What’s It Like Living in China? | Living Abroad Series
What’s It Like Living in China? – Living Abroad Series: Thinking of making the faithful leap of moving to China, but first you want to know whats it like living in China before you do? Moving to China, or any country for that matter isn’t a decision you want to rush, you want to take as much time and research as possible, and probably more so with a country like China. Upon arriving in China you will find certain elements frustrating and challenging especially if you don’t speak the language. It is hard initially, but there is an organized chaos occurring.
While China can be a challenging country to live in, it is ultimately an amazing and rewarding place to come too. The people are lovely, there are numerous attractions to see whether man-made or natural, a unique cultural experience to be had, and an opportunity see more of the most populated country in the world. Read on as I’ll help explain what it is like living in China as part of our living abroad series.
List of Topics
1 – Living in a Communist Country
2 – Cost of Living
3 – Internet
4 – Cultural Differences; The Good, The Bad, Misc.
5 – Language Barrier
6 – Food
7 – Housing
8 – Transport
9 – Pollution/Air Quality
10 – Being A Foreigner
11 – Z Visa/Residence Permit
12 – Spring Festival
13 – General Tips For Living in China
Expectation Vs Reality of Living in China
What’s it like living in China a Communist Country?
Living abroad in China isn’t that different from living in a democratic country. In all honesty nothing really feels that different. In Australia voting is compulsory, and obviously in China nobody votes since the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) makes all the decisions in the best interest of the country. It should be noted that even if China was a democratic country with public voting, I wouldn’t be able to vote since I don’t have a Chinese passport. So that aspect of things doesn’t apply to me, but I do understand what is being said.
As a friend has explained to me once before, in China while you may not be able to exercise the right to vote or have free speech against the government, you need to ask yourself how often do you exercise those rights? In China as a trade off you are given large amounts of personal freedoms instead of political freedoms. You’re allowed to drink in the street or in a shopping centre, you’re allowed to smoke in an elevator, or even let off fireworks at 3am in the morning, however when it comes to allowing the public to have a voice, that doesn’t exist in China.
Does living in a Communist Country change how I act from day to day? No, not all. Nothing I have done has changed (internet excluded). In fact in some respects, and echoing what my friend said to me, I feel as though I have more freedom to do things here. I drive a scooter too and from work. In Australia since it’s motorized and I’m driving it on the road I’d need a licence, here in China I don’t need one. Living in China in this respect doesn’t feel any different in a negative manner, in fact it feels more liberating more than anything.
Cost of Living
China has a burgeoning expat community simply because of the cost of living, which is pretty damn cheap. Depending on where you live in China, you have the potential to save quite a bit of money. In the bigger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou the cost of living is a little more. While it is possible to save and live on a budget in these cities, for best results it’s recommended to stay in a smaller city as the cost of living is a lot cheaper. The exchange rate I’m using is $1 USD = 6.58 CNY (Chinese Yuan/RMB/¥)
Rent: Smaller city 1500 – 2000 RMB per month ($227 – 303 USD). Bigger city 2000 – 3000 RMB ($303 – 455 USD)
Cost of Electricity for two for 3 months: 250 RMB ($37.98 USD) – 1 Month = 83 RMB ($12.45 USD)
Cost of Water for two for 3 months: 45 RMB ($6.8 USD) – 1 Month = 15 RMB ($2.25 USD)
Internet for 1 year: 800 RMB ($121 USD)
Bottle of Water: Smaller city 2 – 3 RMB ($0.30 – 0.45 USD). Bigger city 3 – 5 RMB ($0.45 – 0.76 USD)
Bottle of Coke: Smaller city 2 – 4 RMB ($0.30 – 0.60 USD). Bigger city 3 – 5 RMB ($0.45 – 0.76 USD)
Chicken Breast 1 kg/2.2 pounds: 10 – 14 RMB ($1.59 – 2.12 USD)
Beef 1kg/2.2 pounds: 70 RMB ($10.50 USD)
Beef Mince 1 kg/ 2.2 pounds: 30 RMB ($4.50 USD)
Apples 1 kg/2.2 pounds : 7 – 12 RMB ($1.06 – 1.82 USD)
Bananas 1 kg/2.2 pounds : 8 – 10 RMB ($1.20 – $1.50 USD)
Tomatoes 1 kg/2.2 pounds : 10 – 14 RMB ($1.50 – $2.11 USD)
Oranges 1 kg/2.2 pounds : 7 – 10 RMB ($1.05 – $1.50 USD)
Onions 1 kg/2.2 pounds : 7 – 10 RMB ($1.05 – $1.50)
Loaf of Bread: 8 – 12 RMB ($1.20 – $1.82 USD)
12 Eggs: 8 – 12 RMB ($1.20 – $1.82 USD)
1 Litre of Milk /0.26 Gallons – 10 – 18 RMB ($1.59 – $2.74 USD)
Cheese 1 kg/2.2 pounds: 80 – 120 RMB ($12.05 – 18.08 USD)
Rice 1 kg/2.2 pounds: 10 RMB ($1.59 USD)
Initial Cost of Taxi: Smaller city 9 RMB ($1.36 USD). Bigger city 11 – 13 rmb ($1.67 -1.97 USD)
Public Transport Buses: Smaller 1 – 3 RMB . Bigger city 1 – 3 rmb ($0.15 – 0.45 USD)
Public Transport Trains: Smaller city – no infrastructure. Bigger city 2 – 7 RMB ($0.30 – 1.07 USD)
E-bike: 400 – 1000 RMB ($60 – 150 USD)
Bike Card (Deposit – Returned when card is returned): 330 RMB ($50 USD)
Chinese Beer: 2 – 5 RMB ($0.3 – 0.76 USD)
Pack of Cigarettes: 10 – 20 RMB ($1.59 – $3.02 USD)
Meal At a Local Restaurant: Smaller city 10 – 25 RMB ($1.5 – 3.8 USD). Bigger city 15 – 30 RMB ($2.27 – 4.55 USD)
Large Big Mac Meal: 45 RMB ($6.8 USD)
Large Pizza at Pizza Hut: 100 – 120 RMB ($15.18 – 18.22 USD)
Cup of Coffee: 20 – 30 RMB ($3.02 – $4.50 USD)
Ticket To The Cinema: 50 RMB ($7.52 USD)
Health and Fitness/Medical
1 Year Gym Membership: 300 RMB ($45 USD)
Wisdom Tooth Extraction including Medication: 450 RMB ($68.33 USD)
Pantene Shampoo 400 ml/13.52 oz: 20 – 30 RMB ($3.02 – $4.52 USD)
Pantene Conditioner 400 ml/13.52 oz: 20 -30 RMB ($3.02 – $4.52 USD)
Colgate Toothpaste 90 ml/3.04 oz: 12 – 15 RMB ($1.82 – $2.27 USD)
Men’s Haircut Local Barber: 10 – 20 RMB ($1.52 – $3.02 USD)
Men’s Haircut Up-Market Hairdresser: 50 – 100 RMB ($7.54 – $15.07 USD)
Women’s Haircut Local Hairdresser: 20 – 35 RMB ($3.02 – $5.28 USD)
Women’s Haircut Up-Market Hairdresser: 50 – 100 RMB ($7.54 – $15.07 USD)
*Bottle of Foundation Make Up* : 120 – 200 RMB ($18.08 – $30.14 USD)
*Most Chinese foundations contain some elements of whitening. To purchase a foundation without whitening, it’s best to shop at a chemist/drugstore called Watson’s.
Dress From H&M: 199 RMB ($29.95 USD)
Shirt From H&M: 199 RMB ($29.95 USD)
Jeans From H&M: 300 RMB ($300 USD)
Shoes From H&M: 250 RMB ($37.60 USD)
Things are generally cheaper in China when it comes to food, public transport and rent. When it comes to imported goods, that’s when things can be slightly more expensive in China. This includes foods like chocolate and beef, some imported clothing brands, while imported electronics more specifically from Japan can be a little more expensive. If you buy a Chinese electronic equivalent it’ll more than likely be cheaper, this is true for mobile phones and the Chinese brand of Lenova.
This is the main thing on what people really want to know what it’s like living in China. Does my internet work, or even more, what’s blocked and what isn’t from the Great Firewall of China? Picture this waking up in the morning for your normal routine, imported coffee in hand, and checking the news on everybody’s favourite website, Bing or Yahoo. Sounds like a dream, or a horrible nightmare depending on who you ask. In China access to all Google products is restricted. This includes Google maps, gmail, google+, the Google search engine, Google translate, and even the Google Apps store. Anything related to Google is blocked. Instead you’ll be waking up with Bing or Yahoo like in the scenario.
The blocked sites extend to all social media websites, this includes Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Skype, and even some Western news publications. Not every Western website is banned, but when coming to China simply assume that the websites you visit frequently are going to be banned. With this said there is a way around the Great Firewall of China, and that is by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). By using a VPN you sign into an access point from a list of selected countries outside of China (take the United States for instance), this in turn tricks the browser into thinking that you are actually visiting the website from the United States and not China. This is how people are able to check Facebook in China.
FYI – it does seem the government does know about the use of VPN’s, however they allow them to a certain extent. If you’re wanting to purchase a VPN for China, or simply wanting to buy one in general please use this link here. It will give you 1 month free on a 12 month subscription, while it will also help us as it’ll give us 1 month free as well. It’s a win win situation, so help a brother out 😉
One thing that I was very surprised about, in a positive manner, is how nice everyone is, with this being most reflective when trying to speak Chinese. In most Western countries I find there to be a negative attitude towards travellers who don’t speak English, if you don’t speak English than people will more than likely become slightly aggressive or view you as lazy. On the flip side here in China it’s almost expected that you won’t speak Chinese, and if you do happen to speak a little, even if it is enough to order, they seem to appreciate it and are quite amazed. In this regard compared to Western culture China is definitely more tolerable.
I’ve had mixed experiences in bigger cities, but in the smaller town where I live, Yangzhou, people are honest. In our initial time of coming to China it would have been very easy to take advantage of us when it came to money. But people are very honest here. You can hand over a large note and expect people to give you the correct change. It’s a welcome change from countries in which you feel like there is a scam lurking around every corner.
People always joke about German efficiency and speed when it comes to sorting out matters, but I generally believe that China can give them a run for their money. Things happen incredibly fast in China. Whether this is development of land, a building, business agreements or a new business opening, to even the post service. I haven’t had too much experience with post service of other countries, mostly Australia. But China Mail is in another league compared to Australia Post, it’s not even comparable. In China when they want something done quickly, it’s done almost instantaneously.
There are some gaping cultural differences. One of the biggest differences is that smoking is everywhere – elevators, restaurants, bathrooms, and supermarkets. I’ve heard stories of people finding cigarette butts in the shower of their local gym, which shows how much of a culturally acceptable norm smoking is in China. Next is cleanliness, this applies to spitting and urinating. Spitting like smoking is everywhere, as it is acceptable to spit, even in an elevator. In regards to urinating this applies more to children, as every now and then you will find a mother picking up their child to urinate in a trash bin at a shopping centre, or simply drop the childs pants and allow them to urinate on the footpath. Having said that I have only noticed this several times in my time in China, however in Australia it was never something I ever witnessed, though that’s not to say it has never happened.
The other big difference is pushing in line and shouting, with both being acceptable. To be fair if there is an obvious line being made than social pressures dictate to line up in a traditional Western manner, however if people are lining up for something a little bit more vague like getting your groceries weighed at the supermarket, than pushing will occur. You sort of need to play it by ear and evaluate what is happening. Though generally speaking I get the sense that it is every man for themselves, and you want to be served as quickly as possible. Beware at train and bus stations as people may try and squeeze in front of you, if they do you have to tell them no very sternly, or position your body so that it blocks their path.
Love in China is huge. If you’re single and not married before you’re 25, you start getting looked at as a left over. Due to this left over stigma, things move incredibly fast in a Chinese relationship. Couples usually start proclaiming their love within a few dates, and from there they start looking to become married. There is also huge pressure from couples who are married to produce a child in order to continue the family lineage and provide a grandson or daughter.
Studying is huge. In Australia students in primary and high school generally go to school from 9am – 3pm. In China they generally go to school at 8am – 4/5pm Monday to Saturday, with the hours of some high school’s ranging from 8am – 7pm. On top of this they are expected to complete homework, learn an instrument generally piano or violin, with some even going to English school in their time off. Sundays are usually spent completing homework or other extra curriculum activities.
Eating out with friends is very common. With the most important meal usually dinner is shared with friends and family. Keep in mind whoever invites the offer out is the one who pays. If it is a group dinner than the cost of the dinner is divided amongst the group regardless of how much or how little you ate.
This can be one of the most frustrating things when it comes to living in China. If you’re planning on living in China than you’ll need to learn a few basic phrases, I’d recommend starting with numbers and greetings. This will make your life a lot easier. Some people may know a little English to ‘How are you?’, or simply saying ‘Hello’. Expecting to walk into a shop and to order in English with the shop assistant being able to understand you is simply not going to happen. So people able to order food should be high on your priorities on learning how to say.
Reading certain characters will also help. China uses simplified mandarin, which means that the characters will look slightly different, or even completely different from traditional characters. Character wise I’d recommend learning the characters for rice, noodle, soup, fried, pork, chicken, beef, duck, and water.
| What’s It Like Living in China? |
When it comes to food there really isn’t too much variety. China is largely a mono-cultural country, which means this is reflective in the food choices available. This is no more noticeable than when in a food court of a shopping centre as all the food is Chinese. That’s not to say that you won’t be able to find a place that sells a pizza, or a hamburger, but there not as much of a common place in China.
One thing to note is that the Chinese food is a little different to what Chinese food is like back in Western countries. Chinese food in a Western country seems to be altered slightly for a Western palette, much like tacos in Mexico are different from what they are in a Western country.
A snapshot of our lounge room in China.
Our rent in 2000 RMB a month. For that we get a 2 story apartment, 1 bedroom with a study on the 2nd level, a kitchen, bathroom and shower, laundry with a washing machine, cupboard space in the study, and 2 air conditioners 1 for upstairs, and the other downstairs . On top of that the entire apartment is furnished with a queen size bed, bed side tables, couch and study, fridge, washing machine, microwave, electric stove, and cooking utensils. The only thing not included is an oven, which isn’t very common in Chinese households.
A neat little quirk of China, and can be one of the most frustrating things to living in China, and that’s upon arriving you have 24 hours to register your current address with the police. If your address changes, your visa or any details concerning you visa changes than you will once again need to register. For Lexi and I, this meant that we had 24 hours once arriving in China to find an apartment to live for the next year. This can seem a little daunting, but lucky for us we had an assistant from the English school we were working at to help us through the process.
So be prepared that upon arriving in China you won’t have too much of an opportunity for rest within the first several days as you will need to sort out paperwork for your Residence Permit, find an apartment, and register with the police.
Pollution/ Famous Chinese Air Quality
Taken on a warm sunny morning in June in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province
Yes the hazy polluted fog does exist. Depending on where you are and the time of year these factors will influence the severity of the pollution, with winter being the worse season. Towns near heavy industrialized zones, Beijing and Shanghai are generally worse. The air is supposedly getting better, with India now considered to have the worse air quality in the world, however in extreme circumstances China is worse. If you’re interested in coming to China but are concerned for your health from the air quality, I’d recommend downloading an air quality tester app. The app sends you updates on air quality, this way you can restrict and monitor your movements outside.
The roads here are chaotic, at times it seems as though people drive wherever they want to, not where they should. Due to this it can take a bit of time to get used to driving on the roads in China. The main methods of transportation here for expats are taxis, buses, cycling, and e-bikes. E-bikes are essentially an electric scooter or bicycle which are capable of speeds from 30 to 50 km’s an hour.
If using an e-bike isn’t quite your style and you’d prefer something a little more active, there are public bikes available. Most Chinese cities have public bikes available to those who have a citizens/bike card. Bike cards are usually 320 yuan, with 300 yuan acting as a deposit in case of theft or vandalism, while 20 yuan is your balance. The 300 yuan will be returned to you when you return the bike card. The first hour of riding the bike is free, after that every subsequent hour is 1 yuan. If you dock the bike within the hour and take out another you can refresh the initial free hour. You can do this as many times as you like while you have the card, so you never need to dip into your retainer.
Buses and taxis are incredibly cheap in China. A public bus is anywhere from 1 – 3 yuan, while a taxi in a major city starts at 12 – 13 yuan with the trip capped at that price for the first 3 – 4 minutes. In a smaller city the price for taxis start at 9 yuan, with the price also capped for the initial 3 minutes.
Being A Foreigner
The Chinese are very curious. Depending on where you go in China, the people may not have seen a foreigner before. Obviously in the bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing the public would have seen a foreigner before, however in more rural parts of China seeing a foreigner walk the streets isn’t common practice. Due to this people are curious, as most people from anywhere in the world are when they see something different. Common reactions are that people will stare, say hello, or simply want a photo. You will be called a waiguoren or laowai, which is them calling you a foreigner. There is no malice in the way they say it, it’s simply an accepted term in China.
White privilege exists in China. Living in China it can become very easy to feel privileged and entitled simply due to the colour of your skin. As of this stage I haven’t lived here for too long, roughly 6 months, however it’s very easy to see how you can start to develop a sense of entitlement. Most people do treat you differently in a positive way due to the colour of your skin, which fuels the entitlement. In my opinion this is driven by Chinese norms of beauty, with the most desired facets being the western features of big eyes, and white skin. It should be noted that the image of a white man or woman is often used in marketing to portray a product as being exotic, rich or both.
These factors can combine when applying for a job, more so in teaching English, as some companies will use the notion of simply having or being associated with a ‘White Foreigner’ as a bit of a badge of honour. Through actions like this it’s understandable that a sense of white privilege may begin to develop.
Z Visa, Residence Permit, and Foreign Experts Certificate
If you’re planning on living, or working in China for an extended period of time you will need to get a Residence Permit and a Foreign Experts Certificate. Before you can get a Residence Permit you will need to apply for a Z Visa, once you have the Z Visa and are in China are you able to upgrade to the Residence Permit. The Residence Permit will allow you unlimited entry in and out of China.
To obtain a Foreign Experts Certificate you can fill out the paperwork and submit the application online. You will need to prove that you are an expert in the field that you coming to China in, in most cases this will simply require a university/college degree.
Crowds in Shanghai during Spring Festival
Spring Festival is the largest holiday in China, with Spring Festival having been described as the largest human migration which occurs every year. Everybody in China at some point in a 2 – 3 week window has time off. This means crowds are huge. When it comes to travelling around China on your holidays it’s best to avoid crowded/popular spots.
General Tips for Living in China
- Buy a VPN. It will make your time living abroad in China all that easier. Not only will it give you some of the creature comforts of home by allowing you to visit some of your favourite websites, but more importantly you’ll be able to stay in contact with people a lot easier from back home, and use Google translate which is a much better translation app than Bing.
- Have a phone open to all cellular networks. If you’re planning on spending a good portion of time living in China, or any country for that matter, it’s always a good idea to have a SIM card of that country. Not only will it give you cheaper calling rates, and you’ll be more accessible. Plan for the notion that your current cell phone provider will not work in China.
- Download WeChat before arriving. If your planning on meeting somebody, since there is a strong possibility that your phone service will not work, if you can at least connect to Wifi than you’d be able to make contact with the other individual if anything goes arise. Since there is no Facebook in China everybody has WeChat instead.
- Make sure to have the address of where you’re going in Chinese. This is essential, not just for living in China, but for general travel. Since not everybody can read Pinyin (Romanized translation of Chinese), it will make things a lot easier if you have the address ready in Chinese to show taxi drivers, bus drivers, or if asking for directions.
- Shoes and pants. If you’re living abroad in China any more than 6 – 7 months, I’d recommend to pack some extra shoes and pants. This applies more to those who have larger feet and are a little taller. Since clothing sizes are a little smaller in Asia, it may be a difficult to find something that fits.
- Make friends with a Chinese person. Having a friend from the area who knows how things work, or simply for the fact of being able to speak and read Chinese will help immensely.
- Don’t use Ebay or US Amazon. If you’re planning on living in China for an extended period of time, chances are you may find something online that catches your eye. The problem here that arises is that if you use Ebay or Amazon most places might not ship to China, the shipping costs could be as much as the item, and there is a chance the item may not arrive. For buying products online in China, we done this numerous times, we recommend using Taobao, Amazon China, Alibaba China, and JD. The speed of postage here in China is incredibly fast. Using Chinese based websites will make your time living abroad in China all the more easier.
- US, and Australian/New Zealand power plugs will work. European it’s best to arrive with a universal power pack.
- BRING FOREIGN MEDICINE. Finding any sort of Western medicine is rather difficult. Something as simple as a headache tablet doesn’t exist here in China, or if they do they are incredibly difficult to find. So stash up on your headache and cold and flu tablets.
- Prepare yourself on getting sick. It will happen, it’s only a matter of time. It’s worse during winter in which you may get sick several times, while you may have a lingering cold for several weeks. Mentally prepare yourself or this facet as the initial months living abroad in China can be a little difficult. To be fair to China this is likely to happen if you move from one country to another.
- This last one is more general advice, but try not to get too depressed and angered over issues. Try and take things in your stride. You are in a different culture, in a different country, and in a place with different societal expectations and views. So try not to get too stressed out if things don’t seem to be going your way, you need to accept that some bad will happen along with the good. Take it as it is, that’s a general lesson for life and travel.
What did you think of our article ‘What’s It Like Living in China?‘ If you liked it please share, pin, comment. If you’ve lived in China, or even travelled there before let us know on your thoughts on what it is like in China.