Expat Life in China: Pros and Cons

So I’ve been living in Shanghai for a few months now and I cannot begin to tell you how different life is here compared to back in the States. Although both the US and China are beautiful countries, China’s long, rich history and cultural traditions creates an atmosphere that almost seems otherworldly. It is a country surrounded by fields of aromatic teas and perfumes. A place where you can find blind buskers playing ancient tunes on the flute and erhu.

However, as with any county, China has it’s drawbacks.

The Cons: Bureaucracy

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Since China and the US are not on great terms, it is painstakingly difficult, expensive, and time consuming to obtain a visa. There are only seven Chinese consulates in the United States and you must either visit them in person or pay expensive agency fees to have your information mailed to them. Luckily, if you are like me and are working in China, your company will likely reimburse your agency and visa fees. Unfortunately, once you enter the country, the process continues.

While bureaucracy is an absolute pain in any country, it can be a lot worse when you don’t speak the language and the staff is rude. You must take a medical exam to prove to the government that you do not have any chronic illnesses. The problem with this is that the staff usually only speaks Chinese and you have absolutely no idea exactly what each test is looking for. The only two illnesses that I knew I was being tested for were HIV/AIDS and TB. You feel like you’re an item going through an assembly line as you’re tested and sent off to the next room. In my experience the nurse was extremely rude to not only me, but my other coworkers. She even argued with my friend, who speaks Chinese, and called him names.

Fortunately, the results usually only take a few days to come back. The downside is that they only tell you whether or not you passed. It may just be my opinion, but if you have to take so many tests I think you should be told what they results are. My blood pressure was checked, but I was not told what it was. My blood sugar and cholesterol were checked, but, again, I was not told the results.

Luckily, the rest of the process is relatively easy. If you arrive in a hotel your hotel will give you a pink slip of paper once you check out that will be needed to register for your temporary permit at the police station. I am renting an apartment here so I also had to bring my contract as well. After that, all you have to do is go to the Public Security Buro and hand in your passport and information. In a week or two go pick up your visa and you’re all set. Its a long process, but once it’s done you feel loads better.

Con #2: The Language Barrier

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Prior to coming to China I was told that I should try to learn Chinese and download as many translation apps as possible. Boy, were they right! Shanghai may be full of expats, but if you need anything of any importance done (opening a bank account, ordering food, going to the hospital) you have GOT to be able to communicate. My Chinese is awful, but I have become friends with some locals and downloaded great apps that really help me out when I’m in a tight spot. The most important words to know here are numbers, how to say hello, thank you, good, and no. Being great at charades also helps and makes the locals chuckle, which makes for a great story to tell your friends.

Con #3: The Stares

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I live in the Minhang district of Shanghai, which is the oldest area in the province. As you can imagine there are quite a few senior citizens here- many of which have probably never seen a foreigner, let alone an African American one. I am stared at everywhere I go. Initially, it was very overwhelming, especially since I don’t speak the language. One thing you must keep in mind, if you visit here, is that not every stare means what you think it does. Many times, they are truly fascinated by you. Shanghai has 24 million Chinese citizens so it’s not very often that they see a foreigner. Others may be curious as to why you are visiting China, so try to stay positive.

Con#4: Pollution

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A few years ago, Shanghai’s pollution levels were unbearable. It has improved since then, but there is still a long way to go. Growing up near the beach allowed me to constantly be surrounded by fresh, clean air. As you can imagine that is not the case in Shanghai. The best solution to this is to download an air quality app and buy a good face mask.

That ends my relatively short list of cons- now onto the positives.

Pro #1: The Cost of Living

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China’s currency is worth 6x less than the USD. You can buy a full course meal for less than 4 USD! I typically spend less than 10 USD on a week of groceries for myself and my husband. Food apps also give you discounts for ordering through them. I frequently spend less than 2 USD for a meal through China’s popular app Ele.me. Since the cost of living is significantly less than back at home I was able to rent a fully furnished apartment for 2,800 RMB which converts to around $435!

Pro #2: Technology

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Many Westerners have this crazy notion that China is some backwards country that is technologically lacking. This could not be further from the truth! China is loads ahead of my home country when it comes to innovation. Everything here has been simplified and boiled down to two apps: WeChat and Alipay. With these apps you can do almost anything you can think of:  buy  food from the store, have food delivered to you, wire money internationally, buy movie tickets, book hotels, order a taxi, etc. All you need to do is have a Chinese friend help you set up a bank account and Alipay and you’re all set!

Pro#3: Mobility

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There is no need for cars here. In Shanghai you can rent bikes and mopeds. You can also use the metro, bus system, or a taxi. The cheapest and most effective options are bikes and the metro. On the metro you can travel anywhere for just pennies. Just be sure to avoid taking it during rush hour!

Pro #4: The Sites

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China is one of the oldest continuing civilizations on Earth and architecture reflects their rich history.  Before I left the States I wrote a list of all of the places I wanted to visit when I arrived in Shanghai. As a yogi, I would love to sit on top of Mount Haungshan or visit one of China’s many Buddhist temples.  Over time, any locals have given me even better sites to add to my already growing list. Now are too many options to choose from. The list is so long that it will probably take me years to see everything.

Pro#5: The Food

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Many of my friends and family told me that being vegan in China would be very difficult. Luckily, it has been much easier than we anticipated. China is the birthplace of tofu! As a vegan, this place is heaven! I have found six different textures of tofu, all of which tastes completely different than the last. Shanghai also has hundreds of vegan restaurants to choose from. There is a vegan restaurant literally next door to my job! A few steps outside of my apartment there is a farmer’s market full of fresh produce and people who are willing to negotiate their already low prices.

Pro#6: The People

New Year

I have met so many amazing people here in Shanghai, who have all been helpful and positive. Sitting with someone from another walk of life is truly a beautify and eye opening experience. It’s amazing to see how different yet similar other’s lives are on the other side of the globe. One of the biggest contrasts I have seen here is the use of public parks. Groups of senior citizens get together and do synchronize exercises in the park several days a week. On the weekends, couples love to dance together in the parks and near the metro to romantic tunes. It is truly fascinating to watch.

Every country has it’s ups and downs, but that doesn’t mean that you should write it off. Give it a chance and you won’t be disappointed.

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