Your Guide to Living in China

Your Guide to Living in China

18th December, 2013

A new study by HSBC reveals how a handful of Asian nations were amongst the best expat destinations for 2013. The bank’s annual Expat Explorer Survey analyzed the views of around 7,000 expats, who were asked to rank their new home countries according to key criteria. China came top this year. Bearing the findings in mind, I thought it would be useful to write a resource-rich guide to living in China.

A guide to: living in China

First, a quick look at HSBC’s annual Expat Explorer survey.

This time around several Asian countries scored high as the most desirable expat options, the countries people like you most enjoy living in. It looks as though expats in Thailand, China and Singapore – all in the top ten – have enjoyed the best overall expat experiences in the past twelve months. And China topped the list.

The biggest worldwide expat survey of its kind, now in its sixth year, the report looked at the lives, experiences and expectations of 7,000 expats, who responded in detail to key questions about their finances, quality of life and what it was like raising children abroad.

As reported in the Huffington Post in late October 2013 :

“If you’re sick of your home country and are yearning for a change, you might want to consider settling in Asia for the next chapter of your life. A new study by HSBC ranks several Asian nations among the best countries for expatriates in 2013.

When considering all three categories, China comes out on top with high scores in economics and experience. Despite faring poorly in the field of raising children, expats in China report high salaries and better quality of life than in their home countries.”

As the Washington Post says on the subject:

“You can see right away that the data are very favorable for expat life in Asia’s developing economies. Companies in these countries prize expat workers and tend to pay them 15 percent more, the report explains. This, combined with lower costs of living, can give expats much higher spending power than they’d enjoy elsewhere. Expats in East and Southeast Asia also tend to report that their social lives become much more active on moving there, due perhaps to the boost in disposable incomes as well as better weather and proximity to beaches.

Based just on this report, if you’re thinking about flying off for the life of an expat and you don’t want to have kids there, then you should consider China, Thailand or someplace else in Asia.”

And as the International Business Times reported:

“The results from the annual Expat Explorer survey are always eagerly anticipated among the expat community and those looking to build a life abroad,” head of HSBC Expat Dean Blackburn said. “This year, the results show Asia to be the leading destination for expat quality of life, with the region also emerging as an expat social hotspot.”

What did the survey ask?

The ‘economics’ element of HSBC’s survey looked at income, disposable income and economic satisfaction. The ‘raising children’ section of the study looked at the quality and cost of childcare, education, and the social and physical health and wellbeing of children. And the overall ‘experience’ element went much further, including questions on topics like:

  • healthy diet
  • healthcare access and quality, finding and organizing healthcare
  • commuting and traveling
  • accommodation
  • entertainment
  • work/life balance
  • sports
  • working environment
  • social life
  • local shops, markets, culture, transport, weather, language
  • feeling welcome at work
  • making local friends
  • fitting in with a new culture
  • Organizing utilities

What do the people surveyed say about expat life in China?

You can’t beat word-of-mouth recommendations, experiences and advice from real individuals who actually live in a country. The results of the survey include a series of fascinating comments by existing expats, revealing a genuine, on-the-ground insight into the opinions of real expats living in China. Here’s a link to a page of revealing real-life hints and tips from expats living there..

How many expats currently live in China?

Move to China and you will join an already vibrant and lively expat community. Some reports claim there are more than a million expats already living in the country, others are more conservative.

China’s expats are mainly employed in the information technology, telecommunications, education, finance, research, management and marketing sectors. In Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, many make a living from their own western-style restaurants, designed to serve the cities’ burgeoning expat communities.

  • Beijing – 70,000 expats
  • Shanghai – 57,000
  • Suzhou – 22,000
  • Guangzhou – 18, 000
  • Hangzhou – 6,000
  • Dalian City – 6,000
  • Ningbo – 3,000

China is set to play an increasingly important part  in the global economy, and there’s very little doubt more people will want to move there for economic reasons. One thing is reasonably certain – you won’t be alone.

What’s it really like living in China?

What can you expect from living and working in China? As one expat, Stephanie Yoder, says in her blog, as a China expat it’s best to expect the unexpected:

“To say that you may experience some culture shock is a massive understatement. In my estimation moving to China, particularly anywhere outside of cosmopolitan Shanghai or Beijing, is akin to moving to another planet. All of a sudden everyday things become totally incomprehensible: just going to the grocery store or the bank becomes a massive adventure.”

Stephanie has a lot to say about every aspect of expat life in China, and it makes fascinating reading. In her experience, because China isn’t a place of great ethnic diversity, expats stand out. You can expect people to take photos of you just because you look different. And because Chinese people are very curious, they’ll ask you a lot of questions. Which is no surprise when the country is so unlike the rest of the world.

What makes it so different? It’s a vast country, and almost everything will seem foreign to a new expat. The air quality in China’s cities is often very poor quality, with serious pollution and impenetrable smogs. The roads are often lethally dangerous to drive on, cycle on or even just walk across, not for the faint hearted whether you’re driving or riding the ubiquitous bicycle. Most women are married by age 25, and women who aren’t married by that age are considered peculiar. In many areas of this enormous landmass, the landscapes are extraordinary and unique. Chinese food, by all accounts, is “even better than you can imagine”, fresh and incredibly diverse. There are literally thousands of different dishes to try, and eating out is cheaper than cooking at home. As Stephanie says, “Things are not going to make sense. Accept it. One thing it never is though, is boring.”

By all accounts expat life in China is exciting, challenging and very much out of the ordinary. If you are in the market for a genuine adventure, it is probably one of the best choices you can make. If you like life to be simple, familiar and predictable, it might not be for you.

The cost of living in China

Prices in China are rising, but the cost of living is still very low compared to most industrialized nations. You can live comfortably on very little money, with a lifestyle you probably couldn’t afford at home; housekeepers, regular long distance travel, eating out, luxuries like massages – a Chinese speciality – and of course beautiful tailor-made clothes.

Food prices in China are very low, and eating out is the best way to discover the country’s extraordinarily varied cuisine. Leisure activities are often surprisingly affordable too. The country’s public transport is cheap and very good indeed, and taxis are reasonably-priced. The trains are excellent, with increasing numbers of high speed rail services connecting the cities. And internal flights are also cheap although they cost more around the Chinese New Year.

What about schools in China? Wikipedia provides a comprehensive list of international schools in China, arranged by city.

An example of typical monthly China expat expenditure*

Imagine you’re a TEFL teacher, a job that isn’t the most highly paid in the world. Your salary might be 12,350 RMB a month. You should spend around 3500 RMB on rent per month, 250 RMB total on electricity, gas and water, 300 RMB on telephone and internet services, 1500 on food, and 295 on insurance. Which leaves you with an impressive 6,505 RMB a month disposable income, around half your salary.

Obviously the cost of living is different depending on the area you live, but this is a sensible average for a large Chinese city. As you can see, earning a good wage in China leaves you with an impressive level of disposable income.

Chinese traditions and culture

The Chinese Traditions and culture website is packed with useful information about tips for living in China, including learning Mandarin (which apparently isn’t as difficult as it seems!), how the Chinese view foreigners, how to eat in a restaurant, mastering the Chinese toilet, shopping, laundry, drinking water and hospitals.

China expat blogs for you to read

If you want to know more about living in China as an expat, straight from the horse’s mouth, the Expats Blog website features a list of blogs by expats in the country. And if you’d like the latest news about the country, the BBC website offers dedicated China news pages.

Our special Country Guide to China

We have written a special country guide for expats thinking about moving to China. Just click here to download it.

What about your experiences as an expat in China?

We’d love to share your experiences with our expat readers, and those who are thinking about making the move to China for a better work/life balance and a relatively luxurious lifestyle. Feel free to leave a comment, or join us on Twitter @now_health.

Alison Massey

Group Marketing Director

Now Health International

Alison Massey is a 15-year digital marketing veteran, who has spent the last seven years using social media to help expats and soon to be expats find out what to expect from a life overseas. An expat living in Hong Kong herself, Alison is the Group Marketing Director of Now Health, the award-winning international health insurance provider.

Contact Alison Massey

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