When making the decision to move to the other side of the world, of course you can expect that your daily life will be a little different from the way it is back home. Thanks to cultural differences and language barriers, simple everyday tasks can become both difficult and frustrating. It takes time to adapt to a new life in a new place, and sometimes the culture shock can be a bit overwhelming.
Based on our experiences living and working in Beijing for a handful of years, here are some useful tidbits on what daily life is like in the Chinese capital. As there’s a lot of content here, we’ve created a table of contents that allows you to easily navigate it all:
Cost of Living:
The cost of living all depends on which city you are in. For example, in Beijing, it’s very high for China, but it’s low when compared with many other Asian cities, such as Tokyo, Seoul, or Hong Kong. Second and third-tier cities, such as Kunming, are much cheaper.
Wherever you are, your biggest expense will most likely be your rent, especially if you want to live in a nice apartment in a good location (like us). It’s possible to find a very cheap place to stay, but you may be sharing with many others or living on the outskirts of town in a dingy apartment.
Other than that, utility bills, phone/Internet bills, groceries, and public transportation are all quite cheap. We certainly do not lead a frugal lifestyle, but we’ve been able to save a lot of money while still enjoying a somewhat lavish lifestyle (at least for part-time teachers!).
If I had a dollar for every time someone from back home asked me what I ate/cooked living in China, well, I’d be able to eat a nice meal, I’ll tell you that much. Actually, there are many options for grocery shopping here:
Foreign Grocery Stores: Cities with large foreign populations (Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou) are chock-full of foreign friendly grocery stores. In these shops, you can find delis where you can get sliced meats and cheeses, freshly baked bread, a variety of imported products, and even a huge selection of fine wines.
Of course, shopping this way comes at a price, and you’ll spend significantly more here than at other places. When we do our shopping there for the two of us, we usually spend about $50-60. That buys us some breakfast stuff (fresh juice, yogurt, granola bars), a few lunches (sandwiches, chips, soup), and a few things for dinners (pasta, curry paste, taco seasoning).
Huge Supermarkets: It should come as no surprise that there’s also an abundance of mega-stores in the big cities. In just about any neighborhood, you’re bound to find a Wal-Mart, Carrefour, or BHG somewhere nearby.
Don’t expect the same Wal-Mart experience that you’re used to in the US, though. You won’t be welcomed by retired Chinese ladies and a smile, but you may end up fighting them for the best strawberries. You can find some imported products here, but be prepared for a much more China-oriented shopping experience (think full aisles of rice and instant noodles and things like chicken feet). That being said, you can find most of your everyday items here without spending a fortune.
To be honest, we very rarely use these anymore since we discovered our…
Local Markets: These are the best places to shop, at least in my humble opinion. Chances are there’s one right around the corner from your apartment, and it’s without a doubt far cheaper than the other options. You can choose from a variety of fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, and more.
You can also find plenty of tasty snacks that are prepared fresh for you, such as cold noodles, egg pancakes, or dumplings. I usually load up on stuff here once a week, buying things like salmon, chicken breasts, ground pork, a huge bag of fresh veggies and fruit, and, most importantly, bacon. On average, I spend about $20-30 for the two of us.
Small Neighborhood Shops: Almost every neighborhood in every Chinese city has its own tiny shop. At these local shops, called xiao mai bu in Chinese, you can buy fruit, vegetables, drinks, and smokes. Just below our apartment building, we can buy eggs, potatoes, some veggies, a few bananas, and orange juice – breakfast for two for a total cost of about $3. After a long day of work, you can also grab a cold one for a measly $0.50.
Shopping for clothing in China can go both ways. As an average-height, rather skinny dude, it’s pretty easy for me to find clothes that fit here. My feet are an average size, so shoes are no problem, either.
As for Rachel, her curvy American figure doesn’t exactly fit into clothes meant for Chinese girls (who have no hips, boobs, or ass). Some of my tall friends also have a hard time finding clothes or shoes that fit.
That being said, there is no shortage of places to buy clothes in China, and they’re almost always cheaper than they are at home. The exception would be the obvious luxury brands in high-end shopping malls, but why would you want to shop there anyway? Get some knockoff Polo shirts and Gucci shades for much cheaper at the local market!
If you’re a shopaholic, then you’ll fit right in here in China. New mega-malls seem to sprout up every day, and you can find just about anything you want if you know where to look.
Take Beijing, for example – there’s a huge electronics district called Zhongguancun that features multiple towers packed full of vendors selling any kind of electronic device imaginable. There are also massive markets such as Jin Wu Xing that sell everything but the kitchen sink (oh wait, they sell those too).
In short, you should be able to find what you’re looking for. Even in smaller cities, there are abundant options for shopping; China has money now and they love spending it.
Bargaining is definitely fair game when shopping in China, depending on the place. In general, there are a few places where should and shouldn’t bargain:
When shopping in a large market that targets tourists, you absolutely have to bargain. You will always be quoted a ridiculous price to start, and should never pay any more than 50% of their original offer. Practice your Chinese, use body language, or just walk away until you get a price that you can accept.
The same is true to an extent in the big markets mentioned above (Zhongguancun and Jin Wu Xing). You should definitely bargain here, but don’t expect to get them down to half of the original price.
If you’re in a shopping mall, department store, or even local shops, the price is most likely set and there’s no need to haggle.
If you’re used to a nice big washer and dryer in a separate room, you’re not going to like doing laundry in China. Expect a small, modest washing machine to come with your apartment, most likely in your bathroom. China does not get down on dryers, either, so get used to hanging your clothes up on a line. That being said, dry cleaning and other laundry services are readily available and are also very affordable.
It’s not hard to find all the things you need to do to keep your apartment clean, but it’s even easier to pay someone to do it for you. Housekeepers, known simply as ayi in Chinese, are abundant, do a very thorough job, and charge a very reasonable rate.
Our ayi in Beijing cleaned our three-bedroom apartment from top to bottom once a week for a meager $20. We offered to pay her more, but she insisted that she charged the going rate and not a penny more.
When we moved to Kunming, we didn’t bothered to find an ayi. Our place wasn’t that big and it was just the two of us, we usually had to do a thorough clean every couple of weeks.
It’s not that easy or straightforward for a foreigner to get a driver’s license and/or a car in China, so we’ve never even bothered. The public transportation here is great and cheap, although it can be insanely crowded.
In Beijing, we usually used a combination of our e-bikes/public transport, while in much smaller Kunming we would just ride or walk. Just beware that getting around Chinese cities can be quite chaotic at times. For more, read up on the culture shock of getting around in China.