Ask an Expat: Living in Beijing, China

What is it like to move to and live in Beijing?

Beijing attracts expats from all over the world. I was therefore really looking forward to this interview with Jade and Kev about their life in Beijing.

This interview is part of the Ask an Expat series. In this series, I interview people living all over the world but outside of their home country. I try to help paint an honest picture of the ups and downs of life abroad, share tips about moving to the place the expat now calls home, and information about what to see and do here.

Expat Life in Beijing, China

life in Beijing
life in Beijing

Name: Jade and Kev
Age: 28 & 29
Home town: London & Southampton

Their Story:

“Kev and I met at university and after a few years working in jobs we didn’t really enjoy, we turned to other options.

We had friends who were teaching abroad in Thailand and they seemed to be living such a better life so we decided to do the same thing, except in China!

We moved back home with Kev’s mum to save money to survive the first few months (always good to have a backup plan!) and left for Beijing in August 2015.”

Why Did You Move to Beijing?

“Originally, we planned to move to South Korea. Salaries there are better than in other Southeast Asian countries, cost of living is relatively low and there were plenty of job adverts.

However, we soon realized that if we were to join the government program for ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers, we couldn’t apply for two positions in the same school – we would be randomly placed.

We looked into private, after-school programs but there were so many terrible contracts out there. We were offered a job with a one-page contract that wouldn’t put a maximum limit on the number of hours we worked – no thanks!

I’m sure there are good, reputable companies to work for in South Korea, but the (free) agency we were using to help find jobs mentioned that it might be easier to look in China … and the rest is history!

As ESL teachers in the public school system, we have very good solid contracts, regulated hours + holidays, visa support before and after arriving in China and so much more. It was a no-brainer for us.

The salary was a big draw too – in our first year as teachers in Beijing we made more every month than I did in my primary teaching job back in the UK, for around a third of the hours!

It quickly became clear that we had made the right decision. We are currently in our third year of teaching here now which means our salaries have risen quite dramatically too.”

Tip: If you want to become an English teacher to teach abroad, check out i-to-i.com for courses and jobs.

What Do You Like About Living in Beijing?

a metro in Beijing

“We love the ease of life in Beijing.

It’s so handy to be able to order literally anything online in the morning and have it turn up at your door a few hours later. Food, electronics, toiletries – you name it!

Living and traveling in Beijing is not as daunting as everyone thinks!

There is also quite a good balance of expat communities and local people. There are a few places swarming with foreigners, but the rest of the city isn’t overrun by international tourists or expats which means Beijing’s history and traditional culture have been able to keep on growing.

At the same time, there are enough of us foreigners living in Beijing to warrant special shops full of imported food that we couldn’t live without!

Another great thing about Beijing is the transport system. You’d think that it would be difficult to get from A to B in a city of over 20 million people! But I actually prefer to get around in Beijing than in London!

The subway system is excellent – super clean, regular trains that are spacious and have air conditioning, and so damn cheap. The standard fare is 3RMB per journey which is $0.43 or €0.38! The stations all have English names and are easy to read – you really can’t get lost here!

The buses are even cheaper than that but are much more difficult to navigate if you don’t speak Chinese.

If you would prefer to take a taxi then you can hail down a city cab for a minimum price of 13RMB ($1.86 or €1.67), or you can download Didi which is the equivalent of Uber if you don’t want to wait around on the street.”

What Do You Dislike About Living in Beijing?

The pollution is the worst thing about life in Beijing.

Sometimes we wake up and the sky is grey or brown with haze and it’s just discouraging to leave the house!

However, the government is doing something about it and we are seeing those types of days less and less frequently.”

Is Beijing Safe as a Place to Live?

“In our three years of living in Beijing, we have never felt particularly unsafe.

Of course, as a female, I wouldn’t walk around the dark alleyways at night – but I wouldn’t do that anywhere!

People are generally friendly towards foreigners, curious about us or ignorant to the fact that we are there.

The one thing that can be dangerous are the roads. Not only do drivers regularly use their phones behind the wheel, but they seem to just go where they want without really thinking about the other traffic on the road!

We have seen taxi drivers squeeze in the most ridiculous spaces on the motorway, or cut up other cars because they can’t wait 2 seconds longer. Also, in cabs a lot of the taxi drivers (mostly city cabs or the budget Didi cars) cut out their seatbelt buckles in the back so you can’t wear one. I’ve never worked out why they do this but if you sit in the front then you will be able to wear a seatbelt.

Crossing the road can also be a little bit hazardous because – and we have been told this is legal but it doesn’t make any sense to use – when pedestrians are crossing, cars can still turn right. This means that you can see your WALK sign, go to cross the road and then a car comes round the corner and does not give you right of way! They are never going too fast but it’s something that took us a while to get used to.”

What Is Your Favorite Thing to Do in Beijing?

a park in Beijing

“Surprisingly, Beijing has some gorgeous parks around the city that are just amazing to wander around.

Places like Chaoyang Park, the Summer Palace, and Jingshan Park take you away from the hustle and bustle of the city and surround you with gorgeous flowers, gnarly trees and dancing old ladies.”

What Is Your Favorite Place to Hang out in Beijing?

“We love a Mexican restaurant called QMEX. Neither of us have been to Mexico, but I’m sure that the food here isn’t authentic. It is delicious though (the bean burrito is the best!) and they give you free tequila shots!

If we are craving Chinese food then there is nothing better than finding a local barbecue place, sitting on tiny plastic chairs on the pavement outside and drinking cheap beers whilst waiting for our melt-in-the-mouth lamb skewers to appear.

Kev’s a huge sports fan, and I’m slowly getting to rugby so when we feel like cheering a team on, or just want a good old night out at the pub, then we head over to Paddy’s – Beijing’s only Irish bar. They have plenty of screens, beer, and cider. They serve traditional pub food too but if you are craving a good curry then you can also order a curry from the restaurant (Ganges) upstairs and they’ll bring it down to you! You can’t get better than that!”

What Is the Expat / International Community Like in Beijing?

“Like I mentioned earlier, there is a good amount of expats living in Beijing.

Lots of families live in the northeast area of Shunyi, which is where lots of international schools and large apartment complexes are.

Singles and couples tend to live more centrally – Dongzhimen and Sanlitun are the places to go if you want to meet up with other expats!

There are also tons of WeChat groups catered to foreigners so it’s always easy to communicate online.”

Any Tips for Moving to / Living in Beijing?

busy traffic in Beijing at sunset

Download WeChat before you get here! It’s the main form of communication in China – you can literally do anything with it. From sending messages to friends, joining online communities, paying rent, buying cinema tickets, ordering takeaway food – it really is everything!

Also, don’t get sucked into signing a contract for a job on a tourist visa. It is not, has never been and will never be legal. You need a Z visa to work here, and once you arrive that must be changed to a residence visa.

Your agency should organize that and help you, but don’t be fooled into thinking you can change your tourist visa to a residence one when you get here.

So many illegitimate schools get teachers here this way and then either don’t pay them, treat them badly or even get raided by the police and then that person has no legal right to be in the country.

It might take a few months and a few hundred dollars to get everything set up right, but once you do it you won’t have to worry about looking over your shoulder the whole time you’re living here!”

Any Resources You Found Useful During the Process of Moving to And/Or Building a New Life in Beijing?

TheBeijinger.com was and still is our go-to for lots of things Beijing related.

The directory isn’t always up-to-date but the blog posts do give a good starting point for local events, tips for living in Beijing and news related to the city.”

Is There Something You Just Have to See or Do When You Are in Beijing?

The Great Wall, obviously! It really is an amazing place to visit – although there are many different sections that all have their pros and cons so do your research into which part you want to go to.

For example, Badaling is the most popular with international and domestic tourists because it is easy to get to, easy to climb and accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs. It is also the busiest so if you are looking for those perfect shots of an empty wall, do not go here!

Jinshangling is a great choice because it is also easy to get to (by public bus or tour) and it is super quiet. The views are amazing, and it’s not too much of an easy hike that you will feel like you haven’t worked for it! You can also stay at a hotel near the bottom of the wall if you want an early start there.”

Tip: If you are interested in teaching English in Asia, also read this interview about life in South Korea as an English teacher and this one about life in Vietnam as a teacher.

About Jade and Kev

2 expats in Beijing

Jade and Kev have been teaching English in China since 2015. They spent a year working and traveling in Australia but returned to Beijing to enjoy their settled lives there.

They are currently planning a year-long round the world trip which they cannot wait for! Follow their adventures on Twotalltravelers.com.

About Beijing

Beijing skyline

Beijing is the capital of China and the nation’s second-largest city after Shanghai.

It is the political, educational and cultural center of the country, rich in historical sites and important government and cultural institutions.

The city is home to the headquarters of most of China’s largest state-owned companies and houses the largest number of Fortune Global 500 companies in the world, as well as the world’s four biggest financial institutions.

Beijing is marked by its flatness and arid climate. There are only three hills to be found in the city limits and mountains surround the capital on three sides.

Beijing is one of the oldest cities in the world. It combines both modern and traditional architecture, with a rich history dating back three millennia.

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moving to and living in Beijing

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Sanne Wesselman

Author: Sanne Wesselman
A traveler, wanderer, digital nomad, and entrepreneur. Owner of marketing company A to Z Marketing.
I spend most of my time living and working abroad and use this website to share "the good, the bad and the ugly" of traveling and living abroad. Visit the About Me page for more info.

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