China is a wonderful place for so many reasons: its extensive cuisine, deep and alluring history, fascinating language, thriving economy, unparalleled natural beauty – the list goes on and on. it’s also a terrible place, politically, but that shouldn’t necessarily stop you from moving there (trust us, as angry liberals who love Taiwan, we hold a lot of frustration towards China, but we also have an infinite amount of love for it).
Is living and working in China for you, though? And are you for China? Moving to another country is like entering into a relationship – will you and China work well together? Are you an ideal match? Having lived, worked, and travelled extensively in China, we’ve taken our experiences, and those of others, and compiled a guide to help you decide if moving to China is the right step for you.
Who China is For
There are two kinds of people who thrive in China: those who seek the freedom to make of themselves whatever they want and enjoy a cheap and fun-filled life along the way; and those who have a real adoration for China’s language, food, history, and culture.
If you really care about China and take an interest in learning its language and reading about its history, China will love you back and give you a good life. Similarly, if you have a business idea and enough savings, China gives you the opportunity to start your own business cheaply and easily (more on that later). Living and working in China is also a lot of fun. Beer is cheap; you can eat out for every meal and still save money; you can even affordably take a taxi to and from work. It’s also big, and every town is vastly different from its neighbours. If you like to travel, and want a single country that has everything from metropolises to mountain villages, lakes to rivers to mountains, and everything in-between, China is the country for you.
Who China is Not For
Though it might sound harsh to say, China is a fairly rude culture, at least as viewed through Western eyes. Chinese people frequently spit, scream, push, and shout on the streets and in the stores. There is also animal abuse that you will bear witness to on the streets and in the markets. It’s a place that can induce real culture shock and some upsetting frustration. It’s also rife with political corruption that goes very deep and very dark. If you’re someone who can’t acclimatise to a little rudeness and a lot of political corruption, living in China is not for you.
China also has a firewall which blocks the use of the following sites and apps: Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress and most reputable Western news sites. This can be overcome with the use of a VPN, and there are many to choose from, but they do slow down, and they do fail, and this can be frustrating. You’ve been warned.
Of every country in East Asia, China probably has the biggest amount of job opportunities. In the big cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, English is fairly widely spoken, and a lot of good jobs can be found for English-speakers. This is especially true if you’re a teacher (more on that below) or if you’re a scientist, engineer, chef, or journalist. We have personally known people in all of these professions working good jobs in Shanghai.
The best thing about jobs in China is the ease with which you can open your own business there. In Korea, most foreigners who want to open a business must physically invent a brand-new device that can help the economy – no joke. In Japan, there’s so much legal red tape for those wanting to, say, open a bar or a café. In China, however, rent is incredibly cheap, laws are lax by comparison, money moves quickly, and you can have your own business – complete with a strong visa – open within months. If you were so inclined, you could move to China as, say, an English teacher, save for two years, and be ready to open up your own barbershop, deli, or juice bar in next to no time.
Teaching in China
Teaching English is how most people arrive in China. We’ve already made an extensive guide to teaching English in China, Korea, and Japan, but here are some details for the budding teacher looking to escape to China.
The big cities in China are almost overloaded with great teaching opportunities, and most of these big companies ask for nothing more than a bachelor’s degree. You can have your pick of age groups, with companies like EF focussing their attention on teaching English to local kids, and the likes of Wall Street English teaching exclusively adult clients. These jobs usually have an afternoon/evening work schedule (great if you’re not a morning person), and they often ask you to work weekends but offer you another pair of days off in exchange – such as Monday and Tuesday, or Thursday and Friday. It’s average money for back West, but that pay goes much, much farther in China. Even in the big cities. We, for example, worked and lived in the heart of Shanghai, managed to live a fairly luxurious life, and also came away with a lot of savings.
There’s also high school and university teaching. The big cities have a wide range of international schools (in the western suburbs of Shanghai, for example, there is a school exclusively for French and German expats). These schools pay extremely well and often provide apartments and long vacations. It’s not unlike working for a private school in the UK. These are good jobs, if you can get them. Best of all is the low bar for university teaching. A lot of teachers – TEFL and school teachers alike – dream of working as a professor. In China, you actually can, with relative ease. A little experience goes a long way in China, and you can end up with a university job within just a year or two of teaching. Especially if you’re willing to live in a tier-2 or tier-3 city. Speaking of…
Where to Live
This one is not as complicated as you’d think, even given China’s enormous size and population. The big cities have no shortage of jobs and apartments available and are still absurdly affordable with regards to rent, bills, food, and transport costs. If you want to live in the Chinese equivalent of Times Square or Covent Garden, you can.
Conversely, if you’d rather a slightly quieter life, and want to get stuck into learning the language, befriending the locals, and exploring the countryside, China’s smaller cities are still full of things to do. Even its smallest cities usually have a working subway system, which is amazing for convenience and speed. Cities like Hangzhou and Suzhou are of a manageable size, have less pollution, and are a short train ride from Shanghai.
Choosing where to live really comes down to what you want out of life, so here’s a handy list:
For the city slicker who wants fried chicken at 3 am: Tier-1 cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen
For the countryphile who wants to see the ‘real’ China: Tier-2 cities like Hangzhou, Chengdu, Xi’an, Kunming, and Nanjing
Each of the above cities has something unique to draw you in. For example, Chengdu is a modern, hipster city and is where the pandas live; Xi-an is a walled city and the ancient capital of China – it also has the Terracotta Soldiers. Do a little research into each city and see what best suits you. Each one has a wildly different cuisine, different architecture, even often a different local language or dialect. China is fantastically, dizzyingly diverse, and you can see all of it. Picking the right hub is key, though.
For a little personal advice, we lived in Shanghai and if we were to move back and settle somewhere, it would probably be Chengdu for the countryside and the pandas, Shenzhen for the easy access to Hong Kong, or Xi-an for the deep cultural history.
How to Live (Rent/Bills/Phone/Internet etc.)
For a country with a lot of oppressive laws and regulations, China is surprisingly lax and carefree on the ground level. Most of the landlords are private and accommodating (ours was a friendly Shanghai police officer). Paying bills is easily done by hand at the nearest convenience store. The same is true for phone bills.
Here is a personal story to give an idea of how it might work for you after arriving in China:
Our company put us up in a hotel and gave us five days to find an apartment. We had to accomplish this in the evening after our daily training (which finished late). We used the website/lifeline Smart Shanghai (if you move to Shanghai, this site will be your guide to everything from apartment-hunting to finding the best karaoke bars and restaurants) – the site gave us a frequently-updated list of new apartments for rent, as well as the contact info for the agents and/or landlords. From there, we made appointments and had a few viewings. Once we had decided, we drew up a contract and were good for a year.
For utility bills, they arrive in the post and you simply take the fax-paper-looking document down to the nearest convenience store and hand it over. They’ll ask for the required money in cash, and you pay it. Done until next month.
For phone bills, most convenience stores have a little touch screen/ATM thing placed in one of the corners. With this (it has English options) you can pay your phone bills and top up.
For internet, it’s best to ask your landlord to help you set that up. They should be accommodating and helpful. If not them, you may be working for a company who can guide you.
Dos & Don’ts
The ‘don’ts’ in China are big and important and easy to avoid:
- Don’t stage a protest
- Don’t bad-mouth president Xi Jinping in public
- Don’t discuss the independence of Taiwan or Tibet with local people (even though Taiwan is Taiwan and Taiwan is not China and I am prepared to die on this hill and China won’t take me without a fight)
As for the ‘dos’ almost anything goes. There are smoking laws everywhere, and they are universally ignored. Every street corner has a store or stall selling good quality fake CDs and DVDs. Feel free to buy as many as you want. There really isn’t much, legally, that you need to worry about. For all the lack of freedom China has, it paradoxically gives so much freedom.
What to Expect When Applying for a Visa
The cost of a working visa changes from country to country, so think about where you’re from and google the cost of your nationality’s Chinese working visa.
The application process demands a private health check. For people with universal health care, like the UK and Canada, this means going to a private doctor, paying out the nose for a full physical check-up, keeping the receipt, and eventually being reimbursed by your company. When you arrive in China, they’ll give you a second health check just for funsies.
The process is also pretty long and drawn-out. We were stuck in the UK for three months while our visas were slowly processed broke and bored, so make sure you have a place to stay and a bit of savings, or a job to tide you over back home for a few months before you head over to China.
If you are planning a move, or even a visit, to China, it’s a country with incredible culture, a diverse and fascinating language, and an incredibly exciting and tumultuous political history. We highly recommend you do a little reading on China before you go, as we all should before we visit any new country. So, check out our recommended list of five books you should read before travelling to China. You should also read these books regardless because they’re all excellent reads.