Guangzhou, China Report of what it's like to live there - 11/19/15
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?
First with the foreign service but have lived elsewhere
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, although we haven't gone back. There are too many good travel opportunities in the area. Every chance we get we pick one and go there instead.
3. How long have you lived here?
About a year
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Government, working at US Consulate
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Most families live at the Canton Towers or on Ersha Island. Singles are in the W, Ascott, and the other Oakwood downtown. Commutes are short. We live on the island and a bus takes us to work everyday, 10 mins max. The apartments are nice, not gigantic, but plenty for a family. The island is quite beautiful with plenty of parks. There are tons of families here so you'll have plenty to do if you have young kids.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There are small stores in most of the family housing complexes. People use Amazon Prime Pantry to get other things they can't find. Prices are high. You have to buy imported meat, chicken, and milk, so be prepared to pay $10/lb for hamburger. There is a Costco-style supermarket where you can get some good deals.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
If you like booze, bring it. You can't get any decent wine unless you want to pay out the nose. The American Employee Association will periodically import booze from Australia.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
The food is pretty good if you like Cantonese. There are several restaurants that cater to Americans and expats near the Consulate. There are some quite good options for Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian. It's a pretty big city, so you can find lots of things to try. If you go to a local place it's going to seem cheap. For those that cater to Westerners, you're going to pay U.S. prices.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
None really. The odd cockroach here and there, but they do a good job of pest control.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO or pouch
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Good and relatively cheap. We have a half-time Ayi that costs US$400 a month. Depending on your needs, you can get a full-time, live-in, whatever you want. They will work very hard and often have been working for consulate families for years.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Housing areas have small gyms
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?
Everyone uses cash from the Consulate. Even if my credit card worked, I wouldn't use it.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Depends on where you go. In Southern China, people are speaking mostly Cantonese, so Mandarin is their 2nd language, and English often the 3rd. The third language doesn't get quite as much love, so having some Chinese can really help. Even with a 2/2 in Chinese, you'll feel illiterate much of the time, but luckily most signs are also in English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I don't think so. It's a very modern city and most of it has been built in the last 10 years. The area around the Consulate is basically all brand new. It is not going to be as easy as living in the U.S., but I think it would be manageable.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, we take the bus and taxis all the time. A taxi will cost you a few bucks to get most places. The bus is 30 cents. The bus system is really convenient to get to a lot of places the metro doesn't take you.
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?
Only about 50% of people bring a car and you don't really need one. Taxis are cheap and easy to get unless it's raining. Uber is here and also very cheap. It can be handy to have a car to hit the big-box grocery store or go to the airport. Other than that, you can easily get around with a combo of taxi, metro, and trains.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
No. Nothing here is high-speed, even at the Consulate. You often can't stream Netflix at certain times of the day. At our complex, the internet is so slow that it's basically unusable at night when a lot of people are home. It's decent enough to check email, but you couldn't do anything substantive on it. It's provided for "free" at your residence. You'll need a VPN to get to anything you'd actually want to read. The VPNs often go down for mysterious reasons. Some housing complexes started providing a free VPN.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
China Unicom. Cheapest plans are about $16 a month with 4G data of 700MB. They go up from there depending on how much data you want. Don't overspend on data, the internet barely works in China for the sites you'll want to be on. All "foreign websites" are slow to the point of being useless sometimes, or blocked altogether.
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?
We don't have one, but yes they need to be quarantined. Not aware of either vets or kennels. I think people just band together to take care of other peoples' pets when they are out of town.
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?
None, not even adequate jobs at the consulate. The EPAP program is a joke here. The only jobs for EFMs are as consular assistants. There are quite a few couples that choose to have one spouse live in HK for employment reasons.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are a few, but not sure of details.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Biz casual. Shorts in the summer when you're not at work. It's pretty casual overall.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
In terms of crime, very little to worry about. It's safe to go out at night, take taxis, let your kids play in the complex.
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. Go to HK unless your life is in danger. Chinese doctors are notoriously bad. HK is plenty close enough to get to when you need an opinion from someone who knows what they are talking about. For anything serious you'll be on medevac to Singapore.
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 pretty bad, but not near as bad as other places in China. In the summer you can often see some sky. In the winter however, you'll definitely notice it.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Probably going to be bad for you with all the pollution and never quite knowing what you're eating
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's very hot and humid in the Summer between about May and September. After that it can be quite pleasant with low humidity but temperatures in the 70s-80s.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Our daughter is at the American school (AISG). Our experience has been generally positive but it's important to note that the school is at least 75% Chinese kids with foreign passports. I think the administration is starting to skew towards the interests of the Chinese parents.
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?
Our daughter initially attended pre-school at Playschool inside the Ascott hotel. It was excellent with plenty of activities and learning opportunities. It's not cheap, but you get what you pay for.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Some soccer, gymnastics, martial arts. You have to go look for it if you want to do it.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The Consulate is pretty big with lots of first and second tour officers in the Consular section. The other consulates in the area are typically small due to the way they run their non-immigrant visas. Very few of them do interviews so they don't have a lot of personnel. There are lots of major multinationals in Guangzhou and they will be living at your complex.
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?
Dinner parties, birthday parties for the kids. Honestly, a lot of people get out of town on the weekends and go to HK or somewhere else.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think it's a better city for couples and families. Based on what I hear at work, I think singles have a tougher time meeting others. There's a pretty sizable expat population in the general area, but far more concentrated in HK and Shenzhen.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
The LGBT community seems pretty active in Guangzhou, led by some really passionate people at the consulate and local community. However, it is China so there are definite concerns for locals.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I'm sure there are, but I don't see it. Americans are often in the bubble, interacting mostly with other members of the community, so you don't experience it as much as someone that is out there alone and unafraid.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Definitely traveling around SE Asia, but there are also a lot of cool things to see within China. That being said, Guangzhou itself is not that exciting. I would liken it to Cleveland. It has everything you could want in a big city, but you wouldn't necessarily make a special trip to go there as a tourist.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The hidden gems really aren't in China. Go to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Borneo. Check all those out and when you're done, then go see some interior China stuff like Guilin.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
You can get custom furniture made, but other than that, there isn't much to buy. You'll spend all your money on getting meat without lead or mercury in it.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The #1 benefit is being close to SE Asia with cheap flights out of Guangzhou or Hong Kong to just about anywhere you'd want to go in this area.
10. Can you save money?
Depends on how much you travel.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
It's pretty much what I expected
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Sure, we've enjoyed it. The community is really good for first/second tour officers because there are tons of people and someone always has something going on.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Tourist passport. The best thing about this post is bumming around SE Asia and the relatively high hardship differential.