Beijing, China Report of what it's like to live there - 12/03/15

Personal Experiences from Beijing, China

Beijing, China 12/03/15


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Second. I have lived in Europe prior to this.

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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?

Home base is Washington, DC, which has many direct flights. There are direct flights to most major cities in the U.S., though fewer than from Shanghai to the U.S.

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3. How long have you lived here?

About six months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US Foreign Service Officer.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Embassy housing is concentrated in Chaoyang, an urban district near the Embassy, where commute times range from 30 seconds walking (Liangmaqiao Apartments) to 15-45 minutes depending on traffic (any of the luxury buildings in Guomao). Larger houses are out in suburban Shunyi; people who live there take a 30-45 minute shuttle in to work.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Most western items are available, but items that are not in the Chinese diet (dairy and bread are the big ones) are sometimes exorbitant (think $10 for a stick of butter). Chinese brand groceries are dirt cheap. Fruits and veggies, if you use local varieties, cost almost nothing.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Cheese, packaged American meals, craft beer, wine.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Tons, endless options, ranging from 50 cents for a full meal to extravagant higher-than-the-west prices at luxury restaurants.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

None to speak of.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO at the embassy. If you get packages through int'l mail you have to go to the international post office which is a ways away from the embassy, but pretty easy to figure out once you get there.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Cheap and easily available. You'll invariably pay 30 kuai (US$5) an hour.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes. There's one at the Embassy. Facilities for the public are expensive.

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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?

This is China. Counterfeiting and information theft is rampant here. Either use the embassy cashier or find an ATM inside a bank you trust and don't stray from it. Expect your credit card details to get stolen at some point and for your bank to turn off your card constantly.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There are some. They check your passport as you walk in to ensure you're a foreigner.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You need it. This is the least English-friendly place I've ever been. It's much worse than Shanghai and a little worse than Guangzhou. I've found people here often understand more English than they let on, but they refuse to speak it. You might find success speaking slow, simple English to someone who is responding in Chinese, or you might not. Some of the best restaurants also lack English menus, which can be challenging even if you've taken Chinese classes.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes. There is virtually no attention paid to the disabled here. It is well known that standard practice here is for families to hide away those born with physical/mental disabilities, and there's no expectation they will participate in society. I have seen one wheelchair in use on the street here ever.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Safe and affordable. Taxis start at US$2 a ride and I've never paid more than US$20 for a particularly bad ride to the airport. Uber is cheaper and lots of people use it. The subway is sort of disappointing in terms of its layout, but costs 60-75 cents a ride and is efficient for certain trips.

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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?

I shudder at the thought. Traffic is horrendous and the driving culture here is... Unique and terrifying. Leave the car at home.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes. But you're behind the Great Firewall, and you will grow to loathe the internet experience here. It is 1/20th the speed I'm used to in the U.S., almost all the websites I use daily are blocked, and the VPN crackdown is real. This is incredibly frustrating, second only to the air in terms of complaints.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Super easy. Three major providers, just pop in a SIM.

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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, 30 days in the airport unless you have a diplomatic note from the embassy requesting a home quarantine.

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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?

Maybe? You'd be working illegally in all likelihood—I don't know anybody with a job on the local economy who isn't here on a tourist visa. Occasionally there are crackdowns.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

I know some people have volunteered with aid organizations and with churches. They've enjoyed it.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Chinese people are pretty laid back. At my office I almost never wear a tie. It's chill.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The Chinese government is hostile to western governments which can present challenges. Chinese cities are incredibly safe, though. There are occasionally incidents in which westerners that are clearly dating/married to people of Chinese descent are attacked, but these are rare.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Air quality. There is western-style medicine but most people I know here choose to avoid it. Others have had no problems. I've never been to the doctor here ad wouldn't go if I had the choice. The Chinese have a very, very different perception of how medicine should work.

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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?

When it's bad, it's BAD. I got here this past summer and we had, largely, a pretty good summer. There lots of crystal-clear days. More commonly, the AQI hovers between 100-200, which you adjust to. Around 250, which probably happens once a week or so, most foreigners will start to wear masks, and the air has taken on a thick, acrid quality. Every couple of weeks, the AQI will push towards 350-400, and most people will lock themselves up in their houses by then. We just had a headlines-making horrendous pollution episode where the AQI hit nearly 900 in some parts of the city, and it felt like the world was ending. When it's that bad, no mask is helping you, it's incredibly depressing, and makes you question whether being here could possibly be worth it.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Food: you will never know what is in anything. If you have allergies you could have some serious issues.

I haven't had seasonal allergy problems here.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Beijing has a very dry climate but there are frequent rain storms during the short rainy period in July and August. Outside of that, you can expect rain/snow no more than once a month if that. When the pollution isn't bad, you can expect blue skies and sunshine almost all the time. Temperatures severe, though: hot and humid the summer, icy cold in the winter. It's sort of similar to Minnesota minus the snow.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

No experience, but I know there are a large variety and I've heard no complaints. People have their kids in American, British, French, and other schools. That's an advantage of being in such an enormous international city.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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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?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, and some int'l schools have indoor facilities. If yours doesn't, your kid is going to be ingesting the output of every factory for 200 miles while they breathe the air in, though.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large and tepid morale. It is common for people here to be experiencing "China rage." The traffic, cultural differences, air, and internet really get to some people (and get to everybody eventually). Most people here recognize they're in a really interesting city with a lot going for it, but everyone loses it from time to time.

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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?

Going out for all varieties of Chinese food, going to a kung fu show, dancing, what have you.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

For singles (that's me): there is a ton to do here. Lots of western food options, bars and nightclubs. Great museums to explore. There are a lot of expats here, so there's a decent dating pool. Dating locals presents some challenges but some people do go that route and have found success. You're also going to have a very nice apartment (or even a house if you're in Guang Ming) and can easily afford household help, so you truly can focus all your energy on exploring the city and come home to a good meal and your laundry done. Not a bad deal.

For couples: see above. Lots to do, so you'll have fun. Make sure you both speak Chinese or get ready to have your patience stretched.

Families: The Shunyi houses are large and nice, but you're going to have decent commute. Sounds like the schools are great. Many, many people refuse to come here with children due to the air quality issues having an outsize effect on developing bodies. I would not, personally, bring a child here if I had any way to avoid it. I would never stop stressing about their safety.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

There's a semi-active gay scene here. The Chinese are fairly traditional in general, but they're not confrontational. You might run into some stares if you were to hold hands on the street, but probably nothing more than that.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

This is an unusual aspect of life in China. Most Chinese people, especially those you are likely to interact with in the retail/service industry, have never been abroad and can probably count the number of long conversations they've had with a foreigner on one hand. Usually this translates to friendly curiosity, especially if you speak Chinese. There are downsides: you will never blend in, they will always treat you like you need to have your hand held through everything, you will have your photo taken A LOT, and most frustratingly, you will find that cabs CONSTANTLY pass you up on the street. Cabbies never speak English here, are often very rough, and generally don't want to deal with us "laowai."

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

A two-day hike along the unrestored Great Wall, eating fantastic meals for a fraction of the cost of a less-interesting meal in the U.S., travel throughout Asia.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Great bars in Sanlitun, fantastic hiking in the Jinshanling/Gubeikou sections of the Great Wall, amazing holes in the wall in the hutongs, best duck ever at Li Qun.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Paintings, rugs at the Qianmen Carpet Factory, tons and tons of food.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

The opportunity to see one of the most important countries in the world jerk and stumble its way into becoming a developed country is fascinating. Chinese food is incredibly varied and largely excellent. It can be tough to motivate yourself sometimes given the challenges of the city and the country but there are endless opportunities to explore historic sights, cultural spaces, new bars and restaurants, and some great hiking outside of town.

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10. Can you save money?

Probably. I've had a hard time with that, though. Going out costs the same as it does in a major US city.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

The air is bad. We all know that, but, it's serious.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

I would. I generally I like it. I think two years is probably the maximum acceptable dose of the air, so I will not be back any time soon.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Expensive electronics (you'll want to toss them after your time here)

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4. But don't forget your:

Cheese. Good quality mask (I use Respro). And chopsticks.

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5. Do you have any other comments?

Impatient people need not apply.

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