China at a Glance
Living in ChinaiStockphoto
The Great Wall has become China's main tourist attraction.
Living in China can be an overwhelming experience for expatriates. The “Big Three”, the three places with the largest expat communities, are mega-cities with millions of inhabitants. So, if you consider expat life in China and aren’t from another megalopolis, the high population density and urban crowds may need getting used to.
Homogeneity and Diversity
Life in China isn’t only overwhelming because it is a country of superlatives – the world’s export champion, fourth biggest nation in geographical terms, most inhabitants, etc. It will also show you an interesting mixture of regional diversity and ethnic homogeneity.
The local dialects of a person from the Pearl River Delta and someone living in China’s northeast are mutually unintelligible. Both will, however, strongly identify as Han Chinese, as over 90% of all people living in China do. Only when you venture away from the coastal hotspots will you notice the many geographical varieties, provincial peculiarities, and different ethnic minorities.
The timid expat’s first rule is: Do not drive. A few companies have even outlawed driving for their expat employees living in China. According to a WHO study, road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people from the age group 15 to 49 (another, albeit unpleasant, superlative). After staying in China for a couple of days, you’ll know why. During your life in China’s big cities, you’ll always see traffic congestions somewhere. Drivers tend to be cavalier or – putting it bluntly – reckless.
So, unless you have an adventuresome spirit, don’t bother with importing your car. If you should discover that traffic and road conditions in your neighborhood are actually acceptable, you might consider buying a decent-quality local car brand for your life in China.
For expats living in China for a short time only, taking a cab is the preferred method of transportation. Chinese cabbies apparently have nerves of steel, and it’s far easier just to hail a cab rather than drive yourself if don’t know your way around. However, beware of unlicensed taxis, which foreigners living in China sometimes link with extortions or robberies.
In Beijing, licensed taxis have license plates that start with B. They often have a flashlight on top or a small shield stating TAXI in the window. Most taxis in Shanghai are brightly colored, with different hues distinguishing the cab companies. However, officially licensed cabs require an illuminated vacancy disk on the dashboard.
No matter where you are: Make sure the taximeter is switched on at the start of your ride. Some drivers charge whatever they want and take advantage of unsuspecting foreigners living in China.
After a while, you may also take advantage of the numerous buses, trolley buses, and metro lines in the “Big Three”. However, while public transport is cheap, buses in particular may be overcrowded and sometimes lacking in heating or air-conditioning.
If you decide to take the train from one Chinese city to another, don’t be a penny-pincher! If you value privacy, convenience, and comfort, make sure to buy a first-class or deluxe ticket.
One last tip: No matter which form of public transport you use, always take the address of your destination with you, e.g. on a business card printed in Chinese characters. Even in Beijing or Shanghai, many taxi drivers do not speak English. As a foreigner, you probably won’t get the pronunciation of the Chinese place name right, either.