Guangzhou, China Report of what it's like to live there - 05/29/11

Personal Experiences from Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou, China 05/29/11

Background:

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

First expat experience

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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?

There's a direct flight from LAX that takes about 14-15 hours. Most connections go through Tokyo, Beijing, or Hong Kong. My home base is Washington (state). When we arrived we flew Seattle to San Francisco for a few days, then San Francisco to Shanghai and Shanghai to Guangzhou. SF-Shanghai was 12 hours and Shanghai-GZ was about 2 hours.

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3. How long have you lived here?

I arrived in July 2010 and will be here until July 2012

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

Affiliated with the US Consulate

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

The consulate provides spacious apartments to its employees. Some of the new housing coming online now includes suburban-style single family homes about a half hour outside of town.

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

If you buy local goods, they're dirt cheap. But then you can't be totally sure that they're not full of dirt or made of colored dirt; quality control is a major issue. Imported goods cost about double what you'd pay in the U.S., but there are at least half a dozen stores that sell these so you can almost always find what you're looking for.

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

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

Fast food: McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Papa John's, 1 Dairy Queen, SubwayOverall Guangzhou has LOTS of restaurants, covering almost every kind of cuisine, and many of them are pretty good. You can get a decent meal at many of them for about 5 USD, and it goes up from there to the 50 USD that you'd pay for the Grand Hyatt's brunch buffet.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Given the massive quality control concerns, Chinese themselves are *beginning* to organize organic groceries. There is at least one place that sells organic produce (Corner's Deli) but it is significantly more expensive.

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

Mosquitoes are terrible. Cockroaches.

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Daily Life:

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

We use the consulate's DPO and dip 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?

Very affordable, we have a full-time live-out nanny/housekeeper/cook ("ayi")and pay about $500/month for her. We pay her a bit more than others though, but in return we have an on-call babysitter who never charges overtime. She works almost 50 hours/week so it works out to be pretty affordable. I think the going rate is about $15/day for 8 hours if you don't have kids.

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

Yes, many apartment complexes have facilities. There are also Western-style membership gyms.

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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?

It is an all-cash economy, so wouldn't recommend using credit cards, even if they will take them. Only use ATMs that are attached to banks and look reputable. We try to us the consulate's cashier to get money as much as possible.

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

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

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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's pretty important to know the language. Mandarin works just fine but Cantonese is the main language here, most people speak both. English is understood in some places but it's best to know at least a few key phrases in either Mandarin or Cantonese. My wife didn't know anything before she got here, but now gets by alright with her stock of 20 or so Mandarin phrases

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

Many sidewalks are narrow and uneven. Sometimes there are just stairs, no escalators. It's also crowded.

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Transportation:

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

Very affordable, very safe. We didn't bring a car and only use public transportation and taxis. They do drive like maniacs though.

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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 see lots of Audis and Mercedes being driven by the military and government officials, so that's probably a good bet for parts and service availability. China is now the world's largest car market, probably anything is fine. Oh, but don't bring anything too nice or shiny -- people drive kind of crazy and you will almost certainly get dinged.

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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?

Our apartment put up a flyer advertising that fiber optic internet was available for the super-low rate of about 300 USD/month. Seriously. We've stuck with our DSL service for about $40-50/month (can't remember).It's shared bandwidth, so sometimes it's blazing fast, sometimes it crawls horribly slowly. The ISP also has a nasty habit of throttling your bandwidth if you catch a high-speed time and try to take advantage with a bunch of downloads. Oh and of course everything is censored, monitored, and controlled (adds to the slowness), so you'll need a VPN.

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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?

Pay-as-you-go. China Unicom has a better data network than China Telecom

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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?

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

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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?

Teaching English is a big one. Things related to business or import/export facilitation would do well too.

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

Americans at my work wear business casual. Chinese, though, tend to wear whatever they interpret "business casual" to mean, which can range from jeans and a logo'd t-shirt to fishnet stockings and a miniskirt (with a logo'd t-shirt).Some dress better than others. In public you'll see lots of women in high heels and short skirts, especially in the summer.

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Health & Safety:

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

Nothing dangerous at all. This is the safest place we've ever lived. I've only heard of one incident of pick-pocketing, but I'm sure it happens in some areas of the city. Definitely no violent crime. But just remember that China is not a free society, there are cameras all over the place.

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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?

There are two urgent-care clinics that we've had success with, they have western-trained doctors. For anything really serious you're advised to go to Hong Kong.

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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?

Pretty bad. It's gotten better since we got here, but for months it was rare to see the sky. There is a lot of pollution from factories. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province, which is where much of the manufacturing takes place in China. If it says "Made in China" it was probably made here. There are tons of factories which makes for a lot of pollution.

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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?

Typically long hot and humid summers (April to September) and mild and less humid winters. November was perfect, December - February fluctuated between 70s and 40s. It doesn't snow here but there are a few weeks that will dip into the lower 40s. May/June through September/October are muggy and hot.

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Schools & Children:

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

Supposed to be good, no direct experience. I think there's at least an American one, British one, and a Canadian one.

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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, definitely have basketball and soccer

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Expat Life:

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

Somewhere in the thousands. In addition to the consulate, there are a lot of US and European companies with a presence, and lots and lots of short-term traders.

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2. Morale among expats:

Some people love it, some hate it, I think the most common feeling is that there certainly are some bad and annoying things, but it's overall not a horrible place and living here for 2-3 years isn't too bad.

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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?

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

For families, it's not the most stroller-friendly city, with narrow or uneven sidewalks, and sometimes you're stuck using stairs (no escalators, ramps, etc.).It's not awful either, but it's not as convenient as the U.S.Without a car, it is significantly more of a hassle to try to do things with a small child. Couples without kids can get out and about easily -- there are a lot of good restaurants and hang-out places in the city and interesting places to go see in the surrounding area. Single guys looking for romance will have no trouble; single ladies may have a harder time. There are a half dozen or so good expat bars, plus all the 5-star hotels' bars, and a street along the river with several clubs.

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

I've heard Shanghai and Hong Kong are better, obviously, and the Chinese are a bit homophobic, but there is a large ex-pat community and I know some people have started relationships

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

Chinese are well-known for being racist, especially towards black people. If you're a black Westerner, that mitigates it somewhat, but they seem to really dislike Africans.

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

Going to Hong Kong frequently. Having a nanny/housekeeper/cook ("ayi").

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

Go to Hong Kong. Lots of shopping in Guangzhou (in markets and in malls), but if you aren't much of a shopper you'll get tired of it after a few weeks.

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

Asian art and furniture

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

Guangzhou's major advantage is that it is close to Hong Kong (2 hour train ride) and Macau (2 hour bus ride, shortened to a 45-minute train ride by the end of 2011).When you need a break from the Mainland, it's easy to get away. I'm also told that relatively more people speak English in Guangzhou than other parts of China, probably due to the major international trade focus here. As far as saving money, we finally put together a budget a couple weeks ago and realized we're saving 50% of our income each month.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, we seem to be saving about 50% of our monthly income.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Would prefer to be in Hong Kong or Shanghai, but it's much better than some of the other options I had. Professionally it's been great, the work is great, it's just not a super nice city and non-working spouses may prefer to live somewhere else.

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

Snow-related equipment

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3. But don't forget your:

bug repellent, rain boots, and LOTS of PATIENCE.

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

Snakehead

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

If you have young white children (especially babies), come with a lot of patience. The Chinese will think your kid is just the cutest thing they've ever seen, always wanting to take pictures with him/her, touching him/her, and commenting about him/her. It's nice at first, but that wears off quickly.

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