Chinese millennials behaving badly – what goes on inside China’s hostels
Chinese millennials’ upbringing has been almost incomparable to those of us born and raised in the West. The world seems fixated, obsessed and hungry to understand what this demographic want – and specifically how to sell it to them. Millennials represent those born between the years 1981 and 1996. Currently between the ages of 22 to 37, Chinese millennials outnumber the entire population of the USA.
Stereotyped as spoiled little emperors and empresses who are glued to their phones and care only about themselves – in reality, the vast majority are only-children conscious of the burden to procreate yet simultaneously striving for an independent life of their own. For many, their parents grew up impoverished and ultimately devoting their life to the social mobility of their one child. Access to a VPN or conversations with foreigners exposed a history of China previously hidden from them. They yearn for information … they drink coffee, eat pizza and listen to Taylor Swift.
… They also adore local home dishes passed down through generations, are proud of their country, and know what they want, and how to get it.
Beyond the screens, designer handbags and endless WeChat posts of overpriced salad, there is more to Chinese millennials than meets the eye. This 66hands is an A-Z of Chinese narratives collected over two years of staying in hostels around mainland China. It includes experiences retold from Chinese blog posts, first-hand stories told late at night over baijiu and beers, as well as some of my recollections of Chinese friends’ experiences in hostels.
In Chinese, the word for hostel is 青年旅舍 qīng nián lǚ shè and it means “cheap lodging house for young people”. There are over 200 registered hostels in 27 provinces. From the dense hutongs in Beijing, to the wide-open scenic mountains near the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Lijiang, to the West Lake in Hangzhou – China’s hostels bring Chinese travelers together from all over the country.
ABC – 成都 Chengdu
“Once I stayed in a dorm of 5 people … two friends, a mother and her daughter, and me. The first night was fine. The next morning, at 7am, my best friend called me. I answered and shortly after the daughter started to shout at me: “F*ck your mum, get off the phone and go outside. You think this is your home. Believe you me, if you talk again, I’ll come over and slap you.” I was shocked. I went outside and called my friend. The daughter’s mother said nothing, only watched and let her daughter say those things to me. When I came back into the room, I found my bag emptied out all over the room! Again the mother said nothing. Maybe spicy Sichuan food starts a fire in people. I didn’t feel very angry, only shocked. When I told my friends about the incident, they said I was useless and need to learn how to fight back!”
DEFGH – 杭州 Hangzhou
“10 years ago, I’d just finished the gaokao (secondary/high school leaver examinations) and wanted to explore China by myself before going to university. My father is from Xinjiang and he has traveled to every province in China, but my mother is very quiet, reserved and scared to travel out of Suzhou where I was brought up. After weeks of negotiating, shouting, crying – she let me go. I started in Hangzhou, a place I spent summers with family friends … my sisters and brothers who have already gone to university. I arrived at the hostel in the evening, contacted my mother and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and guilt for having travelled far from her. A girl with a thick Beijing accent approached me. She was with a nice-looking group of friends who were eating fruit and nuts, laughing loudly over bottles of beer. I sat with them and they offered me some beer. I started to drink, my inside warming and chatting more freely. They wanted to go to a bar, sing some karaoke and dance … but I wasn’t familiar to said I would stay the night in the hostel. They left and I stood up – wobbling and feeling my face glow warmer. I took a shower before bed, but my thinking was clouded, and I forgot my towel. I ran through the corridor naked and drunk at 10pm. I fell asleep straight away and woke in the morning completely naked on top of my bedsheets in a shared dorm of 8 people!”
IJKL – 丽江 Lijiang
“I run a popular hostel in Lijiang, Yunnan province. This area is one of the largest marijuana cultivation and production areas in China. Often there are foreign visitors who recognize these plants, and they buy it cheap in the mountains, smoke it quickly and then leave. The local people sprinkle this crop on their food for seasoning, but Chinese visitors are unaware of marijuana’s use in other countries. Sometimes they meet the foreigners and they smoke together. The Chinese visitors don’t know what they are doing and smoke it like cigarettes – big heavy inhales and many, many joints like they are cigarettes! One time I found three Chinese on the roof after a long night together in big clouds of smoke. They are young and happy, just relaxing in Yunnan.”
MN – 南京 Nanjing
“In 2016 I spent the summer volunteering at a hostel in Nanjing. It’s a popular destination for foreign students on exchange in China due to its long history, so I wanted to use the opportunity to practice my English and meet people from around the world. One of my jobs, amongst others, was to wash the bedsheets after visitors had left. It was early August and a very tall, attractive blond student came to stay for two nights. The first night we spoke a little. He had just finished a master’s degree at Peking University. I felt shy and embarrassed. Why does he talk to me? The second night we spoke a little more and I felt maybe he is interested in me. But when he left, we did not exchange contact details and I thought he’s lost forever. I went to his dormitory and collected the sheets. There was a big, gloopy white patch and I screamed with shock. I felt my stomach lurch as my hands were covered in the stuff. I no longer think I want to see this handsome boy again, and from that moment on, whenever I collected the sheets I was very careful.”
OPQ – 青岛 Qingdao
“4 friends and myself went to Qingdao to celebrate my 24th birthday. We were master’s students in Beijing, and none of us had been to Qingdao before. It was summer and we had submitted our thesis papers, so we were feeling relaxed before going to work, or continue a PhD. We had dinner in a restaurant by the seafront, and the drinking started. We went to a bar, cigarettes alight and beer bottles opening all around, the music was loud. More drinking. Some girls sat with us whilst we played card games. I don’t remember much before ending up in the sea with a pretty girl from Guilin. We were swimming in the sea and the police came. The Guilin girl was quick, and she told them it was my birthday. The police took us to the hostel. My friends were also scattered around Qingdao. I don’t know what happened with the pretty girl who saved me from being arrested. In the morning she left me a note saying Happy Birthday.”
RS – 深圳 Shenzhen
“I stayed in Shenzhen visiting an old university friend who is now married. I was only going to be using the hostel to sleep, so didn’t expect to meet anyone. But on the first night, I came back from dinner with my friend and her husband. They are so happy, but I feel so lonely and out of place in their company. I sat in my hostel common area and a friendly guy from Hong Kong approached me. We chatted later and later into the night, drinking beer from the fridge, and in the morning booked a private room together. I’d never done anything like that before, but he was comforting and had a smile I thought I recognized. For a week, after spending each day with my friend, we spent the night together. He paid for everything and talked about places we could go together – beyond Hong Kong and to beautiful beaches in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore. But when he left, something changed and he said there were complications with a girl in Hong Kong. His messages became fewer and fewer until I couldn’t take it anymore. I called him but he said the distance between us was too difficult, and that we could only be friends. Later I searched him on Weibo … he is married with a child. I cried for months and I still feel empty about it. We haven’t spoken since.”
TUVWX – 厦门 Xiamen
“I think sometimes people have a negative impression of hostels. I hear sometimes foreign visitors complaining there is no Western toilet, that the food is oily, or that Chinese people are difficult to communicate with. My major was English so I can understand when they complain, but I never say anything. Last summer, I traveled to the USA so I know the culture of Western people is different – the girls more open, the boys more direct. For me, I’ve always had a close relationship with hostels. After university I entered a turbulent 4 years of depression and anxiety. When things got bad, I would take a bag, jump on a train and stay in a hostel in remote places. Some hostels host fun activities, which are good to get involved with. It’s nice to share deep stories with strangers you will never meet again. They don’t judge you and they don’t know your past. For me it’s a kind of therapy, confiding in strangers.”
YZ – 张家界 Zhangjiajie
“I’ve been working in this hostel for 9 months now. I took a gap year because my parents want me to study finance, but I want to be an artist. They have a very comfortable life in Shanghai, and they have spent a lot of money on my education, even paying for extra tutors for English, music, extra exam preparation – and trips abroad to many countries. They planned my life for me – to get my degree in the UK and then come back to work for a prestigious company in Shanghai. But they don’t understand that I want a life of colour, of freedom, and of purpose. I draw everyday – I draw the scenery, the people who stay in the hostel, the food, the animals. I’m working up the courage to return to Shanghai at the end of summer and tell my parents that I’m moving to Europe.”
Global enterprises are right to be overwhelmed by Chinese millennials. For those who get it right, they can earn billions. For those who get it wrong however, there is hell to pay. Where I’m currently staying in Xiamen, a retired guy from New Zealand told me he feels China is becoming arrogant in the face of its newfound wealth. After years of internal, tumultuous suffering, they are aggressively reasserting themselves as a global power. Do you agree?
The fact that Chinese millennials have grown up into this transformation means that they have felt both poverty and wealth. They are shy, yet bold. They are conscientious yet demanding. For enterprises looking to understand this demographic more thoroughly, I suggest spending a few nights in a hostel in some second or third-tier city. Ask them about their childhoods, their love lives, their families and friends.
Whilst the above stories cannot be representative of Chinese millennials in their entirety, I hope they offer a sneak peak into this generation coming of age. I hope it allows greater individual, Chinese narrative amidst the blur of statistics and pie charts on how to sell Chinese millennials … stuff.
*Artistic license has been applied where minutiae of detail were forgotten over the years. Places of names have been jumbled up, and names foregone so as to preserve anonymity of the individuals in the above stories. No copyright infringement is intended. Opinions are my own and do not express those of my employer(s). Cover image from Quartz.