Beijing, China Report of what it's like to live there - 07/03/20
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, a variety of cities on different 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?
3. How long have you lived here?
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?
Fantastic. Huge apartment in high-rise with stunning view. Modern amenities, luxurious, comfortable. Some officers with families choose to live in the suburbs of Shunyi. Whether downtown or in Shunyi, most folks seem happy with the housing options.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Quite cheap if you shop "local"; Western prices if you shop at the expat-friendly, high-end groceries stores. I typically order groceries on my phone or have my household help pick things up.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
You can find most things here.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Hundreds of options available, you can find pretty much anything. China has the best delivery system in the world probably. Anything can be ordered from your phone, and it's all cashless and electronic. Efficient and easy.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
None. Beijing is a dry city which probably helps.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Quite affordable and lots of options. Mine comes once per week, does grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry, ironing, and cooks a big meal that lasts a few days. I pay less than USD $200/month for this.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Plenty of options, plus there is a nice gym at the embassy.
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?
No. Unfortunately credit cards are not normally accepted. Almost all transactions are now done by Wechat via your cellphone. Quite a few places do not accept cash. My Wechat is linked to my local bank account. I cash a check at the embassy, then deposit the cash in my bank ATM every month or two.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
In cities like Beijing or especially Shanghai you can probably get by without Chinese, but it would be a major inconvenience. Outside of the major cities, life would be pretty tough without at least conversational Chinese, in my opinion.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
I only use Didi (the Chinese equivalent of Uber). It's cashless, efficient, simple, and generally safe. Rides within the city are rarely more than $10, even on "Didi Premier," which I also recommend. There's really no reason to ever take the metro or taxis, in my opinion. I even take Didi on 2-3 hour trips outside the city, and the cost is only about USD $50-80.
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 recommend buying an electric scooter, which gives you the ability to really explore the city. Do pay attention to changing regulations however; gas-powered scooters were recently banned, and electric scooters may be as well.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is one of the major frustrations of living in China. Obviously you need a VPN to access many sites, and the VPN is often blocked. Internet speed can also be extremely slow. You may go days or even weeks without access to the wider world from your home computer or cell phone.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Local plans are very cheap. About USD $10/month for unlimited data.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal at work, relatively casual outside at work, depending on where you're going and what you're doing.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
You will have no personal privacy and will be constantly surveilled, which entails a whole host of frustrations and challenges. However, partly as a result of this perhaps, you will also be extremely safe. Probably one of the safest cities I've ever been to. Do watch out for the traffic, though.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Western hospitals are quite advanced. There is also a robust MED office at the embassy.
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?
Another major problem with living in China. It can be terrible. However, it is not nearly as bad as it used to be, on most days. There are plenty of very nice AQI days. It can be hard to make weekend plans since the air quality can ruin any outdoor plans. Also note the dry air in the winter can be tough on your skin.
4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
The constant surveillance may weigh on some people. Knowing you have no privacy is a burden. If the bilateral relationship continues to deteriorate, there may be additional challenges and frustrations for USG employees living here.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
I like the climate. Cold in the winter, but it doesn't feel that frigid because the air is so dry. Spring and fall are short but lovely. Summer is fairly hot but much less humid than in Washington, DC.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Fairly large until you consider that this is a city of 20 million -- then it feels quite small and insular. In general it's a good expat community with countless options to keep you busy and having fun. Morale is generally pretty high for most people, perhaps a little lower for people at the embassy, for a variety of reasons.
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?
Bars, restaurants, Great Wall hikes, climbing gyms, cooking classes....really countless options.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I would say maybe not great for families with small children because of the air quality issues. Schools seem to be very good for older kids, based on what I've heard. For singles and couples, this is a fabulous place to live. Single men will have no trouble at all dating here, and single ladies should do okay, too.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I think so, in general. Most Chinese people are fairly accepting, especially of Western people, whom they intuitively place in a different category to begin with. Particularly among the well-to-do in cities like Beijing or Shanghai, there is a relatively inclusive and cosmopolitan vibe.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Locals are generally friendly and welcoming. However, being a diplomat in China is a unique assignment and may limit the extent to which one can integrate himself or herself into local networks. Many diplomats in China end up socializing with other expats rather than locals, at least more so than they might do in other countries.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is some discrimination toward blacks. Asian-American diplomats may be mistaken for Chinese and treated differently than their colleagues.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Traveling around this vast country and learning about its fascinating history. Hikes and overnight camping on the Great Wall. Amazing food.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
If you want to work on front-page news sorts of issues, this is the place. It is challenging but extremely rewarding, and you'll never ask whether decision makers in Washington care about your work. This is also a large, dynamic city with lots to do; you won't get bored.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
The internet will frustrate you even more than you expect. The air quality may not be as bad as you expect. Traveling in the region is more expensive and time-consuming than you probably think. Weekend trips to Thailand are not really an option. You may want to consider Guangzhou if you're hoping to hop around Southeast Asia for frequent vacations. Otherwise, plan to generally take week-long vacations out Beijing.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Electronics that you plan to use after leaving China.
4. But don't forget your:
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, Midnight in Peking, Oracle Bones, River Town, Dream of the Red Chamber, Confucius' Analects, the Dao De Jing, The Hundred Year Marathon