Guangzhou, China Report of what it's like to live there - 08/23/14
Personal Experiences from Guangzhou, China
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, previous experiences in Japan and the U.K.
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?
The East Coast of the U.S. - depending on the flights and connections, it usually winds up being an eighteen to twenty-hour trip. Connections are usually in Japan or on the West Coast of the U.S. (San Francisco or LA).
3. How long have you lived here?
Two years, from 2011 to 2013.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
A two-year tour with the U.S. Foreign Service.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
There are a number of different housing locations. Since the move to the new Consulate, all of the locations I've seen have extremely nice apartments in well-appointed buildings. If you stay at the Canton Residences, you'll get weekly cleaning and a free breakfast buffet. Everyone I knew seemed pretty happy with their living arrangements once the old consulate tower closed, and people were moved out. Commute time can vary, but they've tried very hard to get everyone closer to the NCC. A lot of families were living on Ersha Island, which is right near the American school and a bit more suburban/residential feeling. There are also apartments out at Golden Lake, which is great if you want to be a ways out of town, but it makes for a lengthy commute to get into town for work, shopping, et cetera. If you're single or don't have kids, I'd probably recommend trying to avoid Golden Lake, if possible.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can get just about anything if you're willing to pay. Cheese is expensive, as are Western cereals. There are a number of foreign food shops locally, and more down in Hong Kong, but it doesn't always come cheap. Some specific brands or specialty items had to be ordered via Amazon. Soda options were pretty much limited to Coke, Coke Zero or 7-Up.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Cleaning supplies, any particular, non-perishable Western food you really love (anything for cooking Mexican food, for instance), and that's really about it. Maybe more soda that isn't of the Coke/Coke Zero/Sprite variety. A lot of people shipped alcohol, although you can get that kind of thing locally, but it's a bit more expensive.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Most of the American stuff- McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway. The cost is usually about the same as the U.S. or a bit less. Starbucks is a bit more expensive. There are a number of Chinese fast food chains, as well, which are usually cheap, and of course street food, which is very inexpensive. Personally, I never got sick from it, but use some caution and good common sense if you're going the street food route.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
I don't remember having huge issues with insects, actually. I think people occasionally found roaches, but that's about it.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO. The timing of deliveries can vary pretty wildly, because the DPO is routed through Hong Kong, but it was a really nice option to have for sure. My mother once mailed me a postcard through China Post from Xian, and it finally got to Guangzhou about a month and a half after she had finished her visit.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available and very inexpensive. I paid my ayi (housekeeper) about 115 RMB per day, which is around US$20. She also received a month's salary bonus at Chinese New Year and severance pay when I left post. Most people find their ayis through the Consulate grapevine, and I don't think there were more than one or two people at post who didn't have one. They'll do everything from watch your kids to cook for you to clean your apartment, depending on what you need. They'll also do your shopping, if you so desire.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Most of the apartment buildings have their own gyms that are free to residents. The Consulate also has a small gym, but the NCC wasn't open when I was there, so I don't know how large or well-equipped it is. A number of people had memberships at local gyms, which they said were reasonably-priced. There are also a number of options for personal trainers.
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?
China is very cash-based. I bought a TV and had to bring a giant stack of RMB to the store to pay for it. I used ATMs with no problems, but stores will almost never accept U.S. credit cards. You can use your credit cards in Hong Kong.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
For Christians, there are Catholic and LDS services for sure, and I think some Protestant services, as well. For Jews, there's a Chabad locally, although the primary language of interaction there is Hebrew, and the word is that it's not super welcoming, in part because of language barriers and in part because it's really geared towards the transient, Israeli business population that floods the city a few times a year for the Canton Fairs. It's also Orthodox, so if that's not what you're into, you're kind of out of luck. There are both Orthodox and Liberal Jewish congregations in Hong Kong; the Liberal community in particular is very warm and welcoming to people coming down from Guangzhou, although you usually need to make a weekend of it if you're going for Shabbat or holiday services.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
The more, the better. The language barrier was one of the biggest obstacles to getting to know local people, in my opinion. While people do speak some English in Guangzhou, having Mandarin or Cantonese will make your life much, much easier. Chinese people are always thrilled to meet foreigners who make an effort to speak Chinese, and I've found my Mandarin to come in handy even after leaving China. If you can't get language before coming to post, I strongly recommend getting a tutor or enrolling in the post language program once you get there. It's very isolating to have zero Chinese, because you need it even for stuff like getting pictures framed or going to the market.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. China in general is not very disability-friendly, unfortunately. Poorly-maintained roads and sidewalks, absence of elevators or ramps, etc. I think it would be really hard for someone with physical disabilities to get around without a lot of frustration.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
"Safe" is a bit relative, given the nature of Chinese traffic, but all are fine. The metro system in particular is excellent, quite new and well-maintained. Trains, buses and taxis are all extremely affordable- the metro costs somewhere between one and two RMB per trip, which comes out to about sixty cents a ride. Taxis are also very cheap, but it can sometimes be hard to flag one down and, once you do, it's a gamble whether your driver will know where he's going (a lot of drivers are recent arrivals from other provinces and so don't know the city very well).
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?
Something smaller and not too nice- Chinese drivers are kind of crazy and lot are very inexperienced, because most people haven't been able to afford cars of their own until the last decade or so. Last I heard, cars needed to be made within the last five years. I didn't actually own a car while I was in Guangzhou and got around fine, but it can make your life easier to have one.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
"High speed" is very, very relative in China. The internet is, of course, heavily censored, so accessing a variety of major websites (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, the New York Times and others) requires a VPN, which you'll need to set up before arriving. Accessing Chinese sites is usually quick, but foreign websites take a while to load. I would save all of my system updates and do them while traveling to Hong Kong or elsewhere. All apartments have internet access, so far as I know, but it tends to mysteriously cut out during times of political significance (Party congress, for instance). The internet situation in China was one of the single most frustrating and morale-killing aspects of my time there.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I bought a China Unicom sim card (pay as you go) shortly after arriving in Guangzhou, and it worked fine for me. I just stuck it in my U.S. cell phone, which was unlocked, and had no real issues. You could get a contract phone, and everyone is provided a phone by the Consulate, but when I was there, ELOs were given kind of janky Nokias, so if you wanted any kind of a smartphone, you needed to provide your own.
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?
I don't believe incoming pets need to be quarantined. Many people acquired cats and dogs while we were there, and they didn't seem to have a problem finding reliable veterinary care or people to watch them. It's worth keeping in mind that while getting pets into China is relatively straightforward, getting them out can be problematic. A lot of countries bar the importation of animals from China or require lengthy quarantines, and the Chinese government only allows you to export one animal per diplomatic passport. There's also not a huge amount of green space in Guangzhou, which could be hard for larger, more active dogs.
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?
My impression is that there weren't a lot of options, although while I was there one person was working at one of the international schools, and another had started a home business as a personal trainer. Almost everyone else who wanted to work was working at the Consulate in some capacity.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
The Consulate charity group was quite active at setting up volunteer opportunities, particularly at a local school for people with disabilities. I'm sure there are other options out there, as well.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business at work, anything goes in public. China does a real number on clothes and shoes, for some reason- I had multiple pairs of shoes just disintegrate on me, and I wasn't the only one. On the bright side, you can get some nice, new suits made for yourself while you're there.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
It's China- go ahead and assume all of your electronics are compromised and that your activities are being monitored. In terms of crime, Guangzhou is actually a really safe city, in my experience- I went all over town and never really felt unsafe. Crimes of opportunity do happen, things like pickpocketing or purse theft if you leave your purse on the floor or unwatched in a restaurant, but I never heard of anyone having more serious problems. That being said, if some kind of incident occurs that draws a crowd, things can go bad very quickly. There were intense anti-Japan protests while I was there, and while I personally didn't have any problems, a large mob of protesters did some fairly significant damage to a large hotel that housed part of the Japanese Consulate and a lot of Americans visiting the area. Whether or not protests like this are quashed tends to depend on whether or not they serve some kind of government interest.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
See my comments about pollution, which is severe and absolutely impacts your health while you're there. Tuberculosis is endemic to China, and two people contracted it while I was there. Other people I knew discovered health problems upon their return to the States, usually due to contamination of the food and water supply. Most of the potential health problems are things that will come up long-term, as opposed to manifesting while you're there. For medical care, there are a couple of clinics with foreign-trained doctors, but for anything very serious, you'll need to go to Hong Kong. The medical unit was severely under par while I was there- there was one Chinese nurse and one EFM nurse, and they did their best, but they simply didn't have the facilities to handle much beyond the most basic problems. This may have changed with the NCC move. There are regular Regional Medical Officer visits, but those appointments get booked up very quickly.
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?
Terrible. Southern China is home to a huge number of factories that are regularly pumping pollutants into both the air and the water. I had a smoker's cough for months after returning to the United States, despite never having smoked a cigarette in my life, and there were widespread problems with severe, recurring headaches, respiratory problems and the like around post. I would be extremely hesitant to expose small children to the air in Guangzhou (or any post in China, really) for a prolonged period of time. Personally, I was aware of the pollution issues before I arrived, but it's easy to underestimate just how severely they can impact your day to day life.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot and wet during summer, cool and wet in winter. In the fall, there's usually a few weeks of really great, pleasant weather, and the time around Chinese New Year was also very comfortable (and enjoyable, since the city usually empties out at that time). Guangzhou has frequent, very sudden, very intense thunderstorms- it can be perfectly nice out, and the next thing you know, the dark clouds turn up and it starts pouring. Bring a good umbrella!
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I have no personal experience with the international schools, but the people I knew who had kids seemed pretty pleased with them. I heard some rumblings that the academic environment at the American school was very high-pressure and intense, which didn't fit the needs of some families, and also that there had been a couple instances of bullying that weren't really resolved, but that was quite a while ago now and may have been resolved. Aside from the American school, there's also Utahloy, which attracts a lot of Aussies, and the British school. Some families also opted to send their kids to local schools, which seemed to work out well, though you should be prepared for some cultural differences.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
Again, no personal experience, but labor in general in China is very inexpensive, and lots of families with young kids had ayis (housekeepers) who cleaned and also looked after their children during the day. These arrangements varied in effectiveness depending on the ayi, obviously, so it's probably a good idea to ask around when you get to post and see if anyone has recommendations.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, although I'm not sure about the details. I believe there's soccer and swimming through Utahloy, and probably other options around town.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Medium-sized, but I think morale is generally okay. Guangzhou isn't Shanghai or Beijing, and the expat community is smaller. Within the Consulate, I think people were generally happy there, and you get good at making your own fun, but China can be an exceptionally frustrating place to live at times, and I think almost everyone had periods when they were particularly down in the dumps. The best thing you can do for yourself when that happens is try to get out regularly, do some traveling and explore Asia a bit.
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?
Travel, go to the markets to buy pearls, pottery or other crafts, get together for game nights, go out for hot pot or other dinner options with friends or to trivia night at one of the local expat bars. Some people played in a band while I was there, which they really enjoyed. Groups of ELOs organized day-long boat trips out of Hong Kong several times, where you rent a boat, bring your own food and booze, go out to the islands and spend the day swimming. The positive side of Guangzhou is that you're making a good differential, and things like eating out aren't very expensive, so it's very easy to make your own fun. The huge ELO community is one of the best things about the post, I think.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think it depends a lot on what you make of it. Generally, I'd say good for all, although as mentioned earlier, I would have real concerns about exposing kids to the environmental issues (food safety, air and water pollution, et cetera) in China for a prolonged period. I think anyone can find a way to enjoy themselves here, but life in China can be frustrating and difficult at times. Single women tend to be really frustrated in terms of the dating scene (or, more accurately, complete absence thereof), and while single men have way more dating options, there are a host of potential issues that come with dating locally if you're working for the USG. That being said, there's a huge ELO community at post that are active and do all kinds of activities, and particularly in the Consular section, I made a lot of close friendships there. That alone made the tour worth it for me.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Somewhat unexpectedly, yes. There are a couple of gay bars and clubs and what I gathered to be a pretty active LGBT community. Hong Kong is also nearby and has a very active LGBT community. The LGBT folks I knew at post seemed very happy there, and I didn't hear of many issues in this regard.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes, yes and yes. Racial problems are the most obvious- the locals are not fans of Africans and, to a certain extent, Middle Easterners, so people with darker skin can have problems finding cabs, getting good service, etc. Asian-Americans will often be assumed to be Chinese, which can sometimes be advantageous (less staring!) and sometimes exceptionally frustrating. Most of the people I knew at post who encountered these issues learned to roll with the punches. Guangzhou's a relatively cosmopolitan place, so you may not get as much staring and general incredulity at your foreignness there as you will if you venture away from the big cities. Expect people to try to rip you off and charge you more for goods and services because you're foreign- all you can do is try to haggle down and smile, because that's just the way things are here.
Religious prejudices are expressed a bit differently, but there are constant tensions between China's Uiyghur population, which is Muslim, and the government. I don't know to what extent that manifests locally, though. If you're Jewish, expect to hear a constant litany about how smart and good with money you must be. The Chinese intend this to be a compliment, but it can be uncomfortable, because most of them don't have much of an understanding of what those stereotypes have met historically. Gender prejudices are usually much less overt, but if you're female and single, you'll get a lot of questions about when you're getting married, why you're not married, etc.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Traveling within China and around Southeast Asia. The Guangzhou airport is good-sized and has connecting flights all over the place, and if you can't find a flight out of Guangzhou, you can probably find one leaving Hong Kong. I had a fair amount of experiences with East Asia, but very few with Southeast Asia, and Guangzhou was a great base for traveling around the region. Hong Kong is an amazing city, and I miss having such easy access to it. As for Guangzhou itself, it has a ton of markets and a fair number of concerts and other cultural events, often with very inexpensive ticket prices. I was able to see Yoyo Ma perform for something like fifteen dollars, and the Liverpool Football Club also played an exhibition match while I was there, again for about ten or fifteen bucks a ticket. Guangzhou also has a lot of good restaurants, and there only seemed to be more opening when I left. Learning Chinese, while difficult, was really rewarding and has really paid off even after leaving China.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Markets are always good, and Guilin was one of the highlights of my time there. Get out and see China- it's a huge country that's changing so rapidly, the places you want to visit may be paved over and replaced with a shopping mall tomorrow. A group of us went to the Harbin Ice Festival one year, and while it was a pricey trip, it was probably my favorite trip that I took within China during my time there. I can't recommend it highly enough. Also get out and see Southeast Asia- Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia are all close by and well worth visiting. Even Australia is only a nine-hour flight, which isn't bad compared to the time it would usually take you to get there from the States.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Paintings, pottery, pearls and other handicrafts. If you go to Beijing, you can still buy some older, Communist-era propaganda posters and other such things.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Saving money, if you don't spend it all on travel. It's a great place from which to explore Southeast Asia, and it's only two hours from Hong Kong by train, which is one of its biggest advantages. Pottery and pearls can be purchased very inexpensively, and picture framing can be done for pennies on the dollar. Tailor-made clothing is also inexpensive but the fit and quality of garments can vary wildly. Considering the hardship differential, Guangzhou is pretty good living.
10. Can you save money?
Absolutely. I traveled a lot and bought a fair amount of keepsakes, and I still managed to sock away a fair amount of money with very few problems. If you have kids, it may be slightly more difficult, but I think it's definitely still possible.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
China is a full-on experience. There are so many people almost everywhere you go, and with such a different language and culture, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. I became a more aggressive person when I was there, mostly because you have to be, or you'll end up constantly being shoved out of the way, cut in front of in lines, et cetera. I didn't anticipate that, though, and it was a bit of a shock when I realized that it had happened. Likewise, I wish I had known just how much of an impact the pollution would have on my day to day life. I thought I understood how bad it was, but even if you're intellectually aware of it, it's hard to fully grasp what the practical implications are until you're living there.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Probably. Guangzhou wasn't an easy tour, both because of the workload and the local culture, but I learned a lot about myself there and made some really great friends. Learning Mandarin has been extremely helpful, and like it or hate it, China is a fascinating place that's changing extremely rapidly. For the differential you get, the Guangzhou lifestyle is pretty great, and if you can do visa work there, you can do it pretty much anywhere. I think in a lot of ways, it set me up for success in my following tours and while I wouldn't call myself a "China hand," I have a lot of fond memories of the place and the people.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Expectations of personal space, love of orderly waiting in lines, squeamishness about bodily fluids (people spit constantly in China, despite major campaigns to try and curb the practice).
4. But don't forget your:
Positive attitude, Chinese dictionary and haggling skills.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Last Train Home,
"To Live," and
The Last Emperor (more Beijing centered, but still essential China viewing, I think)
Realistically, Chinese cinema is vast and diverse, with far too many options to list here. Particularly if you're studying Mandarin, there are a host of great movies to check out, some about southern China and some not. My advice would be to explore and see what you like, as Chinese (not to mention Hong Kong) cinema has all kinds of options. More generally, Foshan, about an hour outside of Guangzhou, was Bruce Lee's ancestral home, so there are always his movies, as well.
6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
These are more general China reading than Guangzhou specifically, but all are excellent and well worth your time.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China,
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China,
Lost on Planet China: One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation,
Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language,
American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China,
Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now,
A Comrade Lost and Found: A Beijing Story,
Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion.
7. Do you have any other comments?
China's a place that really gets under your skin, or it was for me. While I thought when I left that I would never serve there again, the longer I'm away, the more I find myself considering it. It's not an easy place to serve, for a host of reasons, but it can be hugely rewarding in a lot of ways.