So you’re considering a job, a university, or a relocation to China’s capital, Beijing, and you’ve scoured the internet for articles, blogs, and discussions about life in China, life in Beijing, expat life, etc. Why are you reading another article about what to consider before moving Beijing, then? Because you’re just not sure.
When I moved to Beijing in 2012, I wasn’t sure either. I didn’t make any commitments (but had offers), booked my flights, packed our belongings into a storage, and left with the idea that I’d “test the waters” before deciding if Beijing was for me. Four years proves that I liked it.
It’s important to keep in mind that headhunters, recruiters, and HR people are not going to tell you what realistically to expect. They will share the positives and perhaps a few common anecdotal evidence as to why you should make the leap, but ultimately their goal is to get you over there. On the other end, a quick internet search will give you an endless supply of horror stories and negative experiences. Who should you believe?
Believe me. I spoke with American recruiters before heading out to China. I know exactly how they’re selling China to you. I’ve had colleagues who ran around in circles, taking road trips and flights to get their visas and work permit clearances, and I’ve known foreigners who went with a visitor visa and adjusted their status later. I’ve met foreigners who cried and wanted to leave after they first day, and foreigners who have stayed and stayed and won’t ever leave. I’ve met super qualified foreigners in high positions, and foreigners who didn’t even have a high school diploma. You can meet anyone in Beijing and at some point you stop being surprised.
Keep in mind that every list and opinion derives from one’s background. For me, a lot of the complaints about Beijing simply didn’t register because I was coming from a metropolitan area (Los Angeles, CA) with a high living standard, some pollution, and a lot of traffic. In addition, I’m an Asian looking person with Mandarin skills, a Chinese husband who studied in Beijing, and previous China travel experience (Northern China in 2002, Shanghai in 2004, Chengdu in 2008). But don’t dismiss my opinion just because we might not come from the same background. You might be surprised!
Now, on to the points you should consider before moving to Beijing:
Beijing’s pollution is real, but not the worst.
What is it like living in a city known for its apocalyptic skies? It can be depressing, but on the bright side it makes you and everyone around you appreciate the blue skies more.
In practice, pollution forces us to think about sealing doors and windows, about indoor air quality, the usefulness of indoor (and outdoor) plants, and even car air quality and vent cleanliness. We shopped around for air purifiers, heavy drapes, snake plants, face masks, and various other ways we can better take control of the air we breathe. It also means that there’s an indoor smoking ban in Beijing, which doesn’t mean no one smokes in your local neighborhood restaurant, but it does mean that hotels, conference rooms, and offices enforce the ban.
With how bad pollution can get in Beijing, we sometimes forget that other cities have it worse. In traveling for work, I discovered cities where the smoke was so bad I couldn’t walk without coughing (and I lived in Beijing!) Developing third tier cities are often covered by a layer of dust from nonstop construction. Industrial cities have nothing but pollution, and in cities without a smoking ban you’ll find yourself choking as much indoors as outdoors.
I’ve known people who left because of the pollution, people with infants who couldn’t stop coughing, and children who couldn’t get enough oxygen. People die from pollution every year, which is frightening to hear, but also a sobering warning for all of us to evaluate our health prior to moving to Beijing. For example, if you’re sensitive to cigarette smoke, you might want to reconsider moving to Beijing. Research shows that standing outside on a smoggy day is equivalent to smoking forty cigarettes per day.
Beijing is dusty
It shouldn’t surprise you that one of the most polluted cities is dirty or dusty, but many forget that unless you drive everywhere, leave your nice clothes and shoes home.
I can testify to ruining at least two pairs of leather boots within a year after having had them for a long time in the US. Friends have also bemoaned the destruction of perfectly good white clothes and the amount of cleaning required to maintain a dust free home.
Beijing is big, big, big
Beijing is not just a city, it’s a city state, which makes it similar to a county. It’s kind of like the greater Los Angeles area.
The “rings” that circulate Beijing can give you a good indication of how big it is. The first ring is basically the palace of ancient China (the most central area of the city) around which the other rings circulate. The second ring encompasses the “old town” of Beijing with its treasured architecture and old “hutongs”, as well as the Central Business District (CBD). The third ring has more modern neighborhoods, including many foreigner friendly hoods. The fourth ring is getting a little far already, and the fifth ring includes remote expat areas where international schools are located with their gigantic campuses. The sixth ring now has subway access and is where the working class Chinese might flock to for affordable living, and the seventh ring wasn’t even developed when I first went to Beijing and yet now it’s actually known.
What this means is that it’s very important to know where you will stay before you go and how far it is from your place of work and schools. It also means that if you live in one district, you might seldom set foot in another district.
Beijing is not cheap
Many foreigners like to blog about how much money they saved in their interim year in China, or how retirees go to China to save for their dream home. I’ve known people who worked at educational institutions and did well for themselves, but make no mistake, Beijing is not a cheap city. Neither is any other “first tier” Chinese city.
This can come as a surprise to foreigners entering China from the US (compared to EU citizens from “expensive” countries) who moan Beijing’s high rents, expensive restaurant and bar scene, and sky-high children’s school tuition fees.
To give you an idea of rental costs, in 2010 we paid $1050 (RMB 7350) for a one bedroom apartment in the greater Los Angeles area. In Beijing, we looked at one bedroom apartments for about RMB 6500-7000 ($928.50-1000) within third ring. We also tried living outside fifth ring for RMB 3200 ($457) a month (a two bedroom loft, 125sqm), but in the end we couldn’t stand the commute (there was no subway access).
In 2017, we can find the same one bedroom apartment for $1350-1450 (RMB 9,450-10,150) with newer buildings in gated communities costing $1900-2200 (RMB 13,300-14,700). In Beijing, we’re taking RMB 8000-12,500 ($1,140-1,785) for a one bedroom within three ring.
Now you’re thinking maybe the cost of living is low and makes up for it. This depends on your lifestyle. Local food can be as cheap as RMB 1.5 ($0.21) for a meat bun, RMB 10 ($1.4) for a bowl of noodles, or RMB 3-5 ($0.42-0.71) for a meat skewer. A burger with fries costs around RMB 65 ($9.20), a pizza around RMB 170 ($24.28), and a coffee around RMB 38 ($5.4), depending on where you dine. Healthy eating will especially cost you.
Beijing as the capital is not like other Chinese cities
Many are surprised when they move from other cities to Beijing at the level of bureaucracy and heightened security measures in Beijing. In a populous country like China, the capital has the most random people and the centralized government works overtime trying to maintain order.
What this means for our day to day lives is minor annoyances that you eventually learn to accept as normal. This includes paying down four to six months rent to move in, and paying three months rent at a time in a bulk sum. It includes some apartments having pay-as-you-go electricity cards (I’ve even seen water cards!) It means carrying your passport because you might be interrogated at any time, and having to throw all your belongings through an X-ray machine every time you take the subway or train. Some stations will have you walk through metal detectors, check in your water for chemical bombs, and even ask you to surrender to a pat down–for a subway ride! But nothing is as important as remembering that Beijing takes its twenty four hour alien registration policy very seriously so remember to take your passport to the closest community police station…or else!
Beijing requires a lot of walking
Even if you drive or take cabs (or uber) everywhere, you’ll still need to walk. The reason is that apartment communities, train stations, subway stations, and the inner city are all built like little villages. So you might think you’ll be on time arriving five minutes before you’re promised time outside a plaza, mall, shopping center, or apartment community only to realize it’s a ten minute walk to the building you’re looking for. When you arrive, you might find yourself facing a flight of stairs.
If you take public transportation, get ready to walk a lot just getting around or transferring lines.
In Beijing, help is cheap and plentiful, but good help is still hard to find
One of the things I miss the most about Beijing was all the cheap labor I could afford to hire. I still remember my neighbor who had several help, or ayis, come by throughout the week. There was the nanny, and the music teacher, and the tutor for the kids. Then there’s the cooking ayi, the cleaning ayi, and the ayi who only does ironing. Even hiring a chef to pick up groceries and cook a meal in your home is incredibly affordable (around RMB 300 or $42.80).
While ayis might be enthusiastic about cleaning or cooking, that doesn’t mean they’re good at what they do. Many Ayis clean without any formal training, bringing their backward village ways and traditions into your home. I can’t tell you how many times people have complained about an ayi who used the same cutting board for meat and vegetables, or who didn’t differentiate a table rag from a floor rag. I’ve seen many Ayi’s clean with hot water, convinced that the heat would kill bacteria off the floor better than pinesol, and I’ve cringed at Ayi’s who couldn’t get the ratio right for their bleach solution at restaurants and businesses.
A whole industry has been built around training help from infant CPR classes to western cooking classes to complete training. If you’re a picky person, hire your help through an agency and ask for someone who has specifically worked for someone from your culture. Cultural norms also differ so don’t be surprised if an ayi who’s worked for a “foreigner” for X number of years has different notions of “clean” than you.
Deciding to move to Beijing is a decision that requires careful consideration. Join groups on social media to meet people like you who have taken the plunge and hear more voices on the topics you care about. Did I miss something? Comment below for my opinion!