Wuhan, China Report of what it's like to live there - 07/22/21
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?
This is my seventh tour in the State Department. Others included Manila, Bratislava, Belgrade, Kabul, Karachi, Prague, and Taipei.
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?
Detroit, MI and Los Angeles, CA. COVID has changed everything about travel, but there are actually flights to these two locations directly from Shanghai, the current quarantine point.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. 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?
At present, housing for consulate employees is in two locations only. Several apartments including the CG residence are in the Somerset-serviced residences, an extended-stay type apartment hotel with a mall underneath that is about 15 minutes by taxi/car or 30 minutes by bus or metro from the consulate. Families may be assigned to a gated community of apartments, town houses, and detached houses that is in a more suburban setting closer to the international school and about 45 minutes by Metro, 30 minutes by car without traffic from the consulate.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
All local foods, be it fruit and vegetables, local baked goods or prepared foods, are less costly than they would be in the U.S. though the varieties may not be the ones you recognize. However, imported foods can be pricey. I hear that there are more European-style groceries like a Carrefour farther from where I live but I haven't ventured to them yet. Wine, beer, etc. is somewhat overpriced and variety is not great; sometimes it seems the stock is chosen and priced based on appearance rather than quality.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I'm not picky so I make do with what is available. I wouldn't mind some charcuterie or cheese, but I am told all I need to do is search more or it may be available in the larger cities.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Eating out is 1/3-2/3 the cost of something similar in the U.S. Noodles, dumplings and stir-fried foods are common and there are endless varieties. Hubei cuisine tends to be quite spicy. Chinese and some other East Asian cuisines are easy to find whereas Western cuisine other than fast food is somewhat rare. The many local fresh markets have seasonal produce, but most vegetables are intended to be cooked, so salads and such may be harder to find. Food delivery services are ubiquitous although I find the apps a bit chaotic to figure out and so I just go and get things myself.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not in my building but the apartments are more or less sealed off from the outside.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch and DPO work for mail from the U.S. although for us it goes through Beijing which adds time, so currently it takes 3-4 weeks or sometimes a bit more and pouch seems a bit quicker than DPO. Local goods ordered on Taobao and other platforms are delivered to the building lobby.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
The serviced apartments include twice-weekly maid service and we pay a monthly fee for it.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
I only know about the exercise equipment on the common floor of the apartment building.
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?
International credit cards aren't accepted much of anywhere - only hotels, really. Everyone uses WeChat or Alipay. These can be complicated to set up and require a lot of information from you. Once they are finally set up, things are easy, but it takes a lot of work. Only a few banks' ATMs will allow you to withdraw cash with a non-Chinese card. Cash is not commonly used, but will be grudgingly accepted, and you'd better have change unless it's a very large store. You need a local Chinese bank account and card to link to Wechat. Alipay has a Tourpass function that worked to add money with a US card after a few tries but then I ran into a problem using it that has yet to be resolved. Even the hospital where I went would only take cash (complicated) or WeChat.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Wuhan is a large city by world standards, but second-tier by Chinese standards and the international community is very small and shrank further during the pandemic. There are a few establishments explicitly geared toward expats, but beyond that it is rare to find any information in English or anyone outside the consulate or hotels that would speak much English. A lot can be accomplished with body language, but in order to do anything beyond nodding and pointing, it is necessary to know Chinese. Still, people here are friendly and helpful and shopkeepers or other customers will often try to help if you're struggling to be understood.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
The city is mostly flat, almost all Metro stations and entrances have elevators and escalators, and buses are all low-floor ones. However, the stations are large and transfers can involve a lot of walking. Many areas are crowded, and there may be no place to sit and rest. These issues can make things challenging for someone with trouble walking or standing for long periods. On sidewalks, you may have to dodge bikes and scooters. Paving stones can be uneven and frequent rain makes things slick. Most buildings and stations have some sort of ramp and accessible gates. I have not seen many people in wheelchairs. Also: public toilets in stations and such may only be Asian-style ones. (Hotels, meeting halls and such tend to have Western style or a choice of either, and very fancy ones at that).
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Public transit is inexpensive, efficient and goes almost everywhere you want to go. Rides range from 25 cents for most bus trips to a dollar for a longer Metro ride. For everything else, there are taxis and Didi (ride-sharing app). Rides start at $1.50 and the longest trip I had, 30 minutes, cost $10. You do need WeChat to pay for taxis and Didi, which requires a local bank account. Public transit uses a proximity card that you refill. Bus stops are fairly far from each other, and many routes stop at each one so you have to be alert and may need to move quickly to catch the right one when five arrive at once.
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 one colleague has a personal vehicle and they don't use it much. Public transportation is readily available and so are taxis, and both are very reasonable (from 25 cents per trip on the bus to $2 for a taxi to work). The city is large and so getting to some places can take a while, but most places I go are pretty close together, but traffic can be heavy. Distances between stops and within the Metro and train stations can sometimes be really long so that can be a pain.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
In the serviced apartments, wifi and wired internet are included. Have one or more VPNs installed before you arrive in China in order to access any Western social media. Downloading movies and TV from Netflix, Amazon, etc. at home works better than streaming because the internet isn't always that fast and the VPN will disconnect sometimes. The VPN does not seem to play well with local mobile phone networks so I only tend to use it at home.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I didn't keep a US plan. I use my old phone just on wifi with a VPN. I got a local SIM for my personal phone. However, you can only get one SIM per month, therefore I had to wait a month after I got a work SIM to get a personal one.
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?
No one at post now has a pet. I understand there are import and export restrictions that make it difficult. This year, it seems it's only gotten harder to move pets around.
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?
There are positions at the consulate, including the Community Liaison Office (CLO) Coordinator, that are not filled at the moment. I don't believe it is possible to work on the local economy. Spouses at post at present are not working.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
A local organization called Women of Wuhan (not just for women) has charity events and may have information on this.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Basically the same as most places: shirt and tie for men, jacket if there's a big meeting or official event. It's just so hot and humid in the summer that I have given up and wear more comfortable business casual attire unless there is an event.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Security is not a concern, Wuhan is a safe place and we have only heard of occasional pickpocketing. Roads are busy, somewhat chaotic and congested and bikes and mopeds ride on sidewalks so the only safety risk I can think of is with traffic. I am Caucasian and heavyset and feel someone staring sometimes, particularly children, since there just aren't that many foreigners here, but that's it. Many places are crowded and personal space is at a premium so you get bumped, but I have never been pickpocketed in China.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
I have had several gastrointestinal issues even trying to be careful with food, one time severe enough to require antibiotics, but it seems to come with the territory here. There are many hospitals including one large one with an international unit that is between the consulate and the apartment building that offers multifaceted care - I had a checkup for a prior condition and some additional physical therapy there. Facilities are a bit less nice than in the U.S. and the protocols and therapies are sometimes similar and sometimes different but pretty advanced. Only one therapist spoke English though, none of the rest of the doctors or staff did.
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?
According to the weather app, air quality is good to moderate most of the time. I hear it can be more polluted in winter.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Hard for me to say as I don't have any.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
I suppose pandemic-related issues could come up. Also I could see someone feeling rather isolated as it's hard to leave China once you get here, though easy to be here once you are.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Very hot and humid in the summer, haven't yet experienced winter but I understand it does get quite cold though rarely enough to snow.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Children have attended the Wuhan Yangtze International School which has American administration and teachers. There aren't many children at post at the moment and I don't have any so that's all I know.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There are very few expats, but like almost anywhere, there are some well-known ones, like the Belgian who owns a pub or the American with the barbecue and brewery. Western expats probably number in the hundreds, especially post-pandemic. There are likely more East Asian expats.
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?
There is an organization called Women of Wuhan that has get-togethers, often involving a charity donation component, every month or so, and has rebranded itself as People of Wuhan/Women of Wuhan to make it explicit that it is open to everyone. The local AmCham also holds gatherings periodically that attract Americans and other international guests as well as local attendees. It may be possible to make friends other than this but there are complications. Near the consulate is a district with multiple modern restaurants, bars and a karaoke lounge as well as a concert hall. There are concerts, dance shows, and river cruises as well as other attractions if one wishes. It is true that meals tend to be in groups and going out alone to a bar or similar isn't that common here. All of these establishments are functioning normally now as the pandemic wanes.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I am single but at a point in life that I am not going out much. If I did want to it seems like it would be possible to find a niche, although one could get bored I think. Couples and families seem to stick to each other. The events mentioned above seem to attract both singles and families.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Hard to say. I haven't made an effort for various reasons beyond colleagues and the groups mentioned above. Because there are few foreigners here, and I'm also heavyset, I feel like I get some stares but out of curiosity. Those of darker complexion may have a different experience but I don't know enough to say.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I am part of this community and like in most of my postings, the issue just doesn't come up much in daily life as a diplomat, work, shopping, receptions, etc. Same-sex relationships were decriminalized in China long ago. I am at a stage of life where I am not going out much anymore, so I have not sought out nightlife and such if it exists here. I understand that LGBTQI+ persons do experience various degrees social pressure or tacit discrimination and recently per news reports WeChat recently shut down some accounts for speaking openly about LGBTQI+ issues. But on the other hand there doesn't seem to be outright hate or bullying etc.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
I haven't been here long enough to really have had any.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
High-speed trains go to all major Chinese cities from Wuhan, a central transportation hub. The Three Gorges Dam, Zhangjiajie ("Avatar" mountains) and similar areas are not far from Wuhan but I have only been to Enshi and Beijing so far for work.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There are markets where you can find calligraphy, paintings, antiques, coins and the like but I think these are common to China as a whole and I'm not sure there is anything specific to this city.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Wuhan and the other places I have been in China are very modern and developing at a rapid pace, though sometimes at the expense of anything picturesque or historical so it can be a bit boring. People in Wuhan are almost always pleasant and accommodating.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That China is much bigger than I thought and I consider myself pretty aware of geography!
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
It's been right for me at this particular stage of life.