Living in China: What Life is Like as an Expat (Pros & Cons)

American expat standing and talking with Chinese men while living in Chengdu
Pros & Cons of My Life in China as an Expat

Living in China, whether residing in an uber-modern city of ten million in the far east or a bustling mega-city of 16 million, sounded absurd. With everything I previously knew about China coming from stereotypes and media stories, I was curious. Is China a good place to live? Could China provide a foreigner with a good life?

I wasn’t sure I could hack it in such a homogeneously overpopulated country with a strong culture, but the job market called for me to give it a try. And now, after three years, I have plenty of insight on life in China as an expat (pros and cons included).

How I Ended Up Living in China

During the spring of 2019, I earned a TEFL certificate, graduated university, and began my job search to teach English in Asia. At the time, teaching in China seemed incredibly daunting. I preferred the thought of living in South Korea, but from my ten-plus interviews with schools there, my lack of experience wasn’t helping my situation.

Nor was the competitive job market there. With so many teachers flocking to South Korea, as they do to Japan, and the limited places I wanted to live in the island/peninsula countries, my choices were dwindling. Screw up, I thought at the time. They have so many job opportunities. I should look at the best cities to live in in China.

Two cities that appeared manageable, Hangzhou and Chengdu, would then become my homes in China.

The Pros of Living in China

There’s much to say about the pros of living in China.

You can study Chinese. Or travel the ridiculously large country while learning about each region’s wealth of cultural differences. Not to mention, you can enjoy the benefits of a teacher’s schedule and salary while living in an affordable country.

Work is Easy to Find for Expats & Pays Well

A hand with fanned out Chinese yuan with skyscrapers in the background
Expats can make a very comfortable living in China

In a country with over a billion people, the demand for foreign English teachers is far higher than the supply. This leads to a pro-employee environment, which makes a foreigner a commodity in a huge market.

For my first teaching job, after graduating university, I made 21,000 RMB (roughly 3,000 USD) a month as a kindergarten teacher. After realizing the market, with my second job, I negotiated a salary of 28,000 RMB (roughly 4,000 USD) a month in a cheaper city. I’ve met foreign teachers who made upwards of 5,000 to 6,000 USD a month, all while enjoying a laid-back work schedule.

But this doesn’t apply to just teachers. As all foreign workers are in high demand in China, the money is out there for all types of employees and professionals.

The Cost of Living is Very Low

After leaving China, visiting other East Asian countries, traveling to European cities, and returning to the U.S., I was stunned at how affordable China really is.

My salary allowed me to save money while living a far more comfortable lifestyle than in the States. Weekly groceries to cook two to three times a day cost about 300 RMB (60 USD). A trip to a restaurant for flavorful mian (noodles), mifan (rice) with rou (meat) and plenty of shucai (vegetables) cost 20 to 30 RMB (3 to 4 USD). Foreign food varied and typically cost a bit more, 6 to 15 USD a meal, but it was always affordable.

For transportation, a bus ride cost 1 to 2 RMB, a metro ride cost 3 to 5 RMB, and a DiDi ride (Chinese Uber) to take me anywhere around the city typically cost me five times less than back home in Richmond, Virginia or Washington D.C.

The Food is Delicious

Two women eating food with chopsticks near steamy dumpling baskets at night
The food culture in China is quite impressive

In the U.S., it can be a time-consuming, pricey task to find a quality-cooked meal with fresh ingredients that isn’t mass produced or unhealthy. Luckily, things are much different in China, where freshly cooked food is affordable and abundant. Fresh fruits and vegetables are sold in small produce shops on every street and often sold on the sidewalks.

Chinese people also cook with love and pride, happy to have guests at their restaurants for hours. It’s a collective joyful experience that shows a high level of pride for food in China. This pride matches what one would expect of Italy and Japan. It’s truly a fascinating avenue into understanding the diverse regional culture of China.

China is an Extremely Safe Place to Live

This is perhaps the hardest thing to understand for those coming from the States or Europe. As such, it is an extremely important topic to address regarding life in China.

Chinese civilians don’t own guns. Stabbings don’t occur. Crime originating from drug usage and alcohol is a rarity. There’s a better chance of getting hit by a car, as abnormal as it is in any country, than getting into a physical altercation. That’s because the threat of crime is so far removed from people’s minds that tension doesn’t really exist.

Is it because of the calm, peaceful, and collective-driven culture, or the high-security (CCC) cameras located everywhere? I really don’t know. Whatever the reason, I never faced any situation where I needed to watch my back or protect my pockets. I also spoke to many women, both foreign and Chinese, who said they, too, felt at ease while living in China.

China’s Transportation System is World-Class

Hangzhou Metro sign with cartoon people sitting on an underground train
The public transportation system in China cannot be beat

In addition to being super affordable, the public transportation within China is among the best I’ve seen in the world.

Metros are always on time and are immaculate and spotless. Bullet trains span the width of modernized China and are affordable, quick, and comfortable. Flights are affordable, and airports are easy and cheap to get to. DiDi, China’s version of Uber, is an abundant and affordable option to get anywhere and everywhere – just 8 USD will take you for an hour-long ride.

Sure, occasionally you’ll have to squeeze into a packed bus or metro during rush hour, but that’s all part of the fun of living in a country home to many of the world’s most populated cities.

China is at the Center of Countless Travel Opportunities

‘China’ in Chinese is Zhongguo, which translates to ‘middle country.’ In other words, China is the middle of the world; at least, that’s how the Han Chinese people see it. It’s a country of 1.6 billion people with over five thousand years of history, and it has greatly influenced the world we live in today.

China can also be seen as a microcosm of the earth. With the Himalayas, the silk road that was once used to connect the world, megacities that outdo any in the west, countless rivers, and a coastline bordering three other countries (Japan, Korea, and Taiwan), China exudes this feeling of having it all. Not to mention, China borders 14 different countries, more than any other country in the world. It’s a place where you can hop on a plane, fly a couple of hours, and arrive in a different world.

Chinese People are Friendly & the Culture is Fascinating

Man in a red jacket and woman in a blue jacket smiling and giving thumbs up towards the camera
Chinese people are as hospitable as can be

A common misconception around the world is that Chinese people are rude. Some of their cultural customs rub others the wrong way, but when you get down to it, Chinese people are among the warmest and most accommodating people I’ve ever met.

They are willing to work around thick language barriers, help at the drop of a hat, and are genuinely interested in making you feel comfortable. They recognize they are all part of a large community-based society, which means that the happiness of others often comes before their individual desires.

This led to countless instances of strangers helping me in all types of situations, especially when they saw me or any foreigner struggling with navigation, adjusting to cultural norms, or trying to understand the language. Luckily, in China, I was never alone, and when I needed it, I always received help.

Opportunities to Learn Are Endless

In a country ripe with culture, language, and business opportunities, an expat is offered chances to learn each day. Learn about its rich history, business opportunities, and various topics taught by you in the classroom. And, most importantly, learn a language used by 1.6 billion people. Because yes, when in China, you should learn the language.

The Cons of Living in China

No destination is perfect, and that means, as wonderful as China is, it’s not without flaws. While some days in China can be absolutely wonderful and memorable, there are also days that left me maddened and frustrated. Here are a few of the challenges that persisted throughout my time in China.

China Is CROWDED

Extremely crowded train station somewhere in China
1.6 billion people live in China; these are just a few

China is the most populated country on earth. With over a billion people, it has nearly five times the population of the United States, which ranks third in the world. China has 65 cities with over a million people. The U.S.? Only 14 cities have this kind of population. About one in five people on earth live in China.

My point? China is packed. If you’re living as an expat in China, chances are you’re in a big city. If you’re in a big city, chances are it’s swarming with people. Subways, parks, tea houses, no matter where you go, you’ll encounter endless people. Solitude is hard to come by in China, but that’s just the way of life. It gets even worse around the holidays when people come to enjoy the beauty of China and flock to the many tourist sights.

Chinese Customs Take Some Getting Used To

Remember earlier when I said that Chinese people had an unfair perception around the world for being rude? Well, that’s because some of their cultural customs (which are normal everyday behavior in China) are considered blatantly rude in other cultures around the world. Let me name a few.

Loud talking, listening to videos on public transportation, hacking and spitting, smacking and chewing food loudly, invading personal space, staring, taking photos of people, etc. As I said, these behaviors are completely normal in China, but they can be difficult for an expat to come to terms with.

At first when I moved to China, I had countless personal struggles with it. But I found ways to cope. If someone is smacking while they eat, I put my headphones in. If someone is invading my personal space, I’ll take a deep breath. If someone is staring, I’ll smile and say hello. Sometimes you need to give yourself an attitude adjustment and remember the good things; there are many.

The Pollution in Big Cities is a Challenge

Smoggy, polluted city skyline by a river
Air quality in China’s big cities leaves a lot to be desired

China’s enormous amounts of people lead to pollution levels that are hard to control. In recent years, China has made noticeable efforts to curb its pollution: all scooters must be electric, most people take public transportation instead of cars, etc. Yet, many of China’s big cities like Chengdu and Chongqing still struggle with pollution.

In winter when smog would block the horizon, I tended to check the AQI levels before going outside. If levels exceeded 100, I wore my facemask to prevent myself from breathing in harmful air. Oftentimes, I didn’t exercise outside due to the risk of provoking a headache from the air pollution. It blocks the sun, which makes life in China less desirable. And unfortunately, this issue is inescapable.

The Internet is Heavily Restricted

As an American/westerner living in China, I felt the downside of the strict Chinese policy on Western media. No Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Reddit, just to name a few. All these websites are blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall, which means you simply won’t be allowed to visit them.

Yes, it’s a pain. But, like most other difficult problems I had in China, there was a solution: VPN, or Virtual Private Network. By using a VPN, it’s possible to route the internet through a country without restrictions to access all the websites you know and love.

China frowns upon VPNs, but I’ve never heard of an expat getting in trouble for using one. Furthermore, some schools even use VPNs, which reassures expats that there are loopholes.

The Verdict: Is China a Good Place to Live as an Expat?

Chinese women dancing near a well-lit bridge with a cityscape in the background
Living in China can be a rewarding experience if you’re up to the challenge

If I had to sum up the experience of living in China, I’d say that life in China as an expat is as challenging as it is rewarding.

Naturally, the countless pros and cons will determine how an expat or foreigner will perceive China. But, if you’re willing to make adjustments, study the language, and detach from western values and identity, then the answer is yes, China is a good place to live. This, of course, still astonishes me to say.

Back in the U.S., before moving to China, I would have given you a puzzled look if you told me I would end up there. But that was because I didn’t understand China and didn’t know what life there could offer me. Now, I do.

China showed me it is a country full of life, excitement, and opportunity. Which, if embraced, will enrich your life and pad your bank account. If you’re curious, living in China as an expat is certainly worth a try.

Last Updated on March 30, 2024

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Andrew Scordo

Andrew is a detached world traveler, happy to live a routined, structured life. During a typical day, he teaches for money, reads for personal development, and writes for fun. Then his adventurous side calls out, and he'll set out on a trip and learn about the world (and himself) in the process.

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