Living vs. visiting

03 February 2017
In my recent article on my trip to China, one thing I did not address was the difference between merely visiting somewhere, and actually living there. The difference between the two is not entirely clear, as it is as much about mentality as time. With my trip to China, my intention was to try and experience what it is like to live there, and to some extent I feel it was a success.

The metrics

Whether being somewhere is visiting or living is somewhat predicated on what metrics are used for measurement. I feel there are four general areas, which are detailed below. This is all subjective, so different people will have different views.


The strictest definition of living somewhere is perhaps going there with the intention, realistic or otherwise, of staying there. This means not having somewhere to go back to, which was the case with New Zealand but not China. In this sense China did not have the pressures and background worries I had in New Zealand, and some stuff such as residency registration that I would otherwise have had to sort out I was able to side-step. New Zealand had plenty of sleepless nights wondering whether I would be able to get that job and therefore permanent residency, whereas China I could just assume that I would be gone before problems actually came to a head. This feeds into attitudes towards relationships. In New Zealand I did socialise, but I put limits on how far I would let relationships go, because of uncertainty of long-term commitment. In China I outright avoided building up relationships, even in cases where it was easy to do so, because I knew they would be of zero long-term importance. Pessimistic attitudes to friendships is an ugly side of international travel.

Routine development

In terms of time I think the threshold between visiting and living is around six weeks, as anything much less than this is not long enough to develop the type of routines that are representative of living somewhere. If only somewhere for one or two weeks you might have a regular convenience store, but when living somewhere you start to go to places that make no sense when merely visiting. For me the tipping point was when I started going to E-Mart on Xizang Road, which is somewhere between the non-food section of Asda and Poundland. On a holiday I would not even bother noting down where these places are. In the case of China it was somewhat skewed as from day two I was making a regular commute from Minhang to Zizhu, which is quite a trek. Stepping off the shuttle coach and almost going into auto-pilot getting back to my room is not something of visit territory. Chinese colleagues on the same bus stopped asking me whether I knew where I was, and I usually swung by the Korean supermarket on Guyang road. I was here for serious stuff, and that mattered.

Priority of going places

What was notable about my time in New Zealand is actually how much I didn't see. Because my plan was to stay there, I felt little urgency in going to see various things and places in hindsight I should have. In contrast with holidays the pressure is to pack in as much as possible, and making the effort to see things while the opportunity is there. While in China, my attitude was somewhere between the two. I managed to get in visits to four different places outside Shanghai, but within Shanghai I saw surprisingly little. A friend of a friends took me around the Bund early on to get stuff like mobile phone simcard, but that accounted for about 80% of the stuff in Shanghai itself I visited. Even at weekends I basically didn't stay out beyond 22:30, so I didn't see any of Shanghai's night life, unlike Hong Kong.

Getting into own place

After about two weeks, hotels are hell. At first it is nice to always come back to a freshly-made bed, but after a week or so the inability to just leave stuff lying around screws up the nerves. Putting headphones into drawers and electronics into the safe becomes a major-league pain up the arse, and staying there is really perpetual temporariness. On weekends you are either always wondering when you are going to be turfed out of your room, or wondering whether you can go back and not expect to be disturbed.

For me getting out of the hotel and into an apartment of my own was a major aim in trying to at least approximate “proper living” in China. Being able to actually cook a meal of dubious nutritional value at 2am, having a sofa to crash out on to a DVD, and having a second bed that friends could just come and crash onto. When I first went to New Zealand, I spent a lot longer than I wanted to living with the family of a friend in Hataitai. Although there were fewer concerns about where I left things,it still had some of the implicit restrictions that hotels had, and I did not feel that my life had really taken off until my moved into my own place in Te Aro.

So was it living?

I tried to approximate what living in China would be like, and the actions I chose in furtherance of this goal were generally successful. It was long enough and in the right places to get more of the local feel, and the priorities & routines I had there pretty much were the same as I have where I am now. It did not have quite the same raw sense of adventure going to New Zealand had, but it was there, and that was what I was really after.