Five things that surprised me about China

An Italian in China? Some of our topics are suddenly caught up in current events. Italian blogger Elizabetta, on her visit to China last year, never thought that her home country and China would make the headlines for a completely different reason. What she experienced in China, she wrote down for us. But her experiences are still relevant today: If the Corona crisis has shown one thing, it is that creativity never is on lock down.

Mar 31 2020

Can you imagine staying for some time in a place where you can’t use Instagram, Facebook or Google, or where you can’t chat with your family and friends on WhatsApp? And where almost nobody speaks your language? We all should give it a try once. Actually, a place like this exists; it’s quite a big one, and it’s called China.

Last year I had the opportunity to travel across China to give some interior trends talks to a number of companies in the furniture industry. I shared with them some insights and news I had picked up during the last Milan Design Week and promoted our Trend Membership service, which provides weekly updates on the latest trends via our online learning platform.

Together with a Chinese designer who was my guide in the country, I spent a week in the south in the big Guangzhou; I stopped in the beautiful holiday destination Xiamen, then headed to Tianjin for a couple of days and finally to the capital, Beijing. It was my first time in China and a great opportunity to make contact with such a different culture, one that was even more different than I had actually expected.

What’s more, during my tour, I had the opportunity to meet a number of industry professionals as well as young designers and students of interior design and design. I had the chance to exchange ideas, questions and visions with them and found that, in many respects, we are much more similar than I had expected. 

Let me tell you more about the things that surprised me, both because of their differences from our own culture or because of the – unexpected – similarities between them.

Trend Talk in Tainjin © Elisabetta Rizzato

1 # Technologically advanced

I already knew that China is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world at the moment, but I never had any sense of what this could actually mean in daily life before I spent some time in some of the big Chinese metropolises.

Let me give you a few simple examples.

Chinese girls just go out with their smartphones and have everything with them since you can pay literally everywhere with your phone using QR codes. If your battery is getting low, you can charge your phone anywhere because there are free portable chargers everywhere that you can take with you. 

Virtual assistants with voice control are already widespread in homes. They are cheap, and above all they are a precious source of help for elderly people and those ones with reduced mobility.

The highest-speed trains in the world today are in China, the Shanghai maglev trains. 

While over here we are talking about 4G vs 5G technology, in China they are already developing 6G and using 5G in many places. 

Free phone chargers in Guangzhou © Elisabetta Rizzato

2 # Greener than I expected

Having said that, there are still enormous environmental issues in the country, so I was pleased to see that China is making some efforts to move towards a more sustainable and greener way of life.

Probably this feeling was also strengthened by the fact that I was lucky enough to spend many days in Guangzhou, which is one of the more sustainable and greener metropolises in China. 

But I was happy to spot examples such as many new vehicles with different energy sources, including electric vehicles (much more in fact than we can see in Italy), which you can easily recognise by the different colour of their plates (green instead of blue). The significant subsidies from the government for vehicles with alternative energy sources have certainly helped to boost this trend.

Also, one thing that’s for sure is that concepts like circular design, sustainability and green design are becoming popular in China, too, especially among the younger generations. And here we move on to the next point.

Guangzhou view from my hotel window © Elisabetta Rizzato

3 # Young designers’ approaches

I was surprised by the fact that talking to young Chinese students and designers was actually very similar to talking to their European counterparts. Aside from the language differences, of course, I found many similarities in their approaches, in the questions they asked and in the topics they wanted to learn more about. 

As said before, one of the main issues that particularly interested young Chinese designers was environmentally friendly solutions and green design. 

Secondly, they were very interested in new solutions for small spaces and temporary living. In fact, living in China often means living in very tight spaces, sometimes so small that people prefer co-living solutions. 

I also think there is a really interesting new generation of designers emerging in China, and they are developing a new sense of style that has nothing to do with the stereotypical and incorrect idea of copying Western brand products and a lot to do with their great history and traditions. 

And here we move on to the next point that I loved about China.

4 # History and identity

What I truly loved about being in China is discovering the strength of their traditions and identity. The Chinese are so proud of their history, culture and traditions, and, yes, this is at the expense of foreigners’ social inclusion, which must be difficult in the country. And that’s without mentioning the political situation and everything that goes with it, which are also certainly affecting China. 

Anyway, I got the feeling that although I came to give them inspiration from my country by sharing news and trends from Milan, I actually left China feeling super inspired by their own designs and traditions.

Exchanging ideas with young designers in Guangzhou © Elisabetta Rizzato

5 # Living without our social media

The last point that I would like to share with you is a thought about living for a while without social media. As a professional in the interiors and design industry who actually built a business through the Internet and social media, I found this a really weird – but undoubtedly meaningful – experience. The only way to realise how deeply embedded social media are in our daily lives is to spend some days completely without them.

For example, I did not remember what it was like to introduce yourself to a new audience who cannot check your social media profile as proof of what you do. This really was a weird feeling for me. 

In China, they have a set of apps and social media that are totally different to ours, starting with WeChat, which is actually a super-powerful app that combines the functionalities of our WhatsApp, Facebook and PayPal, to name just a few, with everything in a single place.

Without a WeChat account, you can’t do anything, and what’s more, some functionalities can be activated only if you are Chinese. This is because everything in this area is, of course, much more controlled by the government.

Anyway, it was good to spend some days without checking my phone all the time for new notifications, replying to messages, or sharing things on social media. What’s for sure is that, without my eyes spending so much time on my iPhone’s screen, I was able to take in so much more of the beautiful culture that I was meeting for the first time. 

I really hope to have the opportunity to return to China soon. And, even more in these times of travel restrictions due to health issues, I strongly believe in the importance of exchanges between cultures and in how lucky we have always been to have the opportunity to travel, explore and – consequently – grow.

Elisabetta is an Italian Architect and the creator of Italian design blog + learning community ITALIANBARK.
Besides being a web content creator, she runs her interior and design studio. She has contributed to several international publications, forecasting interiors and design, while regularly traveling to the latest design events
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