Wuhan, China Report of what it's like to live there - 01/21/20
Personal Experiences from Wuhan, China
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. We have also lived in Shenyang and many other cities in China, and Brasilia, Brazil.
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?
We are from the US, and there is a direct flight from Wuhan to San Francisco that is 11-13 hours, depending on the direction. There is also a direct flight from New York. Otherwise, many flights will transfer through Tokyo, Beijing, or Shanghai. It is not terribly hard to get here, but the flight across the Pacific is always long.
3. How long have you lived here?
Three and a half years.
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?
We lived in a serviced apartment in Hankou, which is downtown and about a 15-minute commute to the Consulate. It was a 4-bedroom serviced apartment that was very nice.
We moved out to the "suburbs" to be closer to the international school, and we live in a large house facing a lake.
The consulate has arranged housing at another serviced apartment here close to the international school, and there are also houses and townhouses in a couple different complexes. Other expats live in these houses and townhomes, but most expats live in a variety of sizes of high-rise apartments. They are usually individually owned by landlords, so the quality of the furnishings and décor will vary.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Fresh fruits and vegetables are very inexpensive and very fresh and delicious! There are fruit markets on every block throughout the city, and each neighborhood has several options of vegetables. They are available when they are in season, so while we only have strawberries for a few months, for example, they are amazingly flavorful, especially compared to the ones in the US.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We make most of our food from scratch, and everything we need is easily available. What isn't available at the fruit and vegetable markets is available at Metro (the German version of Costco). There is a big French community, so the international supermarkets have a better variety of cheese than I would have guessed. I miss Reese's peanut butter cups, but can't justify a shipment of those. My kids miss packaged mac and cheese.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
1It is very easy and convenient to have any meal delivered at any time. There are more and more foreign restaurants, though that's not one of the selling points of Wuhan. You can get a good burger at many restaurants. There is an Indian restaurant and several French restaurants, a couple Italian pizzerias. There is a lot of Japanese and Korean food, and of course many options for Chinese cuisine. Our family loves pulled noodles, and there is a shop on practically every block-- wherever there are food shops. All these things are available for delivery.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Nothing out of the ordinary. We use bait for some cockroaches and ants in our kitchen. There are some mosquitoes near the lakes around town, but less in the city and more out by the suburbs.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We get our mail through the Consulate, and it takes two to three weeks. We rarely order things from the US any more, though, because we order the same items from Taobao for 1/2 the price and they are delivered in two days. It only costs a couple dollars to ship something across the city, and it is very convenient (if you can read Chinese or have a friend help you) to arrange a delivery guy to come pick up a package to ship within the country. Actually, I've shipped things internationally using FedEx, and they come to you and pick it up from your location.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Many people hire an ayi to clean the house once a week or so, and it is usually 4-5 USD an hour. We hire an ayi to babysit for about 5 USD an hour. Wuhan doesn't have the long-established expat community of Beijing or Shanghai with a pool of ayis who have worked for expats over the years. It is rare to find an ayi who speaks English or is very accustomed to the way foreigners do things.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are many types of gyms around town. They are not as expensive as Washington DC, but they are not cheap.
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?
Credit cards are NOT widely accepted. There are a few banks (Bank of China, ICBC) that accept foreign debit cards for withdrawal. It is becoming more and more common to pay using Alipay or WeChat pay. In fact, I rarely carry much cash anymore. These apps work best when attached to a Chinese bank account.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There is one local Chinese Christian church that does services in English-- one of the local churches that is approved by the government. There is a mosque in GuangGu with many international worshippers, and while they come from a variety of countries, the common language is usually English.
Otherwise, foreigners may only meet with other foreigners for religious services. There is a foreigner-led Protestant congregation called the Foreign Fellowship that meets near the international school. There is a small LDS group that meets and attends a teleconferenced service.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I came to Wuhan knowing Chinese, and I use it all the time. Most people don't speak English, though younger people have studied it in school. Anything you can learn to say will help you on a daily basis, though if you don't look Chinese, no one expects you to speak it well.
The consulate provides a language tutor for spouses, as do most expat companies There are also classes at the universities around town that some people go take.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Nothing is wheelchair accessible.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes. Very safe, very affordable-- all of the above, plus rental bike shares.
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?
Many cars are made here, so those companies would be easiest to support. I've seen all types of cars here, so I think many brands, even if they're not made here, would be easy to maintain and repair. There is not much crime, so burglary and carjacking are not an issue. I’ve seen car share cars around town, and they are quite popular, but I’ve never tried it myself. It is very possible to live in China without a car, as public transportation is how Wuhan’s 10 million people have gotten around until the last few years when people have their own cars now.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
The internet is available, and it is generally fast enough for us to stream videos. That being said, we have to use a VPN to access many websites (any social media based in the US), and that does slow things down.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We bought phones locally and use a local provider. It is very inexpensive to have unlimited data.
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?
Veterinarians are pretty terrible, though they can do the basics if needed. I don't know about quarantine issues, but there was recently a crack-down on oversized dogs. They have a height limit and won't officially let dogs that big live in the city.
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?
Diplomat spouses don't have the right visa to work in China on the local economy. The options are either working at the Consulate or telecommuting.
If a spouse or partner is able to get a work visa, there are plenty of opportunities to teach English at kindergartens through colleges.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
There is a wide variety, ranging from business to business casual in the workplace. Open-toed shoes for women are considered unprofessional. In the summer, it is very hot and more women wear dresses. In the winter, it feels very cold, and most people wear layers-- or padded pajamas out on the street-- but not at work.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There is virtually no street crime in Wuhan. It is very safe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
At the moment, there is a new coronavirus spreading from Wuhan, but other than that, the medical care is okay. More expat women are choosing to stay here to have babies. If you know what your problem is, the hospitals and doctors can do procedures and take care of things. They are generally not good at diagnosing problems, though.
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 is moderate. It gets a little hazy in the winter, but not as bad as many China posts. I'd generalize and say it's about 50-100 in the summer and 100-150 in the winter on normal days.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's extremely hot and humid in the summer, though homes and most businesses are air-conditioned. It rains a lot.
Then after that horrible furnace of summer, it still manages to get quite cold in the winter, and it rains a lot. In our past four winters, it has snowed twice and not snowed twice. It's cold and humid, though, so it feels colder than I guessed it would.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most expat kids go to Wuhan Yangtse International School. It is a Christian school that follows the American curriculum. We have found it to be a very welcoming and supportive community while still being academically rigorous for our children, who are elementary-aged. The middle and high school are smaller but still offer a variety of AP classes and extracurricular activities, and some retreats and a big service trip every year.
WYIS is next door to a French school, which is much smaller and serves the French community.
Maple Leaf International School is a Canadian school that is kind of far away from everything. It is mostly a school for Chinese nationals, but it does have a foreign student section, though I don't know much about it.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
WYIS is starting a special ed support program, but I'm not sure exactly what their support covers.
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?
WYIS offers preschool starting at 3, though it is quite expensive and only 3 days a week. The French school offers preschool starting at 2. Many expat parents send their children to a local Montessori school. There are plenty of local Chinese schools, but they are a mixed bag.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
My kids tried a dance class, but they felt ostracized because the Chinese kids didn't know what to do with a foreign child in their class. Most other classes and activities are not focused on the process of learning and enjoying the activity, but with making the children into professional child prodigies. My kids have not enjoyed the local classes we have tried and observed.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It is a medium-small expat community, but it seems to be growing, especially as the US consulate expands (though the French car companies are diminishing). I feel like it is big enough that you meet a variety of people from all over the world, but small enough where you do eventually know some people at all the expat events you attend.
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?
My family likes to go to the lake and rent "party bikes", riding around the bike paths and stopping for a picnic. I also enjoy a Zumba class and an aerial yoga class. Women of Wuhan plans weekly get-togethers, such as lunch or brunch or afternoon tea. They also plan a Gala dinner every November, which is the big expat event of the year.
3. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It is not as easy to make local friends here as at other posts, such as Brazil. Most of my Chinese friends have lived or studied abroad and have come back to China more comfortable with foreigners and the way things are done outside China.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. As a foreigner, you do not fit in, and people comment about it all the time as you walk down the streets. (Mostly the very old and the very young are the ones commenting.) If you're white, the comments are usually neutral (like, "Oh, there's a foreigner! Look! A foreigner!"), but if you're black, the reactions and comments can be negative.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Some weekend trips include the Three Gorges Dam, and Zhang Jia Jie (where Avatar was filmed). We did a weekend trip to Shanghai Disneyland, and we're planning one to Hong Kong Disneyland. Wuhan is a railway hub, so you can get direct high-speed trains to many places around China.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There's a hot-springs spa a couple hours from the city. Outside the city in the winter, you can go strawberry picking at little farms.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There's nothing specific to Wuhan that I can think of, but with Taobao on my cell phone, everything is so cheap and easy to order and have delivered to my house that I have to say Wuhan is definitely a shopping post.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Wuhan is modern in terms of infrastructure (highways, metro, etc.), and there are many international brands that have stores here (IKEA, Decathlon, Walmart, H&M, and many restaurants). So life is pretty convenient, and I can find most of what I need very readily, but it is still very Chinese. It hasn't become as international as Shanghai and even Beijing. Things and services are still very inexpensive, and it is still an adventure to try and figure some things out.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I heard all about how Wuhan was one of the "four furnaces" of China, and while it is absolutely wretchedly hot in the summer, I wasn't prepared for how audaciously cold it gets in the winter. Yes, it has both seasons-- with a minuscule spring and fall squeezed in between.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. We have really settled in to life in Wuhan-- so much so that we actually did two tours in a row here. Our kids feel like Wuhan is home, and we like our life here.
3. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang, is a very readable history of China's last few generations. I think it is so important to understand what people have gone through so we can understand why they are how they are.
Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng, goes into a lot more detail about the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's. It is well written and insightful.
The Story about Ping, yes, the children's book about the duck, takes place on the Yangtze River, which goes right through Wuhan. It is definitely prerequisite reading to being posted in Wuhan.