Beijing, China Report of what it's like to live there - 07/18/14
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?
First posting with an Embassy, but I have lived in Spain and Italy previously.
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?
Dallas, TX. The trip is 13 hours to Chicago, then 2-3 hours for connections after that.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I'm the spouse of a US government employee.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Apartments and townhomes in the city allow you to walk to work or take the metro. These commutes can be really short. A 2-3 minute walk or a 10 minute subway ride. If you live anywhere outside the main embassy area though, you will face significant commute times. The traffic is always heavy. We live in the suburbs outside the city where the main schools are located. Our commute is typically 45 minutes to an hour, but can be longer if there are any traffic accidents.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Very readily available. You can pretty much get everything you could every want or need here. In the suburbs, we have easy access to Jenny Wang's - a grocery chain that specializes in Western imports. That said, you definitely will pay a price for familiar food stuffs. Cereal (my kids' favorite food) is typically $8 a box so we usually plan ahead and order it through Amazon. You can get staples for a much lower price at Chinese markets and grocery stores.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Honestly, there isn't much. You really can find most things on the economy. If there are particular types of shampoos/body lotions you use, you might stock up on those.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Most Western fast food places are well-represented. There are Starbucks and McDonalds everywhere. Within a half mile of my house, we have a Mrs. Fields cookies, a Domino's pizza, Subway, Burger King, McDonalds, KFC, Baskin Robbins and a Papa John's pizza. Chinese food is typically quite inexpensive. You can get giant tubs of tasty stir-fried noodles for about $1 on the street near the house. Western food can be expensive. I like to eat at Elements Fresh and a lunch of salads, smoothies and sandwiches there for my family of 5 can easily cost $60-70.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes in the suburbs during the summer months. Other than that, no problems.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We have DPO and Pouch here.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Readily available and quite good in my opinion, but increasingly a bit more expensive every year. $500-600 a month (or more) is a fairly normal salary for a full-time housekeeper. This was closer to $300/month a year or two ago.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is a gym at the embassy. Most housing compounds/apartment buildings also have gyms. This is great because you really can't (and shouldn't) exercise outside due to the air quality.
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 both credit cards and ATMs at several locations around time. Many people do not. I think you just need to be cautious and keep a regular eye on your accounts to make sure nothing is amiss.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I believe there is a synagogue, as well as Catholic and non-denominational Christian services. I'm sure there are more options downtown as well.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I have very little Chinese (I've been taking the EFM classes twice a week since we arrived) and it is really hard. Most people do not speak English and the language is very hard to read so you can definitely feel very frustrated and isolated if you do not have the language. We have to be organized and well prepared when we go out and about with directions, taxi cards, etc. since if we do get lost, it is typically up to us to figure something out. I think it would be very helpful to have some basic Chinese before arriving.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. The sidewalks, if they exist, are typically crumbling. There is construction happening everywhere, all of the time, and crossing the streets is dangerous for people with no physical disabilities. I imagine it would be really rough if you couldn't run.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, all are readily available, safe and affordable. That said, the metro is often quite crowded, which can make it tricky when traveling with a family. The taxi drivers are just really awful here. They frequently don't know where things are located and it can be very hard to get one to take you anywhere during rush hour. There is also the language barrier, which can be daunting if you do not have good 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 have a minivan here. It is big for the parking spaces and parking garages, but manageable. Lots of other people also have vans/SUVs. Pay attention to the age of your car. You can only import cars less than 5 years old and the rules change frequently so that is something you should explore early. Some people have luck buying at post while others have had to wait a while to find something suitable to purchase.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, although between the Chinese firewall and internet speed, you should prepare for things to be very slow. It is inexpensive. I pay $30/month for "high speed" internet and my phone lines. Speeds range from slow to super, super slow and you will want to go through a VPN to get to Facebook. The VPN slows things down even more.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phone plans and SIM cards are readily available and inexpensive.
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?
Yes, there are restrictions on size and breed and there is a 2 week quarantine policy. The quarantine is typically waived for Embassy types, but you will want to do all of your homework on this. Vets and kennels are readily available and good quality.
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?
There is no bilateral work agreement between the Chinese government and the US. That means, you cannot work on the economy even if there are jobs available. The embassy does hire a lot of EFMs though and I think that if you want to work, you probably can. Just perhaps not in the capacity you would in another place.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are organizations that help children, pets, migrant workers, etc. I think you can find a lot of opportunities to help people here.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
It is quite formal at the embassy. I see a lot of suits. The Chinese public are actually fairly casual and anything goes as far as daily clothing.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
I feel very safe here. I do think pickpocketing/stealing exists, as it does in any big city, but I think it remains relatively rare. I've also heard of some break-ins in the housing, but those are not a common thing either.
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 is a major health concern. If you have any type of respiratory issues, it is likely to get worse here. There are quite a few large, modern expat hospitals here though and we have a fully staffed Med Unit. Medevacs to Singapore for something or another are not uncommon.
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?
It ranges from unhealthy to very, very, very unhealthy. Our house has a lot of air filters and our kids' school has a state-of-the-art filtration system and domes that they can play outside in when the air is bad. True "good" air quality days are rare. My family has done well here, but I would be cautious about seeking this assignment if you have family members with asthma or breathing issues.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Quite hot in the summer, very cold in the winter. Beautiful in the autumn - often with good air quality as well - also nice in the very short spring months. Sandstorms can occasionally occur in the spring months. It is also very dry here. The summer is the rainiest season and we might see rain 1-2 times a week. We can go for months and months here without any precipitation at all. Everything is very dusty and gritty.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are lots of school options here. My kids go to the main embassy-supported school. It is quite large and well-funded. There are lots of sports teams and amenities at the school. You can find a variety of other options though, from smaller schools to bilingual ones to Montessori schools.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I have 3 special needs kids. Overall, I've found the schools to be helpful with managing their needs. There are quite a few special needs kids at post. We have a clinic with English-speaking occupational therapists, speech therapists and physical therapists. We also have an English-speaking psychologist in the area.
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?
Yes, preschool is available, but it is really expensive. I don't have preschool aged kids, but I do have several friends with younger kids. The tuition is staggeringly high. Many do use a part-time program supplemented by time with their household helpers.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
My kids aren't sporty, but between the school's offerings and Sports Beijing, I think kids can play every sport imaginable.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
This is a huge embassy. I think that Beijing is what you make of it. The embassy itself seems to be a stressful and somewhat intense place to work. Lots going on here. The high-pressure atmosphere combined with the traffic and air quality has a marked impact on morale. There are plenty of people who are quite unhappy here. We have been quite happy, but do find ourselves in periodic need of breaks from China since this post can wear on your after a while.
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?
We go out for dinners with friends a lot and have frequent at-home, casual gatherings with kids and adults. Much of the social life involves eating:) That is true among the Chinese public as well though.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think there is something for everyone. Beijing has a lot to offer families, but the air quality will significantly dampen your quality of life. I'd think long and hard before deciding to do more than a couple of years here.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I'd imagine probably not.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I haven't suffered any problems, but my friends who are African-American have had people say some very rude things to them. The government here does make a point of separating foreign places of worship from Chinese ones.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Hiking the Great Wall, biking through hutongs, exploring the countryside around Beijing.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Take a stroll or bike ride through the city's hutong areas where you can see vestiges of the old city remaining. Drive outside the city to some of the lesser known sections of the wall and to some beautiful national parks like Longqing Gorge. Definitely ice chair skate on the city's frozen lakes in the winter months.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Furniture, paintings and pearls.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The culture is new for our family and there is lots to see and do in the city.
10. Can you save money?
Maybe - if you don't buy any Western groceries or brands, eat at any Western restaurants or travel outside the city at all. Airfare from Beijing to anywhere else (even inside China) is quite expensive. I've actually been quite surprised by how expensive it is to live here.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Perhaps because of our lack of language, perhaps because of a more insular culture, it has been very hard to socialize with Chinese families.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, but I do think 2-3 years is an adequate amount of time to spend in this environment. Between the traffic, poor air quality and high-pressure work environment, I think we will be ready to move on when it is time to go.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Expectations of any type of warm, tropical Asian climate. Although it does get hot here, this definitely isn't the tropics.
4. But don't forget your:
Bike and sturdy shoes:)
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
by Paul French, by Jan Wong, Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip
by Peter Hessler.