You told your boss to go shove it. You sold all your worldly possessions on Craigslist. You explained your plan to doubtful family and friends. You're finally ready to start your new life in China! But there's one big question: where the hell are you going to live? If you're still looking for the answer, I've got your back. Here's a list of what I believe are the five best cities for expats working in China.
Beijing is awesome. It contains the core of recent Chinese historical identity in the form of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the perennial foreigner favorite, the Great Wall. It has amazing restaurants from all over China and the world, a mind-boggling array of architecture, and an efficient and cheap public transportation network.
Beijing also boasts some of the most standard Mandarin speakers in China, which makes learning and using Chinese much easier than in other cities, despite the heavy Beijing accent. In addition, it has a gigantic community of foreigners and a cosmopolitan Chinese population, making it easy to establish a large network of friends and business contacts.
Finally, due to its massive population, Beijing has a bustling job market where foreigners can find high-paying positions in virtually any field with ease.
Things to think about
One of the big disadvantages of Beijing stems from what makes it so awesome: it's gigantic population. While every city in China is big by most foreign metrics, Beijing is massive. That makes housing expensive, commutes to work long, public conditions crowded and pollution in the winter crazily bad due to people burning coal to stay warm. Also, the winters in Beijing are like Star Wars Planet Hoth-level cold.
Shenzhen is pretty much at the cutting edge when it comes to Chinese cities. It basically didn't exist 30 years ago before it exploded into one of China's largest business hubs. Consequently, it's very modern and has many western-style amenities that are less common in older Chinese cities.
Shenzhen is a bustling place of business and commerce with all the accompanying advantages: a great job market with high salary roles and an abundance of opportunities for those looking to join or start companies, both foreign and Chinese.
It's also, give or take, an hour's train or ferry ride away from the SAR (special administrative region) of Hong Kong, which is one of the coolest international cities in Asia, boasting western services and products that are not readily accessible in mainland China. This also makes visa changes or transfers much easier and cheaper to negotiate.
Because it's so easy to visit Hong Kong from Shenzhen, expats working in China who live here essentially get a two-for-one city that allows you to experience living in China with all the comforts, products and services you might associate with a Western lifestyle. Read this for even more reasons to move to Shenzhen.
Things to think about
Shenzhen is not a great place to learn standard Mandarin as most of the locals use Cantonese in their day-to-day interactions. Also, a bustling job market means a higher cost of living in terms of food and apartments which, depending on your standards, could impact your ability to save money.
Chengdu is famously touted as the “most livable” city in China. Known for its laid-back culture of tea drinking and mahjong parlors, it has a slower pace of life than you'll find in many other Chinese cities. It's also somewhat famous among foreigners as being more tolerant of LGTBQ culture than other cities in China, though there is some debate on the subject.
Like Beijing, Chengdu is surrounded by easily accessible cultural and historical attractions and also boasts dozens of mountains and hiking trails in striking distance of the city. In addition it has the (in my opinion) the best local Chinese cuisine, utilising fiery chillies and the numbing Sichuan peppercorn that give the province's dishes their unique flavour profile.
The job market is smaller here than in major Chinese cities, but it's still possible to get fairly high-paying roles. Combined this with a far lower cost of living and it can be quite easy to save large sums of money in Chengdu. Consequently, Chengdu has become a favorite destination of expats working in China.
Things to think about
If you don't like spicy food there won't be much for you to eat in Chengdu in terms of local cuisine. Due to its relatively secluded geographical location, Chengdu also has a less international population, and consequently you'll find a higher rate of people staring at you or surreptitiously taking photos of you.
The local dialect, while similar to Mandarin, is quite difficult for a non-native speaker, making Chengdu a less than ideal place to learn standard Chinese. Also, due to its geographic location, an alluvial plain surrounded by mountains, the weather is overcast for most of the year, and air pollution, while never hitting the heights of Hebei and Beijing, is relatively high.
Xiamen is an island paradise located in Fujian province on the eastern coast of China, close to Taiwan. It is home to a subtropical climate, which means it's fairly pleasant all year-round, and has a wide variety of natural attractions to visit and hike.
There's a good job market for English teachers in Xiamen, a well-established foreign community and a local Chinese population that's more open to foreigners than other more geographically closed-off places.
One of the biggest advantages of living in Xiamen is its proximity to Taiwan, which greatly simplifies and reduces the cost of maintaining or changing visas if you're looking to stay in China long-term.
Things to think about
The local dialect of Fujian is so far removed from most other dialects in China that even other native speakers can't understand it. While younger people can speak Mandarin, in their daily lives they'll use their local dialect, which doesn't have many benefits to learn outside of communicating with the locals.
One of the biggest drawbacks to living in Chinese cities in general is the pollution. While some say the situation is improving in China's worst-affected cities, Kunming has a reputation for having pretty low air pollution levels already.
These days Kunming also has a whole lot of advantages to its name: a solid job market, an established foreign community, a relaxed pace of living, low daily costs and a good environment for learning Mandarin. But many of the above mentioned cities also have these perks, so why should you live in Kunming over them?
The answer lies in the province in which Kunming resides: Yunnan. Yunnan is one of the most fascinating places in China. Lying just above Vietnam, it has been the Chinese gateway into continental Southeast Asia since time immemorial, which in turn has created an incredibly diverse society of more than two dozen different minority groups.
Combined with the overall beauty of the surrounding natural sites, Kunming offers a unique and comfortable experience for expats looking to delve beyond the national Han identity (the majority ethnic group) and explore Chinese culture more deeply.
Things to think about
Like many of China's more secluded cities, the people of Kunming have less exposure to foreigners than other major cities on the east coast. As a result you will deal with more stares and covert pictures.
So there are my suggestions. Think it over carefully and choose the city that's best for you. Failing that, throw a dart at a map!
Any other suggestions for China's best cities for expats? Hit us up in the comments section below.
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Keywords: expats working in China
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I would guess that 90% of all communication in Shenzhen is done in Mandarin so I disagree with the statement that it's a bad place to learn the language. You'll come across various dialects from all around China from time to time, but this is not a Cantonese city in the way Guangzhou and other parts of Guangdong are.
Jul 14, 2018 21:54 Report Abuse
Hmm, I've worked in Shanghai and Beijing and visited Nanjing, Hangzhou, and other minor cities. I prefer Shanghai despite its high cost of living because they are more open to foreigners and are used to them on a daily basis. They are seen as snobs by their fellow Chinese from other cities and rightly so but my experience with Shanghainese was quite pleasant, surprisingly.
Jul 13, 2018 20:07 Report Abuse