In the north, you’ll find hearty dishes filled with meat and local vegetables, almost like stews.

Central China is home to some of the spiciest food you’ll perhaps ever try in your life. Chongqing is synonymous with spice and the numbing Sichuan pepper is a Chinese culinary experience not to be missed.

And in the southern areas, like Guangdong and Hong Kong where the climate is basically tropical, the sweetness of Cantonese flavors (like you’ll find in the West) are perfect for the warmer temperatures.

I could talk all day about the ‘new’ Chinese food I’ve discovered during my time in China, but for now this article about Chinese food should cover the most notable dishes.

5. I have a lack of interest in cooking

And not just because the local food is so good.

No, this one boils down to convenience.

Eating out or ordering food is the norm, not just in Shenzhen, but all of China. Often it’s much cheaper than making your own food.

Obviously if you’re cooking for more than just one person, things could be cheaper and the value for money may be a little different.

An average lunch or dinner in Shenzhen would cost me around 20-30 RMB to order. I can eat it at the store, or have it delivered straight to my door within the hour.

This option is far more favorable than going to the supermarket, selecting my food, buying my food, coming home, cooking my food, eating my food and then doing dishes.

You can get groceries delivered, but even then there’s still cooking and washing up to be done.

Eating barbecue meat in China

Eating barbecue meat in China (and loving it). Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

Apartment kitchen Shenzhen

One of my old kitchens in Shenzhen. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

Another reason many people opt for food delivery is the fact that many Chinese kitchens are not well-equipped for cooking.

The average kitchen may only have one or two rings on a gas stove and not much else. And that’s if you’re lucky!

My first apartment in China didn’t even have a stove. I had to buy a hot plate in order to actually use my kitchen for cooking.

Since then I’ve upgraded my kitchens along with my apartments. I’m now the proud owner of a singular gas-ringed hob. I’ve also added a microwave and medium-sized countertop oven to the mix.

Yes, I do still have my hotplate in case of emergency. It also works great for hot pot!

6. I have admiration for a country’s work ethic

You may have heard of China’s 9-9-6 working structure, where people work from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week.

Yes, it does happen. Whether it’s right or wrong is a whole other conversation.

Controversy aside, the people here work hard.

From the grandpa and grandma who together run the convenience store below my apartment which I have never seen closed, to the security guards manning doors at all hours of the day, to the teachers who are at the school gates at 7.30 am ready to greet their students.

It’s truly an impressive workforce.

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China does create a lot of jobs and opportunities for its citizens which is something that I find really admirable.

Let’s take, for example, a Shenzhen Metro station. There will be security guards (bao’ans) at each entrance. This could range from 1 to 12 people per entryway depending on the size of the station.

We’re talking at least one or two to control the flow of people, one to check small bags, one to scan larger bags, one to check liquids, one on standby just keeping watch, a few at the ticket gate to assist if needed and so on and so forth.

I suppose you could argue that people have no choice. With such a large population you can guarantee that if you won’t do it, someone else will. However, I’m not so sure that’s the case.

In Shenzhen, you will often see groups of volunteers helping around the city. They collect litter, assist at pedestrian crossings, and are present on Metro station platforms.

The desire and drive to do something or at least give back to your community is a quality I really take my hat off to.

With ample opportunities, the people here are generally willing and happy to work.

7. I’m not as fussy in public bathrooms

This article does a great job of letting you know what to expect from bathrooms in China so I won’t drone on too much here.

The few main takeaways are this: always have tissues and hand sanitizer with you. If you’re one of those people who has a thing about using public restrooms, well that phobia will be no more after a stay in China.

I truly do feel that I’ve seen it all and honestly nothing I see in a public restroom really surprises me anymore.

I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s something.

Sign in Chinese bathroom

Never look inside a Chinese toilet garbage can! Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

However, when returning to your home country, you might actually miss the sheer amount of public bathrooms China has to offer.

On a recent trip to Beijing, I noticed that the public toilets there were 10 times more hygienic than your average Shenzhen nightclub toilet. Although a few did lack walls and privacy, but I digress…

8. The bond I have with my phone is stronger

I am not kidding when I say that here in Shenzhen, I used my phone for everything!

I can use it to order groceries, pay my utility bills, rent a bike, book cinema tickets, unlock doors… you get the gist.

And before anyone points out that you can basically do all of the above with your phone in other parts of the world, this is different.

I only use one app for pretty much everything – WeChat.

It basically makes all other apps and cold hard cash completely redundant. If you have WeChat set up with a bank card attached, you truly don’t need much else.

It even has a timeline and channel section, sort of similar to a Facebook feed and Instagram reels. Thankfully for me, my videos are vastly more popular on WeChat than on Western social media.

9. I love taking naps

Perhaps you’re already a big fan of an afternoon siesta at the weekend. I know I am!

What if I told you that you could enjoy one every day, even at work? Well, you can!

Napping during lunch hour is a really big part of Chinese culture.

In my office, after most people have finished eating their food, the lights will be turned off in order to ease employees into a gentle slumber. Many people actually have foldable cots at work complete with a blanket and pillow.

When lunchtime is over, gentle music is played, sort of like an alarm clock, to wake everyone up.

To accommodate for this little nap, lunch breaks in China are generally longer than they are in the West. Of course, it does depend on your company but you could expect anything from 60 to 120 minutes (yes, really) for your lunch break!

Napping with my cats living in Shenzhen

Napping with my cats. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

A two-hour lunch break is pretty standard for government employees.

This can be annoying when it comes to visa renewals and other administrative tasks as you have to take care of them right in the middle of your own working hours.

I was, for some reason, a little hesitant to embrace this aspect of work life. However, now I at least doze for a few minutes each day.

While I have not yet invested in a cot, and probably won’t, I do have a small pillow and light blanket to help me get cozy during nap time, sorry, lunchtime.

Schools in Shenzhen, especially those accommodating younger kids, also join in with this lunchtime routine. However, do not be surprised to find construction workers snoring by the roadside, or even taxi drivers parked up with their eyes closed.

Hey, we all gotta catch those z’s.

10.  I’m dependent on VPNs

For a foreigner, this aspect of living in Shenzhen is basically unavoidable.

Before moving here, I definitely thought that VPNs were for just for spies or people who were up to no good on the internet. That isn’t the case.

I still don’t really know all that much about what a VPN actually is or how it really works, but I know it’s a lifesaver.

Apps like WhatsApp, YouTube, Netflix, Gmail, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter all require a VPN if you wish to use them in China.

In no time at all you’ll become an expert in which server works best for which service, which VPN services almost never fail and which VPN services are garbage.

Keep in mind though, you should download and install all your VPNs before coming to China. There are ways to do so from inside China but it’s very complicated and there’s no guarantee it will work.

For more information about VPNs written by someone much more clued up than me, take a look here.

11, 12, 13, 14, 15…

Personal growth and development never stops, or at least it shouldn’t.

I regularly discover new skills, outlooks and characteristics in myself that I never noticed before. As long as these changes remain positive, then I am happy.

If you too are looking to broaden your horizons, then I truly believe Shenzhen is a place that can help you do just that.

I’ve also written an article about all the cool things you can do in Shenzhen. Check it out!