Beijing, China Report of what it's like to live there - 11/19/21
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?
It is not my first expat experience, but it is my first tour as a USG EFM. I've also lived in Seoul, Tokyo, Phnom Penh, and London.
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?
There are direct flights from the States, but getting on one in the age of COVID can be challenging. I had to fly into Shanghai, quarantine there, and transfer to Beijing afterwards.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
US Embassy EFM.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Our apartment is quite near the Embassy and very spacious and clean. We enjoy the large windows that let in lots of natural light. The furniture is a bit nicer than your standard Drexel, and it comes with far more than any person could ever need. Fortunately our building will take furniture items out and put them in storage. The kitchen is small but functional. There's a very nice outdoor space with landscaping, a tennis court, and a playground. There's also a building with a gym and a children's play room, but it's not always clean or in good repair. The building manager is polite and generally responsive when repairs need to be done.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can get almost anything in either the embassy commissary or one of the nearby markets. There is a small supermarket close to the embassy that caters to Westerners-it's not cheap, but it's good to have. Most brands are European or Australian, but you can find nearly anything you need. Nondairy milks and yogurts and meat substitutes are available.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I order some specific items like certain spices online to the embassy DPO, but you can get most things here. Baby formula is hard to come by though. Bring that.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Almost anything is available here, but some of it is expensive. There's great pizza, sushi, and even barbecue near the embassy. Sadly, I have yet to find truly good Indian food. Delivery apps are numerous. If you don't speak Chinese you can use the English-language app JSS, although prices may be slightly higher and options are a bit limited. Sherpas is also popular. You will need WeChat pay, which you can't set up until you're in country and have a Chinese bank account. JSS will allow you to pay cash on delivery, but the delivery people don't always have change.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We had weevils in cereal once, and have encountered the occasional roach. They probably came in from outside in the groceries. There's a mosquito issue in the summer.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The DPO and pouch are available, though they take a long time. The mailroom staff are very professional.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We have a full-time ayi to watch our toddler and do general cleaning and cooking. We pay her about $1200/month. She's very efficient and our son loves her. The experienced ayis here are all friends and will frequently arrange playdates and activities so the children can socialize.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
As far as I know all the embassy housing has workout facilities, but the quality varies. There's a gym at the embassy with a variety of fitness classes. The shopping center near the embassy has a large modern gym with a huge pool, and membership is included with certain embassy housing as it's owned by the same company.
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?
Some places which specifically cater to foreigners will take US credit cards. ATMs may or may not work with your US debit card. Most people find they have to use WeChat or Alipay for almost everything.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I know that places of worship for a variety of faiths exist, but we are not religious so I couldn't say for sure. I heard that those who keep kosher have access to a kosher butcher through the nearby synagogue.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You need at least a little Chinese if you leave the expat neighborhood. The embassy offers language classes for some EFMs.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, sidewalks are often uneven and you often have to navigate around construction and bikes parked haphazardly. There are no accommodations for people with visual disabilities either. Modern buildings offer elevators, so that's something.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, both safe and affordable, but may be challenging to use without Chinese language skills.
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?
We didn't bring a car because ours is older and Beijing has strict import requirements. Some people brought cars.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is available and the best that can be said of it is that it sort of works most of the time. We usually manage to stream video and can access most websites with the help of a VPN. Have multiple VPNs installed on your devices before arrival.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We have a Google Fi phone with a US number and a local phone with a Chinese SIM. The local phone costs about $30/month.
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?
It's almost impossible to get a pet into China right now. We left our cat in the US with a family member. It's doable, but costly and difficult. Once here, food and vet services are easily accessible.
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?
For EFMs, jobs at the embassy are probably the best option. Some people have remote jobs.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Professional and business casual at work, depending on your job. Formal dress for events such as the Marine Ball.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Aside from the constant silent presence of the governing security apparatus looming overhead, I've never once felt unsafe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The air quality can get quite bad at times. I haven't used anything besides the post medical office, but I hear good things. Nobody drinks the tap water. It's safe in theory, but very hard and tastes awful. I still brush my teeth and wash produce with it, but I don't drink it. We got a filtration showerhead for our shower.
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?
Off and on. Since I've been here there have been only a handful of truly horrifying bad air days ; mostly the AQI stays below 100. It affects people differently, as I get nasty headaches from the pollution.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Nuts, soy, and shellfish products are abundant, and I wouldn't count on being able to avoid them when eating out. If you don't eat dairy, there are quite a few dairy alternative products. You can get soy, oat, coconut, or almond milk easily. The local supermarket carries both coconut and almond yogurt.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
The winters are cold.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot humid summers, cold dry winters. Plan to invest in a few humidifiers.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I do not have school-aged children, but I understand that the schools are excellent and a major draw for many families.
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?
There are preschool programs for younger children, but they are very expensive, on par with US prices. Fortunately our ayi is well-connected and arranges for our toddler to have daily play dates and takes him to do lots of activities, so we feel that he gets plenty of benefit from that.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, many. There is a large mall in the area near the embassy that has an entire floor dedicated to activities for children.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Pre-COVID I believe there was a substantial community here. It's much smaller now, but there are still abundant expat-focused services and activities. Morale has taken a hit as it is now very difficult to travel outside of Beijing due to COVID restrictions. Thus far we have simply opted not to take R&R as there is nowhere to go. It's just not worth the hassle.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Loads of events and activities. It's not hard to have a social life here. I have a toddler so I tend to stay home a lot, but there are plenty of options for those so inclined.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's what you make of it. I think it's possible for anyone to have a good experience here, just like anywhere. China is a high-differential post for a reason, but there are a lot of amenities that certainly help.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
No, the only Chinese people I've been able to get to know have been the local staff at the embassy and our ayi. Most people are very kind and polite, but it's not easy to move past initial courtesies, both because of the language barrier and because of the relationship between our countries.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
There are several same-sex couples at post. I wouldn't say China is LGBT-friendly, but it doesn't seem unfriendly either.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I have heard that expats of color, particularly Asian-Americans, have sometimes encountered issues. I don't want to speak for others regarding their interactions. As a white woman, I'm generally treated courteously, but I don't presume that my experience is universal.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Unfortunately I haven't been able to do much due to COVID restrictions, but there's a lot I'd like to do if they are ever lifted.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The Great Wall of China is not far, and there is a hiking group that regularly goes on excursions. Inside the city you can explore the hutongs and various markets. There's a great artist community not far from the embassy neighborhood, and some really world-class restaurants. They're expensive, but amazing. Many spas as well - you can get massages, mani/pedis, and very nice haircuts.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Loads to buy. It may be hard to determine authenticity when it comes to antiques.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
For families with older children, probably the schools. The housing is generally quite nice. It's a high differential post, so you can save money if you're a bit frugal. Lots of embassy jobs for EFMs to make up for the lack of a bilateral work agreement. So many great restaurants.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How much COVID restrictions would affect our ability to do anything outside the expat bubble. How bad the internet actually is.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Probably not. Our bid list was extremely limited (first tour) and we had very few options. It's not terrible, and I'm finding ways to be content, but I'll be very glad to leave.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Wish for privacy, need to see the stars, love of fresh air.
4. But don't forget your:
Flexibility: China can be endlessly frustrating and you just have to go with it sometimes.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Farewell (film), Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper (book)