Where to live in China

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
THE IMPORTANCE OF LOCATION

NOW THAT YOU KNOW more about what teaching English in China is like and you’re interested in learning what else living in the middle kingdom has to offer, you need to find a job. One of the most important factors that go into choosing a job is location. It is also very important for living and working in general.

In this section, I offer an overview of the main pros and cons of living in bigger-sized cities, medium-sized cities, small cities, and how cities are laid out. Since cities like Macau and Hong Kong are not really the same as the rest of China’s cities, I will leave them for the end.

Besides the school you will work at, things to consider when choosing a city are the location, population, climate, and level of economic development.

CITY TIERS

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Every city in China belongs to a certain tier level. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen are all first tier cities in China. They’re also the only cities besides Hong Kong that might be considered international cities. They each have over 10 million people and are more developed compared with the rest of China’s cities. There are more job opportunities in bigger cities and therefore also more expatriates (expats). There are more services catering to foreigners: restaurants, shops selling foreign products, etc. Generally these cities will be cleaner and nicer than smaller cities.

All other provincial capitals in China are considered second tier cities. Chengdu, Hangzhou, Chongqing, and Nanjing are examples of such cities. These cities also have many of the same aspects of life as the first tier cities and are great bets for foreigners wanting to live and work in China. There  are many job opportunities here too and these are also the fastest growing cities in China.

I have spent all of my time in China living in third tier cities (Zhongshan, Jiaxing, Jiangmen). These cities are medium-sized (one to five million people) and are more developed than towns and villages. They usually don’t have as many foreigners or services catering to foreigners, and there are less jobs than in bigger cities, however you should not overlook them. There are hundreds of these types of cities and I find that each is unique and generally has more character than the bigger cities. There is something appealing about living in a city the size of Chicago that few people have heard of. The third tier cities like Zhongshan can also be very clean, especially if they are in Guangdong, one of the cleanest provinces in China.

Within each city are smaller districts, which are themselves smaller cities within the municipality. In Zhongshan, the central city is called Shiqi, which is where I lived and worked. The surrounding cities of Xiaolan, Sanxiang, and Zhongshangang are all districts within the larger whole, each containing their own downtowns, shopping malls, and colleges. These cities are smaller than the central city, but also hold opportunities. Generally, there will be more foreigners and opportunities in the central city. Within each district are dozens of villages depending on how large the area is.

It’s important to think about where you will live within the city as well. Where I taught in Zhongshan was an ideal set-up because where I lived and worked was in the center of the central district. I could walk to restaurants, malls, and bars within 10 or 15 minutes. I could also take a cab for 10 or 15 RMB to anywhere in the central city within 15 minutes.

In comparison, my friend once taught at a school on the outskirts of Nanchang, the biggest city in Jiangxi province. There were some restaurants, bars, and arcades around the college for students, but otherwise it was a 45-minute bus ride into the city or a 75 RMB 30 minute cab ride into the city for restaurants, malls, and bars. I advise choosing a school with a good location.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

When I first thought about moving to China, I had dreams of living on a picturesque farm and drinking tea with my neighbors every morning and evening watching the days roll by. The reality of such a life is very different and you would likely be toiling in the mud most of the day and suffering from severe culture shock the entire time. I’m not saying this is a certainty, or that you wouldn’t enjoy such a lifestyle, but I know that a person’s visions and reality can be very different things.

One of the most important things you will probably need in order to be happy in China is a built-in network of amenities (western toilets, McDonald’s, a foreign foods section at the supermarket, etc.) and other foreigners. I am all for cultural immersion and no matter where you end up you will have plenty of opportunities for this. Because many of these cultural immersion experiences can become exhausting, you probably will be happier in cities that are more habitable to foreigners. You don’t want to end up canceling your stay in China and going home early.

You can think of China as being broken into two major areas in terms of prosperity: Eastern Coast and Interior. The provinces of Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Fujian are the wealthiest. The first, second, and third tier level cities in these provinces will all be fairly developed. As you move towards the interior the bigger and smaller cities will be less and less developed.

If you are looking for adventure in one of China’s smaller cities or villages, the interior is a good bet. There are lots of smaller third tier cities here that have most western amenities but are explored by few foreigners.

Almost all of China’s provinces are mountainous and these areas while usually the poorest are the most beautiful. Kunming, in Yunnan, or Chengdu, in Sichuan, are good choices for someone who wants to live in a city but be close to the countryside and getaways like the Silk Road and Mount Everest.

When trying to decide where to live, I recommend reading blogs and websites about different cities. Below are some blogs and websites for reading about different cities and speaking with people who have lived in these cities or similar cities in China.

EChinaCities (www.echinacities.com)
A website for expats containing city guides, job postings, news, and more.

ChengDu Living (www.chengduliving.com)

This is a website for expats living in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. There are guides, pictures, and an active forum.

The Beijinger (www.thebeijinger.com) A website dedicated to life in Beijing.

Shanghai Expat (www.shanghaiexpat.com) A website dedicated to life in Shanghai.

Far West China (www.farwestchina.com)
A website dedicated to Xinjiang province. Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi is

the furthest large city on earth from an ocean. Xinjiang is also home to some amazing scenery.

The Land of Snows (www.thelandofsnows.com)
A website dedicated to information about Tibet. If you are thinking of living in Tibet or planning a trip there, this is an excellent resource with great photos and guides.

China Life Files (www.chinalifefiles.com)
This is my own blog, which has information on Zhongshan, Guangdong and Jiaxing, Zhejiang.

HONG KONG AND MACAU

Hong Kong and Macau are technically a part of China, but the cultures and economies are very different from mainland China’s. While mainland China will feel like another world compared with where you are from, Hong Kong and Macau will have a way of life that doesn’t feel too different from somewhere like London or Los Angeles. These cities both have a relatively western feel to them. This isn’t to say Hong Kong lacks its Asian roots. In some ways the Chinese tradition is preserved much better in Hong Kong than it is in mainland China. Think of Hong Kong as a cross between mountainous tropical islands and New York City with Chinese culture.

The cost of living in Hong Kong is much higher than in mainland China. A very small one-bedroom apartment in an average area of Hong Kong will cost at least $1,000 USD per month and probably a lot more. Salaries however, will not be that much higher than in a city like Shanghai or Beijing.

Personally I find Macau a little boring. It can be fun if you like  gambling, but otherwise it is very small.

Geo Expat (www.geoexpat.com)
A website dedicated to expat life in Hong Kong.

Macau Expat (macauexpatchick.com)
I have never used this guide because I have little interest in Macau, but you may want to do some research with it. I know of one person in China who makes a living off of gambling and if this sounds like something you’d be interested in, maybe Macau would be a good fit for you.

CLIMATE

Another consideration you may want to add is the climate of the area you will be moving to. Personally, I prefer a warmer climate where it doesn’t snow or get too cold. I like to be able to walk around every day of the year without a coat if possible and not be stuck inside for several months out of the year. Being a huge country, both longer from north to south and east to west than the United States, China has a very diverse climate.

Southern China

Guangzhou and Hong Kong in southern China are at roughly the same latitude as Mexico City and winters are relatively mild. November through January is the ideal time to be in southern cities like Zhongshan or Shenzhen since temperatures are between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius.

Although the winters are not very cold, they are wet, and apartments in southern China are not heated very well. You will feel the cold from January to March.

The summers are hot and wet, and as it is the rainy season between April and August, it’s likely to rain a lot. The mornings are usually clear, and then around noon it will get cloudy and rain for an hour before clearing up again. Most days I would need to take a shower three to four times per day (one after every outing). It’s usually about 30 degrees Celsius and very humid.

Eastern China

Shanghai is at around the same latitude as Houston, Texas, United States and it is cold in the winter. It gets snow though not a lot. Like in southern China, most of the buildings aren’t heated. Space heaters are still generally used.

The summers are extremely hot though not as humid as in southern China.

Northern China

Beijing is at the same latitude as Chicago or New York and has the same weather, being hot in summer and cold in winter. As with most parts of the world these days, seasons like spring and autumn in Beijing have been reduced to four to six weeks.

Western China

During the Spring Festival winter holiday some years ago my friend and I trekked around the mountains and rubber tree plantations of Yunnan, a province abutting Tibet and Myanmar in southwestern China. Though it was cold, it only dipped below freezing during the night and the days were sunny.

We first spent time trekking through the mountains in the northern Yunnan, not far from the city of Dali, home to old women with black teeth selling marijuana (definitely worth a stop if you are needing more stories to tell your kids or future grandchildren).

After our time spent in Northern Yunnan, we flew to the southern city of Jinghong, which is the capital of Xishuangbanna, which is at the southern tip of Yunnan and at the same latitude as Hong Kong and bordering Laos. Xishuangbanna is sometimes referred to as “China’s Thailand” and it does feel and look like Thailand in many places. The weather at this time of year is amazing and around fifteen degrees Celsius.

CHOOSING A RANDOM CITY

Despite all of your efforts to find the ideal city, oftentimes going to a random city you know nothing about will end up being a great fit. This is what happened to me when I was placed in Zhongshan. In my experience, choosing a random city can provide great results—Zhongshan is easily my favorite city in the world.

Keywords: China Expat,expat in china,learn Chinese ,Chinese culture ,China jobs ,China travel, 外国人在中国

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