- After traveling in China for six weeks, I realized there were certain things the country does unquestionably better than the US.
- China’s high-speed rail is extensive and convenient; the food is complex, diverse, cheap, and delicious; almost all young Chinese people use mobile payments instead of cash; you can get any kind of errand done with China’s on-demand service apps; and China’s e-commerce platforms make Amazon look dated.
- That’s not to say that visiting the country was easy. Few people speak English, and many of China’s most convenient services, like mobile payments, won’t work for foreigners. But I found my time there to be an incredibly enriching experience.
I’m not sure what I expected before visiting China.
Whenever I spoke to people who had visited the country before, the dominant reaction — whether the person was white, Chinese-American, or something else — was along the lines of an exasperated sigh and a face that said, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
Even when I was in Hong Kong during the first week of my five-month trip, when I told people there that I was about to embark on six weeks in China, they smiled knowingly.
“Hong Kong is Diet China,” one told me. “Hong Kong is China without all the extra difficulties, weirdness, and inconveniences. Get ready.”
After traveling in the country for six weeks, I think I understand a lot of what they were trying to convey. From an American perspective, China does not operate in the way you expect it to.
For example, it is pretty common for companies to have job listings that include qualifiers like “men only” or “only aesthetically pleasing women.”
On a smaller scale, times are more or less suggestions. Once at the bus station when I asked when the last bus to the town I was staying in would leave, I was told, “7 p.m., maybe.” The bus left at 6:40 p.m., and I missed it. Another time, on top of a mountain, when I asked when the cable car closed, I was told, “Whenever the workers decide it’s time to go home.” A sign said 7 p.m. The cable car stayed open until 7:30 p.m.
Among other things: Personal space is nonexistent, few people speak English, and you’ll often be told things are not possible, with little or no explanation. (And that’s assuming you understand enough Mandarin to hear the explanation in the first place.)
But despite those difficulties, it became apparent to me that there are certain things the country does unquestionably better than the US. Here are a few.
1. High-speed rail and public transport
Traveling to China can often feel like visiting the future. The cities stretch for what seems like forever, while new skyscrapers, bridges, and futuristically designed landmarks spring up every year.
Nowhere is this feeling more apparent than when you encounter China’s 15,500-mile high-speed railway network of “bullet trains.” It’s the world’s largest.
The practical result of this is that you can pretty much travel in anywhere in China via high-speed rail. It’s usually comparable in speed to air travel (once you factor in security lines and check-in) and far more convenient.
What’s perhaps most amazing is that the entire system has been built in the past decade. China’s first high-speed rail was a single 70-mile demonstration line built specifically for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
In many major Chinese cities, the high-speed railway station is near the center of the city and directly connected to that city’s metro, creating a fast, seamless public-transportation experience.
Chinese food is considered one of the most complex and diverse cuisines in the world by chefs, food critics, and travelers. Americans, and the rest of the West, tend to think of China as one monolithic place, but China comprises over 1.3 billion people, 23 provinces, 56 ethnic groups, and at least as many different cuisines. Libraries’ worth of books have been written about China’s food.
Each cuisine has different flavor profiles, hallmark ingredients, and cooking methods. Sweet and sour is a common taste in Shanghainese cuisine, while Szechuan food is known for its extensive use of the numbing peppercorn of the same name. Steaming is extremely popular in Cantonese cuisine, while several western and northern regions boil dishes in a “hot pot.” As you can probably guess, those hot pots don’t taste remotely similar.
The cuisine is so diverse and specific that it is not uncommon for a particular county or town to be famous for a single dish that is not made anywhere else in the country.
Whenever I talked to friends back home about visiting China for so long, their first question often was: “But didn’t you get sick of eating Chinese food all the time?” Friends, if you understood how diverse Chinese cuisine is, you’d know that’s a silly question.
3. Mobile payments
Paying with your phone isn’t a novelty in China these days — paying with cash is.
Over the past 15 years, mobile payments in China have grown into a $16 trillion market dominated by China’s two biggest tech giants, Tencent and Alibaba. Mobile payments totaled $9 trillion in 2016, according to iResearch Consulting Group data cited by The Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, the US saw $112 billion in mobile payments in 2016, according to a Forrester Research estimate included in The Journal’s report.
Tencent and Alibaba’s competing mobile payment apps, WeChat Pay and AliPay, are used by just about everyone in China, from fancy restaurants and high-end designer boutiques to street vendors, taxi drivers, and even panhandlers. All you need is a phone-scannable QR code to give or receive money.
Ninety-two percent of people in China’s biggest cities said they used WeChat Pay or AliPay as their primary payment method, according to a 2017 study by Penguin Intelligence cited by the news outlet Tech in Asia. And the amount spent per month through those services keeps going up.
The caveat is that those services don’t work for most foreigners, as they require a Chinese bank account. When I encountered a café that accepted only mobile payments, I had to beg someone there to use their account to pay for me.
4. On-demand services
While most people know about Chinese internet giants like Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent, the hottest concept in Chinese tech and startups over the past several years is on-demand services.
In China’s major cities, you can get just about anything done with a mobile phone and the right app. Want a manicure or pedicure at your home in a few hours? Queue up Heli Jia, a startup connecting freelance nail artists and stylists with customers for in-home treatments. For in-home massages, check out Gongfu Xiong. For food delivery, get Ele.me or Meituan Dianping.
That’s just the start. People living in China can hire photographers, personal chefs, and driving instructors through different apps. They can get their car washed or laundry done, or rent a bike or scooter, in a few clicks.
While the US has many of these services as well, in China they tend to be more affordable, more convenient, and speedier.
And that’s without even getting into e-commerce.
5. E-commerce and logistics
I know, I know. You have Amazon Prime, and your packages magically show up two days after you order them, with free shipping (minus the $119 yearly fee and the human cost, revealed by Business Insider’s Hayley Peterson).
In China, the e-commerce giants Alibaba and JD.com pride themselves on even faster shipping with no fee or membership.
According to the news website Axios, JD.com says it makes 90% of its deliveries in China within 24 hours and 57% within 12 hours of order placement.
Let’s put it this way: If you realize at lunch that you forgot your toothbrush, it could be delivered to your hotel before it’s time to go to bed.
And it’s only going to get faster and more efficient. JD.com is already using drones to expand its high-speed delivery network to over 100 rural villages throughout China. Its CEO, Liu Qiangdong, has said he expects drone delivery to cut costs by 70% once it reaches scale.
Both Alibaba and JD.com now have fancy Whole Foods-style supermarkets that offer fresh, high-quality food delivered within 30 minutes of an order being placed. It’s a marvel to see in action.
There is a human cost. In China, there are 1.2 million kuaidi, or express couriers, who have low pay and often a brutal schedule of seven-day workweeks with shifts as long as 12 hours.