Beijing, China Report of what it's like to live there - 11/03/20
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. I've also lived in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
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?
Washington, DC. Direct 14 hour flight before COVID.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What years did you live here?
5. 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?
Three story townhouse with 3 bedrooms and 3.5 baths. Called "Japanese-Style" it's a very narrow house that is located on a housing compound originally built for Japanese diplomats but now open to others. We have a small back yard and are maybe a 10 minute walk from our Embassy.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can find pretty much everything, or a copy of everything, at stores and online in Beijing. For actually imported products you'll pay a premium but everything else is cheap compared to the United States.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are food delivery apps, some in English, that can have anything you'd want delivered to your house.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
No. We've had some mold in the summer but that's about it.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Diplomatic mail service
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help called an "Ayi" is pretty easy to get and will cost you between 40-55 RMB (6 bucks). Some Ayis speak English but you'll pay a premium for that.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is a really good Embassy gym with a basketball court. The housing compounds all have gyms but they aren't as well equipped and I've been told there are two CrossFit boxes near 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. Also it is getting harder and harder to use cash. Everything is done through WeChat pay and you need a Chinese bank account to use WeChat pay. It's all doable but frustrating and means you have to regularly deposit money into a Chinese bank account for the privilege of spending your money at Chinese stores.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
A lot. There is very little English for a major metropolitan city. That said tutors are cheap and if you aren't trying to learn to read speaking isn't too difficult. Also English apps are popping up for everything from food delivery to taxis and you can use WeChat in a pinch to translate what you are saying.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
No, but if you leave the diplomatic quarter or leave the city it'd get a lot harder.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
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?
A car that meets Chinese requirements. And I wouldn't bring a super modern car with a ton of electronics.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, but the Firewall really makes that a no. The internet for Gmail, Netflix, Hulu, etc., is awful. Come with a VPN already installed and plan to have to update it regularly and for it to not work during "sensitive" times.
The internet for Bidu or other PRC approved sites is super fast and reliable. Can't wait for Starlink! :)
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Google Fi is amazing as it works even when the VPN doesn't.
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?
No work agreement with China so spouses can't work on the economy. Work opportunities in the Embassy can be limited.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business. I've never needed formal attire but some people do.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
No. But you'll have zero privacy, they are always watching.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is good. Dental is hit or miss. Medical Evac to Singapore was only used when surgery or a major procedure was needed. During COVID that has gotten a lot harder.
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?
Good to moderate and getting better. If you have lung issues or asthma it might bother you but there are really only a handful of days each month that now see AQI in 150s.
4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
There is no privacy here. They no longer need to have people follow you but there is a camera every five feet and you can't walk a block without passing at least 10 people that belong to different parts of the security apparatus. Every once in a while you'll even catch them noting down your comings and goings. This constant surveillance and lack of privacy weighs on some people.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Surprisingly cold in the winter. Beijing is in a desert so when the wind picks up in the winter it is cold.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The schools are a huge draw for people. There are people that come to Beijing even though they don't want to but they, and their kids, want to return to one of the several fabulous schools here.
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 not cheap. Most people pay an Ayi to watch their kids full time.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is huge. Morale varies greatly.
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?
Beijing is a major modern city. If you have a bit of the language, and even if you don't, there is something here that will be your speed.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families love the schools, single people seem to like the city for its wealth of restaurants, bars, and things to see and do.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
No. More than anywhere else? Maybe. The default in Beijing for everything is profiling. If you are white and male this is an advantage, if you are Asian and work in the diplomatic sector you will be stopped all the time by security personnel that want to know what the hell you are doing around foreign embassies.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Maybe not more than other places but many Chinese people will tell you that racism doesn't exist in China. In my opinion, this bold face denial is a big part of the problem.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Absolutely everything can be delivered to your house.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are world-class parks in Beijing. With the air getting clearer by the day places like Chaoyang park are really fabulous and within walking distance.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes, but you'd need some language.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's probably one of the safest large cities in the world. Crime doesn't really happen given the attention of the authoritarian state, cameras, and 100s of security force personnel per square mile.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I should have brought a car so we could get out of the city more easily.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yeah but I don't think I'd stay for more than a couple, three years.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Masks! COVID started here but no one wears a mask because of massive testing and lockdowns.
4. But don't forget your:
Smartphone. Everything is done on a smartphone. You can buy one here or bring one but you'll absolutely need one. From WeChat to health apps you'll need a smart phone.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Wild Swans - Jung Chang
Midnight in Peking - Paul French
And if you are interested in the US/China relations:
Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom - John Pomfret