Suzhou, China Report of what it's like to live there

Personal Experiences from Suzhou, China

Suzhou, China 06/12/19

Background:

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

No. I’ve lived elsewhere in East Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe.

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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?

Southwestern United States. Suzhou is very close to Shanghai; it's around twenty-five minutes by high-speed rail. Shanghai’s Pudong Airport offers direct flights to Los Angeles and other West Coast cities on American and Chinese airlines. Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai is closer to Suzhou, but flights departing from this hub fly mostly to domestic destinations.

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3. How long have you lived here?

One year.

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

Joint-venture university job.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Housing for people on expat packages in Suzhou is excellent. Most people live in the Suzhou Industrial Park, which was developed as a joint venture between Suzhou and the Singaporean government. As a result, it’s laid out more like Jurong in Singapore than any Chinese city: wide avenues, ample green spaces, buried power lines, less street life. Our four bedroom apartment is brand new and features central A/C, floor heating, and high-end appliances. Most people live in high rises, but some suburban-style housing is available. Commute times are shorter than in other Chinese megacities.

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

Almost everything is available. Wet markets and cheaper grocery stores are less expensive than stores in the United States, except for beef and imported goods. Nicer grocery stores can be expensive, but the variety of high-end imported items is impressive. Imported alcohol tends to be expensive, but not as bad as Singapore. Local microbrews are improving in quality, but Chinese red and white wines are still bad. Good coffee beans can also be expensive.

You can find just about any food item on Taobao or Jingdong, the Chinese equivalents of Amazon.

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

When I go back to the States I tend to stock up on coffee, deodorant, and duty free liquor. Bring your own books and Kindle.

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

The Chinese Meituan food delivery app is outstanding. So long as you can read Chinese, you can get deliveries from most restaurants to just about any location, including random picnic spots in the middle of local parks. Sherpa is a popular English-language food delivery app.

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

Not in new housing. Apartments tend to deteriorate quickly here due to the humidity and low quality of most construction, so try to find something as new as possible. Lots of mosquitos here in the summer and fall.

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Daily Life:

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

China Post is slow. Use FedEx or SF if you want to ship something quickly and reliably.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Cheap, plentiful, and professional. We hired someone to clean and cook on weekday afternoons for under $300/month. The more Chinese you know, the better, but household helpers are not too difficult to find through expat WeChat groups.

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

Most Chinese gyms and pools don’t open until 10 am. Prices are reasonable, but classes for children tend to be expensive.

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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?

ATMs for the four major banks (China, Construction, Merchants, and ICBC) accept foreign debit cards, but almost all transactions in the country are made via cell phone through WeChat or Ali Pay. You need a local bank account to use this service. Credit cards are accepted at nice hotels and some business catering to foreigners, but I rarely use one here.

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

Not sure. China has harsh restrictions on religion. I know only foreigners are allowed to attend the synagogues in Shanghai, and some of my non-Chinese coworkers attend church in Suzhou.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

The more Chinese you have, the better, but you can get by without it. Cell phone apps and bilingual signs help, but the lack of Chinese language skills will limit you here. Outside high-end establishments that cater to Westerners or the old French Concession in Shanghai, most Chinese don’t speak English. Tutors and classes should be available, often through one’s employer.

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

Less so than in other Chinese cities but still not nearly up to par with any developed country. It’s rare to see a disabled person in public in China, except for beggars.

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Transportation:

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

High speed rail and subways are world-class, safe, and affordable. Buses are cheap and safe too. China has many car sharing services, with DiDi and Cao Cao being the most common.

Traffic safety is a real issue. Suzhou and other major cities now have cameras and censors along most major roads and intersections, which has cut down speeding and red-light violations (but only in places with cameras and censors). It’s done nothing, however, for illegal turns, driving on shoulders, swerving between lanes, or careless driving. There’s very little safety consciousness here. Cabs and car service drivers tend to disable the seatbelts in the back seat, and people who follow the law generally do so only to avoid being detected by a camera and fined—not because they want to avoid accidentally hurting someone or themselves. Silent electric scooters are everywhere, and their riders invariably ignore the law.

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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?

You can get by with public transport and car-sharing services.

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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?

Internet is cheap and quick to set up, but connections speeds are slow because of the need for a VPN or a router that can get around the Great Firewall. Go with the best setup you can find. Most websites you’d want to access will be blocked here.

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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?

China Mobile seems better than Unicom. I pay under $20 for unlimited monthly data and more than enough call time. China Mobile also has decent roaming services for travel overseas.

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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?

Vets seem okay. Lots of expats have dogs here, but almost no one has a yard.

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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?

Most expats work for multinationals, international schools, universities, or as language teachers or admissions consultants. Because of Suzhou’s proximity to Shanghai, there’s not much of a diplomatic presence.

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

Dress in China is more casual than most places I’ve lived or traveled.

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Health & Safety:

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

Violent crime is low in China, but the government cultivates anti-Western and anti-Japanese nationalism through the education system and public sphere, which has resulted in violent demonstrations every few years since the 1999 Belgrade Embassy bombing. If you were to get into a physical altercation here, it could turn ugly very quickly because of this intense nationalism. Always walk away if someone gets aggressive.

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

Pollution is bad, especially in the winter, but not as severe as Beijing, Shenyang, or Chengdu. Sing Health clinic is staffed by Singaporean and Malaysian trained doctors and offers good quality services. The children’s hospital affiliated with Suzhou University is supposed to be good, and colleagues have spoken highly of medical care in Shanghai. But if I needed a major procedure, I would do it outside the country.

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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 pollution is worse in the winter than in other seasons, but bad days can occur all year. As I mentioned above, there are worse cities in China for pollution, but the air quality in Suzhou is still worse than in any developed country. We run air purifiers in our home and offices to bring the AQI down to safe levels on bad days. I felt like I needed to wear a mask outside perhaps 15 days over the past year.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Restaurants will never ask about food allergies, nor will staff at non-western restaurants speak English, so if you have allergies you need to learn the vocabulary necessary for ensuring your safety. If you have a serious issue, you should eat at home.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Yes, the winter here is gray and damp, and you can go weeks without seeing the sun.

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

Similar to the Deep South in the United States. Long cool winters with lows in the 30s to 40s and a few freezing nights. Occasional snow flurries but usually not cold enough for accumulation. Short, pleasant spring and fall seasons, and long, hot summers with high humidity. In July and August, highs can occasionally exceed 100, and lows are still near 80.

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Schools & Children:

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

There are several good international schools. We’ve been impressed with SSIS, while colleagues who send kids to Dulwich are also happy.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Not sure, but the international schools in Suzhou have been around a while, so I imagine accommodations are available.

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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?

Yes, the international schools offer pre-nursery programs for children as young as two. There are other international pre-schools available as well. Not cheap, as nursery school can be as expensive as
US $20,000 per year, and even the less expensive schools cost close to US$10k. Afterschool care is limited.

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

Yes, plenty available at international schools, neighborhood centers, and through private classes (dance, marital arts, music, art, etc). Some of the activities targeting local families are gimmicky, with a lot of pseudoscientific talk about how, for example, this toddler tumbling class will improve your child's prospects of getting into Harvard.

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Expat Life:

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

Large. Morale is good, but the trade war has made some people nervous. Suzhou is an easier place to live than most Chinese cities, but the pollution, censorship, and rude or dangerous behavior (lack of traffic safety, spitting, etc.) can wear on you.

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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?

Social life is good here. Suzhou has quite a few western-style pubs and microbreweries. There’s an expat association, and lots of people tend to meet through activities at the international schools. There are great outdoor spaces, bars, and restaurants around Jinji Lake and Ligongdi.

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

We have a young family and enjoy it. Most of the malls have soft play areas, and the parks are nice. Foreign men, like in other East Asian cities, seem to enjoy single life more than foreign women, but I think this could be a good place for all groups. It’s easy to get around, there are plenty of expats, lots to do, and locals tend to be friendly.

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4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

Harder than Taiwan but not that difficult. I’ve made good friends. As with other questions, the more Chinese you can speak the better.

Stereotypical thinking about non-Chinese groups is common, but it’s usually not hateful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard locals say things like “Jews are clever and good at business,” or “black people love basketball.”

Prejudices are stronger against people with dark complexions.

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

China isn’t progressive with LGBT issues, but you’d never have to worry about hate crimes here. Staring would be the worst you’d get. My LGBT friends like Suzhou and Shanghai.

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

Gender stereotypes are common. This is still a male-centric country. College major choices often break down along gender lines, with females encouraged to study language and males to study science or engineering, although this isn’t a hard and fast rule. For much of the reform era, bonding over prostitutes or karaoke girls has been an important part of business culture. The strongest prejudices target China’s minority Uighur population and other Muslims.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Travel in the west: Yunnan, Qinghai, Tibet, Gansu, and western Sichuan. The landscapes in this area are some of the best on earth. People are kind too.

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

I prefer western China over the coastal areas. For small children, the Suzhou Zoo was surprisingly good. The water towns are worth seeing—but once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

For China as a whole, western Sichuan is spectacular: Gongga Shan, Manigangge, Litang, Seda, Yading, etc. In Yunnan, check out Ruili, Erhai Lake, the Nujiang Valley, Lugu Lake, and Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas are worth a trip even with all the logistical hassles and heavy security presence.

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

Definitely. Be careful about quality with furniture and authenticity with antiques. Good tailors in Suzhou and world-class ones in Shanghai.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Suzhou is one of the wealthiest, most outward-facing cities in China, and its Jurong Industrial Estate-inspired layout leaves it with more green space and greater orderliness than other major Chinese cities. The cost of living is low, and although it doesn’t have Shanghai’s cultural resources or Chengdu’s local cuisine, Suzhou still has great food, transportation infrastructure, and lots to do.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

Language skills can help you have a more meaningful experience here. Unless you begin study as a kid, learning Chinese will probably be a lifetime project, but it’s worth the effort.

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

Yes. Despite all the challenges of living in China, I still enjoy it. Ideological control has tightened over the past few years, but other areas, like public etiquette and road safety, are improving. Suzhou’s infrastructure and delivery services make this an easy place to live.

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

Car. Also remember that you can get just about any household appliance here.

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4. But don't forget your:

VPN and patience. If you can just dive in and accept this place for what it is, you'll probably enjoy living in Suzhou.

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

Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation; John Pomfret, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom; Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia; Yan Lianke, Serve the People; the Sinica Podcast and the films of Jia Zhangke.

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Suzhou, China 06/16/07

Background:

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

No, New Guinea, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Madang, PNG, Singapore, Jakarta & Bali, Kuala Lumpur.

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2. How long have you lived here?

More than 4 years.

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

Teaching Business English right now, but all the way from Kindergarten to University.

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

Unsure of travel times to these destinations from Shanghai, 90 or so km from Suzhou by bus, takes about 2 hours to the Airport in Shanghai. Consult your travel agent.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

I live in a modern apartment: 2 bedrooms, 1 bathroom + en-suite to the master bedroom bathroom, study, living room & kitchen. Commute to class is 30 minutes by electric bike, 15 minutes by taxi which costs a whopping US$2. I have satellite TV for CNN, BBC, Discovery Channel, HBO, National Geographic, Kid TV and Australia Network plus about 50 more International channels for oh, ah, US$200 forever, with no monthly charges.

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

How can I put this ? Peanuts. Just brace yourself when you hit the wet markets for groceries for cheap and good stuff, or stick with the supermarkets for 500% of the market price. The wet market is great, we'll hold your hand for the first 2 trips, then you're on your own!

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

Yes. Books.

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

Now, we're getting somewhere. Ronald is available after a 300m walk, the Colonel is also here (terrible quality), Pizza Hut (outrageously expensive) is here if you like queues. Living in SIP - Singapore Industrial Park gets you home-delivered pizza, lasagna or whatever you want for 13-20 bucks. A vast choice!

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Daily Life:

1. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

We had a cleaning lady for 200 RMB a month, 3 days a week, 2 hours a day cost US$35 a month. DON'T use the ones that are advertised, they charge outrageous amounts. Like 5 times the real amount paid to the lady. Trust me. Scam the ignorant whitey. My wife is Chinese, has slight contacts. CAN DO.

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2. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Great. Chinese ATM card is good for cash out ATMs and paying at BIG supermarkets. Don't try foreign credit cards, you might be disappointed. All it takes to get a local ATM card at a bank is a passport and a big smile.

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

Joking, right? I might get Pastor Doug to do an Ecumenical Service in American English, but apart from that, you're dreaming of Heaven and talking about the Messiah, the son of God in Suzhou. It's not particularly approved here.

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

Yes. China Daily and Shanghai Daily (English language newspapers) can be delivered every day to your post box. Not expensive. The ONLY English channel on local TV is CCTV 9 which is repeated every 4 hours. I prefer satellite TV, which we, as foreigners have the Chinese-given right to install and watch. Satellite TV is forbidden to local Chinese. I would have it no other way. I like my Aussie TV and other stuff off the satellite.

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5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Survival Chinese can be learned in 4 weeks. If you don't speak Chinese here, you're in trouble outside of SIP: ripped off, buying stuff, everything.

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

Enormous. Don't come. China (Suzhou) is light years from ready to cater to differently abled people. Don't even think about working in other provinces or cities, and this is from the third probably most-foreigner-friendly place in China.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Right-side, as in the U.S. I'd never drive here in Crazy China unless the driver had a heart attack en-route. In Australia ? Keep Left.

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

Absolutely, trains? Jevon from Texas had his ATM card stolen on the way to Beijing in the train by a fellow compartment passenger, big trouble. Buses ? Subway ? Slide your purse/wallet down your front to your belt. Wear your backpack on your front. They will take your coin like hairs out of margarine. Suzhou? 2 bucks for 4 kilometers. I pay $2.50 to get home.

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3. 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?

Forget it. You'll thank me for this advice when you get here. Chinese traffic is chaos.

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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?

ADSL, 100 MB/per second. US$12 per month. Google comes back at .04 seconds. Some sites are blocked, by Nanny China but there are cunning ways around that.

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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?

China Mobile at all costs. China Unicom is terrible: sewer pipe audio, echo, terrible coverage.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

Buy IP cards from legitimate vendors, shops, not the guys on the street, to call back home. Use a mobile phone home to call up using the card. Or, ask the landlord to get IDD on the home phone. I do! Regularly.

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Pets:

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

Forget Fluffy/Fido.

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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?

Absolutely. I applied for 7 jobs, knocked back from one, had six interviews and got six offers.

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

Work? Semi-formal, slacks, no tie here. Public? Ripped jeans, T-shirt - who cares?

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Health & Safety:

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

I'd say moderate.

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

None whatsoever. Crimes against foreigners by Chinese are investigated very thoroughly by the police here, as the city wants to present itself as a foreigner-friendly city. All of my Chinese friends have experienced thefts of cell-phones, handbags and purses, even saw & prevented a handbag theft in McDonald's. Let common-sense prevail.

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

Go to the Hong Kong Hospital, Western standard. Anything else is someones' idea of a very serious joke. It's your health!

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

Ghastly hot and humid in Summer, -1 and snow in winter !

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Schools & Children:

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

Suzhoue Singapore International School is the only place I'd send my child. A bit pricey though, US$10-12000 a year for tuition, but most companies cover that.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Hmmmm. China, even Suzhou, is NOT the place to be if you have challenged children.

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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?

As above.

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Expat Life:

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

10,000+ in Suzhou.

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2. Morale among expats:

Generally high due to Pop-Tarts available within 500 metres from home.

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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?

Pubs and Restaurants, Chinese and International, you name it.

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

Overwhelmingly yes. Suzhou is a special case. However, it is essential to develop and grow relationships with other nearby expats, or you WILL go crazy and want to leave in 2 months.

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

I am aware of a few bars that ahhh.... have gay and lesbian clientele, but it is very much 'under the carpet' and somewhat disapproved of here. It is not hard to find a same-sex partner though, naturally a Chinese partner. Sharing a 2-bedroom apartment (same bed) though, is totally acceptable. Just keep up the facade of sharing.

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

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

Stay locked in at home and watch HBO or Cinemax. Go to the bars and watch Norwegians have fist-fights. Go play pool. Watch DVDs for 80 cents: late release movies. All my hobbies are dead. DEAD. Read, write, publish a blog on the Internet: www.20six.co.uk/jamiesons-luck-new . Drink very cheap International booze. Go eat sushi and sashimi. Do distance education courses. Go bowling. It's pretty boring here in Suzhou.

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

Just silk gowns for my family and friends.

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9. Can you save money?

Shoot yeah. My wife gets my salary and I get an allowance. It gets put into her bank account. My treats are from private teaching gigs, many in Suzhou.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

I came back twice :-) from the Luckiest Country on Earth - -Australia. Of course I would come back to Suzhou. I know the place, and I can detect the BS before it starts.

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

Hobbies.

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3. But don't forget your:

Books.

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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. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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

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7. Do you have any other comments?

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