As one of the oldest civilizations in the world, China offers a unique combination of ancient cultural traditions and rapidly developing modern life.
Living in China provides a fascinating look at two different worlds colliding as the country re-establishes itself on the world stage.
With several enormous cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and hundreds of smaller towns and villages, life in China can vary widely. While larger cities offer the allure of major urban centres, access to shopping and Western-style amenities, smaller settings provide an authentic experience and opportunity to immerse oneself in Chinese culture.
As is the case with any country, making the transition to living in China will present some challenges, but as the country expands, more resources are becoming available to locals and expats alike.
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In the past, internet censorship was a hot topic in China. Currently, only a few international news sites are regularly censored, with access to most sites always available. Internet access tends to be very fast in the cities, and while it may be slow in smaller towns and villages, quality of service is steadily improving.
Bargaining is very common in China, and is an expected part of any shopping trip, with the exception of department stores. Buying and selling is a game, and it pays to know what to do when shopping, especially for foreigners in China. Learning key phrases, smiling, being patient and friendly are simple but invaluable tools. Locals in China will generally respond well if one makes the effort to speak the local language. For example, learning “How are you?” and “How much?” in Chinese language may assist one in bargaining. When bargaining, start negotiating at about a quarter of the initial price. From there, one can haggle with the vendor and come to a suitable price. If one is not happy, move on and one may find the same item at a better price at another vendor. Most vendors will have a calculator and punch in numbers, so don’t worry about knowing numbers and prices in the Chinese. Vendors and shop owners list prices up to 100% higher than the price they will accept because they expect customers to bargain. Although bargaining sometimes seems strange to foreigners, it is a skill most acquire quickly so they do not overpay while shopping – a habit that would add up!
As the major cities in China develop and expand, more and more malls and upscale shops are being built. Beautiful porcelain items, pearl jewellery, genuine jade products, and luxurious carpets are among the items that can be found at low cost in China. While most things cost less, brand name items and clothing are much more expensive. Non-brand name clothing is cheap, and tailors will make beautiful outfits at a fairly low cost.
When buying gifts for family and friends back home, China offers many distinct items at very reasonable prices. For example, Chinese silk, paintings, calligraphy, jade and pearls, antiques and tea are popular gifts.
Shopping in China is an experience. Tourists in China should visit the markets, such as the Silk Markets in Beijing as well as other shopping areas, like Nanjing Road in Shanghai. Be prepared to see a multitude of items and thousands of people seeking bargains. Shoppers can find everything at these big markets. For example: shoes, bags, clothing, china, books, DVDs, pearls, silk, household goods and countless souvenirs.
Finding English books, magazines, and newspapers in China can be challenging at times. Some bookstores have a section dedicated to English materials, and most large hotel chains will have small bookstores or kiosks in the hotel lobbies. Many expats in China will stock up on English materials at such places. Independent specialty bookstores carrying only English books exist, though prices tend to be high because of importing costs. Some websites offer shipping to China, and shopping online is often a great method of obtaining inexpensive books and other items.
Upon arrival in China, teachers will need to open a bank account, as fees to transfer from international accounts can be very costly. Opening a bank account is reasonably easy for foreigners, though it may take some time to complete the process. Typically, a passport and proof of residence are required in order to open a new bank account. Individual schools in China have advice on how to get everything set up quickly, and teachers in China will likely need someone to translate when they visit a bank outside of a major city.
ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) are readily available in the major cities, but in mountain villages and other remote areas ATMs are few and far between. Most ATMs are available 24 hours a day, but it is recommended to carry cash at all times. Most international credit cards are accepted in China, but usually only at large hotels, department stores, and large chain restaurants. It is very difficult for non-Chinese to get a local credit. Teachers in China can exchange money into RMB (Renminbi) at banks for good exchange rates, but will get the best exchange rates when wiring money home.
Food in China is abundant and delicious, and even the pickiest eater will find many dishes to enjoy. Prices vary from very expensive at luxurious hotel restaurants to very cheap at street stalls and markets. One may find safe, delicious food at stalls, but be careful of unsanitary conditions. Finding typical Western foods like bacon, potato chips, and pre-packaged snacks is possible, but these items can be very costly. A cup of coffee is surprisingly expensive compared to other countries, as it was not a very popular beverage until recently. Chains like McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and KFC do have locations in China, though the menus may vary, and prices are about the same as in North America. However, the market for imported food is booming, and more and more international shops and chains are expected to open. Foreigners in Beijing and Shanghai have easy access to western fast food chains as well as five-star internationally renowned restaurants.
Traditional Chinese cuisine is quite different from “Chinese food” as experienced in other parts of the world. While food varies widely across different regions of China, there are some common elements including dumplings, fried rice or noodles, steamed buns, and soups. In most major cities, it is easy to find traditional Chinese food prepared by street vendors for less than $1 per meal.
Each region of China has its own type of food. Szechuan (or Sichuan) cooking is hot and spicy, while Beijing food is made with lots of meat and vegetables. Peking Duck is one example of a popular dish that originated in Beijing. Shanghai cuisine is prepared with lots of oil and seafood, and Hairy Crab is a highly sought after local delicacy. Rice and wheat are ubiquitous, inexpensive additions to many meals. Tea was originally cultivated in China, and today it supplies 90 percent of the international green tea market. It is enjoyed by people of all social classes, and is often drunk with snacks and small meals. Teachers in China will never lack for variety or new culinary adventures.
Eating out is a part of life in China. When eating out, teachers in China should usually expect no English menus or English-speaking staff. Be prepared with some local phrases or a dictionary. If one is lucky, the restaurant will provide a picture menu. Tipping is not customary, and in some cases it may be seen as rude or offensive if you try to tip. Smoking is common in restaurants, and expect a noisy atmosphere as people order or discuss bills.
Drinking alcohol is quite common, and it’s even possible to buy draught beer from kegs on the street in summer. Beer is very common, and is served in most restaurants. Locally made grape wine is common and inexpensive, and is very sweet and usually served over ice. Rice wine is also readily available, and is also sweet but with a lower alcohol content. Expats in China enjoy the wide availability, cheap prices and relatively lax laws of consuming alcohol.
China’s economy is booming, and more and more expats are choosing to live, trade and work in China. In recent years, business with foreign companies has increased dramatically, and in only two decades the country has become one of the world’s most influential economic powers. More and more people are demanding English skills, so students in China are studying English both in public schools and in the increasingly popular private school sector.
The Chinese language is becoming popular with overseas students, and has become the world’s most commonly spoken language. Huge numbers of foreign students fly to China every year to learn the language and enjoy the culture. Many English teachers in China choose to study the language in order to enhance their experience in the country.
China has good infrastructure and transportation, low crime and excellent economic opportunities. Many tourists in China are fascinated by the culture, religion, art and way of life. They are curious to see The Great Wall and other historical landmarks. In turn, many Chinese are curious and eager to meet foreigners, and the younger generation is especially eager to practice their English skills with strangers.
In July 2001, Beijing finally succeeded in its bid to win the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Seven new sporting venues, including the National Stadium and the National Swimming Center, introduced a new period of modern architecture for Beijing. The centerpiece of the Games was the “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, an amazing structure that drew worldwide attention. China triumphed with 100 total medals, and millions watched as the country showcased both the skills of its athletes and the beauty of the country.
China is a shopper’s paradise, but some basic items may be hard or impossible to find. Here is a list of several common items to pack for living in China:
- First Aid Kit
- Prescription drugs, vitamins and over-the-counter remedies
- Basic medicine such as aspirin, stomach medicine and anti-histamines
- Contact lenses and extra eyeglasses
- Hair products (International brands use different formulas in different countries)
- Feminine products
- Moisturizers and makeup (shades may be impossible to match)
- Insect repellent
- At least four 2-inch colour photos (with any background) of yourself
*This is for various documents (such as medical checks)
- Shoes (larger sizes are hard to find in China)
- Adapter (for various electronics, if necessary)
- Pocket tissues and hand sanitizer (optional)
- Clothing (especially for larger sizes)
* However, tailors will custom-make clothes fairly inexpensively
- Also, don’t forget to update all your travel vaccinations before departing for China. See your local travel clinic in your home country for more details.
Tips for keeping healthy while living in China:
- Never drink unboiled or non-bottled water
- Eat food at street stalls at your own risk
- Drink a lot of water and wear a hat in the hot summer sun
- Always wash and peel both fruit and vegetables
- Carry packs of tissues, as toilet paper is not always available
*Note that most toilets are not western-style
- Bring multivitamins from your home country and take daily
Recently, there has been an increasing demand for private international healthcare services to accommodate the need of the quickly growing expat population in China. Expats in China usually opt for private healthcare services due to the western standard of health care and access to a wide variety of English speaking health professionals. Basic medical services are available in most big cities, but the quality can vary from region to region. Big cities, such as Beijing or Shanghai, have hospitals that cater to foreign patients in English. If possible, take a Chinese-speaking person with when visiting a doctor or a hospital. Ask your school and other foreign teachers for assistance or recommendations when dealing with medical issues.
Traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, is another option to expats seeking healthcare in China. TCM is based on Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, dietary therapy, and traditional massage. However, due to lack of funding, there is currently little scientific research on TCM. Foreign teachers in China should use caution in the event of a serious illness or medical condition.
In recent years, China has become an increasingly popular destination for expats to live. In the 1980s, China changed its economic policies which in turn has encouraged a steady growth of international companies and foreign workers into the country. The city of Shanghai has the most highly concentrated expat population in China, with over 300,000 foreigners living in the city. Other cities that are popular among expats include Beijing and Guangzhou. The cost of living is higher in the bigger cities, while rural areas can cost up to 50% less for services and amenities.
The cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the major cities is considerably lower than that of Canada and the USA. Utilities, such as internet, cellular phones and electricity, are also less. For example, internet costs approximately $15-20 USD per month. A monthly transportation pass varies from approximately $15-30 USD, depending on the city and area. Taxis are affordable; for example, for a 5-kilometre journey in a city centre, expect to pay around $2-3 USD. Teachers’ living expenses will vary according to lifestyles and budgets.
The Chinese currency is called Renminbi, or RMB. It consists of yuan, jiao and fen. Ten jiao make up one yuan. Ten fens make up one jaio. Teachers in China will be paid in local currency, and then have the option to wire money back to their bank in their home country. In general, living expenses in major Chinese cities are about 5-7 times lower than similar expenses in Canada or the USA. However, foreign teachers’ salaries are much higher than local salaries. This means that foreign teachers are able to live well and also save up to 60% of their salary. Approximately 20% is taken out of teachers’ paycheques by the government for tax.
In general, transportation costs are approximately 5-8 times lower than costs in Canada and the USA. Here are some typical costs (in USD):
- A one-way ticket on local transport is approximately $0.15-0.53
- A monthly pass (on bus or train) is approximately $15-30
- A 5-kilometre taxi journey (within city centre) is around $2-3
(Please note that major cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, will be on the higher end)
Personal cars and taxis are the most common form of transportation, and bicycles are not as common as expected. Taxis are easy to use and are generally clean and comfortable. In most large cities, the driver will turn on a taxi-meter. But in some rural areas, a driver might insist on a pre-determined price and ignore the meter. In this case, insist on the meter or find another taxi, as it is illegal. Most taxi drivers in China will not speak English, so carry your destination written in Chinese at all times if travelling alone. Always request a receipt, as this will be essential if you leave items in the taxi and need to trace the driver. And never, ever assume that pedestrians have the right of way in China. Only cross at designated crossings, since cars will not necessarily stop for you otherwise.
Public buses in the cities are the most common form of transport. Coins, notes or a smartcard are accepted forms of payment. Metros and subways are only found in the biggest Chinese cities, but are not as well developed as the bus system. However, China’s railway system is extensive and punctual. Ask for a Chinese colleague’s help when booking tickets, as there are many different classes of seats and prices.
Due to the sheer size of the China, weather varies radically depending on location. There is a wide variety of temperature and rainfall zones, as well as monsoon seasons. In general, summers are hot and rainy while winters are cold and dry.
China is generally regarded as a safe place to live and travel for foreigners. Most locals will be friendly and eager to share their country with newcomers. As with all foreign countries, be alert and aware of local laws and customs. Laws in China can be quite strict compared to most western countries. For example, penalties for drug offences are severe, and can include the death penalty. The police in China generally don’t speak much English, but are friendly and happy to help. A good idea is to keep home and work addresses written in Chinese, and carry at all times. If lost, ask a police officer and he/she will be ready to assist.
In general, crime is low but petty crime is on the rise and tourists in Beijing and Shanghai are particularly vulnerable. Pickpockets may target foreigners who display their wealth, such as women with lots of jewellery or people with fancy mobile phones and expensive cameras. Teachers in China should common sense, and not flash their money in public. Keeping a wallet or purse out of sight and carrying small amounts of money is recommended. Teachers should be aware of their surroundings, especially in touristy areas in the big cities.
Foreign women are generally safe in China. However, women should dress more conservatively in China than in their home countries. Short skirts and tank tops may be common in western countries, but in China they may draw unwanted attention. Women should use common sense, such as being careful of walking alone at night or meeting strangers in a secluded place. In addition, Chinese males may mistake the friendliness of foreign women for romantic interest, so it’s wise to be careful with one’s actions and words.
Income tax on personal salary varies from 5-45%. Most teachers will pay approximately 20% in tax. Usually, employers will withhold the tax from teachers’ salaries and pay it to the authorities directly. When buying products, the sales tax is included in the price.
Basketball, football (soccer) and table tennis are the main sports in China. At the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China led the gold medal count with 51 wins, which attests to the importance of sport in the country. World-class athletes such as basketball star Yao Ming and tennis player Li Na have become the country’s darlings. The Chinese are passionate about health and fitness, and the pursuit of healthy living has become trendy in the major cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai. The younger generation is starting to popularize newer types of sport, such as skateboarding, rock climbing, and other activities. Traditional Chinese sports are still very popular, including martial arts, badminton, qigong, taichi and shadow boxing.
Teachers going to China who enjoy the outdoors and hope to partake in outdoor activities should opt for jobs in smaller cities.
Chess is becoming very popular in China, and recently the men’s and women’s teams placed second and third in the 37th Chess Olympiad. Bowling is also popular in China, and big cities offer 24-hour bowling alleys. Many young couples go bowling for a date, and “cosmic bowling” has become the latest fad. Another popular sport is billiards, and in rural areas half-size pool tables are commonly found along the roads. Snooker is also popular, and professional snooker players have achieved cult-status in the country.
Thanks in part to the popularity of Tiger Woods, golf has become a status sport in China that is mainly played by wealthy people and businessmen. As China becomes more affluent, more and more people will pay exorbitant fees to play the game. In addition, the golf course is becoming a place to conduct business, as the Chinese are becoming more health conscious and status-aware.
Health clubs have risen in popularity, especially with the urban middle class. Prices range from reasonable to exorbitant, but one should be able to find memberships for about $1 a day (with a contract). Big cities like Shanghai and Beijing offer advanced machines and amenities, such as spas and healthy food options. Locals in China treat health clubs as a place to socialize and meet people, so expect a more social atmosphere than in the west. Teachers who hope to explore the more traditional Chinese sports will be able to do so in large cities as well as rural areas of China.
China’s education system is state-run, and has a compulsory 9 years of education. After these required years, students who pass entrance examinations can proceed to senior middle schools (high schools) or vocational schools. After this, if students pass the national college entrance exams they can continue on to college or university. Tuition is free only for the compulsory 9 years, but students must pay for textbooks and other fees. As a result, some children cannot attend school, particularly in rural areas. However, the government is actively providing assistance in the form of subsidies, scholarships and stipends to qualified families.
The education market in China is booming. Educational exchanges and international cooperation have increased yearly, and today China has more students studying overseas than any other country. In addition, hundreds of thousands of foreign students are currently studying at China’s universities, and this number is increasing by an astonishing 20% annually. The English boom is alive and well, and more and more parents are sending their children to study English at expensive language schools staffed by international teachers. Children as young as age two are immersed in English, and pick up the language more quickly than adults. Parents are keen for their children to become comfortable communicating with others, and also be more competitive in the global market. The demand for qualified and experienced English teachers is high in China. The market has doubled in size over the last five years, and is currently worth approximately US $3.1 billion.
Large cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are diverse and metropolitan. The pace is very busy, and expect lots of pedestrians, traffic and hustle and bustle. Shanghai is often compared to New York, thanks to its international feel and entertainment options. Beijing, on the other hand, is a little more relaxed and has more tourists. For the average Chinese, city life consists of a long work day of up to 12 hours. For relaxation, locals enjoy shopping and the ever-popular karaoke. More and more people from rural areas are moving to urban areas, and approximately 20 million Chinese move to cities annually. Chinese cities are an ever-changing phenomenon in their own right.
There are 669 cities in China, and more than 100 of them have a population of more than 1 million. A typical Chinese city has wide roads, several universities, hospitals, an airport expressway and various types of housing. Expats seeking foreign reading materials can find English sections in most major cities’ bookstores. Independent specialty bookstores carrying only English books exist, though prices tend to be higher due to importing costs. Some websites offer shipping to China, and shopping online is often a great way of obtaining inexpensive books and materials.
One surprising fact about Chinese cities is that they are empty during the Chinese New Year. Locals visit their hometowns during this holiday, and expats are often surprised at the deserted urban areas, especially Beijing. It is the biggest holiday in China, and expect an amazing number of fireworks in the week surrounding the holiday.
In general, Chinese people are tolerant of foreigners in China, and accept strange or bad behaviour. They believe such behaviour is the norm in other countries. A common rule of thumb for living in China is to never lose one’s temper. Doing so will make the other person feel that he or she has lost face, or dignity, and can make the situation worse. The best way to deal with a difficult situation is to smile, be friendly, and continually ask for help. Politeness and patience are key to successful living in China. And when all else fails, smile!
Age is a very important aspect of Chinese culture. In business meetings, people are greeted according to a hierarchy of age. This rule is even followed in social situations with friends. When meeting new people, it is acceptable to shake hands, as many Chinese will have learned this when interacting with foreigners. Avoiding direct eye contact is advisable when greeting a superior, as it shows deference and respect. If exchanging business cards, make sure to receive with both hands and examine the card respectfully before placing to the side.
When giving gifts, the best gift is something from one’s country. If one is suddenly invited to a friend’s home in China, bring a bottle of sweet wine or a basket of fruit. Avoid flowers, which can symbolize mourning. If one is not sure, don’t hesitate to ask one’s host. They will appreciate the fact that one is making the effort to adapt to and respect local Chinese customs.
Never point one’s chopsticks at other people’s faces, lick or stab your food with them. And never stick them upright in one’s bowl of rice, as this symbolizes the dead at graves.