Friday, May 26, 2006

Southern China Whilrwind Tour

We'll be heading out to southern China in 7 days, doing a whirlwind tour of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Macau, Guangzhou and Xiamen in less than a week (before meeting up with our Study Abroad students for excursions to Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul). Our goals for Southern China include connecting with the expat community and our local contacts, checking out the latest developments in expat life in each city, dropping by the local bookstores, getting updated photography, and having a little fun along the way. I'm hoping to have some time to connect with a few realtors along the way, check out some properties--both for continued research into housing options throughout China, as well as keeping an eye out for a good spot to invest in a home-away-from-home for ourselves.

It has become a passionate dream of mine to "own" property in China. The ideal place would be in some romantic mountain village in a traditional home decked out in antique Chinese furniture found while roaming around the nearby villages. But I'll settle for a modern flat in Xiamen or Zhuhai or Qingdao with a great view of the sea from a large balcony on a high floor. Real estate prices are still cheap enough in these cities to snatch up a place for a price that is absolutely ridiculous compared to what we're used to at home in Southern California! And these cities have enough expats that we could target to rent the place out when we're not in the country. So that's my dream. We'll see if we can make it happen, one of these years, before those real estate prices start catching up with the rest of the world.

Of course, it would make more sense for us to buy a place in Hangzhou, which is where we tend to spend the most amount of time. But Hangzhou is no longer a bargain; too close to all the money that floats down from Shanghai. Then again, if I'm only looking for a bargain in a city with decent amenities, Xi'an or Chengdu or Shenyang would do. It's just a little harder to find the charm in places like that.
Hangin' in Hangzhou

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Big Three: Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong

The vast majority of foreigners living in China choose one of the big three cities: Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. These cities are the most international and cosmopolitan. They offer the most opportunities for working and studying abroad and they provide the greatest number of amenities that foreigners want, like imported foods, top-notch education for kids, and western-standard hospitals and medical care. Not to mention the vibrant night life, rich entertainment and culture venues, and active social scene that can make life in China quite exciting.

Each of the three have their own pros and cons. If you have your choice between the three, which one should you go for? They all offer a wide variety of opportunities in business. They all have a lot to do both in daylight hours and when the sun goes down. They all offer great shopping, both upscale boutiques and dirt-cheap markets. Here are a few of their differences for you to consider:

HONG KONG: Hong Kong is the best choice if you don't speak any Chinese and would prefer not to have to learn it, because Hong Kong is fully functional in English. Hong Kong has the weirdest food (Cantonese--they eat everything with four legs except the table, and quite a few things that have more than four legs! Is this a pro or a con? You decide!). Hong Kong's weather is much warmer year-round than the other two, though it also suffers through intense typhoons in July and August. If you plan to travel around other parts of Asia while living abroad, Hong Kong offers inexpensive flights to just about anywhere. And if you expect to have frequent visitors from home, Hong Kong does not require visas for stays less than 30 to 90 days for citizens of many different nations (Shanghai or Beijing, however, will require a Chinese visa with all the fees and paperwork that go with it.)

SHANGHAI: Shanghai, like Hong Kong, has that cosmopolitan vibe, that urban energy that comes with having so many modernistic skyscrapers piercing the sky. Like Hong Kong, its quite international, perhaps more so in many ways, and much of the focus of the city is on fashion. Shanghai likes to be on the cutting edge. The cost of living is much lower here than in Hong Kong. The weather lies somewhere in the middle between the other two: winters can get chilly but you'll very rarely see any snow, summers are hot and wet but typhoons don't shut down the city like they can in Hong Kong. Being more centrally located than the other two, Shanghai makes a better jumping off point for domestic travel, if you plan to go by train (depending, of course, on the part of the country you are most interested in touring). Shanghai's mandarin is not too far from standard and not too heavily accented, though you'll also have to deal with discerning when the locals are using the local Shanghai Hua dialect, which is quite different from Mandarin.

BEIJING: Beijing is the most "Chinese" of the big three. While the histories of Hong Kong and Shanghai focus on their European beginnings, Beijing is rich with thoroughly Chinese history. Beijing has also been the cheapest of the three, though in recent years it has started to overtake Shanghai in some cost of living studies. Beijing is, of course, the place to be if you like politics or if your job involves government work (or if you just like the interesting parties that Embassies throw). On the other hand, the heavy hand of the communist government is most strongly felt here. Winters are harsh in Beijing, as are the spring-time dust storms. Pollution is still quite bad. And there seems to be quite a few locals here who line their pockets by ripping off foreigners. Not that you won't experience that in other cities as well, but it is just more prevalent here than in Shanghai or Hong Kong. Beijing also tends to have more traditional values, which may be important if you have a lifestyle that goes beyond the Chinese norms (i.e., homosexuality, or living with an unmarried partner, etc.). Of course, Beijing mandarin is quite standard, other than the extra nasal "r" sounds that they add unnecessarily to every other word. Typically, less English is spoken here than in the other two.

I hope this has got you thinking about which city might fit you best. If you have experience in one or more of these cities and have something to add that I didn't include, all comments are welcome and appreciated!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Do you know where you're going to?

There are two types of people who want information on specific Chinese cities: those that get to choose their next destination and want to make an informed choice among many cities, and those who have been assigned to a specific destination (by their employer or based on an educational program) and want to know what's in store for them there.

If you are a part of this first category, you have much to decide. China offers an incredible number of choices, and those options are growing daily as the Middle Kingdom continuously builds, expands, relaxes strict laws, adds more "opening up" policies, improves infrastructure, and draws more foreign businesses and investments.

Of course, most people heading to China will be heading to one of the big three: Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong. While these three are all great choices, each with their own perks and disadvantages, sometimes the best fit for an individual may be in a smaller town or a city less-sought-after by expats. There are some real gems hidden beyond the borders of the big three. If you've spent a lot of time in China, you can probably think of a few off the top of your head (Qingdao, Dalian and Xiamen most often come to mind). But if you're new to this ancient place, you may have never even heard of the city that would be the best fit for you.

In upcoming blogs I'll examine the key issues to choosing a Chinese city to call home, issues revoling around your purposes and priorities in making this move:
  • Do you want to become fluent in Mandarin? Or get by without using any Chinese at all?
  • Do you want an authentic, traditional Chinese experience, or are you more into the cosmopolitan international scene?
  • Do you hope to see a lot of China on a shoestring budget, or do you hope to use your time there as a springboard to jet about other Asian nations nearby?
  • Are you a single person who wants to meet other expat singles, or a family that wants good friends for your kids to play with?
  • Will you have a large corporate budget at your disposal, or will you be getting by on a Chinese salary?

Thinking through these priorities (and many more) will help you end up in a place that you'll be happy to call home.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Welcome to Living Abroad in China!

This blog is all about location, location, location. More precisely, choosing a location to live in China.

Expats are flocking to the Middle Kingdom these days, whether to teach English for a short term, studying Mandarin for a couple years, or riding the economic wave with long term business involvement.

If you're headed off to China for the first time, or you're already there but are looking to change cities, this blog is intended to help you get informed about your options.

If you're already an old China hand, please contribute your insight on the cities you know best!

If you're looking for information on a city that hasn't yet been covered, put in a request.

My book, Living Abroad in China, is due to hit the bookstore shelves next fall. In the mean time, I hope to share the insight I've gained into the expat scene around this vast nation on this site.