Beijing, China Report of what it's like to live there - 08/27/11
Personal Experiences from Beijing, China
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Third expat experience. Wellington, NZ and Seoul, South Korea.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, DC and/or Minnesota. 14-hour direct flight from DC / connect through Chicago from Minnesota (about 24 hours door to door).
3. How long have you lived here?
3 years + (July 2008 - now).
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Spouse assigned to U.S. Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The U.S. Embassy leases various apartments in town as well as owning some apartments within town and some larger single-family homes in gated communities in a nearby suburb. Commutes within town range from a walk across the street to 45 minutes in the car during rush hour, depending on your apartment location. The commute from the suburb is 30-60 minutes. Construction standards are much lower than in the U.S. and maintenance is poor.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Household supplies are readily available at reasonable prices. Local food items are relatively inexpensive, but come with uncertainties about quality (milk tainted with melamine or leather products; fruits, vegetables, and meats laced with chemicals). For those reasons, we buy mostly imported stuff, which is rather expensive -- especially for items not commonly eaten by the Chinese (bread, cheese, breakfast cereal, etc.). With cereal at around $12/box, we order it and other items online. Wine and other imported drinks are also pricey (about 150% of U.S. prices) --and beware of some sellers with “cut” or otherwise inauthentic products.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
A tall kitchen wastebasket -- they can't be found locally. A digital scale that goes up to 50 pounds: the embassy post office doesn't sell postage so everything must be done online; the scale would allow us to do the weighing and calculating work at home.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Some American fast food is present (McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and others) -- and they have delivery service. Prices are comparable to the U.S. Most “decent” restaurants are foreign, though there’s a good Taiwanese restaurant near the U.S. Embassy, a good Shanghai dumpling restaurant, and lots of Peking duck places (but none of the above are cheap). Cheap dumplings and steamed buns can be found, and “jianbing” (a crêpe with egg and spices) from street vendors should not be missed.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
Organic produce is available at most sizable grocery stores, but you will pay dearly for it. Vegetarian and allergy-friendly products are almost non-existent, especially when eating out. Significant effort would be required to maintain such eating habits.
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not much. A few mosquitoes in summer; a few roaches around some restaurants.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the diplomatic post office (DPO) inside the embassy. No experience with the local postal system.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
There are lots of housekeepers available if you ask around the expat community, though many will only work in certain areas (in town vs. suburbs; certain districts in town). Cost can vary wildly depending on that person's demands. Expect to pay around $3/hour. Live-in help can be found, but not sure of the cost. If your housekeeper is Chinese, expect a substantially lower standard of cleaning and be ready to have things rearranged and put in mind-boggling places. We've been here 3 years and are currently on our 5th housekeeper.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, much of the housing has facilities in the building. I have never seen a stand-alone gym.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
China is still very much a cash society, with many small-scale shops who do not accept credit cards. Larger stores do. ATMs are generally not safe, with many reports of ATMs loaded with counterfeit bills. We use the embassy cashier, which guarantees the bills.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
They exist, as some friends attended a Christian church, but I don't know any more than that.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
The China Daily has an English version, but it is a very light read. Unless you're affiliated with the embassy and therefore are authorized to have an AFN dish and decoder, I don't think English-language TV is available.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Quite a bit. Everyone either: 1) Doesn't speak English; or 2) Doesn't want to try the English they know. Even if you speak Chinese decently, you will still encounter people who refuse to understand you simply because you're a foreigner. You will need at least a little Chinese to interact successfully with your housekeeper.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would not be "difficult" here; it would be nearly impossible. Disabled access to buildings is almost unheard of and sidewalks are treacherous for everyone.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Have not used the trains, but have heard the normal ones are more or less safe, if cramped. The new high speed trains are plagued with problems and many fatal accidents -- I would stay away. Buses are overcrowded and routes are unclear. Taxis are mostly safe, except you won’t often find a usable seat belt. The subway is horribly crowded at rush hour and on certain lines all the time. All ground transportation is fairly cheap.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Beijing periodically arbitrarily chooses a date, and vehicles made before that date are not allowed in. Check on that before you ship. As for size, it’s a bit of a paradox: a smaller vehicle is more maneuverable, but a larger one has more right-of-way (according to the unwritten “rules” of the road here).
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
The services available in U.S. embassy housing is supposedly "high speed," but most are limited by old or poor quality lines. We lived in two different locations, one of which had a consistent 2M and the other was usually 1M to 1.5M. You pay cash up front 6 months at a time, but you can get a slight discount (1-2 months worth) if you pay for the year. With the discount, we paid about $45-$50 a month. The biggest trick with the internet here is that, while you may have a decent connection, many sites are blocked without using a VPN to bypass the Great Firewall of China.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Not really. The embassy issues phones to employees. We bought a very basic one for visitors to use; it uses “refill” cards to add minutes to the account. Reception (for all cell phones) is sketchy in many areas and buildings.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
No, just have up-to-date health certificates.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There is one international veterinary center not far from the embassy that seems decent, and they have some limited boarding available. Their services are expensive, but from what I've seen of local Chinese veterinary facilities, you don't want to go the cheap route.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Work is mostly suits and skirts. In public, it's kind of an anything-goes affair: you'll see men rolling their shirts up in summer to air their bellies; the elderly wearing pajamas on the street; and plenty of East Asian "fashion" that will make you wonder. The rest of the people dress fairly plainly.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Depends on what you consider a concern. You are under constant surveillance by the Chinese government. But because of the tight control, crime is low -- and petty when it occurs (pick pockets, tea house scams, etc.).
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Other than the major concerns of air quality and food contamination, I suppose the next biggest worry is being injured in a vehicle accident. There are no ambulances like in the U.S. -- only privately-owned vehicles providing a transportation-only (no trauma care) service. There are a few clinics/hospitals around with Western-trained medical staff. For anything beyond minor/routine care, I would recommend going somewhere like Seoul or Singapore.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
"Crazy bad" (search the internet for that). Sixty percent of days in Beijing have equal or worse air than the two most polluted cities in the U.S. have on their worst days (10% of the time). Frequently the air is "hazardous" according to the U.S. EPA air quality scale.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Summers in Beijing are hot (90°F and up). Winters are chilly (around freezing), but with a biting cold wind. The prevailing condition in Beijing is pollution haze, though the government weather reports refer to it as "fog."
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) and International School of Beijing (ISB) seem to be the most commonly used by Americans, though there are other options.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
I have heard that it is prohibitively expensive.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Quite large. The U.S. Embassy alone has several hundred families here, and you frequently see people from other countries out and about.
2. Morale among expats:
Outwardly: high. Actually: medium-low to "get me out of here!" I think most people come to Beijing with excitement and high expectations, as China is "the place to be" in terms of economic, political, climate and energy issues, and so on. But they soon discover the reality of living here, where every little thing is a battle -- communicating, shopping, getting around, or even just getting someone to fix something in your residence. People maintain a positive outward show, but in private everyone gripes about their most recent experience.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Plenty of places to go out for dining and entertainment, though if American movies are your thing you'll only get to see about 10-12 a year in the theater, as they restrict the number that can be shown. Many people entertain in their homes, as going out frequently can drain your wallet rapidly.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
If you can find things that make you happy, I imagine it could be good for anyone. The trick is finding something you like. Single men seem to have a decent time; single women much less so. Couples without kids (or with older kids) have a wide range of entertainment and dining options. Families with small children are more limited.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Unknown. Those scenes are kept "underground" here and I haven't gone digging.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Definitely, all of the above. Almost everyone here sees dollar signs light up over foreigners' heads and take every opportunity to bilk you for more money. Most Chinese also very much dislike black people. Women are considered inferior to men. Gatherings (religious services, etc.) are prohibited without advance approval; the government actively persecutes followers of Falun Gong.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Getting out of Beijing to see other parts of the country (and getting out of the country altogether).
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Visiting any of the historic/cultural sites: palaces, temples, the Great Wall. Shopping at the Dirt Market.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Artwork of all kinds; trips around the country.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
China is full of history, culture, and natural beauty -- lots of great places to see and visit.
11. Can you save money?
Yes, if you don't buy imported products and eat at expensive restaurants regularly.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Beijing, no. Other parts of China, maybe.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Sense of order, fairness, and logic. Expectations of good will or customer service.
3. But don't forget your: