So you've started thinking about it; you're going to move to Beijing. Pretty intimidating, right? Here's this massive city of 20 million people, the capital city of China, big and foreign and alien and unknown. Where on Earth do you begin?
Most expatriates relocating to China for the first time are in for the usual stages of adaptation to a new home:
Enthusiasm: when you first arrive, everything is new, stimulating, and so exotic, so different. It's energizing! There's so much to explore, so much to do, and so much to be excited by... it's a process of discovering an entirely new world to live in.
Disillusionment: this is the stage normally referred to as "culture shock," when the thrill of the "newness" has worn off (typically between 1 and 3 months into your move), and the annoying things about a new culture begin to grate on your nerves. Perhaps people aren't polite enough - or perhaps they're too polite. Some things that are easy in your home country are much harder than they need to be here. The language barrier complicates things, some of your favorite foods are impossible to get (or don't taste nearly as good), most of your friends and family are so far away, and there are so many things that people in your new city just don't seem to do right; it's maddening.
Adaptation: the final stage of cultural adjustment, where things aren't new anymore, and they aren't frustrating either; that's just the way they are. You're moving around your adopted home like a native now, and people are telling you you're more local than the locals. But you don't even notice; it's just how you do things.
But at this point, you're not even worried about those things; all you can think is, "How am I even going to pull off this move? SHOULD I even make this move?"
This article was written to help you answer those questions, introduce you to the challenges and differences you're likely to face in Beijing, and help you decide if a move to Beijing is right for you - and how best to make it if you decide it is.
Moving to Beijing: How “Different” Is It?
When you first start talking to other non-Chinese about what it's like to live in Beijing, you'll get a cornucopia of varied and often conflicting responses:
- It's busy
- It's dirty
- It's dense
- It's surprisingly modern
- Everyone's in a hurry
- People are rude
- People are nice
- People are fascinated with foreigners
- People don't like foreigners
- The food's great
- The food's not that good
- The government's restrictive
- The government's not nearly as restrictive as you hear
- The people are cunning and greedy
- The people are kindly and somewhat naïve
- It's cheap
- It's expensive
... and all that's about the same city! Imagine what they'd say if you asked them about other places in China.
In fact, China is a huge country, with a number of different regions and subcultures - different parts of China are as diverse in peoples, cultures, and traditions as different parts of Europe are from one another, or different parts of the United States. And as one of the country's most metropolitan cities, Beijing attracts transplants from all over the nation to come live, work, and play.
What that means is, a great deal of your impression of Beijing will be colored by whom you meet, and what contexts you meet them in.
If you come here to work as an English teacher, say, and you're interacting with students, you might find your students are quiet, diligent, and very respectful if you teach at one school, or rowdy, rambunctious, and entitled, should you end up teaching the overly-spoiled only children of the financially well-off.
Or if you come here to do business, you might find yourself working with a collection of very hard-working, very dedicated, and very considerate professionals in your project team... or if you try your hand at the entrepreneurial world, you may find yourself swimming with sharks.
A lot of it comes down to whom you're around.
But what about the things that aren't strictly people related - what should you know about Beijing prior to making that move?
8 Things to Know Before Making the Move to Beijing
Before you up and transplant yourself to Beijing, there are some things you'll want to know, and some things you should know. Here, I've tried to cover all the main points of interest, so you'll be as prepared as you possibly can be.
Cost of Living. Your first though about moving to Beijing might be, "China - that's perfect! Everything's inexpensive and cheap." But you'll soon find on arriving here that in many ways prices are comparable to those in the West - sometimes higher. You can still find very cheap food at street vendors and truly local restaurants (e.g., a full meal for $1 or $2), and you can find inexpensive (but often poorly made) clothing and goods if you venture outside the Western areas and bring someone who knows how to bargain along.
If you stick to Western areas though, and restaurants and shops that cater to non-Chinese, you'll find that prices are almost exactly the same as back home.
And some things - like computers and cars - can range anywhere from 20% more expensive to 2 or 3 times the price as what you'd pay for it elsewhere (even though they're made here, and shipped there; it's a little bizarre, I'll admit. That's just how it is though).
Where to Stay. Whether you're looking to find a Beijing apartment or you're planning on investing in some Beijing real estate, the very first thing you'll want to decide on is what part of the city you want to be living in. And with a city this large, location is very important.
Most expatriates choose to stay close to downtown, in Chaoyang District, in areas such as Guomao (the business district), Shuangjing (a residential area near to Guomao), or Sanlitun (the embassy area and also shopping, restaurant, and nightlife center). International students studying Chinese or at a Chinese university typically settle in Wudaokou, near the schools; but you'll certainly want to make sure you know which area you need to be in - travel between Chaoyang and Wudaokou usually doesn't happen in under an hour, and if you're going via car, bus, or taxi during a busier part of the day, it can take substantially longer.
And, when it comes to the famous Beijing smog, you're going to encounter that no matter where in the city you can stay - so don't bother trying to escape it!
What People are Like. Many of the Chinese you will meet in Beijing are not from Beijing, but rather are transplants who've moved to Beijing in search of a new life and new opportunities - similar to the composition of the citizenry of other cosmopolitan cities like New York and London. People here don't smile a lot, and because of the cultural upheaval that China has undergone, many of this ancient culture's traditional manners and customs have been lost - so expatriates will often at first glance find the locals to be a bit rude and unceremonious.
Don't be deceived by your initial impression, though. Chinese people are some of the shrewdest, savviest individuals you'll ever meet (and as a people boast one of the highest average IQs in the world); they're big on loyalty, hard work, and personal respect; and they are very proud both of their country and heritage, as well as to find Westerners, whom they typically hold in grudging respect (sort of like the successful older brother they are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of, but don't really want to play second fiddle to), that are interested in living and working in their nation.
Best of all, Chinese are refreshingly direct - you won't have to guess at what they're thinking or what they want; they'll just come right out and tell you. It frees you from a lot of the tiptoeing around you'll find you need to do in other East Asian nations (e.g., Japan, South Korea, etc.).
You'll also meet plenty of expatriates in Beijing. While not as numerous as in multinational Western cities, the expatriate population here is still relatively large, and filled to the brim with interesting, ambitious, and accomplished individuals.
What the Food is Like. Chinese cuisine is as varied as the national cuisines of any other nation; and perhaps more so than most. It is not, however, the same Chinese food you'll find in North America or Europe.
When Chinese immigrants first relocated outside of Asia and began opening Chinese restaurants, they soon found they had to change their menus, because otherwise they couldn't sell to their new customer bases (Westerners). Here, there's been no such impetus, and the food's remained the same as it has for centuries. You won't find fortune cookies or orange chicken here; instead, pork, rice, dumplings, and noodles carry the day, and everything from ox tongue to chicken feet to goat blood soup are on the menu.
You won't run out of new dishes to try, that's for sure.
What the Shopping is Like. You may have heard of friends or colleagues traveling to China and bringing back suitcases full of inexpensive clothing, watches, briefcases, handbags, and all manner of knickknacks and doodads. And you certainly can find inexpensive items here, though finding inexpensive items of decent quality can be a bit of a hunt.
Which is not to say you can't find them, though. There are tailors on the third floor of Yashow (right next to Sanlitun Village, the shopping and dining mecca of Beijing) who can tailor almost anything you want made in the style you desire to fit you perfectly, for a fraction of what the same thing will cost you off the rack back home. And if you wander across the street from there, you can find other tailors using even better quality material for only a bit more in price.
Plenty of Western shops abound too; from Apple to Zara, you'll be able to find them here in Beijing (with prices comparable to or a smidge pricier than what you'll find in the West). You might the clothing styles are a bit different here, but there are plenty of stylish items on display; the only thing you'll have difficulty finding should you move to Beijing are plus-sized clothes, so bring these with you if you're a little on the heavy side, or opt for tailor made clothing after you arrive.
On bargaining: should you venture away from the Western shops, you might be surprised how expensive the asking prices of some of these not-that-expensive-looking goods are. The reason why, of course, is because in many parts of Beijing you need to haggle; and they'll start out at a much higher price than what they actually want. A good rule of thumb: if you're a foreigner, and you're somewhere that cheap goods are being sold at seemingly high prices, assume that the price you should pay is anywhere from 15% to 10% of the asking price, and bargain from that understanding.
International Schools in Beijing. This one won't be of much concern to you if you're young and single and moving to Beijing, but if you're planning to relocate here with a family in-tow, it'll be of tremendous importance.
Unless your children speak and write fluent Mandarin, you're going to want to enroll them in one of the city's international schools. There are a bunch of these, but registration tends to fill up quickly. If your son or daughter is registered at least four months in advance of moving, typically you'll be fine.
There are a variety of international schools available for your child or children to enroll in; some of the most popular English-language schools include:
If you're less adventurous with your dining and prefer more Western fare, fear not, for Western food is served all over the city, and you can even find fast food establishments outside the 6th Ring (the outer bounds of Beijing). Sanlitun plays host to a multitude of delicious Western restaurants, from steak houses to sandwich shops to Persian, Indian, and Arabic dining halls; and Wal-Marts, Carrefours, BHGs, and Jenny Lous abound throughout the city to provide you with Western groceries for your pantry and fridge. And if there's nothing in the cupboard you want and you don't feel like going out, fear not - you can always order Pizza Hut or Papa John's, and in Beijing, even KFC and McDonald's deliver.
- International School of Beijing (ISB): the largest American school.
- Western Academy of Beijing (WAB): a multicultural school.
- Dulwich College Beijing: a large British international school.
- The British School
of Beijing: a British-based multicultural school.
- Harrow International
School Beijing: a British international school with primarily
Chinese students, some expatriates.
Commuting in Beijing.
A dubious honor, Beijing received the top spot in IBM's 2012 survey of cities
with the worst traffic in the world, although the study also says
that the congestion is improving. Gridlock can appear unexpectedly and
for no apparent reason and last for hours, and trying to get around in
the city during rush hour can be difficult, although the traffic isn't
always impossible (and in this writer's humble opinion, the traffic in
Los Angeles still is worse!).
You needn't be totally reliant on cars (you'll probably use a driver if you do; driving in Beijing is more challenging and chaotic than in the West) or taxis (which can be impossible to hail during morning and evening rush hour, there's so much competition for them from your fellow commuters). Beijing also has a great public transportation system, including very efficient buses and a subway with trains running frequently. You might have to brave some large crowds on the subway during rush hour too, but you'll have a more predictable commute than you will by car.
Social Life in Beijing. Last, but not least, you might have some questions about the social scene in Beijing. What is there to do for fun?
In fact, there are all manner of activities available to enjoy, particularly in a city as large as this. Here's just a sampling of the options available to you:
Dining: as noted earlier, there is a multitude of various restaurants serving up different styles of cuisine throughout Beijing. Many of these restaurants are designed to serve large gatherings of people, as dining out in big groups is far more common among both Chinese and expatriates in Beijing than it is in many Western cities.
Nightlife: Beijing has a selection of bars, nightclubs, and lounges, many of which are on par with what you'll find in the West. These are especially concentrated in Sanlitun, but you can find pockets of bars and lounges elsewhere in the city, too.
Activities: you can find all kinds of things to do in Beijing, from attractions off the beaten path to visit, to gyms and fitness centers to join, to classes in everything from tennis to languages to martial arts to take. There are several Western-style movie theaters in Beijing, complete with popcorn, soda, and Hollywood films (though no M&Ms... Chinese aren't very partial to chocolate), and there are more networking events, chamber of commerce meetings, and economic forums available for you to attend than you can shake a stick at.
There's no reason for you to be a homebody in Beijing - and you'll
probably find that, once you get here, it's almost impossible for you to be... even if you wanted
to. There's simply too much to do.
So there you have it. 8 things to know if you want to move to Beijing - and now you know them. You are now armed, equipped, and ready to start your move to this big, fascinating, and eminently livable new town.
Hope to see you here in Beijing soon!