On arriving in central Shenzhen, I noticed that the huge city was similar to most cities, with a plenty to see, eat and do, and while the people in it were not as heterogeneous as the cities I had known before, foreigners were not an uncommon sight day to day. Within the first week, however, I secured a job in Pingshan, the small district on the eastern outskirts of the city, and this changed.
Gone were the tall buildings and shopping malls, the convenient metro system, and the restaurants selling foreign food. Instead, here is a much more isolated and less developed, but more authentic side of the city.
With the glass skyscrapers and shopping malls stripped away, the “rougher” side of the country can be seen more clearly. Seeing animals being butchered in the street or carried alive by their legs or wings is not uncommon. The streets are dusty and strewn with litter, despite what seems to be legions of street cleaners, and poverty is never more than a stone’s throw away. Across the street from my relatively nice apartment block, is a small neighbourhood of tiny, concrete one-or-two-room houses with glassless windows. The streets there are dirty and cramped, and stray dogs lounge by the walls, while other dogs are chained to the doors of the houses and shops they guard.
A foreigner living in China is entirely an outsider, especially if they cannot speak the local language, but in a place like Pingshan, where walking down the street you may be the first and only non-Chinese person ever seen by the people around you, this is particularly apparent. Almost everyone walking by can’t help but stare, and in fact usually have no qualms about doing so, often stopping in their tracks to do a double take. Their curiosity is never malicious though; in fact, many people are thrilled to see a foreigner, and it seems to make their day to say, “Hello! How are you?” And I’m happy to reply, though after a long day it can be a little wearing. Even more tiring are the “discreet” photos. I don’t mind when someone approaches me and politely asks for a selfie, but stopping near me and pretending to read your phone while it’s angled conspicuously towards me is not very convincing, and quite rude, especially in a restaurant. Sometimes I do feel a little like a zoo animal.
This is perhaps the biggest disadvantage of living in the outskirts of the city – the sense of isolation. The nearest metro station is a forty minute bus journey away, and from there it’s about ninety minutes to the central districts, so a trip to the relatively developed city centre is an occasion only viable at weekends.
One big advantage of living in Pingshan, however, is how cheap everything is. A meal and some beer won’t set you back more than 15RMB, and if you want to eat somewhere fancy 30-40RMB is what I would expect – saving money is incredibly easy here.
My favourite thing about Pingshan, besides 660ml beer for 3RMB, is the relaxed vibe here. The buildings rarely go above four floors – rare for Shenzhen – and the district is considerably less crowded than those closer to the centre, so there is a greater sense of breathing space compared to those bustling, skyscraper filled districts. Temporary restaurants consisting of plastic tables and chairs and a small tent with a cooker under it are set up late in the evening, and if you go out after 10pm, you’ll see people sitting outside their shops and homes drinking, smoking, and playing cards or dominoes. Apart from the not-so-inconspicuous photography, the people here are very friendly and hospitable – my neighbours invite me to eat with them regularly – and are more than happy to help a confused foreigner.
The differences between one’s home country and China are even starker here, which may be hard for some to stomach, but some may enjoy the district’s character and charm.