From east London to east Asia, senior account executive Sam New spent the first half of 2019 working abroad and experiencing an entirely new culture in Shenzhen, China. For those of you that only know Shenzhen as where the second film in the Crazy Rich Asians series is set to be filmed, let him give you some context.
Shenzhen was nothing more than wasteland just 40 years ago and in such a short amount of time has transformed into a metropolis of business, enterprise and technology which attracts forward-thinking Chinese businessmen and women. Its close connection to Hong Kong (only 20 minutes by train) creates fantastic employment, trade and travel opportunities for HK-goers wishing to live in somewhere less extortionately priced.
A restaurant owner that I met during one of my many trips to Hong Kong described Shenzhen as the “overfill”. Overfill meaning an extension of Hong Kong’s technological innovation, regulated pollution and modern mindset within mainland China. Essentially, it’s a commuter town on acid.
There is a brilliant dialogue in the film The Other Woman which consists of a wife’s long list of sacrifices she has made to her husband, which reaches its climax when she dramatically screams, “I went to CHINA!” I remember watching this film (it’s really worth a watch by the way) and thinking that travelling somewhere as exotic as Asia for work would be the dream, and I was confused as to why the brilliantly talented Leslie Mann’s character seemed to be so overwhelmed by the idea. Now that I “went to China”, I can tell you exactly why…
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to live in New York during my second year of university, where I got the chance to study for a semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Living on the other side of the world in a diverse city where I was a minority being British, experiencing new people, cultures and lifestyles. This, I thought, made me a qualified candidate to go and live in China for six months. I recall myself saying to my friends, “If I can do New York, China will be a breeze.” If I seriously believed that, I shouldn’t have been allowed out of my home by myself, let alone to the other side of the globe.
China is, in summary, mind-blowing. For the first few weeks I felt as though I was in a weird mix of dream, hallucination, and outer space. The architecture, scale and 30-degree weather is the sort of thing I have only seen in films, and it felt surreal to be experiencing this first-hand. Shenzhen’s beauty lies in its youth as a city, which leads to innovative design that’s not anchored in the past – look no further than the city’s Civic Centre which is elevated above the ground by two green and red glowing towers. Other incredible views can be found at the botanical gardens outside of the centre and from the roof of the Ping An Finance Centre (currently the fourth tallest building in the world – not one for those who suffer with vertigo).
When you move to London you can feel like a very small fish in a very big pond. When you see someone you know from university or home in a bar, you’re filled with an overriding sense of joy and stick to that person like glue because they feel familiar and safe. Now, turn that pond into an ocean and suddenly none of the other fish speak your language – you can imagine the joy one feels when randomly stumbling across another English person in the heart of Shenzhen!
The expat community in Shenzhen not only brings together those who speak the same language but do the same job. It is pretty much impossible to work for a Chinese company unless you’re teaching English, so over 90% of total expats in Shenzhen are teachers. When you don’t have any choice but to enjoy the people you can at least speak to, you learn to adapt to personality types that you wouldn’t previously have warmed towards – and that extra tolerance can be applied back in Blighty.
The highlight of immersing myself in Asian culture for such a prolonged period of time would be experiencing first-hand the technological genius that causes waves all around the globe. Walking down the central street in the technology district is like walking through an imaginary world that should only exist in the year 2085. The integration of technology in all elements of daily life, from smart watches that put the likes of Apple to shame, to architectural innovation that comes directly as a result of 3D digital design – my mind continued to be blown from the moment I landed until the moment I left.
There are so many other outstanding elements to the China experience that this blog could go on forever. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, the sensational BBQ street food which Shenzhen is world-renowned for, the incredible markets where you can find the best mix of tailored clothing and accessories for quite literally pennies, and simply the fact that Shenzhen is such a well connected city, making it a short trip to places like Hong Kong and Macao. It’s also so much quicker and cheaper to get to incredible destinations like Bali and the Philippines.
Whilst there is such a huge element to my personal experience in China which focuses around the almighty task of working remotely, this blog simply showcases the cultural differences and the overwhelming experience that someone who originates from a tiny island of 90,000 people felt when moving to a city of 13 million inhabitants.