China is a juggernaut. Its land area, its population, its military, and its economy are all at or near the top in most categories. With over 5000 years of history, the Chinese can also boast the longest continuous civilization in the world. It’s a country of extremes...from the skyscrapers and technological marvels of Shanghai and Hong Kong, to the thousands of year old temples and monasteries. From the hustle and bustle of the biggest cities in the world, including Beijing and Shanghai, to the simple farming existence in the rural countryside, where most people still live as they have for centuries. China has oceans, mountains, plains, deserts, cities galore, small villages, rainforests, and everything in between.
Living and working in China is a gift for the senses. The culture, history, cuisine, and people all make it a tremendously rewarding and unique experience. But be warned...it can be tricky. Navigating Chinese bureaucracy and red-tape can drive even the most saintly among us to swear, and stomp, and it often feels like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. Frustrating at times? Oh, yes. Worth the aggravation? An emphatic yes!
A Bit of Background
You know a bit about China already. You’re aware of the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City (home to the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties). You’ve probably had Chinese food (or its foreign equivalent) at some point. Officially the third largest country in the world, the Chinese population is pegged at roughly 1.4 billion people. That’s billion with a “B”. Realistically, that figure could be tens, if not hundreds, of millions more. Counting methods in the vast countryside are inaccurate, and people typically lie to circumnavigate the one-child policy. Despite everything you know - or think you know - China will find ways to surprise you. There’s just so much to see, eat, and experience. And while China remains a Communist country, erase any antiquated beliefs you have regarding that. The Communist machine’s influence on the general public is rather limited. Yes, the media is more closely controlled than you might be used to, but even that is slowly (ever so slowly) changing.
Visas and Immigration
Getting your visa sorted is a fairly painless procedure, but it will most likely require a visit to the nearest Chinese Embassy or Consulate. Also, be aware that both Hong Kong and Macau have different requirements, as they are special zones (officially part of China once again, but under different rules and regulations. “One Country, Two Systems”, as it’s called).
Citizens of most countries can quickly get a Tourist Visa (L). There are also special visas for Students (X), Talent, Family Reunion (Q), and Transit (G). If you are going to China for employment, you’ll need a Work (Z) or Business (F/M) Visa, and these are typically arranged by your employer after you arrive in country. It is possible (although unlikely and difficult) to get a Resident (D) Visa once you have lived in China for five years.
In order to apply, you need to visit the Embassy with your passport, a color visa photo, and the completed application (as well as letter(s) of invitation if you’re applying for either work or business). Expect to pay roughly $140 per person.
Finding a suitable property in China is not easy unless you a) speak fluent Mandarin, and b) are a fierce negotiator. It’s best to get help from your employer, as they probably have someone on staff who knows their way around the red-tape and headaches that can occur.
As with most countries, there is a wide range of options. Bigger, international cities like Beijing and Shanghai have villa development areas just outside of the city. These homes are often standalone, and in gated communities. Within the cities, you’re looking at apartments, and you’ll be able to find something to meet any budget, size, and preference. As a rule-of-thumb, a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre will run around 3500 yuan ($560 USD), while a three-bedroom place can go for 8000 (at a minimum) and up ($1300 USD). The newer, bigger, and fancier the place, the more you’ll pay. And prices outside of the city proper tend to be much, much lower. Contracts are typically for one-year with an option to renew, and many include the cost of television and heating.
Driving in China is challenging, and not for the timid. In fact, if you can avoid it, you should. Traffic rules are often viewed as “suggestions” by the driving public, and not steadfast rules. Major Chinese cities have excellent public transportation, including buses and intricate subway systems. Taxis are plentiful and cheap. Or, you could get yourself a bike (very cheap) and ride around like the vast majority of people. Most cities and towns are very, very bike friendly.
If you must drive, and you have a valid license from your home country, it is possible to get a Chinese driver’s license. Possible...but not easy. The written test contains 100 randomly selected questions from a pool of over 1000, and the minimum passing grade is 90. You may have to complete and pass a road test. All of this with the added hiccup of language barriers (unless, of course, you’re fluent in Mandarin). If you must, do yourself a favour and pay for some assistance. There are numerous companies set up to help foreigners deal with these situations. The Beijing Expat Service Center (similar companies are found in all major cities) is highly recommended, and can help with everything from getting your Chinese license, to renewing your visa from within China.
The international schools located in China cover a wide-range of curriculums, and with few exceptions, are all very well regarded. They provide top-notch English-language education options if you’re making the move with children. The International School of Beijing, The Western Academy of Beijing, The American International School of Guangzhou, and Shanghai American School are considered not only some of the best in China, but in the world at large.
China is big (nearly 9,600,000 square kilometers). As such, the weather and climate you experience will depend on where you settle. Southern China is much milder than the north, and experiences a wet (monsoon) season. Beijing, located in the north, sees temperatures in the 28-40’C range during the summer, while the winter months can easily see temperatures dip to sub-zero. Dress accordingly. Guangzhou, in the far south, experiences hot and humid summers with temperatures well over 30’C. The winters, by contrast, tend to be sunny, warm, and dry, with temperatures rarely dipping below 10’C. There is also a monsoon season (April-September) that sees abundant rainfall.
There is not much in terms of English entertainment. Satellite television, while available in some big cities, is technically illegal and subject to frequent breakdowns and blackouts. There are a few English channels (more so in or near Hong Kong), but not much. Chinese cinemas import around 10 Hollywood films per year, but they are heavily edited and censored.
But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to do. Explore the city. Chances are you’re living somewhere with centuries of history to explore (or more!). Travel. China has a virtually inexhaustible list of places and things to see. Check out the numerous tea houses, karaoke clubs, shopping malls, temples, or restaurants. The Chinese love basketball (there is a CBA league), soccer, badminton, gymnastics, and table tennis. Go to a game. Join a team.
I’m not going to lie. Dealing with red-tape in China can be a nightmare. Keep trying, and keep smiling (if you lose your temper with someone, you’re likely finished. It accomplishes nothing in China). What works today, may not work tomorrow. But it is definitely worth it. I spent seven years living in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and I miss it fiercely. One last tip...do yourself a favour and take some Mandarin Chinese lessons. While English is taught in the national Chinese curriculum, most people don’t really speak it. It’s rare to find a taxi driver, or server, or retail clerk that can help you in English. Knowing a little Mandarin comes in very, very handy.
China is like no place else on Earth.
Photo by Marianna
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