Ben graduated with a business degree and decided to get his work experience out in the big wide world before settling into an entry-level job back home in the States. Eight years, many trips back home, and a few Chinese cities later and he's still living and working in China, and loving it. When he's not working, Ben writes about travelling, food, lifestyle and Chinese culture on his blog, Asian Living.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: My hometown is small place called Weare, New Hampshire, USA.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: I live in Zhuhai, Guangdong, China.
Q: How long have you lived here?
A: I’ve been in Zhuhai over six years. I love it here.
Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
A: No, I came to Asia after my college graduation and I’m not in a rush to have kids.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I graduated from the three-year Honours Business Program at Southern NH University and decided that I needed to learn more about the world first-hand before diving into an entry-level job in the US.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your host city, how’s the quality of life in Zhuhai?
A: It’s much better than other places I’ve been in China. The air is cleaner than most other cities because of its proximity to the ocean and lack of industrial development. The city officials see Zhuhai as more of a tourist destination, although the Hengqin Island development project should give the city a big boost.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Zhuhai is a developing city, so there is a lot of road work in random places. That makes for annoying traffic issues but that’s to be expected in China. I miss my family the most, but I visit them every year – usually twice! They support my decision to develop my career out here.
Q: Is Zhuhai safe? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: I feel safer in Zhuhai than I did in Guangzhou, mostly because Zhuhai is a bit sleepier. Lots of retired folks live here too. I’d say that before Chinese New Year is the time expats should avoid being in public parks in the evenings or by themselves. The only issue is that migrant workers who might not have much money for returning home during the New Year might attempt to steal from you. This has happened to me before, but I should have been more careful. Violent crimes are very rare in Zhuhai.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Zhuhai? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car in Zhuhai?
A: The bus system is probably one of the cleanest in China. Most buses are very new and some are electrical (EVs). The intercity “light” rail is almost ready and that will make Zhuhai a bedroom community of Guangzhou. That will be exciting when it happens. Some people choose to buy a car if they are used to owning one, although the development in Zhuhai is causing rush hour traffic problems. Families can easily arrange a driver to come pick them up anytime, anywhere.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Zhuhai?
A: Fair. There aren’t any Western hospitals in Zhuhai, but expats who aren’t too picky could take care of most health-related issues in the renovated People’s Hospital or the ZhongShan #5 Hospital, both located in Xiangzhou. For less serious issues I will just go to one of these two places. There is a Hong Kong invested hospital which seems quite popular among expats. I go to Macau for the dentist because I don’t find the services available in Zhuhai to be good enough. I do not recommend the Bayer Dentist offices. Also, Chinese friends have given birth at the local “Woman’s and Children’s Hospital” in Xiangzhou, but I think Western women would probably want to go to an international hospital in Guangzhou.
About living in Zhuhai
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Zhuhai as an expat?
A: I’ve lived in a few different neighbourhoods in Zhuhai. I like Jida and Xiangzhou. They are both next to the ocean and do not touch the Macau border. Gongbei is the downtown/border area which has some OK shopping but also a rather large red light district. Chinese call it a “complicated” area. The bar street next to the ocean is worth a visit. Lian Hua Lu bar street is dirty and full of beggars…
Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Zhuhai?
A: Standard for China. Most buildings are made of cement, which makes winter a little bit uncomfortable. The cold period is about a month long, two months max. There’s so much residential development here that expats don’t have to look hard for 2- or 3-year-old flats in a good price range.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: It’s cheaper than back home, although that is changing with increasing house prices and the appreciation of the RMB. Veggies, meat, fruit, etc. are all cheaper than I’ve seen elsewhere. Electronics aren’t known for being cheap here, so go to Hong Kong or Macau for a better price and peace of mind. Also, jewellery and gold purchases are more reliable outside the mainland.
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: Many expats here are managers or employees from foreign companies here. English teaching is another common job for expats here. I used to mix with expats more when I got here. I’d say that I have more Chinese friends because I speak Chinese and they have taught me a lot. I find that I help expats deal with problems more than anything else when I meet them, but it’s ok, I don’t mind too much.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Zhuhai?
A: It’s very easy to make friends here. When Chinese people meet me they are curious about what life is like for me. Anyone who can’t speak English likes to take this opportunity to learn about my country and the way we see things. Occasionally I get negative comments about America, but that’s normal. Lots of expat families make friends with other families in places like Huafa New City (Nanping), Huafa Century City (Nanping), and Horizon Cove (Tangjia).
About working in Zhuhai
Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for China?
A: I personally have no problems getting a work visa here. I have enough connections to get a visa quite easily. I’ve heard many people having trouble with it though… I don’t know why.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city; is there plenty of work?
A: That definitely depends on the industry. If “work” means getting a job at a foreign company, I guess it is possible, although most companies are located in development zones. It’s much better to come here employed and sent by your company. Otherwise, most city work for foreigners is in education, restaurants, and other entertainment services. There’s always something to do if you look hard enough!
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: The pace is slower here, especially in government-related organisations. Many things seem almost opposite to the way they work in America. That makes things difficult, but if you can bring money to the table you won’t have as many problems. As a Chinese person once told me, “if it takes money to solve a problem, then there is no problem!” He he - my father disagrees with that, but it is common to think that way here. Anyway, this question could take ages to answer completely! And that’s why I cover those issues in my blog, Asian Living.
Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
A: No. When I first got here I was on my own and single. I think many expats rely on a relocation company from their home country or one provided by their company. There are other great moving companies that are not very expensive in China.
Family and children
Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?
A: Most expat friends of mine live in communities which are very modern and comfortable. I’d say that most get adjusted well, but feel a little bit like they’re on an island. Living in those communities requires a vehicle or family driver. The expat community usually finds a way to stay connected and that makes living in Zhuhai fine for those with families here.
Q: Did your children settle in easily?
A: I’m sure they would have if I had them! Of course, education is the biggest issue for expat families here. I wouldn’t suggest entering a child into the Chinese education system, although there are benefits for learning the language.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: QSI is the only foreign school in the city area, but I’ve heard there are a lot more Chinese students enrolled than before. Japanese and Korean parents, in particular, have expressed concerns about that because they prefer their kids be around English as much as possible. ZIS seems to be a bit more mixed, although it’s not as convenient as QSI.
Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Enjoy the proximity to Macau whenever possible. It’s great to be so close to that city because it is similar to Hong Kong. Any time I need something foreign I will go to Macau first. Hong Kong is an hour’s ferry ride away but you should spend the night to make it worth a visit, in my opinion. A Hong Kong Disney trip is great if you want to do a family holiday, but I’m more of a fan of Asian Las Vegas!
► Interviewed September 2012