Beijing, China Report of what it's like to live there - 04/29/10

Personal Experiences from Beijing, China

Beijing, China 04/29/10

Background:

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

My fifth overseas experience, after St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yerevan and Almaty.

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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?

Almost 14 hours direct from DC on United.

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3. How long have you lived here?

3 years: 2007-2010.

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

Government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

There are nice big houses in Shunyi, on compounds (mostly River Garden for govt employees). Kids can wander freely throughout the compound with no worries. But you'll pay for that with your commute to downtown. Commuting from Shunyi to the US Embassy, for example, is a minimum of 30 minutes, and can take well over an hour. If you choose to live downtown, your housing will likely be in an apartment, and the ones I've seen are quite nice.

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

You can get just about everything here at Jenny Los and other shops, but oh, is it expensive! Chocolate chips: $5/bag. Cereal: $10/box.

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

Chocolate chips. Razors and shaving cream. Cleaning supplies. Cereal. Dog food. Wrapping paper. All are incredibly expensive.

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

Starbucks: $4.50 for a grande mocha (oops, just gave away my not-so-secret addiction). McDonald's, KFC, Subway - even a Fat Burger. But I still prefer the many Chinese food options, many of which are dirt cheap and delicious.

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

Mosquitoes are awful. We sleep under mosquito nets. Occasional ants. That's about it, really.

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Daily Life:

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

Embassy DPO.

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

Everyone has an ayi. Prices vary, usually starting around 2000 RMB (about $300) per month, plus one extra month's salary at Chinese New Year. She will work a 40-hour/week for this. She will likely speak no English - prepare to pay more if she does. You will never want to give her up if you find the right ayi.

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

Most housing compounds have small facilities. Pools, too. You have to work out inside most days because of the air quality.

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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?

You can use a credit card and ATM, although you run the risk of getting counterfeit bills at the ATMs. I personally never use my credit card, but lots of people do.

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

It depends. The government shut down the Catholic church for quite some time during our stay. Worship is restricted in some areas, and we're not typically allowed to worship with the locals. We have to present foreign passports when we go to church.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

China Daily, but it's a joke. Imported newsmags are expensive. I get my news from the internet or not at all.

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

You must learn to speak on some level if you want to leave the house. Lots of service workers speak a smattering of English - but lots more don't.

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

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Transportation:

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

Taxis are safe, but the drivers don't speak a bit of English, so make sure you have a map or a Chinese-speaker with you. Don't plan on using a seatbelt.

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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?

There is a company in Shunyi called ST Car Care that can service pretty much any type of car. If they can't find the parts, as happens sometimes, you'll have to order them from the States. They also offer roadside assistance, which we've had to use.

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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?

High-speed? Ha! It's pretty slow going, and you have to use a VPN to access facebook, blogs and certain news stories.

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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?

You can buy one here, install a SIM card, and buy pay-as-you-go cards. You must have a phone. You do not want to get lost or injured and be without one, because no one will help you. They'll step right over your carcass and keep on going.

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Pets:

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?

No. But not all pets are allowed in all parts of the city. Large dogs have to stay in the suburbs.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There are good kennels and decent vets.

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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?

No. Some people find work as substitute teachers, but most spouses don't even bother to look. There are usually a few good jobs to be had at the embassy - WAE, professional associates and others.

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

I see an awful lot of Chinese women who think the height of fashion is stiletto heels, tights, shorts and a "Hello Kitty" t-shirt. So ... anything goes. I dress the same way I did back home and haven't bought a Hello Kitty t-shirt ... yet.

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Health & Safety:

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

There is very little crime against foreigners, other than the occasional purse-snatching. But you will feel "watched" all the time.

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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?

Basic care is fine. If you go to BJU, you'll pay western prices, and their billing system leaves a lot to be desired. Several women have had real problems with OB care. Many folks are medevac'd for surgeries. But if you need stitches or an x-ray, you'll be in good hands.

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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?

The air is AWFUL. Let me rephrase that: the air is disgusting, frightening, and sickening. I've never before lived in a place where I so feared for the health of my kids. Truly, that is the one reason I can't wait to get out of here. We regularly have days that are in the "dangerous" zone, when you aren't supposed to go outside. But of course, we do go outside, because you have to.

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

Cold winter - the wind will freeze you to the bones. Short, beautiful spring. Hot, dirty summer. Short, beautiful fall. Make sure your guests come in April-May or Sept-Oct. Those are the nice months here.

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Schools & Children:

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

We have kids at ISB. I love everything about it except the Chinese program. If your kids go to a big int'l school, they will not learn Chinese. The schools all split native speakers from non-natives, and they pretty much ignore the non-natives, or teach them to sing songs about bunny rabbits and things. They will not allow your child to "sink or swim" with the native speakers, no matter how much you beg. But they will put brand new kids in your child's Chinese class, even if your kid has been here for 4 or 5 years, and they'll expect your kid to sit and behave while they catch the new kids up. VERY frustrating. I've also seen kids (whose first language is Chinese) turned away from the native-speaker program because they don't "look" Chinese. No joke. Lots of families end up hiring tutors. Some send their kids to 3e, the only bilingual international school. Other than my issues with the Chinese program, I've been quite happy with ISB. It has a fabulous facility, amazing teachers, and a terrific PE program. WAB is also very, very nice and quite popular.

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

Very few. ISB cannot handle special-needs kids at all. WAB can handle the basics. There is an organization here that can help you figure out your options: www.careforchildren.com. Contact them before you come to see if they have any suggestions.

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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?

Oh, don't get me started! You have a choice: pay for preschool or save for college. Preschools are ridiculously expensive here, so if your employer doesn't pay for it, don't bring a preschool-aged child here. Preschool tuition at ISB, for example, is over $20,000 a year -- for part-time! We had a child at Eton preschool in Shunyi, which had a deal at the time for embassy employees, making it more reasonable. But it is still expensive.

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

Tons, with a wide range of cost. Sports Beijing offers everything, but we can't afford any of it. Club Football runs a fantastic and affordable soccer program at many of the international schools. Terrific British coaches. I know ISB offers lots of afterschool programs, like wushu, swimming, juggling and jump-roping for younger kids -- and team sports for older kids. The PE program at ISB is amazing: track and field meets in the ES, swim classes during school, juggling and circus routines, and even a "secret-agent program" that the least athletic kid will love, love, love.

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Expat Life:

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

Huge. I run into new folks every day.

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2. Morale among expats:

Some are miserable. Some wouldn't think of leaving because they love it here. It's a challenging place, and some people can't rise to the challenge. Surround yourself with enthusiastic, adventurous types and you'll be fine.

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3. 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's always something going on. Lunch with the ladies, dinner parties, hiking and camping with the boy scouts - something for everyone. Mostly informal gatherings. Summertime socializing tends to revolve around the pool, so bring a cover-up!

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

Good for all, if you're adventurous. It's a big place, with something for everyone.

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

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

There are no real racial or gender issues that I've noticed. But you will be stared at and photographed incessantly if you stand out physically in any way.

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

Everything from walking the Great Wall to hanging out in Starbucks with friends. Learning to cook Chinese food.

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

Shop. Hike. Walk the Wall. Go out to eat.

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

Fake everything if you're into name brands. Jade, pearls, silk dresses, cashmere coats, lamps.

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

It's a shopper's paradise: pearls, clothes, even furniture. And there is more to see than you could possibly fit in: the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City... Lots of people travel to other cities within China, but we pretty much stayed in Beijing or used our tourist dollars to escape to Hong Kong and Bangkok.

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11. Can you save money?

If you don't have any kids in pre-school, yes. It also helps if you don't eat cereal.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Ummmm.... depends on which day you ask me. On a blue-sky day, when my ayi is watching the kids and I'm out to lunch at a fabulous Chinese restaurant with friends - absolutely. But on a day when the air quality is off-the-charts hazardous and I'm hacking up a lung while some local is taking my picture, heck no.

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

fondness for people who wait in lines and behave rationally behind the wheel of a car.

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3. But don't forget your:

hand sanitizer, bike helmet and sense of humor. Truly, don't come here if you aren't prepared to laugh at yourself -- and everyone else -- on a daily basis.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Insider's Guide to Beijing, Lisa See's "Snowflower and the Secret Fan", "Lost Daughters of China", anything by Peter Hessler.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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