Living as a foreigner in Beijing makes for many great experiences. But not all is just great all the time. Behind all the good stuff hides some not so pleasant stuff. Well, sometimes it doesn’t hide, it is just out there, right in your face.
Below is my list of the good and the bad, representing my very personal opinion. Keep in mind that I don’t want to rant about negatives in Beijing. Rather, I’d like to provide a balanced view that may help newcomers to manage their expectations and be better prepared for life in Beijing.
What I like about living in Beijing
Interesting friends – You can meet a very interesting mix of people in Beijing. I made some good friends here, both other foreigners and Chinese. Unfortunately, foreign friends often move back to their home country or on to someplace else. So your circle of friends will continually change.
Easy public transportation – Beijing has extensive and cheap public transportation (Although I still do miss my car and the sense of independence that comes with it.) Subways in Beijing are cheap and efficient, buses get you almost everywhere, and even taxis are very affordable.
Amazing food – Of course, the authentic Chinese cuisine and many street side snacks are a major draw. In Beijing, you can sample all the provincial Chinese cuisines without traveling. You can eat out at high-end Chinese restaurants, hole-in-the-wall family businesses, or street vendors. And ingredients are cheap for cooking Chinese food at home.
Personal safety – Nowhere else have I felt this safe walking around as a woman alone in the evening, taking public transport or a taxi. I know crime happens in Beijing, and you need to use common sense to stay safe, even here. But as far as big cities worldwide go, this is a rather safe place.
Cheap prices – From restaurant food to (non-Western) groceries, from transportation to a decent haircut (as long as you don’t expect your hair dresser to speak English…), the cost of living in China is much lower than in the West.
Rich culture – There is so much to see in Beijing. After two years of spending many days and weekends exploring the city, I still have not run out of places to see and of course favorites places to go back to.
What I am not crazy about
Heavy pollution/smog – This is probably the number one complaint from foreigners in Beijing, and increasingly from locals. Smog in China is the most obvious pollution but contaminated food is a concern for many, too, including me. I learned here how very important a clean environment is for me. After living in Beijing for a while, you will never take clear skies for granted again…
Slow internet – The internet in China can be agonizingly slow on some days, especially for foreign websites. It sometimes takes forever for a page to load, and many websites are not accessible at all without using what is known as a VPN (there are specific VPNs that work best for China expats).
Some cultural differences – This includes smoking almost everywhere, pushing, and the general lack of personal space. And of course the Chinese habit of spitting.
Always sticking out – Being tall and blond, I have no chance of blending in. Barely a day goes by without people staring at me, kids pointing at me and calling me laowai, waiguoren, and who knows what. Sometimes it can be amusing or cute, but often it just gets really old. And it adds to the sense of lack of personal space. (This is not so much an issue when you live in an expat area.)
The sheer size of Beijing – It often takes at least an hour to get to other places within Beijing. Of course this is less of a problem if you are content with staying close to your area, have your friends, shopping, work, everything close by.
Just as a bonus, I throw in a few things that awe me – sometimes in a good way, sometimes not…
The rapid pace of change – New subway lines, shopping malls, and freeways are opened at a breathtaking speed. At the same time old Hutong houses and stores disappear to make room for all the new.
Chinese pragmatism – The Chinese way to make things happen quickly and cheaply by taking a shortcut, bending a rule, or just sheer ingenuity can make everyday life much easier. But it can be maddening when those actions lead to unintended consequences, that can even affect people’s safety, for example in shoddy construction.
To be happy in Beijing means reminding yourself of what you like here and not getting too obsessed about the things that annoy you. Try to focus on the good and see the rest as an interesting experience that will help you grow as a person – or at least increase your patience with different cultures and approaches. It may not always be fun, but it never gets boring here.
So, what are your likes and dislikes about Beijing? What awes you?