China for a non-Mandarin Speaker?
March 27, 2009 6:46 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend of six years is getting an expat position in Beijing for 2+ years. Her company originally said they would help me find a job, but with the economy going down it seems they are less optimistic about me being able to find a expat position. How can I optimize my chances of getting a job in a foreign country? We are from the United States.

I like my current job, but we know my current company doesn't do the work from home thing so I can't just keep this job while doing it long distance in China... and at the end of it of course I prefer to stay with my girlfriend than to stick with work.

I can't get a job with her company, we have tried, because my work background and industry (software development, user interface development, and data visualization) is vastly different from hers (engineering, food manufacturing). To make this even more selfish, I prefer to get an expat package, as the salary for one would be comparable to what I make now in the United States versus the local Chinese salary of perhaps only 10-20% of what I make now.

To realize my chances:

- Do companies hire people for expat positions even though they've never worked for the company before?

- What's the best way to look for a job in China as a foreigner, especially since I doubt I can go to China under a tourist visa and start looking for jobs as that is probably illegal?

- Are local wages as drastically different as I am reading about versus a "foreigners" salary in the United States?

- I plan on visiting sometime in May for about two weeks, so if I can setup interviews while I am visiting her that would be great, but is that just wishful thinking?

- Another option is finding a job where I program from home; are there any sites or resources to find jobs of this type?

Also, I don't want to be an English teacher (want to at least be able to maintain my career and do something I know I love), plus I don't speak Chinese/Mandarin... which obviously makes it harder for me to find a position. Thank you!
posted by Jimmie to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Try, it's by far the best resource for jobs for expats.

A lot of people visit first on tourist visas and then change to a work visa once they've got a sponsor.

Good luck. You might have a chance with your software background, but as someone with no experience in China it will be very difficult to land a job. I think you'll have a better chance once you're in country and you can begin to build a network.
posted by bluejayk at 7:16 PM on March 27, 2009

Get married (to her).
posted by Xhris at 7:30 PM on March 27, 2009

Sorry I should have said more ... as "the boyfriend" you have no particular status there - just a tourist. As 'husband' you'll get a properly resident visa, linked to hers. But at least an employer won't have to 'bring you in' with their sponsorship - it's is expensive and a hassle. You'll be more attractive to an employer.
posted by Xhris at 7:33 PM on March 27, 2009

Oh, and in answer to your question about salaries, they are far, far, far lower even in Beijing than in America. My first job in China (English teacher) paid $600 a month, plus an apartment. This was actually pretty easy to live on. Eventually I made as much as around $2,000 without an apartment and that was quite easy to live on.
posted by bluejayk at 7:40 PM on March 27, 2009

What Xhris says, you want a resident visa. If you find a job before you move, all the better, you can just move over with a work permit. If not, realize that you will have to go back to the US to change visa status (pain). Used to be able to do it all in Hong Kong, but last I checked (Sept. just before the Olympics) the laws had changed and required a trip to home country; not sure about what the laws are now though.

Yes, companies hire new employees for purposes of secondments. Yes, local wages are drastically lower; Bluejayk isn't exagerating, average local wage is ~4,000RMB/$588, BUT that doesn't mean you have to be average; there are local jobs that pay much more, but probably not near what you are making now. Poke around job search websites to get a feel for local salaries if you're curious.

I disagree with bluejayk, if you really are wanting to come over on a package, I think you should try to find a job before you move. Not knowing what the demand is for your particular industry, you may or may not need mandarin skills (as is probably the case for your gf). I'd want to know this before a move or you may find yourself frustrated at working the same job for a pitance of the salary in a foreign environment. Get in contact with headhunters now, maybe MP, to determine if your skillset is in demand in Beijing and find out what you can expect.
If prospects don't look good for you, consider marketing yourself to MNCs as a half-pat. You'd get your old salary, but no package. Idea being that your wife/girlfriend's COLA package should cover both of you.
posted by MuckWeh at 9:44 PM on March 27, 2009

You should definitely check to make sure, but I'm pretty sure the visa rules have been changed again so that you don't have to go back to your home country to change your visa. That was a temporary requirement about 3 months before and two months after the Olympics. I changed several tourist visas to work visas from 2003-2008, then found out in June of last year that I wouldn't be able to do it again.

To be more precise, it probably would be easier to get set up with a multinational looking for an expat to work in Beijing at an expat salary while still in your home country. Unfortunately, it may be very difficult to find any such position. If you decide to go with her to Beijing anyway, you might shift your focus and try to find a local job, in which case you'll do much better with local companies when you have established yourself in country a little bit. You might be surprised how much money you can save in Beijing on a salary of $2k USD, especially if you'd be living at your girlfriend's apartment. I had friends who saved more money living on $1000 a month in China than $4,000 in America. Anyway, good luck, if your flexible and lucky you might open up some amazing opportunities.
posted by bluejayk at 11:10 PM on March 27, 2009

Expat packages are less common nowadays, especially for software developers, so unless you can prove you have something special you'll have to compete with a lot of local resources.

You can go with a tourist visa and start looking, a lot of people do it, I did it one year ago, but you'll have a 2 months deadline.

If your wife salary can sustain both of you, I suggest you marry her, get a proper visa and take the opportunity to start learning Mandarin full-time for 6 months. You can't really learn it as fast as you want/need if you do it beside a job.
You can also do the same as a student in a local university, you'll get a student visa this way.
I think it's a good way to start if you can afford it, after 6 months you'll be a lot more comfortable with the language and have more contacts to find a job.

Wages are much lower of course, but life is much cheaper too, you can live very comfortably with $1500-RMB10000/month.
posted by anto1ne at 11:15 PM on March 27, 2009

Long term ex-pat here from a different location and industry (Europe, about 12 years working in banking) but I personally know several ex-pats in China who in the past three months or so who have had their contracts rather abruptly changed.

Seems to be about a 50/50 mix - a couple of these guys were outright terminated, return to home country while a couple were offered the opp to switch to a local contract.

Ex-pat contracts do have significant downside. Lots of folks here in Europe have suddenly disappeared back to the United States, and later we find out their deals were cut. Keep in mind most ex-pat deals come with corporate housing, and when the firm decides its over they tend to cut ties very quickly. About ten years ago two of my buddies in Tokyo got 72 hours notice they were leaving their jobs (and Japan, unless they wanted to start paying their own rent).

Not very pleasant, and I generally point this out when folks ask about ex-pat contracts; you're really not in as much control as you would be if on a local contract.

At this point of the economic cycle things have clearly changed, and many of those lucrative ex-pat contracts are largely a thing of the past. That being said, I do know some guys who have recently headed out on new contracts (Singapore and Shanghai seem very hot job markets in banking now), but they have niche skills that are very much in demand.

Best advise would be find and fit into such a niche in your field (software development) then you can probably pull off the same thing, keeping in mind the downside.

Otherwise, local contract is the way to go. I changed to a local contract in 2002, and don't regret it one bit. US taxes are largely amenable, and there are UK side tax benefits that I can leverage so my overall tax burden is only about 15%.  Ex-pat my nominal tax rate was much, much higher.
posted by Mutant at 5:32 AM on March 28, 2009

Best answer: Go to the US Embassy in Beijing and get a certificate of Cohabitation: US Embassies, for $40 or so, will give you a piece of paper to make your own affidavit. You can get a non-working 'spouse visa' without getting hitched, if you get a cert. of Cohabitation. I know this is true, for i got one in this fashion last week. It'll tide you over until you get a job, they'll sort out your visa situation for you.

As for work, with your skillset, you'll find something pretty fast, especially if you have experience managing coders. Those jobs will pay for you to take mandarin classes/tutoring. The entrepreneurial spirit in China is captivating, dive in, meet people, and things will turn out well. (I have no specific Beijing experience, but I'm down the road in Shanghai).
posted by markovitch at 4:22 AM on March 29, 2009

Jimmie and I traded a few emails about this issue, and I thought it might be worthwhile to post more information about Consular affidavits of Cohabitation, since there seems to be nothing else on the internet about it. Below is an edited email from me to the OP:

I looked long an hard for information about Cohabitation certificates because our visa agent over here--who is dumber than a sack of hammers and not half as threatening--kept demanding we get a 'consular letter certifying you are boyfriend girlfriend' (his words) before we left the states.

Attempts to discover what exactly this letter is led to lots of headaches. I even called the state-side consulates, who, after expressions of bewilderment suggested I contact my congressman, which I did, but they were on holiday.

Consular affidavits are apparently common practice overseas for a variety of different things, and once I called the SH Consulate they knew exactly what I needed. The weird part is that you have to hand-write the letter right there at the window, on official consular stationary, so plan out what you're going to write ahead of time. I didn't see that coming so I wrote something that sounded like proper legalese on the fly:

"Girlie and I are committed domestic partners and we live together at this address: XXXXXXX China."

When we went to get our final visa photos etc taken care of a few weeks later, my application was initially denied--actually, thrown across the desk at me by a surly bureaucrat--because it didn't literally say 'we are a couple.' Luckily for me we had a pit bull of a visa advocate with us (not the same one as above), or I might be back in the states or jogging to Hong Kong a few times a year trying to keep my tourist visa current.

One other piece of advice for this process (and anything where you might need to present ID or fill out a form): bring everything to do anything. Any documentation, all forms of ID, and preferably a take-no-prisoners advocate who speaks Mandarin.
posted by markovitch at 11:28 PM on July 7, 2009

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