What Is Life in China Like?
Anyone hoping to transition their life to China will undoubtedly know that challenges abound. For any Westerner moving to such a unique eastern country, culture shock is a given. The real question is: are challenges surmountable, and will living in China all be worth it?
Naturally, the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ to both, given the country is home to at least one million foreign expats at last count. All these intrepid souls are living in China right now, earning well and enjoying an enviable standard of living. They’ve conquered the hurdles and settled into an exciting experience that will stay with them.
Although South Korea and Japan make up at least 30% of foreign workers in China, you might be surprised to learn that Western nationalities, including North American, Irish, British, German, French and Canadian, are well represented.
Stepping back from the big picture, however, raises the all-important question. What is it really like to live in China?
Those of us who have been here for years can tell you it’s one hell of a ride. Life in China is stimulating, surprising, infuriating and incredibly rewarding. Between the cultural and linguistic barriers, the culinary delights, travel opportunities, bureaucratic madness, earning potential and incomparable standard of living we could never enjoy back home, the good far outweighs the bad. That’s especially true if you detest boredom and crave adventure.
Life in China is everything except boring and predictable. Music to the ears of anyone currently stuck in a tedious 9-5 routine.
Here’s what we will cover on this page:
- Life in China – an overview
- The silver lining of living in China
- What is China’s standard of living like?
- What is the cost of living in China?
- Is China a safe place to live?
- Culture & cuisine
- Your working life in China – what to expect
- Dealing with the language barrier
- Insider tips – how to get your new life in China off to a good start
- The pros and cons of working and living in China
Life in China – An Overview
Every foreigner who’s ever lived in China has initially experienced varying levels of culture shock. Yet the reasons for overcoming hurdles are as impressive as they are extensive.
Here’s a quick overview of what you can expect living in China!
Is China a good place to live?
Most foreigners are enticed to China by high paying jobs. Indeed, higher than they pay almost anywhere else. Over 25% of Western expats in China earn over USD 300,000 a year, representing the highest expat-earning proportion of any nation.
High-paying jobs – Even teaching, traditionally not a high-paying profession in Western countries, is a big earner here. ESL teachers earn more in China than they do almost anywhere else. Unsurprisingly, teaching is arguably the top career choice for foreigners in China. It’s not hard to see why that is. A well-paying teaching job, or any well-paid job, translates to an exceptional standard of living.
Learn more about projected teaching salaries in China for 2022.
Low cost of living – A few countries might offer higher salaries for comparable jobs, yet none boast China’s low cost of living. That’s what drives such a high standard of living here. Even on a mediocre salary, life in China is affordable and enjoyable, a particular enticement for young Westerners. If you have recently graduated and are looking for an exciting way to kick-start an international career, China is ideal.
Low crime – If there’s one thing for which China is famous, it would have to be its high public safety. Something most foreigners appreciate. We’ll dive deeper into China’s safety matters below.
Professional benefits – Score a job with an esteemed international company in China, and your CV will receive an incomparable boost. Get an international school job with a prominent institution, and the teaching world is at your feet. Overly boastful, you fear? Not really. China is not renowned for being an ‘easy’ place to live and work. Manage to do that, and future employees will notice. Moreover, China’s fast-paced growth means this is a great country to get ahead professionally.
The silver lining of living in China
There are many benefits of living in China, but two, in particular, often fly under the radar.
Travel opportunities – An impressive salary is an irresistible enticement, yet travel opportunities soon become an invaluable silver lining of life in China. Live here, and you will have all of Asia at your doorstep. You will also quickly realize that China is akin to a continent. Every corner is unique, with its distinct culture, gastronomy, and history. Visiting another province is, in some ways, like traveling to another country. Living in China offers the priceless chance to explore unique places and cultures, and most expats spend their hard-earned savings on doing precisely that!
High-esteem – Here’s a little silver lining that might not convince you to live in China but is nice to know anyway. Western foreigners are well regarded in China and treated with respect. Move to a small town or remote province to teach English, and you will become the town’s starlet, no doubt. Most Chinese hold Western education in high regard, and the local youth, in particular, find Western culture appealing. Couple that with the local intrinsic value of respecting the elderly and those in high positions. It all translates to enjoying good standing in the community.
What is China’s standard of living like?
The cost of living in China may be rising but still falls well below the standard we’re used to in the West. Even expensive Tier 1 cities are cheaper than their equivalent cousins abroad. This, together with high wages, means foreigners enjoy the exciting and varied lifestyle they could never afford back home.
Live in a less-prominent city, and those living costs plummet further. Sure, you may earn a little less when you choose to live in a Tier 3 city, but you will pay a LOT less for everything, so you will end up with more play money at the end of every month.
Foreigners are not the only ones who enjoy prosperity in China. Over the last four decades, China has lifted more people out of poverty (800 million and counting) than any other country in history. Life for the average Chinese outshines that of most foreign countries, Western included. Life in China is excellent and continues to improve for every person living in the country.
So, what’s so good about life in China, you ask?
How about world-class infrastructure and an unrivalled transport system? Airports continue to spring up at every corner and this, alongside bullet trains, means you can get around faster and cheaper. If you’re game, you can even rent a car and explore your province. It’s inexpensive, fun and refreshing, as long as your nerves can handle getting out of the city.
The expat scene is also extensive, especially in major cities. There are numerous social groups into sports, arts, culture, travel (and every other side gig imaginable). Connecting with like-minded expats who’ll help you navigate your new life is what further enhances your enjoyment of life in China. Truth be told, many of us are infinitely more sociable in China than we ever were back home.
Mainly because we can afford to be!
What many first-time visitors find surprising is China’s cosmopolitan vibe. Live in one of the major cities, and you’ll want for nothing. Yes, you will have to drop plenty of yuan for imported luxuries like cheese and wine, but they are available, nonetheless.
What is the cost of living in China?
As mentioned, China’s cost of living is on the rise but still offers an abundance of spending options. Yes, you can blow your super-high salary every month on indulgent treats at Carrefour, taxi rides several times a day and a swanky central penthouse.
Yet you can also live in a gorgeous apartment just 10 minutes away and save 50% on rental costs. Enjoy insanely delicious local meals for $3, catch local transport, go to the gym, buy super fresh produce from local markets and halve your grocery bill by shopping at a local supermarket instead.
China offers a lifestyle choice rarely seen elsewhere, which makes (or breaks) your cost of living. You can enjoy a good lifestyle for just under USD 1,000 a month, anywhere in China. Then, you will always find plenty of room for more indulgent spending.
You can find out more about the cost of living for teachers in China (which is a good ballpark for every foreigner living in the country) alongside plenty of budget fixes that will help you keep your expenses down.
Is China a safe place to live?
China rates as one of the world’s safest countries for foreign expats. Crimes against foreigners are rare because serious crimes are almost unheard of. A high police presence and ubiquitous CCV cameras in all major cities help keep everyone on the straight and narrow.
It certainly feels safe to live and meander in China, even in large cities and even late at night. It’s a little unsettling for newcomers, especially if they’re from countries or cities with high crime rates.
Of course, safety levels are relative. Much depends on who you are and how you behave when abroad. China has, like all nations, its own set of unique laws, but if you are a law-abiding citizen, you shouldn’t have any issues.
Petty crime and annoying scams are the only real concerns for foreigners living in China. Here are a few common scams in China that all travelers and expats should know.
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of anxiety among expats worldwide. China is no exception, of course. The government doesn’t muck around with health scares because it’s ruling over a nation of one billion people. Snap lockdowns, isolation stints and frequent COVID testing have become the norm. Yet life, overall, is returning to its relative normality.
Find out more about this and all pertinent issues, on our China Safety Guide for 2022.
Culture & cuisine
Aside from the financial benefits, discovering the local culture is the most enjoyable bonus of living in China. This is especially true when talking about food. Local culinary delights are varied, affordable, and incredibly tasty. You never really understand the term ‘taste explosion’ until you’ve dug into a traditional Chinese dish cooked the right way.
The wonderful aspect of life in China is that dining out is the primary way to socialize. Food plays a massive role in local culture. Most social and professional gatherings take place over a lazy Susan overflowing with steaming plates of deliciousness.
If you’re a foodie, you’ll be in your element: no matter where you are, you’ll see stands dishing out steaming dumplings at all hours of day and night, enjoy extravagant feasts, and choose to travel to other provinces solely to discover the local gastronomy.
That’s life in China, in a nutshell!
Your working life in China – what to expect
When we talk about China’s impressively high salaries, never assume it means you should come here to make easy money. Traditionally, local workplace culture is all about hierarchy and long hours. The good news is that Westerners, by default, are seen as having a higher standing in the workplace.
In China, you can make good money with a moderate workload, but if you want to earn top dollar in a leading position, you will have to put in the hard yards. Whether you’re coming to live in China to work in education, marketing, trade, or technology, we recommend you research your prospective employer to find out what it’s like to work for them. Much of your experience will come down to the specific workplace, even among comparable jobs.
The ins and outs of China’s workplace culture
Internal politics – As with most countries, internal politics play a significant role in the workplace in China. Traditionally, employees don’t question directions from the top, which can irritate experienced foreigners used to discussing strategies and exchanging opinions in the workplace. However, speaking up against the boss in China can cause friction with colleagues and supervisors alike. That’s just one of the many cultural differences you will need to notice and deal with at work.
Overtime – Local workplace laws dictate that a standard workday be eight hours long. Yet this law isn’t enforced, and the reality can be wildly different. Overtime is synonymous with dedication in China, so it’s not unusual.
Networking – Professional connections are a big deal anywhere, but there’s a term reserved for nurturing workplace relations in China: guanxi. Guanxi isn’t about calling in favours when needed but something to be encouraged and worked on constantly. Chinese colleagues often accept invitations, repay those invitations, socialize, exchange small gifts, and even take short trips together to nurture guanxi. Not participating in it can make one appear self-centred and, heaven forbid, too individualistic.
Collectivity is vital – Just as ignoring guanxi may be viewed as selfish, so is taking credit for a good outcome. Humility may be frowned upon in a Western workplace, but Chinese culture outright demands it. Because when one succeeds, everyone succeeds!
But don’t be a pushover – The above aside, shrinking violets don’t fare well in a Chinee workplace. Be too complacent and agreeable, and a shady boss may be inclined to walk all over you. The key to workplace success is to find a balance between giving respect and gaining respect. Usually, the latter is best done in public, and the former in private. Understand that keeping face plays a weighty role in Chinese culture, and you’ll get why criticizing your boss in front of all their employees will not bode well for you.
Your working life in China will highly depend on your job. Even within the teaching sphere, workloads, benefits, and sacrifices vary. Teachers working in training centres, for example, will work evenings and weekends, leaving their days blissfully free of commitment. Public school and kindergarten jobs, on the other hand, are renowned for being the least stressful of all.
However, teach at a reputable international school, and your workload will be intense.
Dealing with the language barrier
First, a few enlightening statistics…
According to the latest stats, over 70% of expats living in China can barely string two Chinese words together. Only about 8% can get by. This might sound a little crazy, especially when you consider that over 30% of expats live in China between five and ten years, and 20% have been here for more than a decade.
So, what gives? Are all Chinese so fluent in English that learning the local lingo is unnecessary?! Not quite.
It means that most foreigners manage to live and thrive in China despite the language barrier. It also hints that most foreign expats live in megacities. In Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Kunming, and Hangzhou, life is infinitely easier for foreigners. Yet this ease comes after a while and with experience. After a few months, foreigners understand how to get stuff done and how things work, so they need less assistance. At first, however, they must rely on new local friends and strangers’ goodness to get things done.
Foreigners who speak a modicum of Mandarin, experience an altogether different life in China. They make more local friends and have an easier time with everything. Speaking at least a little Mandarin facilitates everything: dining out alone in local restaurants, buying flight or bus tickets, going to the post office, bargaining for goods, and generally immersing yourself in the local culture.
Here’s why you should (and can) study Mandarin before you head to China.
Insider tips – how to get your new life in China off to a good start
Life in China may not always be plain sailing, but there is a lot you can do to help mitigate the stress of everyday life.
Much of it comes down to choices you can make. The trick, however, is to make them before you even realize how important they are.
China living for expat families
Choosing the right job and where to live in China is of paramount importance. For families, making the right choices is even more crucial. Not only will you have to choose a job that suits you, personally, but also a workload that will suit your new family life abroad. When moving to China as a small tribe, the needs and desires of the unit outweigh any personal preferences you may have. At least they should if you’d like the experience to be a positive one for you all.
This is one of 10 things to know if you want to live in China with your family.
Know THIS before committing to life in China
Ready to commit to working and living in China? Here are 8 tips to help anyone (not just teachers) plan their big move. We offer some insider’s views on commuting, what to pack, and how to generally tackle those big hurdles.
Life in China? It’s all about WeChat!
WeChat is an essential part of everyday life in China, the one app that does it all. What started as a social messaging app to rival WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter (combined) has evolved to include sending and receiving money, paying for things including utilities, online shopping, accessing public services, and a host of other stuff.
However, it is even more important for foreigners to know what they shouldn’t do on WeChat.
The pros and cons of working and living in China
We created a comprehensive guide of 26 pros and cons of teaching and living in China. It offers a balanced overview of life in China for foreigners. It covers a few essential topics we haven’t discussed here, including travel (domestic and international), homesickness, the potential of getting stuck in an expat bubble, pollution, internet restrictions, and more.
Whether life in China is right for you will be your call to make. From where we stand, we could not think of a more exciting adventure on which to embark.