Beijing, China Report of what it's like to live there - 08/17/14
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?
i have lived in South America.
2. How long have you lived here?
Almost 2 years.
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Post has family homes, apartments, some are government-owned and many are rentals. The LMQ is an apartment building right next door to the U.S. Embassy. (I live in the Fortune Garden and it's only 2 blocks away. People with school aged children tend to live in single homes about 45 minutes commute because there's an international nearby. Where I live, there are Canadian and German schools.)
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Local products are cheap but imported one are expensive.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Electronics are expensive in China. But your computers will be tampered with by some unknown visitors so beware. I would bring an old computer and trash it at the end of the tour. Bicycles can be fun and useful. There are bike lanes in many parts of city but during rush hours, cars use them too.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
All kinds of American fast food, and also many international restaurants of all kinds. The authentic Chinese food is extremely greasy, spicy and salty for my taste. Funny to say but in comparison, McDonald's food seems less hazardous to your health.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Some mosquitos and the itch is quite brutal if you're bitten. Overall, it's not too bad in the city. No ants or other insects.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Reasonable, about US$600 a month and I heard when people go on vacation, they usually pay the maid for the time off. I don't have one just to keep my life simple and I like my privacy.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
My apartment has a decent gym and pool. There's a big gym at work as well.
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?
I use cash mainly but many merchants accept Visa and American Express.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
The church I sometimes go to has one English session on Sunday at 3:30 pm. However, it's more like a service and less like a mass.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Obviously, it's better if you know some Mandarin but I don't get language training prior to arriving at Post. Only Generalists receive 6-10 months of full-time language training for their tour. Specialists don't have that luxury. Anyone can get a 2 hours per week class while at Post but it's not an easy language to learn. I survive without knowing Chinese but have to live with some inconvenience.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Public transportation is safe, cheap and convenient. You don't really need a car unless you live in the Shunyi district where the schools are. People who live there either drive to work, a 45 minute ride, or take the embassy shuttle for a nominal fare. Subways can be so crowded every day, and I mean jammed packed, especially line 10. Sometimes, there are pushers - people in uniforms who actually push passengers into the trains during rush hours. I thought it was hilarious the first time I witnessed it.
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?
Cars or SUVs are fine. The driving here is very crazy so be very careful. Motorcycles, bicycles, tuktuk, pedestrians go any which way so you really have to watch out. Other motorists drive aggressive and cutting people of is the norm. I brought a small car but i rarely drive it and don't really need to.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Well, there's high speed internet but the speed you actually get is only about 30-40 percent of what you subscribe to. Any because of the China firewall, you can only get the normal contents if you have a VPN (virtual private network) and there are many good ones you can sign up for about US$6 a month. Without VPN, you won't be able to access any social sites, and even news sites would not be able to play videos. Heavy censorship is quite evident in China. BTW, I can be honest and write about this because, you guessed it, I have VPN turned on.
TV programs get blacked out almost every day whenever there's a news report about China, as if there's someone sitting there at the control room and ready to press a button when they don't like what they see/hear within a couple seconds, then poof, the screen goes blank until that news segment is done.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Smartphone or cell phones work fine.
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?
I heard dogs, cats and birds were allowed into the country but it's complicated and costly.
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?
I don't think so. However, there are many job postings at the U.S. Embassy for EFM's.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress code is mixed - from all ut suits to simple dress shirts and no ties. No jeans or shorts.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
No crimes. However, living in a communist country, expect your home to be entered by unknown people when you're not home. These people go through your stuff and do things to your computers. Supposedly, they look for whatever spies look for. My apartment has been invaded five times that I know of. Two of those times, I was actually home but because I always use a door latch so they could only open the door for a couple inches and by the time I came out to see, they had already taken off. When I checked with the front desk, the typical answer I got was security people were checking the lock. My neighbor said on one occasion, they were just talking among themselves about some problem with their unit, then a short time later, the repair people came to fix it even though they had never put in a complaint with the maintenance people. So you can assume they have some listening device too. How else would they know.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Bad air pollution, especially in cooler weather when the coal is being burnt. You hope for breezy days as the winds blow all the pollution away. Based on my own experience, on days that have no winds, the AQI index reads anywhere from 150+ - 700+. The U.S. Embassy provides good air purifiers for every household. Some people suffer from headaches or respiratory problems. One guy in my section was in the hospital for 3 days due to the bad air. Myself, I got severe headaches during heavy pollution.
3. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
China has 4 seasons but spring and fall are short, and it doesn't rain much in Beijing. Summer is hot, humid, and winter can be cold like the northeast in the U.S.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several good schools in the city but I don't have school-aged kids so I'm not too familiar with this subject.
2. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
I heard there is a baseball program.
1. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
The Great Wall, bars, restaurants. There are many parks and temples but after you see one or two of them, you wonder if you've already been there because they all look the same. there's really not much inside Forbidden City to see (big hype). Summer palace is nice but only if you don't go during summer time when it's shoulder-shoulder. The Beijing zoo has some pandas but they were dirty and lazy, yet another hype. The Center for Performing Art (the Egg) can be a good entertainment, depending on what's playing.
2. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
No religion per se in China. I sometimes go to a so-called church but it's really not a church like you might think of. No masses either. There are Buddhist temples around for the locals to make wishes and burn incense. For me, the smoke is too much and my lungs just choke up around it, kind of like an intense second hand smoke.
3. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Seeing the Great Wall.
4. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are tons of shopping opportunities so if you like that, you'll have a good time. But, you must bargain hard and there are lots and lots of knocked-off products. Imported goods are better quality. China made products have even lower quality than those exported to the U.S. and that's really bad. I bought 3 pairs of shoes and within 2-6 months later, I threw them out for one reason or another.
5. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Being in Asia.
6. Can you save money?
Some - with a 15% post diff and high COLA, you can save money if you buy more local products.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No! I would not put Beijing high on my list. The city is quite dirty and smelly from the sewage. Even the plumbing in my apartment building gives off bad odor. The men spit phlegm all over the streets with the horrible gargling sound effects. Don't expect much in way of courtesy such as excuse-me, or thank-you when you hold the door for someone. Having been in many cities around the world, Beijing ranks low on my list.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Computers - but then again, who can live without his computer anymore.
3. But don't forget your:
Power plug adapters for 220V and universal plugs. The plugs here are different.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Lonely Planet guides.
5. Do you have any other comments?
Shanghai is a cleaner and nicer city to live in. It has character and charms. The streets don't smell and people don't spit. I've been there 3 times and I enjoyed it there much more than Beijing. Public facilities are beyond stinky and most of them don't have Western style toilets. My wife said in the Ladies room, there are usually just holes in the ground, some have doors and some don't. And even when there are doors for the stalls, the locals don't use them so... use your imagination. I tried to avoid them as much as possible and when I had to, I always tried to be quick and staggered out of there from holding my breaths.