Observations on London, after two years in China




Last November I travelled back to London after a year in China, and was intrigued by all the differences, in both the city and me.

Last time I flew into London it was in flames. This time it was the 5th November and the sky was coloured instead by fireworks. Admittedly, they looked a bit weak in comparison to the all-out craziness of Chinese New Year in Beijing, but still a welcome sight.

People – Bad Habits

A recent thread on an American voting website listed the traits in people that instantly make you think less of them. The top ten answers were pushing onto public transport, treating wait staff badly, stopping in a group in a busy walkway, parking your car or your shopping cart inconsiderately, driving with high beams on constantly, using public restrooms and not flushing, parents ignoring unruly children, eating noisily, lack of pleases and thank yous, people on speaker phone or playing music in public, the list goes on.

Whilst these are irregular annoyances in much of the world, in China this is day-to-day life. More than that, the majority of the top 100 annoyances in America are simply commonplace in China and culturally not considered at all rude by the majority of the population.

It may explain why so many Westerners have a hard time in China, and Chinese people are often thought of as rude or unmannered when travelling abroad.

Friends returning from Malaysia and the Maldives are horrified at the behaviour of Chinese guests in hotels, particularly around buffets and mealtimes. One Parisian hotel has completely banned Chinese guests. Even their neighbours in Hong Kong are protesting in the streets about the habits of the recent influx of Chinese visitors (but less about the influx of money).

Probably due to this, living in China does wonders for the patience. Everything in the UK seems so easy and everyone so polite and considerate.

It’s not you, it’s me

This abundance of manners highlights the changes in me. A few times I catch myself barrelling down narrow hallways, getting ready to push people aside, or one time digging around in my ear whilst having a conversation with a taxi driver.

Eating lunch with friends I have to remember not to drop the unwanted bones on the table, or their nice clean tablecloth.


Rather than starting “Well, in China…” I’ve changed to use, “Well, at home…”.  This has led to people asking questions about China, rather than me comparing everything without prompting. This is probably a good thing.

Food and Restaurants

London still has a much better variety of international food, even from countries close to China such as Vietnam and Thailand. Korean food is still much better in China though.

Fresh food prices have become ridiculous in the UK, whilst restaurants seemed cheaper. Some reasonably staple items like a bar of chocolate seem to be 40% more expensive. Looking at a Chinese restaurant menu, simple dim sum or noodles were 15 times the usual price in China, and clearly not handmade fresh to order.

It’s good to see regional Chinese restaurants opening though. Now there are Sichuanese or Xinjiang-style eateries, rather than the generic Cantonese.

Clothes and Shopping

Unlike food, clothes prices in the UK seem to have reduced considerably. I bought a cheap pair of formal trousers, and whilst they weren’t exactly tailored wool, they were reasonably well made. Probably by a sweatshop in China.

VPN still required

Internet providers in the UK have started blocking certain sites for promoting illegal downloads. As an experiment, I discovered the VPN I use in China to bypass government censorship also bypasses the UK blocks perfectly.

London sunset

London sunset

Customer Service

The day after the conference finished, I was invited to a lunch for bloggers. This was held at the very smart Guoman Royal Horseguards Hotel and and highlighted the gulf of difference between service levels in Beijing and London.

In China, the poor wages and lack of tipping culture has led to some of the surliest waiters imaginable, even at high-end restaurants in the capital. In London, everyone was welcoming and attentive, whilst barely being noticeable.

China’s shop and restaurant staff are more concerned with completing whatever they’ve been instructed to do, rather than take note of the needs of the customer. A simple example would be staff blocking supermarket aisle to restock the shelves, rather than enabling the customers to browse the products.


Typical buskers in London

The Olympic Effect

The best changes in the UK seems to have come about as a result of hosting the Olympics. I travelled daily on the DLR amongst conference attendees from around the world, and their excitement at seeing the Olympic landmarks was clear. Even the Londoners seem a bit more upbeat about living in London.

Most encouragingly, people are following Olympic athletes (and other real achievers) as role models instead of reality TV celebrities. Viewing figures for shows such as X-Factor are in steady decline and talk shows have more accomplished guests than someone famous for applying vajazzles.


Last time I visited I was a bit depressed by the changes in the UK, but just a year later the whole country seems a bit more upbeat. It’s still way too expensive, and terrible value for money, but I like it more than I did.

The next few months will be spent in the US before visiting the UK again, so I’m keen to see the differences between there, the UK and China, and trying not to start sentences “Well, in the US…”.




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21 Responses to Observations on London, after two years in China

  1. Michael @ Changes In Longitude December 4, 2012 at 12:21 am #

    Interesting analysis between the two cities. After spending a few weeks in each during the past year, I’d definitely add air quality to the list. While London may often be foggy and rainy, the air is crystal clear compared to Beijing.



    • steve December 4, 2012 at 12:32 am #

      True most of the time. Last time I mentioned air quality in Beijing on a blog I was told I was a Chinese government shill, which was nice.

  2. wandering educators December 4, 2012 at 2:52 am #

    i love london – and love your observations on it, after living somewhere so completely different for a few years!

  3. Steph | DiscoveringIce.com December 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    Great article and very fascinating! I actually didn’t know about this perception of the Chinese people…can’t believe that Parisian hotel has banned them! I’ll have to pay more attention to their habits from now on!

  4. Micki December 5, 2012 at 12:48 am #

    This is one of the things about travel – how it changes your frame of reference so dramatically; things that were once familiar start to seem foreign, and the foreign becomes the familiar. It’s a fascinating shift in perception…

  5. Terry at Overnight New York December 9, 2012 at 1:41 am #

    Fascinating about VPN (and lots else). And nice to hear the Olympics have had a lasting effect on London — and its talk shows. London’s was a smart, upbeat, contemporary, confident Olympics — probably the most so since Los Angeles.

    • steve December 9, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

      I was very sceptical in the run up to the London Olympics, but a few minutes into the opening ceremony was completely drawn in.

  6. D.J. - The World of Deej December 9, 2012 at 4:41 am #

    Interesting insight…this is part of what intrigues me about moving out of the states and living abroad for a while. I want to pick up all of their habits, good and bad. Good to see some of the reality TV junk is losing popularity over there. Hopefully that movement will make its way across the pond, but I doubt it…

    • steve December 9, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

      Going expat is definitely the best way to get to understand more about a country. There are so many extra little interactions that you miss on a holiday like setting up bank accounts or talking to a maintenance man, where you learn more about the way of life. Eventually it makes travel more interesting as you get to compare your destination to more than just your own culture.

  7. LeX @ LeX Paradise December 12, 2012 at 7:01 am #

    I got the same experienced as you did. I was in Korea for one year then back to Malaysia.

    Now I in other place again, I totally understand your feeling :D

    Let see how US work you out.

    • steve December 12, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      Thanks – I’d love to try living in Malaysia for a while

  8. Sergio De Gregorio December 28, 2012 at 6:16 am #

    Interesting article. When I come back to the UK I usually have similar impressions. It really is that we judge what’s around us based on our experience and what we consider normal. As our experiences change we change with them.
    It is true that GB and especially London is so much expensive.. And, yes, I should say, using a good VPN is good to have to increase privacy along with Ghostery or DoNotTrackMe to keep the privacy at a good level.


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