Many expats in China wouldn’t dream of living outside of the Big Three – Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. After all, China’s mega-cities offer most of the comforts of home in a setting still foreign enough to add a bit of excitement. You can eat at Western Chains like TGI Fridays, shop at The Gap, have access to English speaking doctors, and expat staples like cheese and coffee are abundant, with a Starbucks on nearly every corner, and New Zealand cheddar available in most supermarkets. The big city nightlife, no matter whether you like neighborhood pubs or bustling discos, offers a staggering array of options for drinking oneself into oblivion. International hospitals have foreign doctors who speak your language, and international schools will educate your children right along side the world’s best and brightest. There are many reasons to pick a First Tier city, so why am I, after only a year in Beijing, heading back out to the hinterlands of China’s Southwest, back to the sleepy town called Kunming that I also call home? And why do an increasing number of foreigners deliberately choose smaller locations, even if it means cheese and coffee are scarce?
Photo by neal_mcquaid
First Tier Cities are just too big. Beijing has a population of about 17 million people. Shanghai’s population is nearly 19 million. The “big” city where my parents live, Dallas Texas, has only about 3 million people, which is, in fact, a smaller population than that of most of China’s second tier cities. I, like many Americans, grew up in even smaller places – towns with less than 1 million people. For expats, the sheer amount of people in a city like Beijing or Shanghai is mind-blowing. There are people everywhere, at every time of the day. Busses are always crowded. Subways are often packed. During peak times, like rush hour, traffic jams can tie you up for long periods of time. Commuting from one part of the city to another can take hours and cause loads of frustration. The feeling of being part of a sheer mass of humanity can be overwhelming at times.
Photo by Hector Garcia
Smaller cities have a more tight-knit expat community. In Beijing there are simply too many foreigners to feel any particular connection to most of them. People group together either by nationality or occupation. Ironically, although Beijing has many more expats than Kunming, I have made very few expat friends in my one year here. If you don’t go out to bars, don’t work for a multinational, and aren’t here studying Chinese, you might not have a lot of opportunities to meet people. In Kunming, however, within my first week of showing up I was forming lasting friendships with Italians, Japanese, Croatians, Americans, French, and Canadians, with students, consultants, professors, writers, and musicians. We had very little in common besides the fact that we all lived in Kunming, but somehow that was always enough to bind us together in some way. I enjoyed the “United Nations” feel, and the way circumstances allowed me to make friends with people who I otherwise would never have met.
Photo by Philou.cn
Clean air. Second Tier cities are often cleaner than their bigger counterparts. Unless you live in a highly industrial area, chances are that fewer people means less pollution, and less congestion. Big cities, no matter where they might be, can often feel like a concrete jungle, even more so when summer days offer yellow skies rather than blue ones. In smaller cities, there are often more trees and fewer high rises, and better air quality. Second tier cities are often prettier too. While Beijing has its nicer parts, there are many places in the city where your view is likely that of more high rises, whereas expanding your boundaries outside of The Big Three can give you more options – mountains, beaches, lakes, deserts, and whatever climate you prefer.
Cost. There’s no doubt about it, second tier cities are much cheaper to live in than first tier cities. Consider this: when I lived in Kunming my rent was about 1/10th of my salary. When I moved to Beijing, although my salary more than doubled, my rent was 1/6th of my salary, proportionally much more than what it was in Kunming. Eating out in Beijing rarely costs less than 100RMB for our family of three, whereas in Kunming we could easily eat well at a local place for less than 50RMB. A cab ride almost anywhere in Beijing is going to cost you upwards of 50RMB, and cab fares can easily hit triple digits if you’re taking a ride across the city in rush hour traffic. In Kunming it was rare indeed if a cab fare exceeded 20RMB, and most fares hovered between 10 and 15. I could get a big cup of coffee for 10RMB, beers for 6RMB. So, while it is true that salaries are higher in the big city, costs are also higher, to a point that almost completely offsets the advantage of the higher salary, especially if your salary is low-mid range (that is, you’re not working for a multinational on a cushy expat package).
Personally, my biggest reason for moving back to Kunming is that I have a deep personal attachment to the city, to its unique culture, to the landscape, and to the climate. I’m sure that many people feel the same sort of attachment to Beijing, or Shanghai, and that’s great too. However, there are a lot of expats out there who choose the Big Three because they’re widely known cities with good reputations abroad. They’re certainly safe bets for anyone new to China, but they’re also not for everyone. If you like the idea of China but huge cities aren’t your cup of tea, don’t be afraid to try one of China’s many second, or even third, tier cities. What you find might just surprise you.
Seven Reasons to Choose a First Tier City in China
Relocating My Life: My Epic Move From Kunming to Beijing
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