Chengdu, China Report of what it's like to live there - 08/02/13

Personal Experiences from Chengdu, China

Chengdu, China 08/02/13

Background:

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

First expat experience with the U.S. Foreign Service, second time living overseas (previously in Chennai, India).

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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?

From DC its a 12-13 hour flight to Beijing or Shanghai and then a 2.5 hour flight to Chengdu. All told, usually about 18 hours of travel.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2010-2012.

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

Spouse of U.S. 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?

Chengdu is a rapidly growing Consulate so the housing pool is always changing. Compact high-rise apartments are the norm. They often look quite nice but construction standards are not what they are in the U.S.---as is the case in most developing countries. Depending on traffic (which increased dramatically even during our 2 years in Chengdu) commute times vary from 5-10 minutes to 30-45 minutes at rush hour to the apartments the furthest away. The nice thing is that these high-rises always tend to open right into bustling neighborhoods. Unless you live in a villa community outside of town, you are never more than a 5 minute walk from a noodle shop, a convenience store and a vegetable or fruit stand. The Consulate does have 12 apartments mostly reserved for families with children. They may not be the most stylish but the build quality is much appreciated.

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

Food prices are going up in China with noticeable increases during our two year tour but produce is still quite cheap compared to the U.S. The fresh markets are beautiful and so much fun to peruse though the food contamination issues in China--from cadmium in the rice to watermelons exploding with growth hormones---can make figuring out what to buy and eat a bit disheartening. Everyone sort of comes up with their own standards for what they will and will not eat but most people buy only imported dairy products and imported goods for what they can. There are several organic co-ops that deliver to the Consulate and, while the quality/selection of the produce can be a bit interesting, it generally gives people a bit of peace of mind.

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

Basically every liquid toiletry or pantry good we use from shampoo to tooth paste to peanut butter. We found that even American brands produced in China tended to have different formulas, a bit more caustic usually. You can find many things at the import stores around town but they will be more expensive than in the States. And, even though we lived in China, we still often defaulted to buying Hong Kong-produced soy sauce and sesame oil because we trusted the quality more.

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

Sichuanese food is cheap, delicious and quite fast. There's a McDonald's and KFC down the block from the Consulate and at other locations around town. There are several "Chengdu good" Western restaurants (i.e. its good if you've lived there long enough!) as well as a smattering of Japanese, Thai and other restaurants that range from bad to pretty good depending on what you order and how long its been since you've had the "real thing." The real joy of living in Chengdu though is eating the local food. You might get sick of it eventually, but it's so good you'll eventually be back out for more.

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

The mosquitos can be fierce in the summer and early fall, but they don't carry any diseases in Chengdu so not a big deal.

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Daily Life:

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

Technically Post has DPO but, while we can send out packages, our incoming mail faces the same restrictions as regular pouch.

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

Most families hire a part-time to full-time "ayi" to do housekeeping and maybe some childcare. We paid on the high end of the scale for our part-time housekeeper and spent a little over US$200 a month I believe. Our housekeeper was absolutely wonderful and super diligent and thorough. She did not speak English but with some basic Chinese we communicated and got along very well. Few ayis will speak fluent English, if any, though I think more and more are learning it as it's such a valuable commodity to the expat community.

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

The Consulate has a very small but functional gym. There are private gyms all over the city but for runners seeking to avoid the pollution outdoors, these gyms often offer little relief. People in Chengdu tend to leave windows open year round to let in the "healthy air."

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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?

Cash rules for most transactions though credit cards are accepted at the major hotels and some higher-end places. Only some ATMS around town will accept foreign credit cards, people will tell you which are which.

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

They are available but limited I believe.

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

There is not a lot of English-language media in Chengdu and certainly nothing uncensored. You will want a VPN (virtual private network) installed on your computer before you arrive in order to get around the firewall and access "the real news." You can find the Herald Tribune at a few spots around town and some book stores carry a few English-language books, though not many while we were there.

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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?

It helps a lot. There is more and more English spoken in Chengdu, but if you are going to be out in the markets, running errands, etc it's helpful to have at least some basic Chinese. I say Chinese rather than Mandarin because what's spoken in Chengdu is often a mash-up of traditional Mandarin and the local dialect, Sichuan-hua. All this being said, I didn't find either the language or communicating to be nearly as hard as people make it out to be. I had 3 weeks of language at FSI plus a few tutoring sessions and I was able to pick up enough to easily make my way around the city and even have some decent conversations. People in Chengdu tend to be patient and friendly with foreigners struggling in their language skills.

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

Yes. Most neighborhood restaurants, etc would be difficult to maneuver, handicapped bathrooms are pretty much non-existent. There are a number of ramps and elevators though, especially in higher-end areas and establishments.

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Transportation:

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

Taxis are affordable compared to other big cities but lack seat belts and generally reek of smoke---not that that ever stopped us from taking them. The metro system opened with one North-South line while we lived there. For getting to some of the tourist sites, it was a useful option but the addition of more lines to the system over the next few years will make it far more useable. Buses and trains are plentiful though often crowded and you'll need some confident Chinese to navigate them at first.

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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?

China only lets relatively new cars in. Other than that, there aren't too many special concerns. The roads in Chengdu are immaculate. Something a bit more rugged would be fun for getting out of town.

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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?

It's available and pretty consistent, if not terribly high speed. The cost is quite reasonable. I want to say approximately US$30 per month, paid bi-annually through the Consulate.

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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?

It's easy to get a local sim and use prepaid minutes. I never bothered with a contract.

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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 there is the usual hassle and paperwork to go through.

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

Not sure but giant fluffy imported dog breeds are a huge status symbol for wealthy Chinese families in Chengdu so I imagine there is care evolving to care for them. I have heard of people having to watch what their dogs eat out on the street though as the pesticides used on lawns, etc can be quite toxic.

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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?

If you want to teach English in a fairly sketchy establishment, you are totally set. Otherwise, not so much. There is no bilateral work agreement for diplomatic spouses. Volunteering outside a few organizations that are "ok" with the authorities can also be fairly difficult.

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

Casual. Women in their 40's can be seen in hot pants and thigh-high boots--and they will be simply average shop keepers or maybe even office workers.

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Health & Safety:

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

Chengdu is, for the most part, incredibly safe. It's a city of 14 million people and yet, if someone so much as pulls out a knife to threaten someone, its big news. I don't know if I've ever felt safer (crime-wise) in a city than in Chengdu. After all, you will never be more closely watched over than in China!

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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?

Medical care is not great. Though the facilities are often quite nice, the training is not often up to Western standards and some labs/tests may not follow typical norms. Medevacs are the norm for most everything beyond routine care and check ups. I've heard of some seriously ill and injured people entering the hospital and walking out months later in perfect health but I would personally leave the country for anything serious.

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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?

It's China, the air is terrible. It's the usual China pollution plus Chengdu is situated in a valley so the air stagnates, especially in winter.

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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?

Temperature-wise, Chengdu is very similar to Washington D.C. Summers can get quite hot and humid in the mid 80's to low 90's. Winters are damp and chilly but the temperature rarely drops much below freezing. Spring and Fall are really quite pleasant, temperature-wise. If it weren't for Chengdu's nearly perpetual cloud clover, the climate would be pretty fantastic. The lack of sun, compounded by the pollution, really gets to some people. Interestingly enough, Chengdu residents swear that the city has gotten sunnier since the big earthquake in 2008. I don't know for sure whether this is true but our second year was most sunnier than the first so perhaps the pattern simply changes year to year.

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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 with the schools directly but QSI is said to be good but the facilities too small. Leman was brand new when we lived in Chengdu and therefore still a mixed bag for most people I think. The Chengdu expat community has grown exponentially in the last 5 years so my guess is that improvements to the schools are not far behind.

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

Not aware that they make any.

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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?

Many Chinese-language preschools available and affordable nannies, though few will speak English.

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

Through the schools and also plenty of private Chinese instructors for nearly every sport I think, though you'll likely need language skills and an open mind to pursue them.

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Expat Life:

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

Growing quickly mostly from the Chevron and other gas/oil projects in the surrounding area. What was once a very small tight-knit community has now grown quite large, very quickly.

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2. Morale among expats:

The pollution and cloudy skies get people down but, if it weren't for those things, I think most people would be fairly happy in Chengdu. For a city of 14 million, it often feels more like a midwestern cow town than a cosmopolitan mega-city and there aren't a ton of cultural diversions. Even that though, like everything in China, is changing quickly.

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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?

Singles will go out to the bars which aren't exactly numerous but a nice diversion. Families do a lot of entertaining in one another's homes or hanging out at school functions. Going out for dinner at a hot pot restaurant is a fun way to spend time with friends and there are a fair number of interesting sites and temples and things to see in and around town--maybe not enough to last an adventurous family an entire 2 or 3 year tour, but enough to keep most people busy for awhile.

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

Minus the food and pollution issues, this is a great place for families. It's relatively cheap, there's a nice community, activities like dance classes and sports available both through the local and expat communities. Singles and couples might get a bit bored. On the map, Chengdu looks so close to places like Thailand and Vietnam. In reality, flight times and prices tend to make traveling not quite as carefree or affordable as one would hope, even domestically. That being said, travel is a worthwhile expense, especially in the winter when things are dreary.

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

Chengdu was once known as a haven for China's gay scene, I believe. Not sure if that's still true. There certainly aren't Pride parades down the main avenue, but we did occasionally see same-sex couples holding hands around the university area.

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

Anyone who doesn't look Chinese will be judged, especially people with darker skin tones of any kind. Chengdu residents might not also understand the concept of an American who doesn't look "white" which can be especially hard for black Americans and anyone of any kind of East or Southeast Asian descent who doesn't speak good Chinese. The more expats in Chengdu though, the more this is changing.

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

Eating. Running through Sichuanese countryside with the Hash House Harriers. Traveling to other parts of China.

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

Eat, drive through the countryside, walk through the few truly old neighborhoods that still exist in the city. Go for tea in the park. Peruse Song Xian Qiao, the "antique" market. There are several stunning mountains within a few hours drive of town but you might have to get used to a different version of "hiking" than you are used to. The main routes up the mountains are paved with concrete stairs and jammed with families traveling up and down, many in high heels, mini skirts and stopping often to pose for pictures in the middle of the walkway. The Hash House Harriers is a nice alternative to find more off-the-beaten-track trails to get yourself acquainted with the area.

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

Tea, dried mushrooms and convincingly good fake antiques. Chengdu is not exactly a shoppers paradise.

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

Sichuanese food (the regional cuisine) is delicious and wholly unique and you are never far from many good options for it. While traffic can be nutty and cars tend to take over the sidewalks, its still an infinitely more walkable city than many other "developing" cities and countries. It's an easy place to save money as there's not a great deal of shopping. China is also an incredibly interesting place. Even though I didn't always love living there, I always found it endlessly fascinating.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, as long as you don't travel constantly or go too crazy on Amazon. Cooking at home may cost more than in the U.S. but eating out will cost far less. You probably won't be tempted to buy much else besides food locally, not even clothes.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

If the food was safer and the air was cleaner, I would go back in a heartbeat. It's a fascinating place. That being said, those first two things are kind of a big deal.

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

Sunglasses.

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3. But don't forget your:

Sense of adventure and pocket-sized packet of toilet paper.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Supposedly Kung Fu Panda II takes place in Chengdu. I'm not joking. The premier was a huge deal for people in Chengdu.

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

Peter Hessler is sort of "the" white guy for writing about China and the Chongqing/Chengdu area specifically. Still I think, once you've lived in China for a few months, English-language Chinese literature becomes much more interesting. I really liked Brothers by Hua Yu. Ministry of Tofu is an English-language current events website that highlights different social issues going on in China, written by Chinese bloggers. It was a really interesting resource for me to learn more about China than I would normally be able to as a very basic Chinese speaker.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

If you are going to go to China, Chengdu is probably still one of the most "real China" places you can live while still maintaining a fairly comfortable, normal life. It certainly doesn't have the amenities of Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou but the people are really lovely and the place is interesting. If you don't mind the pollution and food safety issues (and yes, this is a big IF) Chengdu can be a nice, quiet, but still relevant place to spend a few years.

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