The Rise of Shenzhen – How A Little-Known City In Southern China Won Me Over

(This is a guest post by a former ESL Teacher. Learn more about the author at the bottom.)

I remember the first time I visited Shenzhen and being struck with how new everything felt.  Compared to where I was living in Guangzhou, Shenzhen was like a city that China had just pulled the wrapper off of and was still working to build a population and infrastructure.  That’s not to say it’s rural (it’s not even close), only that there seemed to be construction on every block and nobody I met was actually from Shenzhen.

Let’s back up a bit.

When I was first looking into teaching in China, I spent many hours debating between Guangzhou (the capital of the province and the 3rd largest city in China) and Shenzhen.  I interviewed for jobs in both cities, read plenty of blog posts, and sought out recommendations from sites like Reddit.  In the end, I chose Guangzhou for the culture. If I was going to travel halfway around the world for work, I wanted to live in a Chinese city that was more than 30 years old.

I don’t regret that decision. I loved Guangzhou, and like so many of the Cantonese people that I met, I’m proud to have called it home for 2 years.  However, when my second contract ended, I didn’t leave China like so many other teachers. I moved to Shenzhen instead.

After more than half a dozen visits during my time in Guangzhou, giving Shenzhen a shot had become too appealing not to try it out for longer than a weekend.  Over a year later and I’m still here, finally writing about what drew me to this city in the first place.

What I Love About Shenzhen

Shenzhen, China - Teach English in China

The Proximity

If you look at Shenzhen on a map, you’ll see that you can pretty much walk to Hong Kong and Macau.  Those of you reading that have never been to China might be wondering why that’s appealing, why someone would come all the way to China only to celebrate its proximity to other countries.

Even if you disregard how awesome Hong Kong and Macau are (seriously, go visit), one thing I’ve found to ring true for many expats in China are the inevitable stress-filled days.  The Middle Kingdom is not always an easy place to live and sometimes having an escape only a short ferry ride away is invaluable.  Think of it as a cabin in the woods when city life gets too much – it’s always good to have a place to reset and recharge, and Shenzhen makes that easy.

The Opportunities

Teach English in China - Shenzhen

I once heard an expat describe Shenzhen as the ‘wild west of opportunities’ due to the sheer number of businesses you could start, build, or join.  In my time here I’ve met teachers moonlighting as sourcing consultants, former silicon valley employees that quit their job to start a computer hardware company (here’s an awesome WIRED documentary on the tech scene), and bands that started playing in bars but now tour the country.  Maybe all of this can be attributed to how new the city is, but Shenzhen really seems to embody the “if you can dream it you can do it” mentality.

I will say that these types of opportunities are not unique to Shenzhen. There are plenty of ways to start your own company in Guangzhou and beyond, but I’ve never seen such an abundance and variety of options as exists in this little pocket of China.

Want more proof?  I actually moved to Shenzhen without a job and ended up meeting a guy at the gym that hired me to work for his company – if you have the right attitude you can do almost anything here and that makes for pretty exciting times.

The Culture

Few places in Southern China can compare with Guangzhou when it comes to historical culture, but what Shenzhen lacks in history it makes up for with a sense of progressiveness (yes, places in China can be progressive).  

When the Chinese government granted the city special economic status back in 1979, it opened the door for private enterprises to flourish. Almost everyone that came to Shenzhen had dreams of using that to their advantage.

As a result, the majority of the population is very well-educated, extremely driven, and disproportionately young when compared to other Chinese cities.  Countless pioneers chased fortune all the way to this former fishing village, and as a result, there is a tremendous sense of entrepreneurship that permeates the city.

This culture obviously plays into the types of opportunities that are available in Shenzhen but also impacts the types of expats that call Shenzhen home.  I’d classify the majority of people that I’ve met here as excited – excited to live in such an energized city, excited to be in the innovation hub of China, and excited to be able to interact with people who feel the same.

Looking Forward

As I write this, I’ve got about 2 months left in Shenzhen.  If I’m being honest, when I first came to China, I thought I’d stay 2 years tops. And yet, here I am almost 4 years later talking about a place that I never intended to live.

In the past, Shenzhen was not even on the radar as a place to visit or work, especially when compared to China’s main attractions like Beijing and Shanghai.  That’s changed, however, and it’s clear this part of the country is starting to get plenty of recognition for what it’s bringing to the domestic and international table.

My advice to anyone reading this is that Shenzhen is worth the effort.  It’s worth considering as a place to work and it’s definitely worth visiting. I’ve met more than a few people like myself that never thought they’d end up here but found the city to be so appealing that they had to give it a try.

Quincy is a former teacher and founder of ESL Authority, a site dedicated to bringing first-hand advice and guides to those looking to get involved in ESL teaching. Currently located in China, he will work for strong coffee and IPAs.

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