I have been living in China now for over 5 years. This is the second part of the 2 part series about living and working in China. In the last post, “5 years living and working in China: Here is what I learned,” I talked about working in China and the different jobs I have done since moving here in 2010. In this post I will talk about language, culture, life, and travel.
I have been living in China for 5 years now and I do not speak fluent Mandarin. This is probably my biggest China failure. I have tried to learn twice, but both times I have lacked motivation and ended up quitting. I do not know if I will try again because I do not know how long I will stay in China. With that said, I can speak basic Mandarin and I can get around, order food, and ask for directions.
Language is important. Learning to speak Mandarin is becoming more and more important for someone living in China. In the last 5 years, I have noticed that most jobs now require foreigners to speak fluent Mandarin. Anyone that is thinking about working in China should be aware of this requirement. Most foreigners need about 1.5 years of university level classes to learn Mandarin and pass the HSK 4 or 6. At HSK 4 you are mostly fluent and you can work at this level. HSK 6 is considered fluent according to the Chinese government.
Language is not only important for work, but also for making friends and understanding the culture. I have personally been limited by not speaking fluent Mandarin and I have only made a few Chinese friends. Although I often talk about culture and write about marketing in China, I have been limited because my understanding (although vast) is mostly second hand. Only a few sites or blogs are written in English by Chinese. Thoughtful China is a good source of first hand experience that is translated into English or has English speaking guest on the show. But the majority of Chinese marketing sites are written in Mandarin.
My advice is to learn Mandarin! Just do it! Might take a year or more, but really take the time and learn to speak it well.
The first year I was in China I hated the cultural differences. I didn’t understand many things and I hated how people interacted with each other. Everything felt slow and difficult. I compared everything to the US and wondered why everything was inefficient. Things that seemed simple would take months and it drove me crazy. I would get angry over many things from behavior to traffic to apparent laziness to even how they cook fish (this last one still bothers me).
If you want to know how I felt read the comment section of ChinaSMACK or e-Chinacities. I never commented on these sites, but if you have read the comment sections you will see many people complaining about ‘China’ issues. The truth is most of the comments are by new expats that don’t understand China and how things work.
In year 2, I learned to accept the ‘flaws’ in China. I would still be bothered by many things, but started to use the tired line of “this is China.” Many expats make it to this stage and end up leaving because this stage of acceptance is sad. You start to wonder ‘why’ you are staying in a land that has so many problems and you start to realize you can’t change anything. China is China or ‘This is China’.
Many expats leave at this point and I would have left also, if I was not dating Yvonne. She is from the Netherlands and I am from the US, which makes it hard to date if we do not live in the same country (so we stayed in China). This year was probably the hardest for me, because I didn’t speak Mandarin, didn’t understand the culture, didn’t like my job, and didn’t have any friends.
In February 2013, I started this site and I was required to learn more about marketing and advertising in China. In order to run Chairman Media, I have to read about China. This means I read 2-3 articles about China a day and write 1-2 articles a week. This is a lot of China content and not all of the articles are about marketing in China. I read about culture, history, politics, society, and just about anything that sounds interesting or that I could use on this site.
All this research and reading allowed me to better understand China and all the paradoxes that used to frustrate me. I think knowledge is the most important aspect of life and by reading and writing I was gaining knowledge about China. This made living in China much easier. During this time, I have also been living in Beijing and there is more access to culture, entertainment, and social events.
Year 5 has been easy, almost too easy. I still don’t have a lot of friends, but I have always kept my circles small. Culturally nothing surprises me anymore and I look at every story I read or hear about from a more ‘Chinese’ perspective. I have started to get frustrated again, but not because I don’t understand, but because I do have a better understanding. I some times fear the continued rise of China, but understand it.
I some times think “why don’t they act or behave in a certain way?” but have to remind myself that “Why should they?” They are Chinese and who am I is to say my way is better or right? I am far from an expert on China, but I have made it to a place that allows me to operate within the culture and even flourish to some extent.
Housing is modern. You can rent an apartment from 3,000 – 20,000 RMB per month. It really depends on your budget. I have always tried to keep my rent under 6,000 RMB and I have been able to find good housing within the 2nd ring road in Beijing. Some schools and universities will offer teacher housing. When I was teaching, the universities offered housing, so I do not know how much housing costs in smaller cities.
You will need to pay 3 months rent each time and when you first sign a contract you will be expected to pay one month deposit and an agent fee of about one month rent. To move into a new place it can cost a lot of money. When I moved into my last place it cost around 30,000 RMB or $4,800 USD. Also, when you first move in you will most likely need to clean for about 2-3 weeks. Every apartment I have moved into in China has been really dirty. It took about 2 weeks of cleaning 8 hours a day to get my last apartment up to foreign standards.
Transportation is really convenient in China. There are buses, subways, and taxis. All 3 forms have their own problems, but together they make an acceptable system. In Beijing, I bike a lot and use the subway and buses to get to work. Bikes are cheap, but don’t buy a new bike. Yvonne and I have had 4 bikes stolen in 2 years living in Beijing. You can buy used/stolen bikes for about 200-300 RMB or new bikes for about 400-600 RMB. Some foreigners will buy e-bikes, but it is hard to get the proper license and license plate. If you are caught you will have to pay a fine and your e-bike could be confiscated.
You can also buy a car, but why would you want too? If you plan on staying long term and want to be stuck in traffic everyday, feel free to buy a car. Many foreigners will buy cars or hire drivers. This can be convenient if you live outside the 2nd or 3rd ring roads. I don’t have the money or need for a car, but some foreigners with families or other personal requirements will buy a car.
There are restaurants every 10 meters in China. Okay, maybe every 5 meters! In Beijing you have the option of eating every major cuisine style. You can eat Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, French, American, Indian, European, etc. Just about everything and anything you want, you can get. On top of all the foreign options there are thousands of Chinese restaurants offering every style and dish you can think of or want to eat.
In smaller cities the options become limited quickly because there are no markets for foreign foods. But, you can usually still find one or two good places to eat and the Chinese options are plentiful. The food is one of the best things about living in China. I really enjoy eating most Chinese foods.
The entertainment options in Beijing are extensive. There are major clubs and bars, along with hole-in-the-wall hipster hangouts. If you like to party there are options, if you like to hangout with friends there are options. Along with bars, there are opera houses, football matches, museums, palaces, and concerts. Almost all major bands doing an Asia tour will now stop in Shanghai and Beijing. If you love music there is always a show coming though from small time to major label. Most 1, 2, and 3 tier cities have plenty of bars, KTVs, shows, and cafes to entertain most foreigners.
One of the best parts about living in China is the opportunity to travel throughout Asia. Yvonne and I love to travel. We even created a site for our travel stories. Living in Beijing means we can travel in Asia easily. Flights to Seoul or Bangkok cost about 1,600 -2500 RMB or $250-350 USD. Flights in China are also very cheap. Beijing to Shanghai can be as low as 700-1200 RMB or $100-200 USD. China also has a well developed rail system with high-speed trains.
Living in China for 5 years
I have mostly written about the major issues related to living in China, but I left out some of the ‘bad’ aspects. China like everywhere in the world has major problems. Some problems are food security and pollution, but the problems have been documented countless times. These problems will affect your life in China, but you can adapt or go home. Nobody is forcing you to live in China, but I wanted to give you a better understanding of what it is like to live in China. The last post about working in China and this post about living in China are based on my personal experience. I hope this gives you a better idea about living in China and some of the issues you might face. Now, back to marketing in Asia!