Beijing, China Report of what it's like to live there - 08/08/20
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?
No. Multiple overseas tours on several continents.
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?
Currently, the only way to travel to Embassy Beijing is by a chartered flight leaving from DC, with stops in San Francisco and Guam. In Guam you’ll transfer to an OpMed aircraft and fly to Tianjin, where you’ll handle all of the customs processing and medical testing, before finally boarding a bus for a three-hour drive to Beijing. Door to door, this is about 48 hours of non-stop travel if nothing goes wrong.
On arrival in Beijing, you’ll have another two weeks of monitored quarantine in your apartment, reporting your temperature twice a day, with no visitors or going outside. Pack wisely-- you’ll be entertaining yourself the entire time, limited to food delivery and whatever your sponsor was able to prepare for you. If you’re one of the unlucky few who tests positive for COVID, or who was seated next to someone who did, or if you run a fever at any point in this process, you can expect to be transported to a fever clinic for an indefinite period.
3. How long have you lived here?
More than a year, fewer than ten. Long enough to remember when Embassy Beijing was a good family post, but not so long that we went full native.
4. 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?
Housing is generally clustered around apartments in the city, with one western-style neighborhood available for families. Commutes range from 5 minutes walking to more than an hour driving, or taking the shuttle bus.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Pretty much everything you really need is available here. Expat grocery stores like Jenny Wang’s and Jenny Lou’s have everything you need, and the Embassy will help you through the VAT collection process if you make a point to save your receipts. Most speciality goods are available by TaoBao, or you can also shop online with an English-language version like PandaoBoo or Baopals.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
English language books are hard to find here, but you can buy/sell used books easily on WeChat groups for secondhand goods. Pre-COVID, the DPO was a reliable option for Amazon bulk grocery orders.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Food delivery services are ubiquitous, with the English-language app Sherpas or the more popular Meituan in Chinese. Beijing does have a lot of choices for foodies, although these restaurants are all subject to sudden closure or other health restrictions.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO, when airlines are running. For local shipments, you can always use the local Kuai Di drivers.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Most families choose to hire an Ayi for cooking, cleaning, or general errands. The cost varies but a part-time helper might only cost 400 or 500 USD a month. With so few expats allowed to come into Beijing right now, the cost may have dropped significantly.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Many gyms are still not allowed to reopen, but the Embassy has a nice 24/7 facility for employees. A few neighborhood compounds have their own workout spaces, but these are subject to local health guidelines. All school sports, extracurricular activities, etc., are cancelled for the foreseeable future.
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?
US credit cards are not widely accepted, so you’ll want to get a Chinese bank account set up as soon as possible. This is required for you to use the WeChat payment system, which is preferred by most vendors. Cash is still accepted, although seen less and less, and many small businesses won’t be prepared to make change.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I would not want to live here without any Chinese language skills. The more you learn, the more your quality of life will increase. Outside tutors are widely available, and the Embassy also has a language training unit for employees.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Although most expat-friendly buildings and tourist attractions will have some form of accessible entrance, in general, Beijing is just not there yet. Wheelchair-bound people would have a lot of difficulty getting around town.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Buses and subways are cheap, and fairly easy to navigate. Bike sharing apps are popular in the city, as is Didi, a ride-sharing app like Uber.
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?
If you live in the city, you probably don’t need a car for most daily activities. A bicycle or electric scooter would serve you better. If you hope to go on hikes to the Great Wall, or if you’re assigned to live out in the suburbs, you should definitely ship a car over. Any make or model will do, as parts are widely available.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
There is no such thing as high speed internet in China. It’s subject to blocking and shutdowns due to local conditions, and God help you if you start searching for information on any topics deemed sensitive. Be sure to pre-load VPNs before you leave the United States, and be prepared to replace all of your electronic devices at the end of your tour. You have no privacy on any of your online activity, either.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Most smartphones will work fine, although you will need a local SIM card and plan to use WeChat and other Chinese apps. Currently, the Beijing Health kit tracking app is also required to enter most businesses, hospitals or public transportation.
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?
The city of Beijing is still not registering pets, and the Embassy is not supporting pet transport on incoming charter aircraft. Unless you can find a private shipping company, the “new normal” here means that Embassy Beijing may be a pet-free posting.
Although decent veterinary care is available, animal neglect or abuse is still common here. Pets are often abandoned once their owners tire of them.
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?
EFM employment is technically limited to the Embassy, as the US and China do not have a bilateral work agreement. However, a number of EFMs have successfully started small side businesses off the books, or have taught at local schools without any issues.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Work is usually business attire, currently business casual due to the ongoing evacuation.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There are no particular security concerns that you wouldn’t find in any other major city, but the Chinese government creates an environment with unique challenges. Expect to be followed, to have your devices hacked, and to have people enter your home while you’re away. Although anti-American has definitely increased, you can still generally go about your daily life without any issues.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care at Beijing United Hospital or Raffles is adequate, although many doctors have still not come back to Beijing after the outbreak. There is no regional Medevac capability, so serious issues will require a commercial ticket back to the US, which is only running once per week. Pollution is a serious concern, so be prepared to adjust your life to the air quality index.
3. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
You never really know what you’re eating here. If you have special needs or food sensitivities, know that you can’t necessarily trust package labels in China. For all expats, it’s best to stick to the restaurants you know and trust, since sanitation standards vary widely.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Beijing is painfully hot during the long summer, and painfully cold during the long, dark winter. Spring and fall are beautiful, but far too short.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most international schools are slated to begin Fall classes on September 1st, although it’s still unclear whether those will be in-person or virtual. The majority of expat teachers are still stuck outside of China due to visa issues, so expect a steep learning curve as schools make use of Chinese substitutes and interpreters.
2. 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?
Commercial preschools and daycare facilities are still closed. Most expat families choose in-home daycare with an Ayi.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
At the moment, these types of activities are all still cancelled due to COVID, with no projected date for them to resume.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community has shrunk drastically in comparison to a year ago, but (outside of the Embassy bubble) the morale is generally high. If you’re still working in Beijing at this point, you either really want to be there, or else you’re getting paid really well.
2. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It is next to impossible to make friends with the locals. No matter how well you speak Mandarin, Chinese people will still see you as an outsider. The Embassy also has some security restrictions regarding fraternization.
3. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. In my opinion, people of African descent will likely face harassment or discrimination in Beijing, as will Americans of Asian descent.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Pre-COVID, Beijing offered a lot of choices for foodies. Day trips to hike the Great Wall were always fun, as were exploring the city’s hutongs and side alleys.
Post-COVID, living in Beijing is still a journey of discovery, finding out which businesses are still open, or which new, arbitrary rules will be selectively enforced.
5. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
If you move to Beijing today, I feel you will have a rare chance to experience what Moscow must have felt like in the 1980s, or Berlin in the 1930s.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
It is impossible to truly prepare for Beijing until you’ve lived here. And even after you’ve lived here, it’s still impossible to truly understand the place.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I probably still would have chosen to move here, but I would definitely have evacuated earlier.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Privacy. Sense of entitlement. Sense of social justice.
4. But don't forget your:
Patience. Kindness. Humanity.
5. Do you have any other comments?
There are many reasons why a person would never want to set foot in Beijing. There are (or were) also many reasons why some families have chosen to serve multiple tours in China.