Many people wonder what living in China is really like.
Having lived in China for almost a decade, I can comfortably say that there are both pros and cons.
Whether you’re moving to China to work, study, or even set up a business, there are some things to seriously consider.
I’ll start with the good things about living in China before moving on to the bad things about living in China.
Before I begin, let me tell you that there are many misconceptions about living here.
For instance, before I moved to China to be a teacher, my relatives tried to give me some advice.
Some of the things that I was told included the following:
- The Chinese are very cunning. You’ll have your pockets picked if you’re not careful.
- Don’t trust anyone or accept invitations from strangers to go to their house for tea. Once they have you in their clutches, they’ll make outlandish accusations in order to extort a ransom.
- The beggars in China are all organized and any money that you give them goes to a syndicate.
- Never agree to transport anything for anyone because they could be trying to smuggle illicit drugs.
I hope that this blog will set the record straight.
Good things about living in China
Like most other people, when I’m having a bad day, I do like to moan and complain.
But even I have to admit that, in spite of how hard life in China can be, there are numerous positives to living here.
1. Low cost of living
The cost of living in China in a Tier 3 or 4 city is incredibly low. Bus fares are often standardized at 1 RMB ($US0.15) and you can go as far as you like.
If you can cook for yourself, your food costs will be very low too. About 60 RMB (US$8.50) of pork can last me for three weeks, while a 10 kg sack of rice for the same amount can last for over three months.
However, all this is based on the assumption that you’re single.
If you want to indulge in dating and romance in China (I’ve written a whole blog about that here), your costs will rise considerably.
This is especially the case if you’re male!
2. Kind and helpful people
The first school in China to offer me a job initially told me that they don’t do airport pickups and I would have to find my way from the airport to the campus by myself.
As I hardly knew any Mandarin at the time, this would’ve been quite impossible. Eventually, the school agreed to send a student to meet me at the airport.
Not only did this student pick me up and drive me all the way to the campus, he also came to see me every day, made sure that I was fed and gave me a lot of help with shopping and translating.
When I was teaching in Zhenjiang, I knew a very kind elderly Chinese gent named John whom I met at English Corner. He often took me to the hospital when I was unwell.
Several years ago, my aunt came to China and went on a tour of Guilin. She introduced me to her tour guide, Autumn, and she has also been very helpful to me.
She called the local travel bureau on my behalf when I wanted to travel because my Mandarin wasn’t too good.
And when I wanted to go to Tibet, she even bought the plane tickets for me.
3. Job security
It is estimated that there are 400 million English language learners in China but only a million English language teachers. Most of those teachers are locals.
If you’re a native English speaker with a degree and a TEFL qualification, you’d be greatly sought after in China.
(You can visit this page for more about TEFL certification.)
On a personal level, my job is incredibly secure because I’m professional and conscientious, have a good reputation and I’m willing to teach in small cities where the schools find it hard to recruit the teachers they need.
4. Job perks
If you teach at a public school, college or university like I do, you’ll enjoy a number of perks. These can include the following:
- Airfare reimbursement. A return air ticket from say London to any Chinese city can cost around 10,000 RMB. As an expat teacher in China, you may get this fully reimbursed.
- Free accommodation. Most public schools and universities in China offer free housing, though what you actually get can vary. Some schools will only provide a bedroom, whilst at other schools, two teachers may share an apartment.
- Generous local salary. Expat teachers in China are usually paid considerably more than local teachers, sometimes earning 1.5 times to double what a local Chinese teacher is paid.
- Free meals. Some schools in China also offer free meals to their teachers.
- Entertainment. Your Chinese employer may organize excursions, Christmas parties, and even give you presents like moon cakes.
If you don’t work in the education sector here, there can still be great perks depending on your employer.
For example, many companies will help with visa arrangements, relocation costs, and navigating the Chinese rental market.
5. Awesome scenery, food and culture
China truly is a traveler’s paradise. It boasts so many spectacular places that really need to be seen first-hand to be appreciated.
Interestingly, it’s not always the most famous sights that are the most beautiful.
A number of my Chinese friends had suggested for example, that the Great Wall of China was “just a wall”, i.e. nothing special.
At first I was skeptical, but now having been there myself, I tend to agree with that assertion.
If I were asked to put together a list of the most beautiful places to visit in China, I would include the following places:
- The multi-colored caves of Chongqing with vivid red, yellow and green walls
- The rivers, waterfalls and forests of Quxian
- The traditional Chinese buildings, ponds and trees in Hangzhou
- The awesome Harbin Ice Festival that takes place every winter (I was really surprised that this did not make TripAdvisor’s top 10 things to do in China list.)
Next, we have the food. Boy, oh boy, if you’ve never tried real Chinese food in your life, I feel really sorry for you.
The food you get at Chinese restaurants back home is very different to what you get here.
Chinese seafood is especially delicious. Since coming to China, I’ve eaten over 20 new varieties of seafood. These include starfish, mudfish, bonito fish, mandarin fish, and catfish.
If you’re not a seafood lover like me, how about sinking your teeth into some delicious turtle, goose or even donkey meat?
These are just three of the exotic meats that you can try in China.
As for the Chinese culture, all I can say is “wow”.
From the ethnic diversity and colorful festivals to the many different dialects you’ll hear across the country, Chinese culture is incredibly deep and varied.
It’s impossible to do this subject justice in just one paragraph, so I recommend you read the guide on Chinese culture and traditions if you want to learn more.
6. Being able to rent out your house in your home country
Some people might regard losing their job in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 to be a great misfortune. But for me, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Being unemployed for four years was no fun at all but this was what ultimately led me, via many twists and turns, to where I am now.
If I had not lost my job then, I might never have considered teaching English in China.
And being a homeowner, I’m now benefiting from a generous local salary in China, rental income from the UK and an asset that has more than doubled in value in the last 10 years.
7. The learning experience
They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and that has certainly been my experience living and working in China.
Back in the UK, I could rely on microwave meals, Chinese or Indian takeaways, kebabs, and fish and chips 24/7. I was really spoilt for choice.
But in China, especially in the relatively small Tier 3 and 4 cities, there are no such luxuries. So, I had to learn to cook for myself from scratch.
Then, when I stepped into class for the first time, I quickly realized that the methods that I busted my guts learning on my CELTA course weren’t going to work in China.
By trial and error, I had to learn new methods of teaching.
Bad things about living in China
Unfortunately, life in China is far from being a bed of roses. There are several downsides to living here.
1. Culture shock
When I first arrived in China, I suffered from a lot of culture shock. I was incensed when drivers didn’t stop for me at pedestrian crossings.
I was annoyed when Chinese people cut in front of me in a queue. And the worst part was that I couldn’t even tell them off because I couldn’t speak Chinese!
As a non-smoker, I found it very unpleasant to be forced to inhale secondhand cigarette smoke whenever I went to bars or used the slow train.
I wondered why the Chinese just couldn’t give a straight answer. In response to my questions, sometimes I would get an “I don’t know” or be kept waiting indefinitely.
As a university teacher, I couldn’t see the point of setting exams at all if the “no fail policy” meant that every student will pass, come what may.
When I met my first Chinese girlfriend, I was quite frankly shocked at how much money she expected me to spend on her.
She wasn’t happy with flowers or chocolates, oh no, she wanted Chanel perfume and an iPhone, which were expensive things that I wouldn’t have bought for myself.
2. Little job satisfaction
To a Chinese person, money is of the utmost importance. Most Chinese people would be willing to do almost anything for their boss, as long as they’re being paid for it.
Morale and motivation don’t come into the equation at all.
If you’re a teacher like me, you can be asked to work in the evening, weekends and even on public holidays.
Many of your students won’t respect you or the subject that you’re teaching. They come to class without any stationery and rarely make notes.
At a really bad school, many of your students won’t even bother coming to class at all.
At some schools, Chinese students might play with their phones, do another teacher’s homework or even sleep in your class.
3. Language barrier
I’ve been in China for such a long time now that I can get by in daily life.
Let me just say that having a Chinese girlfriend definitely gives you a push to keep learning the language!
But if you haven’t lived in China for a long time, and you don’t have any Mandarin skills, life can be tough, especially outside the big cities.
It means you’ll need to find other expats to hang out with, as you’ll be ostracized from people at work simply because you can’t converse with them.
While language apps help, they’re not a silver bullet to your communication woes in China.
If you’re moving to China for the long term, I highly recommend you start learning Mandarin now.
Hong Kong is a different story, where people can often speak three languages – Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.
4. Boredom and loneliness
I’m not going to sugarcoat it – living in China for a foreigner is boring.
When you live on your own, and especially when you only work 16 hours a week in the public education sector, you’ll have to endure long periods of isolation.
Somehow, you’ll have to find something to do in all that time.
I usually kill time by watching movies, playing computer games, reading, swimming, and doing word searches.
Some people might think this is a pro of living in China, but for me it’s a con.
Bloody ugly things about living in China
And now for a couple of the worst things here, in my humble opinion.
At the top of the list of ugly things about living in China are the scams. Trust me, you wouldn’t like it if you were scammed.
Living in China as a foreigner, you may find yourself being invited to dinner with a stranger so that they can practice their English.
However, the only ‘practice’ you’ll be getting is a financial one – when the con artist leaves you with the bill!
Another scam that you’ll need to be wary of is counterfeit money. Counterfeit notes, especially 50 yuan and 100 yuan notes, are quite widespread in China.
You can avoid the risk of getting caught in this scam by never using paper money in China. Use WeChat Pay or Alipay instead.
(If you don’t know much about these apps, check the page on popular Chinese apps.)
Then there are employment scams. Some dodgy employers may invite you to work for them on the wrong visa type, ask for money upfront, or they might not even pay you as agreed.
To avoid employment scams, it is of the utmost importance that you do your research before accepting any job offer from a Chinese company.
You need to know which type of visa legally allows you to work in China. In case you’re wondering, it’s the Z visa (or ‘work visa’).
Ask to be put in touch with someone who works there. Scour Facebook and LinkedIn for any reviews about your prospective employer.
While I haven’t been scammed (yet), I’ve heard many horror stories. Keep your eyes open in China.
2. Internet censorship
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Great Wall of China but have you heard of the Great Firewall of China?
The Chinese government blocks most major websites and apps, the most notable of which are Google and YouTube as well as social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Keeping in touch with friends and family, finding a decent movie to watch or even doing basic research can be a major problem.
You can get around this problem by subscribing to a virtual private network (VPN) service but bear in mind that even VPNs aren’t 100% reliable.
I’ve been through at least six VPNs in the time that I’ve been in China.
(If you’re looking for the best VPN in China, check this page.)
It’s not for the faint-hearted
As you can see, living and working in China isn’t easy, especially if you’re from one of the big Western countries.
Hopefully, after reading this blog, you’ll be more aware of the issues and problems you’ll face here.
But it’s not all gloom and doom, and everyone will have different experiences.
As I mentioned earlier, there are lots of great things about living in China, and I feel lucky for the opportunities I’ve had.
If you’re considering moving here, don’t be too hard on yourself and know that things will take time to adjust. You’ll get used to it.
I hope you liked my article on what it’s like living in China. Next, see what you need to pack if you’re heading here soon.
More helpful info about life in China
- Read an expat’s perspective on living in Shenzhen
- See the difficulties communicating with a Chinese girlfriend
- Get the ins and outs on moving to China
- Learn about the jobs Americans apply for in China
Main image credit: Heng Lim on Shutterstock.
FAQ about living in China
Can you live in China permanently?
Yes, but it takes a long time and there’s lots of red tape. Most foreigners settle for a work permit which allows them to work for the same employer, for as long as they’re employed by them.
Where do most foreigners live in China?
Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Beijing and Hong Kong are the hot spots for foreigners. But you’ll find that some of the most authentic experiences in China can only be found in the smaller cities, so make sure you do lots of traveling while you’re there.
Can you live in China without knowing Chinese?
It’s possible, because some people can speak English, there are English street signs, and you can use language apps. However, life in China is significantly easier if you know how to speak Mandarin, even just a little bit.
Can you live in China without being a citizen?
Yes. For example, to work in China as a foreigner you just need a work permit (which you receive after you’re granted a work visa known as the Z visa).
Is living in China expensive?
Not if you live outside the bigger cities and eat similar food to a local. But if you live in one of the larger cities (like Shanghai or Shenzhen), live in a luxury apartment, and eat expensive food such as Western food, it can be expensive. It really depends on where you live in China, and your habits.
What’s the living cost in China for international students like?
Campus life is relatively cheap (food is inexpensive and depending on your course, housing may be included). If you can get a scholarship, your course will be subsidized which will help significantly. The smaller cities in China are a lot cheaper to live in, so perhaps avoid the biggest cities like Shanghai.
What’s living in China as an English teacher like?
English teachers have it pretty good in China. You get a generous local salary, airfare reimbursement, and free housing at public schools. Foreigners can enjoy a very comfortable expat life in China.
What are some cons of living in China?
Culture shock, poor job satisfaction, the language barrier, loneliness, scams, and internet censorship.