American expat Greg moved to China in 2009 for work purposes, settling in Beijing in 2009. He works for Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS Beijing), a highly-regarded international school in the capital. He offers a glimpse into his experiences of life in the Chinese capital and how it compares to home.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Seattle, WA, USA
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Beijing, China
Q: When did you move here?
A: Beijing in May 2014, but have been in China since 2009.
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I moved to China originally as part of a fellowship program directly after graduating from college and moved to Beijing for work at the time.
Q: What do you enjoy most about Beijing? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: Beijing is a vibrant international city that retains its Chinese roots while still offering plenty of the amenities that you would expect in a Western country. There’s always something new to explore here in the Chinese hutongs or elsewhere in the city! At the same time, there’s plenty of Western restaurants with almost any type of food you can imagine (with imported beer and wine!) that help when you’re missing home.
While the US has cleaner air and can be more convenient thanks to being able to speak the native language, I find Beijing to be more active and fun; I find myself challenged on a day-to-day basis (which I love) and find that there’s never a shortage of fun things to do here.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Beijing certainly isn’t perfect. Air pollution, internet accessibility, and traffic are the three things that impact my life negatively on a most regular basis. Thankfully Beijing has a fairly comprehensive subway system and it’s easy to find air filters for your home and masks to wear outside, but these three problems are still fairly major inconveniences.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: Thankfully I spoke Chinese when I moved here and had studied abroad so China didn’t come as of large a shock as it could have, but for a newly arrived expat the challenge of relying friends who speak the language can be very real.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Depending on where you live, the cost of housing can be relatively high. Food can also be expensive if you eat at Western restaurants and shop at supermarkets with imported foods on a regular basis. However, if you opt to eat at local restaurants and shop at local grocery stores, you’ll find that you can live quite inexpensively.
Q: How would you rate the public transport? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: I wouldn’t recommend owning a car yourself unless you have a driver, are experienced driving in stressful environments with unpredictable drivers, or are particularly brave! Cabs are generally easily found, although this can vary depending on time of day and area of the city. Uber and the local Chinese equivalent, Didi Dache, are extremely popular and reliable. The city also has an extensive subway system with English language signage. There’s also a bus system, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a degree of Chinese ability.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in your city? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: High quality healthcare is readily available for expats in the city, although it can be expensive. Beijing United Family Healthcare, International SOS, and Oasis International Hospital are all excellent hospitals that have English-speaking Western and Chinese doctors trained abroad.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in your host city or country? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: The biggest threats to safety are probably traffic accidents. Be sure to wear your seatbelts in cars and helmets on scooters or bikes if possible. The city is actually extremely safe when it comes to muggings or armed robberies; I’ve never heard of anyone being held up or mugged in Beijing regardless of time of day or area of the city. Do, however, keep an eye out for pickpockets in crowded areas like the subway or tourist areas.
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city? What different options are available for expats?
A: The options vary greatly depending on your budget and the area of the city in which you are living. For those on a smaller budget, I would recommend getting a roommate or two if possible as this will allow you to live closer to the city center without breaking the bank. For those with larger budgets or on a company placement, there are a number of gated apartment complexes in various areas around the city that are generally of very high Western-standard quality.
Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: I highly recommend the hutong areas inside of the 2nd ring road. Don’t let the worn-down architecture fool you; many of the old buildings have had their interiors completely renovated with modern bathrooms, kitchens, etc. This location also puts you in the center of the city, immersing you in Chinese culture while also giving you immediate access to many of the Western restaurants and bars nearby.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: Chinese people who live in Beijing tend to be more used to foreigners, but do be prepared to be stared at from time to time, especially when going to local restaurants or as you venture further from the city center.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: I would say the easiest way to join a group of friends is to find a club or activity you enjoy and get involved, whether that’s a sport, visual arts, music, drama, or any other hobby. Expats in these kinds of clubs tend to be very friendly and open to new additions, so you should be able to find people with similar interests in no time!
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: Most of my friends are other expats, but there are no shortage of Chinese people looking to make foreign friends as well. As mentioned above, I would highly recommend getting involved with a club to meet people with similar interests. Online listings like City Weekend and That’s Beijing tend to be great resources for finding expat-oriented activities.
About working here
Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: Getting a working visa can be a long process, especially for younger expats who don’t have the necessary work experience. If you’re offered a job, confirm with your HR department that you will be able to live and work here legally before making the move to China.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Job opportunities are plentiful, especially if you are interested in teaching English or other subjects. Online listings on thebeijinger and echinacities are excellent resources for finding jobs, but it can be helpful to have a recommendation from an expat already living in the city for which companies to whom you should apply.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in the city/country?
A: There is definitely more of a focus on hierarchy and “face” when dealing with Chinese bosses which can be challenging for an expat coming from a Western country where it’s permissible to speak directly and make suggestions.
Family and children
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: With so many high-quality international schools available to families in Beijing, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. However, it’s important to ask yourself some basic questions about what kind of learning environment you desire for your children. What kind of curriculum do you want your children to learn? How much Chinese language and culture exposure would you like your children to have? Do you want a suburban campus or downtown location? Do you prefer a small, close-knit school community or a larger community and campus feel?
Giving specific answers to these questions should help you narrow your choices substantially. Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS Beijing) is a great choice if you value British curriculum, deep Chinese language and culture exposure, a downtown location, and close-knit community.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Make sure you take the time to get out and explore!
~Interviewed March 2016