What I tell folks considering moving to China

I get a lot of friend’s of friends emailing me re: “we are thinking of moving to china, what can you tell me” and I thought I would publish some of those thoughts to our blog so that in future I can just point people to this entry!

  • Cristina and I arrived not speaking a word of Chinese. It is difficult to get around in taxis and restaurants without Chinese, but you can stick to English speaking/western friendly places the first few months while you take some language classes. My wife and I now both speak passable conversation Chinese, and certainly enough for ordering food, getting around taxis, haggling at markets, etc. the language is a blast to learn, and not impossible at all (we didn’t learn to read mind you, just speak). We both did 3 hrs a week with a private tutor for several months, fyi, but there are group classes as well.  Learning chinese has easily been one of the highlights of my adult life, great fun, great intellectual challenge, great window to gaze through into this amazing culture.
  • Beijing city has two major expat areas as far as living: Chaoyang district, downtown skyscraper condos, or Shunyi, which are “villas” (houses) in compounds. We live in Shunyi because of our kids school, as do most families with kids that are here attending one of the two major international schools that Americans flock to: WAB and ISB (our boys at WAB, both school are fantastic). Living in Shunyi is fine, but it is pretty much the sticks, with very few restaurants and activities outside of the school and the housing compounds—about 15 minutes by car to the city which isn’t bad. Chaoyang would be a blast, and if we didn’t have young kids we would have gone for that immediately, great place to live, in the middle of a great big cosmopolitan city.
  • There are a ton of public parks here that are lovely and full of nice walks, boating, and rides/carnival games for kids, so a lot of our weekends consist of “brunch in the city and outing to some park or other”. We also have lots of kid social things like baseball, swimming classes, etc., so a lot of our lives revolve around the kid rhythm. I have some friends here who are single/swingers and they are expats, happy to hook you up with them for more feedback on that scene if that is more your thing… word is that the club scene is great, lots of students in town, and plenty of upscale swinging type sophisticate childless adults to cavort with.
  • Restaurants are awesome… this is a food lovers dream. So many restaurants, all kinds of food. A lot of our outings in the evenings without kids revolve around trying new food joints.
  • Cost of domestic help is very very low, so you’ll likely have a fulltime maid to help with house and or kids, not necessarily live-in unless you want that (we don’t). we also have a driver for our car. Ballpark for these fulltime staff is about $200-300 USD each… so factor that in to your experience, it is a big change from the USA to have domestic support like that (and it can be really great!). My wife and I go out at least 1 night a week, sometimes 3 times, leaving the kids at home.
  • There is great arts scene, theater, live music, lots of galleries and lots of modern art. When you are here, go to visit the “798 Art Community”, a section of town where old factories have been turned into about 100+ private small art galleries… great scene, great stuff going on—there is a real palpable vitality to the place/city.
  • We have internet and broadband at home, as does everyone (biggest internet community in the world, here in china) and therefore a lot of our “media” comes from the web. We have TV and cable at home but don’t watch (we aren’t tv people). Movies in theaters is not a big thing here, in the USA we would see on average 5 movies in theaters a month, here we have seen 2 in 1 year. However, DVDs are $1 each and plentiful, so we get DVDs of recent films we can’t see in theaters, and get TV shows that way as well (just watched the Mad Men series this week, enjoyed). We sometimes read the ChinaDaily, the communist party propaganda paper, it is fascinating (in english) and challenges all of our assumptions about “freedom of speech” which is billed to us in the US (hint: we are far leaning leftists politically and socially, and can’t stand our current administration).
  • Shopping for food: there is a series of grocery stores that cater to expats with products that only foreigners want (eg: peanut butter, tortillas, pace picante sauce, corn flakes, etc.)—one is called Jenny Lu’s, we shop there near our house (3 min walk) and the other obvious one is french conglomerate Carrefour, which is a mad house but has everything.
  • Health: there are western doctors at various western focused clinics, we go to Beijing United, good stuff; dentist here has better equipment and more modern training than our dentists in the US. If we had emergency of any kind and had to go to hospital in beijing we would have no concern, all the doctors are American or Canadian expats. If we were in countryside, however, that’s another story…
  • Shanghai sucks (relative to beijing)—it is a big bright shining exciting city, but it has no soul. We almost moved there instead of beijing, we are SOOO glad we came to beijing. This place is FULL of amazing history and art, and surrounded by thousands of years of historical towns/etc. Shanghai is a 100 year old port city with a strong western influence—nice place to visit, and certainly a viable option, but I’m a big beijing promoter J
  • Rest of China rocks: we do periodic tours/outings with the kids and without to various parts of china; we have been here a year and have seen Xian, Guilin, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Lijiang, Shangrila, and various beijing suburbs. We are just scratching the surface. The country is great to travel across, good accommodations, cheap! A good 3 star hotel in a town might run $40-50 a night; a 4-5 star hotel in a 2nd tier city will be $100 USD. Food in smaller cities is cheap, great food is everywhere.
  • Negatives: the air pollution is really really bad. Traffic at rush hour can be nasty. That’s the only two negatives. I stay off roads at rush hour, and we have swiss made air purifiers in our home throughout the house and we keep them on 24hrs a day (as do many expats) to address the air pollution. I lived in Santiago Chile for many years and got very ill from the air there several times, have not had trouble of that kind here. But I wouldn’t want to live in this city for more than 3-4 years just on the air quality concerns.

Summary: People are super friendly. The country is alive, pulsating. Anything is possible, the future is exciting, change is everywhere… This is the center of the social and economic changes that society and the planet are facing in the next 50 years, both in good and bad sense. Being here, living here, you will immediately get it and be wiser about the world as a result. It is an amazing experience, I can’t recommend highly enough.

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