Living in China can be an overwhelming experience for expatriates. The “Big Three”, the three cities with the largest expat communities, i.e. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, are mega-cities with tens of millions of inhabitants. So, if you are considering a new expat life in China and aren’t from another megalopolis, the high population density and urban crowds may take getting used to.
Life in China isn’t only overwhelming because it is a country of superlatives – the world’s export champion, third biggest nation in geographical terms, first in inhabitants, etc. It also presents you with an interesting mixture of regional diversity and ethnic homogeneity – not to mention all the wonderful food.
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 into the country, away from the coastal hotspots, will you notice the many geographical varieties, provincial peculiarities, and different ethnic minorities.
The sensible expat’s first rule is: Do not drive. Given the danger involved, a few companies have even outlawed driving for their expat employees living in China. According to a World Health Organization study, road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in China of people aged 15 to 49 (another, albeit unpleasant, superlative). After staying in China for a couple of days, you’ll understand why. During your life in China’s big cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, you’ll see traffic congestion everywhere. Drivers tend to be cavalier or – putting it bluntly – reckless.
So, unless you enjoy taking your life in your hands, don’t drive in China. If you should discover that traffic and road conditions in your neighborhood are actually acceptable, you might consider buying a safe foreign car. While the quality of Chinese cars is improving – and it’s high time they did – their safety record is incredibly poor in comparison to, for example, European cars.
For expats living in China for a short time only, taking a cab is the preferred way of getting around. Chinese cabbies apparently have nerves of steel, and it’s far easier just to hail a cab than drive yourself through city and urban sprawl if don’t know your way around. However, don’t rely on a Chinese taxi driver being able to speak English. Further, beware of unlicensed taxis, which expats living in China have sometimes found associated with extortions or robberies.
In Beijing, licensed taxis have license plates that start with B. They often have a light on top or a small shield stating TAXI in the window. Most taxis in Shanghai are brightly colored, with different hues distinguishing the various cab companies. 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 Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. However, while public transportation 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 spend a little more on a higher-class ticket.
One last tip: No matter which form of public transportation 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.
As driving in China can be quite a challenge, many expats choose trains, taxis, or buses instead. Luckily, there are various modes urban public transport in China. Learn more about this from our Extended Guide.
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