In many respects, living as an expat in China is like living anywhere else: you eat, shop, go out and mingle with other people. So, while at first glace, everything is the same, of course many things are different and specific to China. You may find it difficult to find or do things you are used to. At the same time, a whole new world opens up.
Beijing has local supermarket chains of all sizes, international chains like Walmart and Carrefour, smaller import supermarkets, as well as street markets and shopping malls.
Where to go for shopping depends mostly on what you want to buy. When buying groceries, for example, you won’t find cheese in many Chinese supermarkets. But international supermarkets have packaged cheese and import stores in addition have a cheese counter.
However, everything Western seems very popular here, which leads to more and more Western style products on local grocery store shelves. Just check the label and don’t expect that a Chinese version of cheese or margarine will always look or taste like what you expect.
Buying clothes is fairly easy in large cities like Beijing, as most international brands are represented. However, prices for those international brands are usually a bit higher and large sizes are not always available.
The opportunity to eat authentic Chinese food is one of the greatest benefits of living in China. Chinese restaurants, ranging from simple to high-end and from living room size to multistory, dot the city. You can find tasty morsels on the street at almost every corner. Every provincial Chinese cuisine is represented in Beijing. The options for eating out are endless.
Just a heads up. The version of Chinese food offered in many Western countries, including the US, Mexico and Europe, has very little resemblance with the real Chinese food you will find here.
In our home countries, many of us had to make due with a small “Asian supermarket” with a limited and pricey selection. Unless you live in a place with a big Asian community, many ingredients are simply not available. No more excuses. Local produce markets and supermarkets make buying ingredients for Chinese home-cooking affordable and accessible. With the right tools and recipes, you can do your own Chinese cooking at home.
Chinese love to eat out and there are options abound. The bigger, fancier places are typically easier to navigate for foreigners because they usually have menus with pictures and English names (even though the translations can be interesting…). However, the real gems are often smaller places frequented by locals. Even with limited Chinese language skills, eating out in a Chinese restaurant is easy with some preparation.
Going out or staying in, there are many ways to entertain yourself. The bar and restaurant scene is very active and changes often. Beijing has multiple Expat magazines to keep you on top of what is hot. (Check out the Resource page for their websites.)
Or you can enjoy a nice evening at home watching a movie or your favorite TV show. All you need is a DVD, a Chinese website with International movies and shows, or a VPN to access US or other country specific shows. (Many TV stations limit the online viewing of their program to IP addresses located in their country.)
If enjoying a quiet afternoon with a coffee or beer on a hutong rooftop terrace sounds too lazy to you (or when it is too cold for that) you have other options. You can learn how to cook at one of the Beijing cooking schools or take other classes (see my Resources page for more info).
Or you could join the local Chinese in their daily exercise of Tai Chi or the many daily dance groups, ranging from traditional Chinese dances with colorful fans to ballroom dancing and even Tango. These usually happen in the mornings or evenings in public parks and places.
Or you can get out of town. Beijing is surrounded by mountains and often by cleaner air. Hiking is perfect way to spend a weekend day away from the city. Beijing Hikers and others (see Resources page) offer well organized trips to more quiet sections of the great wall or other places of interest, usually combined with a meal at a local restaurant. Of course you can organize such trips yourself, but you will need some Mandarin skills to hire a driver and map out the route.
Beijing offers many different ways to get around, including subway, bus and taxi. The public transportation system is well developed and very cheap.
Taking the subway is very easy and requires no language skills as signs and announcements are also in English. Taking buses and taxis are also easy but require just a tad more knowledge.
You don’t really need a car in Beijing, although it is a nice luxury. (I often miss mine and the independence that comes with it.) As a tourist you can rent a car with an international driver license but as a resident you are required to get a Chinese driver license.
Beijing is home to many types of expats and hosts regular networking events. Some seem purely for social purpose (InterNations, INN Beijing), while others have more professional/career objectives (FC Club). As with everything geared towards expats, these events usually take place in the East of Beijing.
Apart from figuring out transportation and money matters as you move to China, there are also many other questions you might have related to daily life in China such as owning pets, hair care, laundry, and public restrooms.
Everyone also has their own comfort level when it comes to their health and well-being. Personal safety is a common concern in any big city. Especially in China, the potential impact of air pollution is also a hot topic.
Understanding the new environment you are moving to beforehand can give you some peace of mind and the right tools to protect yourself.