|According to German expat Susanne, many foreigners enjoy living in China, and she's one of them. Learning the language, exploring the area, enjoying a different lifestyle are some of the things that occupy her time in Beijing. What does she like the most (and the least) about expat life in China? Read on to find out.
Susanne Crosetto (Suzie)
-Where were you born?
-In which country and city are you living now?
Beijing, People’s Republic of China
-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my husband and my son.
-How long have you been living in China?
Since 2 years ago
-What is your age?
Do you need to print that? I am 41.
-When did you come up with the idea of living in China?
It was a phone call for my husband with a job offer in Beijing. We used to live in Asia before (4 years in Bangkok) and loved it. When we got the phone call we had been back in Germany for just 2 years. I had mixed feelings and just wanted to go back to work and my son finally went to a lovely kindergarten, we had made new friends. However my husband thought the job in China would be more interesting than the one he had in Germany. And we both knew how easy, nice and exotic expat life in Asia can be.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
Everything was organized by the company.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
My husband’s company provides private health insurance for expats and their families.
-How do you make your living in China? Do you have any type of income generated?
My husband got the job through the German headquarters of the company (it is not his native country). As we used to work in the same company, they gave me the guarantee I would keep my position and job when we come back from China. But later I decided to quit. And I just started to look around for some freelance contribution opportunities. There are local websites that post classifieds for job seekers. Via http://www.thebeijinger.com and http://www.danwei.org I found an ‘internship’ at a local interior design and lifestyle magazine as well as the opportunity to act in a documentary produced by CCTV (Chinese Central television). The money I earned would not make a living. I am doing this to experience new and creative areas that are totally different from my job back in Germany.
-Do you speak Chinese and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I used to study Mandarin with a private teacher two or three times a week for two hours. At the moment I think I can get along well enough but I am far from being able to make a smart conversation or read or write in Chinese. It is important to learn Chinese (Mandarin) while in China as at the moment very, very few Chinese speak even a little English. Taxi drivers understand only Chinese. But they know the city well and if you have the address written in Chinese (not in English) they will drive you to your target. Every destination, including hotels, has its own Chinese name. You can even get a Chinese name for yourself. All foreigners who learn Chinese do quite well. This was encouraging for me from the beginning. My French neighbour speaks fluent Chinese (to me it sounded fluent) and I know I can do the same!
Local customs…if local customs are how Chinese eat and drink, or clear their throats, how they drive, how they use the bathrooms or their understanding of hygiene as well as their practice of doing business, then, I am sorry to say, I do not respect the local customs. And I am not alone. But still most of the expats enjoy living in China. The biggest concern is air pollution.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
When I miss my friends or family back home, I write emails or call. Some come visiting to China, and we go back twice a year. I also miss friends in Thailand. That’s part of expat life.
On the weekends we spend time in the parks. Our son loves Ritan and Chaoyang Park with all its activities for kids, like a year long fairy. My favourite is the Houhai area with its hutongs and the lake. That’s real old Beijing. - In winter you can even go skiing in the mountains, on artificial snow. – More basic things you can do no matter what the weather or air pollution level are shopping and massages. Visitors love it.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
Yes! But nothing concrete.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
Our housing is paid for by the company. The price? It depends what you need, how many rooms, garden and if you want to live in the city (more expensive) or outside (less expensive). If your housing budget is, let’s say 7.000 USD then you get a semi detached house in the city with 5 tiny rooms, 2 bathrooms, guest toilet and small garden. For the same price you get a ‘stylish’ apartment with 3 bedrooms in a ‘posh’ apartment house, still downtown. But when you want to live outside the city where many expats live happily (some happily ignoring China) you get the double of the size of the house and a bigger garden.
Some companies offer half of the rent to help you buy a house or apartment in your own name. The prices are exploding. But maybe it’s still a good investment as the price level is lower than in Western capitals.
-What is the cost of living in China?
In general everything is cheaper than in the West because of the cheap labour. For 30 kuai (3 Euro) I can buy an enormous amount of vegetables. Meat is cheaper as well. Taxi driving is really cheap. Going out in Beijing is cheaper than in Hong Kong and Shanghai. A lunch menu at one of the town’s best western restaurants is 60 kuai (6 Euro). However foreign brands are more expensive than in the West because of taxes and shipment.
-What do you think about the Chinese?
It is difficult to get into contact with the locals. Apart from business life you cannot communicate that much with the locals in the street unless your Chinese is fantastic. Rather, they might just stare at you. Sometimes they seem rude and unfriendly. However, I find that when you are able to communicate just a little bit they open up and are much nicer. But in general the Chinese do not seem that interested in getting ‘involved’ with foreigners for some reason. The Chinese do not treat foreigners badly; however, I am not sure what they think of foreigners. An overall feeling tells me that the Chinese just use foreigners to get ‘our’ technologies and know-how. And therefore we are accepted.
One important point is safety. And I feel safe in Beijing. It is no problem to walk (or cycle) at night alone as a woman.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in China?
- It is exciting to live in China, to learn a maybe useful language and observe the fast changing cities and culture.
- There are many things and sites to explore.
- Although Chinese culture seems to fade in favour of a modern lifestyle there are still lots of Chinese culture to learn about.
- You get more for your money than in the West (if you are paid in foreign currency or charge foreign labour rate).
- If you are an expat sent by a company that pays for housing, car and driver, you might enjoy a nice lifestyle. We have more living space here than back in Germany.
- A household maid and nanny that works 40 hours a week costs around 1,700 kuai up (around 170 euro) – or 10 kuai per hour, overtime 15 – 20 kuai (not more than 2 Euro per hour for a babysitter when you go out).
- You might get a private teacher for Chinese lessons, piano lessons or painting lessons – it is affordable.
- I enjoy riding my bicycle in the Sanlitun area where I live. Everything is within reach: grocery stores, local market, bakery, butcher, fashion stores, restaurants, doctors, kindergartens, beauty salons, embassies, etc. The area is green with many trees.
- Air pollution is a real issue – you can check the actual pollution level in the afternoon of each day. It is published by the Environmental Department for 84 Chinese Cities.
- Food scandals are another concern – just too many and you lose confidence in local products, vegetables, fruit, fish, milk, etc.
- The government still interferes on the internet and TV. Many websites are not accessible. The firewall/filter changes permanently to avoid negative press. Telephone calls might be overheard. I don’t like the feeling of being controlled. I am not used to that.
- Some of the Chinese 'customs' mentioned above.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in China?
If you are open minded it is no problem to live in Beijing. Maybe do not move your whole household here if you do not know how long you will stay. Most of the houses and apartments are rented fully furnished. Just bring an air freight container with your most important personal stuff.
-Do you have any favourite Web sites or blogs about China?
I am writing about my observations in Beijing at http://beijingnotebook.blogspot.com, featuring the most important links, including the three mentioned above.