Guangzhou, China Report of what it's like to live there - 07/28/09

Personal Experiences from Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou, China 07/28/09

Background:

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

I have lived in Mexico, Italy, and France.

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2. How long have you lived here?

Have served there one year, have one more year to go.

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3. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

People usually travel through Hong Kong, Beijing, or Tokyo. Travel time is at least 15 - 24 hours, depending on where you are in the U.S.

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

Foreign Service.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

There are three current housing locations. Most people live in the same building as the consulate, which is housed on a lush, quiet, and very charming island smack dab in the middle of the old district of Guangzhou. Families with children live at Oakwood on another island further down the Pearl River - not as charming, no stores, but the apartments are spacious, there's a pool, a grocery store, room service (and feels very much like a resort in Orlando). As the consulate will be moving locations in a few years, there is new housing at a new, third location (New World) which is in the middle of the soon-to-be new financial center of Guangzhou. There are rumors of a City Super (groceries) moving in close to the complex, and stores and shops abound. Commutes depend on where you live and work, as the consulate is on one island, the consular section across the city, and other offices scattered in hotels. Commutes for most people are 20 - 45 min.

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

Expensive, unless you go native. Food safety is a legitimate, serious concern in China, so most of us drink imported milk, eat imported meats, yogurt, cheese, etc. If you buy the same stuff that you buy in the U.S., you will pay 5X the price. A box of cereal is $6 - 10 USD per box, small boxes of milk are 3 USD, etc. We have one store that approximates a version of WalMart, but it's expensive and has limited selections. There are big grocery chains here; people who brave these stores know to avoid saturdays and sundays when it's literally an ocean of people.

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

More shoes, OTC drugs, cold meds, hygiene products. You cannot find Advil, Tylenol, or aspirin anywhere in China.

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

McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, good Indian, Vietnamese... you'll find almost anything you want here; it might just taste "not quite right."

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

A few roaches here and there, but nothing like Florida or Louisiana.

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Daily Life:

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

FPO, pouch. Mail takes a long time to get here. Count on 4-6 weeks.

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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 plentiful, reliable, and affordable.

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

Yes. The consulate has a gym, so does Oakwood.

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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?

This is a cash culture. You learn to carry lots of cash with you all the time. Reliable ATMs can be found in malls or in banks.

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

Yes, I know of two English-language churches, one is Catholic I believe.

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

If you live above the consulate, you have access to AFN, which has many stations from the US. If you live at Oakwood, you get the grab-bag of languages: Chinese, Japanese, English, French... there are a few stations from Australia.

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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?

Aside from a few servers in the Western fast food restaurants in Tian Yu (the current financial center), nobody speaks English. Many don't speak Mandarin, either.

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

Guangzhou is a mixed bag. While many little shops don't have electricity, and people still bathe in fountains, the roads are wide, bridges well-built, and most sidewalks pretty well maintained.

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Transportation:

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

Very cheap. Taxis vary from rust buckets to nice and comfortable, but they all charge the same fee:1 USD for the first 2-3 kilometers.

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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?

Check with GSO, honestly. Regulations change here every month. Just because someone could bring a car here last winter doesn't mean the same car would be allowed now. The Chinese government restricts the use of diplomatic vehicles to a radius in Guangzhou proper, so a lot of people don't bring cars. The roads are well-maintained, however.

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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?

High speed internet is hard to find. You can buy what the Chinese call "high speed internet," but if you expect it to be the same as cable internet in the US, you will be disappointed. The internet is frequently interrupted, and download and upload speeds are very slow. Internet costs about 50 USD a month.

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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?

You can buy a cell phone cheaply on the local market and use top-up cards.

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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?

It's easier to fly into Guangzhou directly from California. Avoid Beijing, where you will have to navigate customs. Honestly, bringing animals into Guangzhou was a nightmare for us, despite months of planning, etc. The best is to book a flight, book your pets on the flight, hope the flights aren't cancelled, and avoid flying through Beijing or Hong Kong. Once here, you can do the 1-month quarantine in your home.

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

There is one vet that speaks English, and people have had a mixed response to him. We've had great luck with him, but he's expensive -- and a few others won't ever go back to see him.

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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?

No. There is no bilateral agreement for spousal employment. If you come here with a job, good. If not, good luck.

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

Dress code at the consulate is professional. In public, most people wear jeans and dark clothing. Not many in shorts.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Very unhealthy. The air often smells like burnt particulates, you can't see buildings that are a few city blocks away, and you rarely see the sun.

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2. What immunizations are required each year?

There's a whole slew of them. For up-to-date info, check travel.state.gov

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

None.

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4. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Again, a mixed bag. You can buy meds, but I have no idea if they are real. There are several clinics that are good for common problems, but anyone with serious medical issues goes to Hong Kong to get treated.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Guangzhou is hot, steamy, and wet. Winter is a little cooler.

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Schools & Children:

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

I have no experience with the schools, but my colleagues are very happy with their children's school experience.

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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?

Preschool and day care are available at Oakwood. Most families hire an ayi (household help) who can double as a nanny. A typical ayi will earn 100 - 125 RMB a day depending on the needs of the family, which works out to about 15 - 20 USD a day.

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

Yes.

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Expat Life:

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

I hear there are about 5000 Americans who live in Guangzhou, although you don't see them during the day.

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2. Morale among expats:

Again, mixed bag. Guangzhou is ok, just boring.

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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?

Bars, clubs, restaurants, massage, shopping, Hong Kong.

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

Guangzhou has some bars, restaurants, and nightclubs that singles visit frequently. Families don't have much to do here, except walk around a crowded park or play on the playground or pool at Oakwood. Couples can go out to eat, shop at malls or at crowded Chinese markets.

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

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

From experience, if you are not racially Chinese, you will be stared at, followed, talked to, and have people taking your picture while you shop, ride in a taxi, etc. If you are not Caucasian, the Chinese will have difficulty in accepting that you are an American. If you are of Asian descent, the Chinese will expect you to speak fluent Chinese.

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

Guangzhou doesn't offer much as a city. You can eat well, get massages, and shop at the large, wholesale markets. That's it. Movie theaters play censored movies, there are very few bookstores, and the city is industrial, big, and grimy. There are a few museums and temples, but after a week-end, you've seen it all. To have fun, people go to Hong Kong, which is less than two hours away by train.

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

Pottery, scrolls, jade, pearls, purses, etc.

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9. Can you save money?

Absolutely. Unless you go to Hong Kong.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

No. Guangzhou is comfortable, the housing is amazing, the people are nice, the food is good... but honestly, there is just nothing to do. The city has no scenic spots, the time change has been a challenge, and the difficulty in purchasing certain items are the big drawbacks. If you are looking for anything specific or unusual -- and you are not a native Cantonese or Mandarin-speaker -- good luck. Even if you excel at Mandarin, you will have difficulty communicating and understanding what is said to you. The pollution is very bad, the weather is very hot and very humid from May to October. People who work here leave Guangzhou a lot: Thailand, Hong Kong, and Vietnam are some favorite destinations. This is a hard-to-fill post for a reason. Don't be fooled by its "developed" facade.

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

winter clothes.

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3. But don't forget your:

medicines and sunglasses.

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

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

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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7. Do you have any other comments?

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