Guangzhou, China Report of what it's like to live there - 04/25/13

Personal Experiences from Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou, China 04/25/13

Background:

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

Yes.

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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?

Washington DC; usually a 4-hour flight to the West Coast; then another 11 hours or so to Tokyo; then 4 1/2 hours to Guangzhou. With layovers a typical trip is 20-22 hours.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Just under 2 years.

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

Spouse of someone working in 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?

Many consulate families, especially those without kids, live in a number of high-rise apartments in the New Town or Tianhe areas of the city. These areas contain many restaurants and malls and are close to the new consulate, which should open this summer. Many families with kids live either in condos on Ersha Island (quiet area by the river with a big park, but no subway station) or in single-family homes just outside of city center (huge houses, clubhouse amenities, green space, doesn't feel like China, but traveling to the city can be difficult without a car). The single-family homes aside, the living accommodations are nice, but they are small by American standards.

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

Anything organic or imported is quite expensive. You can find organic vegetables at most major grocery stores but not many organic fruits. Groceries can either be really cheap or as expensive as what you'd pay in the US, depending on where you shop and how much you choose local over imported. In China, 'shopping local' isn't as desirable as in the US, given the country's food safety issues.

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

Alcohol (good wine/beer/liquor is both extremely expensive and hard to find...and sometimes fake if you do find it); chocolate chips and other baking supplies, including pans/cookie cutters, etc.; any 'health foods' such as whole wheat flour, quinoa and flax meal; maple syrup; good salsa.

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

If you like fast food, you will not go without. McD's, Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, Starbucks, KFC...there's even a Dunkin' Donuts tucked away somewhere in one of the many malls around here. Food is super cheap, especially at fast food and Chinese restaurants. There are only a few restaurants here (excluding hotels) where the prices are similar to what you'd find in the States (which for here means expensive).

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

I've had an occasional problem with mosquitoes, but really nothing major.

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Daily Life:

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

Via the consulate, which has both the pouch and DPO. Packages usually take 2-3 weeks to arrive.

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

Domestic help is easy to find and quite affordable. It usually costs around $25USD for one day per week of cooking/cleaning.

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

Yes; many housing communities have their own gyms, but if that isn't your thing, there is a chain called Total Fitness with locations scattered across the city. They are about what you'd pay in the States for a membership, but you may find the quality and cleanliness standards are not the same.

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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?

Although many stores and restaurants accept credit cards, this is still mostly a cash economy. I've used my credit card maybe 3 times in 2 years.

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

I have heard that there are English language services for Protestants, Catholics and Mormons. There may be services for other religions as well, but I do not know about them.

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

You can easily buy English-language versions of the Chinese gov't crap that's sold as news, but as for English-language newspapers from abroad, I don't know. Most housing comes with satellite TV with a handful of English stations--NatGeo, AXN, StarWorld, CNN, BBC. I think most people go online for news and entertainment.

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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?

I've known people who do not speak Chinese and seem to get along just fine. Personally, I am very happy that I was able to study the language before arriving; it has been extremely helpful in navigating day-to-day life.

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

I think it would be very difficult to navigate this city with a physical disability. Many metro stations do not have elevators, and many pedestrian walkways only have stairs...no ramps for wheelchairs.

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Transportation:

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

All are safe and affordable. Most taxis don't have seat belts in the back seat, and with the absolutely insane driving that takes place here, you sometimes are muttering Hail Mary to yourself until you reach your destination safely. But no, I've never felt like I could be mugged or kidnapped when on public transportation.

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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?

Most people get along just fine without a vehicle, but if you choose to have one I think any make will be fine. You see all kinds of brands here.

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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?

I'm not sure if I would describe it as 'high-speed,' but it is available for about $30USD/month. Depending on how much the government is cracking down on access to the foreign internet, downloading and streaming can range from simple, to 90s AOL-style snail's pace, to nonexistent.

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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?

Cell phones are super cheap and ubiquitous. I use China Mobile and have been fine with it. I think all the plans are pay as you go.

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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're a spouse with the consulate, you're not allowed to work on the local economy, but there are usually openings available for spouses at the consulate.

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

Work: attire at the consulate appears to be business casual for most, depending on what office you're in. Public: anything goes, but everything is pretty casual. You're foreign, you'll get stared at no matter what, so don't worry too much about trying to fit in.

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Health & Safety:

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

I've heard of the occasional pickpocket, but crime-wise this place is very safe. The most dangerous part of the day is dodging crazy drivers when crossing the street.

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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?

Let's see...bird flu, pollution effects on the body (I have friends whose kids get bronchitis easily from being outside all the time), food safety concerns (e.g. ingesting fake meat) and general concerns that come with being in a very crowded city whose population has generally poor hygiene habits. There are two western-style clinics in the city: United Family and Eur-Am. For any major issues, consulate employees and their families are medevac'd to Singapore; Hong Kong is also a good option for major issues.

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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 incredibly bad. In my opinion the pollution is by far the biggest damper on the quality of life here. If you're an outdoorsy type, you may find the inability to do outdoor activities on most days quite annoying.

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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?

It's in a sub-tropical zone, so it's what you'd expect, but with smog. Summer is extremely hot, humid and rainy. There are about 2-3 weeks during the Fall that are very pleasant. Winters are mild (you may need a heavy coat one week out of the year), but January-March is EXTREMELY polluted. You will not see the sun for weeks. Spring is like summer-lite.

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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 don't have kids, but I have heard great things about the American school here.

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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?

Many families with small children have nannies. They are very affordable.

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Expat Life:

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

At the consulate I think there are about 100 families, but because everyone is dispersed throughout the city it can be difficult to meet each other.

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2. Morale among expats:

I think it's just average. It's hard to get a vibe for the morale as a group because everyone is so spread out.

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

If you are single or a couple without kids, and you like to go out a lot, then you will find the nightlife great...there are tons of bars and clubs from which to choose. If you have school-aged children, then you also may find Guangzhou enjoyable...it seems there are lots of activities for school-aged children, and these families seem to have a close bond with other families, both within and outside the consulate community. I think couples who aren't into the bar/club scene and those with small children have the biggest challenge finding a 'niche' in this huge city, with frankly little to do except go out to eat and drink.

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

I know plenty of gay expats here, and none of them have mentioned being discriminated against. The Chinese as a whole are pretty homophobic, but they are not the type to openly discriminate.

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

Definitely traveling through SE Asia... Flights to Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, etc. are all relatively short and inexpensive from Guangzhou. In fact, going to these countries is sometimes cheaper than taking a trip in China. As for China, hiking the Great Wall and visiting Zhangjiajie Park were major highlights. Unfortunately, with the pollution as bad as it is, seeing any sights around Guangzhou isn't very exciting.

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

By far the most fun thing around Guangzhou is this water park about an hour north of town. I cannot remember the name, but they have basically funneled a river through a maze of huge concrete gutters to create the greatest water park that could never in a million years be legal in America. You and another brave soul travel together through this maze in a whitewater raft-type inflatable boat whilst wearing a plastic military helmet. The more I explain it the weirder it sounds, but trust me, during the summer get a big group together and go! Chimelong water park is also a fun time---it's very popular, so go on an American weekday holiday (e.g. Labor Day); it's super crowded on the weekends.

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

High quality items are typically hard to find, but it can be done. Finn's sells well-made modern and antique furniture; Foshan is known for its ceramics; hand-cut paper art and other artisan souvenirs can be found at Chen Clan Academy and other historical sites; and you can buy high-end freshwater pearls at the Yakushi pearl factory. However, the vast majority of items in the many markets across the city are total crap; that said, you should definitely go to all these markets, if nothing else just to see it all! And take recommendations from other expats... while most of the stuff is low-quality, some products are decent, and many expats have already established their favorite 'pearl guy' or 'silverware lady,' so definitely ask others for business cards before venturing out to a market.

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

The best 'local' advantage to Guangzhou is its proximity to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is just a two hour train ride away and provides an awesome mesh of local culture and a cosmopolitan feel. I recommend numerous weekend trips! Guangzhou is also a good location for cheap flights throughout SE Asia. Guangzhou itself is just...meh.

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9. Can you save money?

Absolutely. Even if you travel extensively, you will be able to save money.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Absolutely not. The air pollution is way too bad to ever want to come back.

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

heavy winter clothes and any inclination to compare this to the West, despite the fact that at first glance it will probably look somewhat familiar to you.

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3. But don't forget your:

VPN account (go ahead and get it before you come...you will absolutely need it to access Netflix, Hulu, NY Times, etc.); patience in large crowds; umbrella and rain boots; heavy duty PM 2.5-blocking pollution mask if you aren't willing to risk it (note: you will look like Darth Vader and people will gawk and take lots of photos of you--some people would do that anyways so don't worry too much about it); clothes and shoes, unless you don't mind shopping online--most clothes here are poor quality and are definitely not sized for the Western physique. Any Western brands here will likely be more expensive to buy here than in the US.

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