Recently I did an interview with expatinterviews.com, a site which describes itself as “a bridge, something that people who need information on what it’s like to live in another country, can cross to get first-hand feedback and insights from one of the best sources that exist: expatriates, or expats.” Normally I would not repost an interview I did for another site, but a lot of these questions are question I get asked from readers in regards to living in China. If anybody has any information to add or correct, please feel free to do so in the comments section. The original post is available here.
Ben is now back home in the USA after having lived in China for three years. What did he like most about living in China? What did he like the least? Experiencing Chinese culture opened up a whole new world for him, and those who are considering moving to China can perhaps learn from Ben’s experiences, observations, and tips, which he most generously shares here.
Where were you born?
Kansas City, Missouri, USA -In which country and city are you living now? After living in or near Fuzhou, China for the past 3 years, I just returned to Kansas City last month.
Did you live alone or with your family?
While I was in China I lived alone.
How long did you live in China?
I lived in Fuqing, a small town in Southeast China for 15 months, then moved to Fuzhou, which was only about an hour away from Fuqing, but considerably larger. I lived there for another 2 years.
What is your age?
I am 27.
When did you come up with the idea of living in China?
I finished college in 2003 and knew I wanted to experience living in another culture and learning the local language. When I say “different culture” I mean I was looking for something really different (i.e. not Europe). It’s not that I didn’t like life in the US, but I really wanted to be shocked and exposed to a way of life different from my own.
My original plan was to go to francophone Africa since I had studied French for 5 years. When I couldn’t find a decent job there, I found a job in a local newspaper for teaching English in China. One of my goals had been to learn the language of wherever it was I was going, and I wanted to learn a language that I would be able to use widely in the future. Based on China’s growing importance in world affairs, and its high ranking on the “different” scale, I opted to go to China. While in China I taught English at the university level for 2 years, then worked as an ethnographer for an American company for another year.
Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
Well, if you look at my passport now, you will see nearly 20 different Chinese visas. They actually take up so much room that I had to get more pages added to my passport at the Guangzhou American embassy. If I had to describe the process of obtaining a Chinese visa, I probably would not use the adjective “hard.” I think “taxing” is a much better word. Pretty much anybody from a Western country can get a visa to China, but that doesn’t mean you will not be required to jump through a series of hoops in order to get it. The regulations are constantly changing, and although I have never been flat out denied a visa, there was one time I had to leave Fuzhou and take a trip to Hong Kong in order to get it processed. Then there was the time I had to prove to the visa bureau that I had 25,000 RMB (a little over 3,000 USD) in my bank account before they would give me a new visa. The list goes on and on, and my experiences are not unique. Bottom line, you will get your visa, but you may need to put up with some serious bureaucratic muckedy-muck along the way. Patience is a must.
Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
The concept of medical insurance in China is still relatively new, and most people pay their medical expenses out of pocket. In China (like most places in the world) health care is much, much cheaper than it is in the United States. While I was living in Fuzhou, an American friend of mine and his Chinese wife had a baby. They got a private room in the hospital (getting your own room is a premium charge) and she stayed in the hospital for 3 days. The final bill was a mere 300 dollars USD.
While my friend’s experience with the hospital went smoothly, I personally would not want to have any major procedure done in a Chinese hospital when there was an available alternative. So I purchased a high-deductible American insurance policy. For small things such as doctor’s visits I would go to a Chinese hospital and pay out of pocket, which usually cost about the price of an extra value meal at McDonalds. However, in the event I ever needed major surgery, I knew I had the option of going back to the US and being covered by insurance there.
How did you make your living in China? Did you have any type of income generated?
The supply of Westerners in China is still far below the demand for them, so finding a job in China is quite easy. I found my job through a recruiting agency in the US, but I would advise others against doing this. While my job turned out okay, many others have not been so lucky. The absolute best way to find a job in China is to know somebody there, and have them help you look. (You might even try making contacts on Facebook or MySpace). If you are set on going China, it is best to go first, and then find a job afterward, although this can be tough if you don’t know anybody.
In medium-sized cities like Fuzhou the network of foreigners was pretty tightly connected, so I would always hear of new schools opening up and in need of foreign teachers. When one of my good friends from the US expressed interest in moving to China to teach English I convinced him to buy a one-way ticket over and we would find him a job once he got here. He reluctantly accepted, and within a week had 3 different offers. The advantage in moving to China first is that it gives you a chance to take a more careful look at your school and your apartment (most jobs in China provide free housing) before you make your decision. Also, cost of living in China is so cheap, that even if you don’t find a job right away, you won’t be burning a hole in your pocket.
If you don’t know anybody in China, and aren’t willing to move out first and rough it until you find a job, the best way is to contact schools directly. Do not go through a recruiter. English teaching jobs in China are plentiful, and there is no need to go through a recruiting agency who is likely just skimming a percentage off of your salary. Do a search on Google for Chinese universities or training centers (many of whom have English websites). Send them your resume and a personal photograph (very important) and see what kinds of responses you get. There are also many job websites available to choose from. But remember, be choosy! You are in high demand! Do not accept any job that pays less than 4000 RMB per month. Also, they should provide you with a Z visa, free housing, and a round trip plane ticket from your hometown to your Chinese destination.
Did you learn to speak Chinese and do you think it’s important to speak the local language?
Learning Chinese was one of my main goals when I came to China, and while learning Chinese is certainly not necessary in China (Chinese people will be overjoyed to practice their English with you whenever possible) it will greatly enhance your experience. For me, learning Chinese opened up an entirely different world I would not have been able to experience had I been speaking English the entire time I was in China, and I would recommend it for anybody planning to live there long term.
Chinese has a reputation as a difficult language to learn, but this does not mean it is not scalable. In fact, I would argue that Chinese is a difficult language to begin learning, but the deeper you get into it, the easier it becomes, as opposed to learning English which is of similar difficulty from beginning to end. Because of this, people often get frustrated with Chinese at the beginning, and give up before they ever make it to the other side of the first major hump. Little do they know, the humps get smaller and smaller as the journey progresses.
From my experience and those of others, I would say the most difficult aspect of learning Chinese is the pronunciation, especially in regards to the tones. For example if I say the word “mai” with a dipping tone it means “buy.” If I say “mai” with a falling tone it means “sell.” Because of the importance of tones, it is quite common for foreigners to study Chinese for several months, but still receive looks of bewilderment from locals who have no idea what they are saying because their intonation is incorrect. Once pronunciation of Chinese is mastered (which is an absolute must for anybody wanting to learn Chinese), students are often relieved to find that Chinese is a language with no verb conjugations, no masculine/feminine distinctions, and a grammar which is infinitely simpler than those of English or Romance languages. I have also found Chinese to be a language much more bounded in logic than English. For example, the word for “telephone” is constructed by combining the ideogram for “electricity” with the ideogram for “speak.” The word for “pork” is constructed by combining “pig” and “meat.” The word for “diabetes” is “sugar urine disease,” and on and on.
Did you miss home and family sometimes?
There were some things I missed in China (mainly Mexican food and American football) but mostly those interests were supplanted by new-found ones in China. As an avid basketball player, I was pleased to find that basketball is every bit as popular in China as it is in the US, and I played several times a week while I was there. I also picked up badminton for the first time, and made some major strides in my ping pong game, mostly through having ass kicked by Chinese kids who weren’t even trying their hardest.
Do you have other plans for the future?
Right now I am looking for jobs in the US, mainly those dealing with China in the fields of either research or print/digital media.
What about housing, did you buy, or did you rent a home? How much did you pay for it?
Virtually everything in China (with the exception of electronics, air travel, and foreign food) is considerably cheaper than it would be in the US, and real estate is no exception. When I was under contract with a school, my housing was always provided as part of my job. When I was working for an American company and paying my own bills, I never paid more than $150 a month in rent. Expect to pay more if you are in a larger city such as Beijing or Shanghai, and a little bit less if you are living in a rural area. Food as well is very, very cheap. I would typically pay about a dollar for a meal in a small local restaurant. If I wanted to go some place nice, it would be about 5 dollars. If I really wanted to go cheap, I could eat on a dollar a day.
What is the cost of living in China?
What did you think about the Chinese?
The Chinese treat foreigners very well, in fact much better than they treat other Chinese people. The concept of host and guest is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, and as a foreigner interacting with a Chinese, you are always on some level, their guest. There have been times I have gone to the bank (or any other public establishment) with Chinese friends. While my Chinese friends are given cold service and little concern for their satisfaction, I am typically treated with smiles and service nothing short of a VIP. While this can be a perk to some people, it can be discouraging as well, especially when you are trying to fit in.
What were the positive and negative aspects of living in China?
One of the biggest advantages of living in China is that jobs for foreigners are high paying (in comparison to local standards of living) and not all that demanding. In my first semester teaching I was working 11 hours a week, and making a salary 3 times as high as the Chinese English teachers at my school. This gives you the freedom, both in terms of finances and time, to focus on your own projects and efforts, be that traveling, learning Chinese, writing the next great American novel, or anything else that fast-paced American life would not leave time for. For me, I know my Chinese would not have progressed to the level that it did, had I been working 40 hours a week, and living paycheck to paycheck.
As for the negative aspects in China, I would cite the noise, low sanitation standards, awful popular music, lack of grass and trees, pollution, big crowds, warm beer, spitting, blaring televisions, and lack of respect of privacy and personal space. These all annoy foreign visitors from time to time, but they are also part of the charm of living in an overcrowded developing nation. You can either adapt and get used to it, or beat yourself up complaining.
Do you have any tips for our readers about living in China?
Go with an open mind. Don’t expect anything or take anything for granted. If you stick to this, everything else will come much easier.
Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about China?
If you want to read more on my own thoughts and experiences in China, you can check out my blog, Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom. I also have a new site which is designed to help Westerners order Chinese food in China, which is www.howtoorderchinesefood.com. As for my own personal favorite China reads, I would suggest The China Law Blog which tackles more issues than just law, as well as Sinosplice which is written by an American who has lived in China for over 7 years.