Shenyang, China Report of what it's like to live there - 07/02/16
Personal Experiences from Shenyang, China
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
We lived in Taiwan for many years.
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?
East Lansing, MI. We take the direct flight from Detroit to Beijing (12+ hours), then connect to Shenyang via domestic flight (1.5 hours).
3. How long have you lived here?
Two years, 2014-2016.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I worked in the U.S. Consulate.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We lived in a hotel that was converted into an apartment. Charming housing with lots of personality. Downtown location, very convenient to transportation and shopping.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Food is cheap in this part of China. Basic foods, like meat, vegetables and fruit, are readily available. Several traditional markets ("wet markets") exist, but we usually shop at Wal-Mart. Meat is easy to buy: pork, beef, lamb, chicken, duck. Some seafood is available: shrimp, fish, shellfish. Commionly-available vegetables are cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, spinach, lettuce, root vegetables, etc. Fruits tend to be available seasonally. Apples, melons, grapes, oranges are available year-round. Tropical fruits are rare. Local beer is cheap, local wine is not good.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Peanut butter that does not have added sugar and oil. Canned tomatoes. Canned kidney beans (it's a long story). Coffee is expensive. Suntan lotion is unavailable here. OTC medicines. Many cosmetics and lotions are said to contain whitening agents, which is appealing to Chinese people, not so much for Americans. Amazon Prime is a life-saver. Shipments typically arrive in two weeks.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Kentucky Fried Chicken is everywhere, and the menu has been largely localized. Pizza Hut is the same. McDonald's and Starbuck's are very prevalent. Restaurants are everywhere, but not chains, so it's hard to predict the quality of the food. Most restaurants serve local cuisine. Sichuan is popular, lots of hotpot and skewers. Not a lot of variety in local restaurants, but it's cheap.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
The local environment has the most effective industrial pest-control program ever. I have never seen a cockroach. There are rats. Some older housing units had a mold issue which was taken care of (eventually).
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Diplomatic pouch. Never used the local postal service.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Our cleaning lady comes once per week. She cleans the apartment and does laundry, costs US$20 per visit. Local help are referred to as "a-yi" (aunt). Our A-yi is the best. Very honest, hard-working. Many a-yis do not speak English.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Our building has a gym and a pool. Adequate. Local gyms are increasingly common.
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?
The economy in this part of China is largely cash-based. Recently a cellphone-based payment service, similar to Apple Pay or Google Pay, has become popular. A local bank account is necessary to get this service, which is possible to get, but cash is still always accepted. The only time I've ever used my U.S. credit card is at large hotels while traveling in-country.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Religion is highly regulated in China. I don't participate, but there are some home congregations. Foreigners generally shouldn't have to worry about interference from local authorities, as long as there isn't any proselytizing.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
The more the better. Some people actually get by with speaking no Chinese, but they only get by. It's important to have at least some functional Chinese in order to interact with drivers and shopkeepers. It's possible for everyone to acquire some functional communicative ability. Also, the Chinese people are famous for being delighted that foreigners are making the effort to learn their language, and will actively try to understand even the most tortured accents.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Accommodations for wheelchairs, for example, are spotty. Sidewalks are often broken.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are very convenient and cheap. About US $15 from the airport to my apartment. US $2 from home to work. Very rarely have I spent more than US $5 for a taxi. Buses are even cheaper, but they are less convenient. Most taxi drivers speak zero functional English.
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?
Any kind of car would work in the city, but parking will be a challenge due to narrow streets and small parking spaces. Having a car is useful for in-country travel, as many scenic spots and historical sites are not easily accessible. I haven't heard of any make or model having more or less luck with parts and service.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Hotel wi-fi is reliably slow. It is OK for email and web surfing, but streaming is often not possible. Many websites are blocked in China: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and NY Times are some common ones. A good VPN service is necessary.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We brought unlocked iPhones and got local SIM cards and pre-paid service. Typical monthly charges are US$15. Many restaurants, coffee shops, bars offer wi-fi. Again, it is OK for messaging and email, but the service is not fast.
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 don't have a pet, but many co-workers have received good care for theirs.
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?
Local employment is not an attractive option, given the state of the local economy. It would be possible to teach English locally. Several spouses work in the Consulate.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Limited. The local society may seem open, but in some areas, such as allowing foreigners see social needs that the government is not filling, it can be surprisingly opaque. In the context of volunteering, some local authorities may see a foreigner offering to help as an implication that the locals can't take care of their own, which could be seen as a "loss of face" or even a mild insult.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
People dress conservatively here. Socks (or stockings) and shoes should be worn outdoors at all times. Few people wear very revealing clothing. In the workplace, suit and tie are the standards. That being said, watch out for the famous "Beijing Bikini" that middle-aged men will display on hot days. :-)
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Foreigners are rarely targeted by local criminals. The greatest dangers are probably food poisoning or getting hit by a car.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Local medical care is not up to U.S. standards. Few local hospitals abide by what we would consider minimal hygiene conditions. There is a Global Doctors office in town, which is expensive but the staff there speak English and are western-trained. Generally, I tell myself that if I get sick or hurt, I will crawl to Korea or Taiwan before I go to a local hospital.
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?
"Apocalyptic" is almost a hackneyed term to label the air here, but it's the best descriptor. Chinese air is famously bad. In the winter, when the coal-burning is at its peak, I have to wear a mask (N95) about 50% of the time. The local government is aware of the problem, and is committed to fixing it, but there is no easy solution. We watch the AQI monitor apps on our phones, and wear masks when it gets too high. Everyone has their own threshold for wearing a mask: mine is 150. Some people who live in Beijing say that their threshold is 300. No amount of PM 2.5 is safe, so in theory, I should wear a mask every day. We are lucky in that the Consulate puts air filters in our apartment, so the air inside is clean. That means that on some particularly bad days we stay inside all day.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Besides the air pollution, this part of the country is very arid, so skin lotion in the winter is a must. Some people suffer from dry sinuses as well. The mother of one of my friends has serious food allergies, and when she visited, eating out was a drama. The good thing was that the servers and cooks took them seriously, and worked with them to prepare food that she could eat. Similar situation for vegetarians, which are more common in China. It's not hard to get accommodation for dietary requirements.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Luckily, morale at post is high, probably because everyone is in the same boat, we all are dealing with the same hardship conditions. That being said, some people do get depressed and stressed.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
We get all four seasons here. Summer is warm (hot), sunny, and dry. Fall is beautiful. It starts to get cold in October, winter is cold and dry, very little snow. Expect lows in the negative teens. Spring arrives in March or April.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
OK for elementary level. Finding a good high school is more of a challenge.
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?
Yes, but they are expensive.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small but growing. Morale is generally high, especially among co-workers. Spouses need to tap into the work community or find another social circle.
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?
There are some local amateur sport clubs (baseball and football). Because of security reporting requirements, I tend not to socialize with local people.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Can be great for single men. Single women might have more challenges.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Lots. Chinese people can have racist feelings toward people who are not white. White people can be put on a pedestal. Asian-Americans are often discriminated against, ironically. China has its own ethnic minorities, which officially enjoy social equality but in fact are often second-class citizens in their own country. Chinese society has some progress to make in this area.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
For all its problems, China is a fascinating country. The local society is changing before our eyes. Local travel is more difficult than in the U.S., but there is a lot to see in China. This part of China is of enormous historical significance, especially in the last 100 years. This part of China is also an interesting middle ground between ultra-modern Shanghai and Beijing, and the underdeveloped inner parts of the country. That makes for an interesting blend of old and new.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The city of Dalian is a lot of fun in the summer: beaches, some hiking trails, good seafood. Changbaishan is a mountain that is shared by China and North Korea. And speaking of the DPRK, the city of Dandong is surreal. You can stand on the bustling, vibrant Chinese side of the Yalu river, and look across at North Korea, where literally nothing is happening. There is a section of the Great Wall that runs through this area, and which coincidentally marks the least-guarded border between China and DPRK (please don't cross it). The ice festival in Harbin is a must-see, but dress warmly, because frostbite is a real danger. Harbin is also fun in the summer. Shenyang itself has some great historical sites. For a Chinese history buff, it's a wonderful place to live.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really. I don't think I bought anything of particular interest. There is a huge antique market in town, but because this is China, it's impossible to tell what is an antique and what was made in a small factory across town just last Tuesday. That being said, there is some interesting stuff to buy, as long as you realize that you aren't buying an antique, and you don't pay too much for it.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's a part of China that is modern enough to have conveniences like fast food and an international airport, without the high cost of living of Guangzhou or Shanghai. Very close to (South) Korea and Japan. Beijing is a 4-hour train ride away.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
A large staff is not the same thing as a competent staff. The fact that a company/restaurant/office is well-staffed doesn't mean that anyone knows what they are doing. Labor is cheap here, there are too many people and all of them need jobs, so a common way to address a problem is to throw people at it. I have literally had five people in my apartment to change a battery in the smoke detector. In the end, they were unable to change the battery, because it takes 9-volt batteries, which are not available in China.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Bikini. Motorcycle (not allowed in city limits).
4. But don't forget your:
Warm clothes. Winter is bitingly cold. Get a VPN account BEFORE arriving here.
5. Do you have any other comments?
A friend once told me that China=drama. Things that should be simple and straightforward often aren't. Once you accept Shenyang for what it is and what it isn't, you can relax and enjoy the humor in everything that happens to you here.