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What is China really like?

So you've heard the hype about China's booming economy and the line about 5000 years of history, but what does that actually mean if you're about to step off a plane and start a new life in the world's most populous country?

Well, for starters, China is a massive, rapidly-changing and hugely diverse country. What life in China is like depends on where you are and how you choose to live your life. But one thing is for sure, there's never been a more exciting time to live in this dynamic and vibrant country.

Fastest Growing Economy in the World

Over the past 30 years, China has had the world's fastest growing economy. Even during the financial crisis, China's economic growth was maintained at a level of 8%, a pace unmatched by any other nation. China's economy recently surpassed Japan's to become the world's second largest after the United States. Multinational companies have flooded the booming Chinese market and many of the world's top 500 companies choose to base their Asia-Pacific headquarters in the bustling Chinese cities of Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong.

However, China's per capita GDP level is relatively low and regional development has been uneven. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and other coastal areas in the east and south-east enjoy living standards similar to those in mid-sized European countries. Meanwhile, the level of development in Yunnan, Xinjiang, Tibet and other central and western provinces remain relatively low, especially in rural areas. However, recent initiatives to bring the living standards of China's inland regions on par with those in coastal cities have been successful. Xi'an, Chongqing, Wuhan and Chengdu are all thriving examples of China's so-called second-tier cities, where living costs are low but standards are comfortable.

Regardless of which city you end up studying in, you'll find that China's rapid but uneven economic growth means that you have the choice to eat at a street stall for less than a dollar, indulge in fine dining at a world-class restaurant or simply stick with the familiarity of a worldwide chain like McDonald's. Life in China is extremely affordable if you come from a developed nation, but you won't have to forgo the comforts of home.

5000 Years of History and Culture

Go to any historical monument in China and it's clear from the throngs of domestic tourists that the Chinese are both proud of and fascinated by their nation's lengthy history. As China moves forward and becomes an increasingly prominent player on the world stage, there has been a revival of interest in the country's roots, especially in the finest moments of Chinese civilization: Confucian philosophy, the Four Great Inventions, the flourishing Tang dynasty – to name just a few.

But to what extent does modern China bear the imprint of its 5000 year-old civilization? Perhaps fittingly for an ancient civilization turned modern superpower, the answer is somewhat contradictory. Beijing, for example, is dotted with splendid examples of traditional Chinese architecture and the modern city has been built around its still-existent Yuan-era layout. However, traces of the city's ancient past are increasingly hard to come by, except in tourist spots and certain well-preserved parts of the city. But this only makes it all the more pleasant when you do find yourself wandering the old alleyways of Beijing's traditional hutongs in the heart of the city, where the pace of life seems far removed from the hustle and bustle of the present day.

Meanwhile, some things never change. In keeping with Confucian teaching, Chinese culture still places huge importance on education. This has been intensified by the government's drive to modernize China, and huge investments have been made in the nation's higher education system to ensure Chinese graduates have the knowledge, skills and innovation to lead China into the twenty-first century.

1.3 Billion People

1.3 billion might sound like an intimidating number, but people in China are no different from anywhere else in the world; they share the same hopes and confront the same problems. College graduates face fierce competition for jobs. Young couples work hard to save up for an apartment. Parents want the best education for their kids. Many people struggle just to make ends meet. Others will spend voraciously on brand name goods simply to keep up appearances.

So is it easy for a foreigner to fit in amongst 1.3 billion people? When you first arrive, you might well come across locals who find it too frustrating to communicate with a foreigner who speaks little or no Chinese, so you'll need plenty of patience. Others will bowl you over with their kindness, go incredibly far out of their way to help you with the smallest problem you might encounter, and invite you to their hometown to celebrate Chinese New Year.

China's Diversity

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises for foreign visitors to China is the country's incredible diversity. As the third largest nation in the world, China occupies a vast expense of territory, making it home to tremendous regional diversity in terms of everything from terrain and weather to culture, language and food. The Chinese population is itself made up of 56 ethnic groups each with their own customs and traditions. All this makes China a wonderful country to travel and explore.

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