Shenyang, China Report of what it's like to live there - 11/02/13
Personal Experiences from Shenyang, China
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
First experience as a foreign service family. We lived in Beijing in 2005 for about a year.
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?
DC. Usually it's a 14-hour flight with one stop-over in South Korea if you have a choice.
3. How long have you lived here?
Almost 1 year.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
You either live in the city in 2 hotel/ housing places, or out in the suburbs. In the suburbs where I live, it can be very nice with lots of trees and surrounding nature, but many of the houses (mansions really) in the complexes are not occupied. It can be a bit eerie. Thankfully the small area in the complex in which we live is occupied.
But ANY time you need groceries or even want to go out for dinner, for the most part, you must go into the city which at a minimum is 25 minutes away, making it about an hour roundtrip. Grocery shopping can take hours, and sometimes you need to shop at several different stores to get everything you want. I guess that is the 30% differential kicking in. But happily even in the year we've been here, we find more and more Western products available. Plus we help each other out by picking up items and carpooling into the city. The commute to work is 30 minutes to an hour depending on weather and traffic. There is a shuttle that most of the Embassy staff take.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Fruits and vegetables are good and cheap so is pork and chicken. Western products like sour cream, butter, cheese, tomato sauces etc can be easy to find, (until you can't find it anywhere!) but more expensive. Say goodbye to just running to store to pick up MANY things. You have to be creative. So far I've made homemade pizza dough, chocolate sauce, ricotta, sourcream, peanut butter sauce, corn tortillas, pita bread, falafel, etc. It's been fun. Thank goodness for DPO for lots of things. I don't trust most of the local snacks. I'm not sure what is in them.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I would include more of our favorite items in our HHE. Or do a consumable shipment. That would include a large list of liquids that won't go through DPO. Probably a full shopping trip at Trader Joe's too. Most everything else you can ship, though you have to take the seasons into consideration. Don't ship chocolate chips in the summer, or things that can't freeze in the winter.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are plenty of places to eat, mostly Chinese, and they are good. There are some Western restaurants, most are just okay; truly you can find all kinds of food here, but it's not really a foodie sort of town.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not too much - mosquitos in the summer, flies etc.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Easy. DPO, and pouch and we order plenty online. Takes about 2 weeks (early as 8 days, and sometimes 3 weeks) we only get DPO mail 2 times a week.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Plenty of help is available. Full time ayi will cost close to US$500 a month. I find the work ethic is good.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Out here in the suburbs there are gyms in the clubhouses in our compounds. That being said, they have silly hours (like 9-5), then they change their hours, but you don't know about it, then it is closed for some reason. Ah China. Really this is typical for the whole country. Many things are incomprehensible. But that's what makes life interesting, right? Maybe it's why we chose this career path in the first place.
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?
Check with your bank to find out where you can withdraw money without a fee. This is a cash society. Very few places take Western credit cards here in Shenyang. Bring lots of checks you can cash at the consulate.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Not sure. I know there is a Catholic Church and a couple of different religous groups of people get together on Sundays to celebrate in their homes.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I know very little. I wish I had studied more. The locals have such a strong accent, even the Embassy staff can hardly understand them. A basic knowledge would be great, but I manage to get around. The Chinese don't really expect you to know their language for the most part.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Probably. Just like most of the cities outside of the U.S., there are not many ramps, smooth sidewalks, or easy access to elevators.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
High speen trains are great for getting out of Shenyang. Taxis are safe, but all driving is a little crazy in China, so beware. It is affordable, but when you live in the suburbs, you must have a car. If you hire a car, it will be a minumum of US$40 to pick you up, then drive you home. That gets very expensive when you wait for your car for 3 months. When you first get here, before you car arrives, the consulate lets you have a car one time a week to do what you want, (mostly to get groceries!) which is really wonderful. Unless of course you live here now, and have wonderful consulate neighbors that carpool with you to the city.
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?
Any car. If you live in the suburbs, you will have to have a car. BIgger is nicer for car pooling!
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It is available, pretty cheap, but hugely slow and unreliable. You will have to get a VPN if you want to access all of those sites the Chinese have blocked.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
It's so cheap here, and the Embassy gives you a cell phone when you first get here to get started. Most people have local phones and some have an unlocked iphone.
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 pets. I think it is becoming more and more of an ordeal to ship pets anywhere, and getting very expensive. I don't know of any kennels, but I am pretty sure there are vets.
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. We can't work in China, only at the consulate. There seem to be jobs there.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Many expats are involved in some organizations like supporting and helping orphans, foster children, etc.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Similar to DC. Some of the women really dress up Chinese style.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
No, there are pickpockets all over the world, but I never feel unsafe here.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
We don't have a doctor at post, just a nurse, so you have to go to the one Western Doctor's office to get a prescription. It is not cheap and the office is located in a typical Chinese hospital which is a little scary. You will be medivac'd to Beijing if necessary. This can be alarming to consider.
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?
Air quality can be terrible. It can also be fine - it just depends on the time of year. Lots of coal smells before the government turns on the heat on November 1st but not as bad as Beijing. It is ranked 34 in China, with an average Air Quality Index (AQI) of 102.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Nice and seasonal, then in mid November it starts to get really cold, then colder, and it never fluctuates. The Siberian weather system settles in and doesn't leave until April. There are no changes in the middle of winter. In January, the coldest month, it is below zero (F) every day. That being said, it's not cold indoors, and out in the suburbs, there is no wind - you just bundle up and stay indoors. There are some places nearby that some people have gone to to ski or sled.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are 2 international schools. One is in the city and has been around for a while. My kids don't go there. The other is in the suburbs, in Segovia, where we live. It is a QSI school. It is mostly attended by the younger grades since it just opened its doors in fall 2012. At this point it is pretty small, but growing. Our kids are in kindergarten and first grade. We love their teacher (they are in the same classroom), it is like having the benefits of home school, - they all move at their own pace. I couldn't imagine a better experience for my kids at this age.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Not sure about SYIS. QSI would work with you gladly.
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?
Preschools are available but expensive. I am not sure about daycare but ayi's (domestic help) are available and pretty affordable.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Haven't fully investigated this yet, but I have heard of soccer, there is ice skating, and there is more than one complex where kids can take all kinds of classes including fencing and karate.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
A couple of hundred. Morale for the most part is great.
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?
Go out with friends for dinner. Dinner parties, lots of holiday events. There is Bird Island, big outlet malls, plenty of indoor play areas for little kids, skiing/tubing in the winter, a couple of large parks with rides, some museums, a zoo, an aquarium, a tiger park, etc- Chinese style.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Depends on the person, attitude, and expectations. Though this city has 8 million people, it is not a cultural hub. Western restaurants (for the most part) are just pale imitations, and other cuisines are just okay. The Chinese food is good, but don't expect haute cuisine here. I think plenty most families, couples, and singles, can be happy here,- completely depends on their attitude.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I think it is okay.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Most Chinese people seem very open to Westerners. They will take pictures of you, especially kids all the time. They have no problem coming up and touching your children, which can be alarming at first, but mostly you feel like their intention is positive. It is nice to be in a country where Americans are well received.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Friends. It's certainly not a large post so it tends to be a close knit community. The consular folk are wonderful, with lots of ideas on things to do. For the most part, people have terrific attitudes. There is enough of an expat community when you want to venture out too. There are 2 R&R's, and lots of places to visit. There is very little crime.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
I am enjoying the silk painting classes, and tightness of the consular community. Although there is not that much to do in Shenyang, we seem to do enough. There are lots of different markets, good Chinese food at good prices, and some fancy hotels being built, and an increasing Western restaurant selection. The high speed trains keeps adding new lines so visiting other cities is becoming quick and affordable.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Dirt markets that sell antiques (are they real?, who knows). It is harder to get antiques through customs these days. Carpets, unique musical instraments, knick knacks, tea sets, and framing is very inexpensive.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
You can save money - it's a nice differential. Great attitude among most of the expats- foreign service folk picked it for a reason (a stretch, a job, language, differential) and have a great attitude. Lots of Americans and other expats work at Michelin and BMW and are happy to have a new living experience. The winters are long and very cold, but it is definitely a seasonal city.
10. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Just that feeling that you are in a sea of Chinese people. It can make you feel lonely. Lack of English in many many places. Culture shock.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes it was our number 1 choice for many reasons, and having lived in Beijng before was helpful. It is hard though, don't get me wrong. Being prepared for that is immensely helpful.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Western expectations, desire for clean cities (it is dirty here!), expectations that things should work consistently, any connection to American culture.
4. But don't forget your:
VPN, extremely warm clothes, Apple TV or think about getting AFN!
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
I would more recommend books about China, rather than this area. One of my favorite books is "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" by Jung Chang, and "River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.)
" by Peter Hessler.
7. Do you have any other comments?
This post is hard for many reasons: long cold winters, lack of Western anemities, long treks for groceries if you are out in the 'burbs, more dirt and more pollution if you live in the city, but this has been a great post for us, mainly due to the wonderful community and attitude of the expats, and job fulfillment. It is the real China, for the good and the bad.