An American in Beijing
October 11, 2006 12:37 AM   Subscribe

I am moving to Beijing for a job. I've never lived in China before. Advice?


A few months ago, my current employer has offered me a temporary assignment in China - six months to be exact. I made sure to cease the opportunity. Now my departure date suddenly looms a scant 3 weeks away. I am posting this question in hopes of attracting any and all current advice on living in Beijing and China in general for an extended period of time.

Here is some information about my situation which should hopefully be relevant:
  • I've been taking Chinese classes for the last few months. My level is still incredibly basic, but I plan to take more lessons once I am in Beijing.
  • I've also been reading many books about China - most recently The search for modern China, China, Inc, Encountering Chinese and Traveler's history of China, as well as leafing through standard guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Frommer's). It is highly doubtful I will have time to read anything else before I leave. However, book recommendations for something that will serve me well to take over with me are highly welcome!
  • My employer has arranged the living situation for me (a furnished apartment), so on one hand I don't have to worry about it, and on the other I have no choice of living location. All I know is that it is about a 10 minute walk from my workplace, which is good. All I currently know about my workplace is that it is near the 4th ring road... somewhere. Question: Are there any interactive Beijing maps online, a la Windows Live or Google maps?
  • My field is software engineering, if that matters. I expect my work environment to be fairly informal, on par with its US counterparts.
  • Several of my Beijing colleagues have come to US before and I've entertained them here - I have reason to expect they will repay me in kind initially. Question:While this generosity still runs high, are there places I should try to get them to take me, where having a native Chinese guide will really enhance my experience?
With all this in mind, I have far too much bouncing in my head to ask direct questions. If you live in Beijing, what interesting places - hopefully thing off the lonely planet circuit - can you recommend? Any favorite restaurants, clubs, people watching areas? A recommendation for a great photography equipment store where I might be able to purchase genuine Nikon gear will be most appreciated. Anything you can specifically recommend taking with me? Finally, if you were once in a situation similar to mine, what do you wish someone would tell you before the big move?

posted by blindcarboncopy to Travel & Transportation around Beijing, China (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
advice for a small trip: go visit Xi'an if at all possible. and what they say about public spitting is true -- for a Westerner is appalling. be careful when you walk and never wear your shoes in the house. have fun, China's awesome
posted by matteo at 12:49 AM on October 11, 2006

Stupid question: have you ever actually been to China?
posted by nathan_teske at 12:51 AM on October 11, 2006

There are lots and lots of blogs of expats living in China. When I was going to move to Shanghai, they were great for info gathering. Suggest you start with google.

Oh, and don't drink water from the tap (though not a problem with readily available cheap bottled water).

And finally, learn to use the phrase "Ni hui shuo Yingwen ma?" (Do you speak English?)
posted by qwip at 5:48 AM on October 11, 2006

My advice: eat at Beijing Noodle King (near temple of heaven) every single day.
posted by mrbugsentry at 5:58 AM on October 11, 2006

Maciej (MAH-tchay) of Idle Words is in Beijing. If I were moving there, I'd take him out for a beer.
posted by Alt F4 at 6:04 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: I wouldn't worry too much about the living situation. Foreigners typically get very nice accommodation. I have my own room in a nice apartment in a gated community. My Chinese boss currently sleeps on a couch at another apartment for teachers.

language: my Chinese is still crap, but learn basic phrases and your numbers and memorize your favorite dishes. I guarantee you won't be saying too much right until a Chinese person helps you. The sounds of Chinese are very alien to an American ear and pinyin does a crap job representing them [IMHO].

I get around well enough with what little I have. It's going to be extremely difficult to learn. It's an incredibly precise language and most Chinese are horrific at context clues. It's not uncommon to ask for something as simple as rice at a restaurant and get a strange look.

business: be prepared for EVERYTHING being last minute. Chinese don't like to rock the boat and no one really prods people to do things in professional environments. Things get forgotten and neglected without the constant pressure we're used to in America. Understand what it means to give/save face... never blame people for problems directly. This is partly why things are so inefficient.

books: I found Pete Hessler's River Town extremely accurate, if a bit dated [10 years]. It'll show you what things were like not to long ago and how much things have changed in such a short time period. He's a great writer and doesn't go out of his way to forgive or praise China...

blogs: SinoSplice is good. Talk Talk China has it's moments but I find it a bit too derogatory toward Chinese culture. Stay away from the China Blog List, it hasn't been updated in ages and most of it's listed blogs are defunct.

I'm also running my own blog, which you can find in my profile. I'm focusing on short stories, photos, and regional current events.

Feel free to email me if you have any specific questions.
posted by trinarian at 6:11 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: I was in Beijing for five weeks. There's a lot I could say about my trip, which was generally fantastic, but I'll try to hit some key points.

A place you could have your hosts take you - I had a host take me and a group to see traditional Chinese wrestling. We went to a small hutong (a vanishing kind of traditional neighborhood) and saw a lion dance that was followed by a lengthy and incredibly interesting contest of traditional Chinese wrestling (sort of like aikido).*

You'll want to go to places like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace just for the sheer scale of the places. You can go there on your own probably.

Advice - Be prepared for people in a variety of uniforms to tell you to stop doing whatever it is you are doing. Our group was told to stop taking pictures, don't go down an alley, don't sit on the bench, don't throw a frisbee and a variety of other things. We had some Mandarin-speakers with us on occasion who said it was par for the course and just to politely move on.

Be prepared for an occasional labyrinth when buying things. I believe China in general is overemployed in part to smooth the transition from state-run to market-run economies. Just keeping taking your ticket to the next person to purchase your item.

As best you can take care of your lungs. I played basketball with some local students a few times a week and came home with acute bronchitis. The Gobi Desert is eroding into Beijing (such that they have sandstorms) and the rate of construction is incredible. All that construction produces a considerable amount of fine concrete dust all over the city (and all over your apartment if it ends up like mine). Add to all that a large population with cars and emission-unrestricted small vehicles (think of millions of lawnmowers running all over the city) and you've got a pretty toxic fog moving in and out of your airways.

I had terrific food which I still remember warmly. Occasionally the food ends up a little too rich, but I never had any serious problems. If you're not a vegetarian (and are opening to eating most of the animal) you'll be fine.

I generally found Beijingers to be fun, forthright welcoming people. You'll have a great time!

*- Our host did not have great English translations for what we
saw, so "lion dance" and "traditional Chinese wrestling" is the best I got.
posted by Slothrop at 6:18 AM on October 11, 2006

Bring a photo album from home, not so much for yourself, but to show friends. They'll appreciate that.

Bring English reading material if you want to read something besides public domain classics.

Make friends with a true gourmand (Chinese or long-term foreigner). There's an incredible variety between and within all the regional cuisines, whether it be Uighur lamb kebabs, Chongqing hot pot, Cantonese dim sum, Beijing duck, etc. and you can try all of them ridiculously cheaply.

Learn to give face. Basically compliment anyone to high heavens if they try to exhibit something to you. If someone cooks a meal for you, rave about it. If someone haltingly tries to speak English with you, compliment them heartily. Many foreigners whine that this feels fake, but that's how social interaction gets along.

In a business situation, try to address superiors as much as possible by their formal title. Not Mr. Zhang, but rather Associate Deputy Zhang. Find out how to say that in Chinese.

If you're going to try to purchase some camera gear, try to buy it back home. Otherwise, make a side trip to Hong Kong.

It'll be COLD when you get there. I'm from Boston and I couldn't bear the wind chills during the winter one bit. Then the ridiculous sand storms will start in the spring.
posted by alidarbac at 6:44 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: I lived in Beijing for 4 months, although that was for an intensive language immersion program so my Chinese working experience is in another city. That being said Beijing is one of my favorite cities in the world. It has an air of self confidence that you do not find among many of the more modernized cities in the southeast. Also it has some of the best old people watching of anywhere I have seen, just go to the temple of heaven on an off day and wander around the grounds (i.e., do not go straight for the big things) and you will see why.

The air quality is crap, I even felt that way coming from another city in China with its own differently crappy air, but you will get sort of used to it.

Your chinese coworkers will go out of their way to help you feel comfortable and will try and treat you to everything, they will make a big deal about this and you should let them sometimes, but keep in mind that you probably make 5 times what they do so be sneaky and pay as often as you can.

The hospitality of Chinese people with whom you have any sort of established relationship (i.e., coworker, friend, eating companion you started talking to in a restaraunt) is crazy, you will get invited to peoples hometowns for the new year, and you will go to many drunken KTVs. Conversely to strangers, you are either less then nothing, or less then nothing with a lot of money, dont be offended if they are rude, and for the love of god watch your possessions in tourist areas, I managed to get through 4 months in Beijing and 7 months in Nanjing without any sort of incident but I am a bit anal about this stuff.

Also be sure to make friends with your Chinese coworkers and go out with them, even if it means blowing off the other foreigners, you will learn so much more, and you will have such a better experience then if you just hang out with people you are comfortable with and speak English about how "weird" China is. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have your primary social group be Chinese, it will result in a much better experience, and you will see a side of Beijing you would miss if you just roll with the other LaoWai.

Also when you are trying to buy something aside from the very valid ticket issue (that is in big department stores mainly), you will probably have to neogotiate. That is an art unto itself, and just know that (I am assuming you are a whitey here) they will try and rip you off because the only white people they see are tourists who can afford to vacation on the other side of the planet, so it makes sense. Be aggresive and try and get a feel over what something is actually worth and start at half that ammount, do not let up, and be prepared to walk away several times if need be. Get a cellphone, if you are only goiing to be there a few months just get a used one, your new Chinese friends will be happy to show you where you can do this (there are several streets around the city that are basically just for resale of cellphones)

The romanization of Chinese (pinyin) is actually quite useful if you bother to learn how to pronounce the different sounds and tones, but it really will not substitute for learning characters, or just having a Chinese person with you at all times I guess.

The traffic will be crazy, the drivers are generally pretty bad, but once you visit another city you will get a perspective on how tame they are in comparison, just be very careful when you are crossing the street, or anywhere near the street to be honest.

Stay away from Silk Market and Pearl Market, those are for tourists and are generally full of overpriced crap, learn where your Chinese friend shop and go there, again be prepared to haggle. Also i would strongly reccomend Dirt Market, it is full of pseudo antiques, but the atmosphere is fantastic, make sure to get there early in the morning though (like 6 am), its Chinese name is Pan Jia Yuan(r).

I could tell you so much more, but I am running out of ideas off the top of my head. You can email me at if you have anymore questions, otherwise bon voyage!
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:49 AM on October 11, 2006

alidarbac: re: buying camera gear

ey... I find Japanese filters here for ~$10 USD and decent tripods for the same.
posted by trinarian at 6:59 AM on October 11, 2006

I'm living in Shanghai, but I've had many negative experiences with the doctors here, both at local and international hospitals. Bring as much medicine as you can - over the counter, and especially prescription medicine you think you might need. Antibiotics are a must.
posted by piers at 7:01 AM on October 11, 2006

:: derail ::

since we're all here, anyone ever thought of organizing a virtual or real Sino-MeFite meetup?

:: / derail ::
posted by trinarian at 9:30 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: I live in Beijing. You've got a lot of good suggestions here.

Contrary to what one person said, I think you'll find plenty of English-language reading material. Go to the Foreign Languages Bookstore or the Xinhua bookstore at Wangfujing or the big bookstore (whose name I forget) at Xidan.

I'm guessing you'll be in Chaoyang district. That's in the east-southeast of Beijing and is where most embassies and foreign corporations are, and where most employed foreigners live. (Foreign students generally live in Wudaokou, near the universities in the northwest.)

Places you'll probably find of interest:

-- Sanlitun bar street - the big foreigner bar street. But I'd recommend going on the back street (ask around for Bar Blu, Cheers, or Pure Girl Bar) as the beer is cheaper and the atmosphere is less smoky and much more chill. You have to try the chicken skewers at the stand in between Pure Girl Bar and the DVD store.

-- John Bull Pub - right across from the Brazil embassy. I think it's closed for construction, but it should open again soon. Awesome English pub atmosphere, awesome American/English pub food, and great Qingdao draft beer. Quiz nights on Tuesdays.

-- Jenny Lou's - the Western grocery. Lots of locations, but one is at the west gate of Chaoyang park. Has a lot of imported items that you can't find anywhere else.

-- Silk Market - I know someone dissed it here, but it is a lot of fun to go to even if you don't buy anything. The only things you should buy at the Silk Market are: suitcases, sunglasses, watches, t-shirts, and generic computer items (like speakers). Even so, you must know that everything you buy is of poor quality. If you want to work on your Chinese, go around to various stalls for a few hours just talking with the salespeople.

NOTE: Bring 8-10 sticks of your favorite deodorant. You won't be able to find anything like it anywhere in China. Also consider bringing enough floss and chewing gum, since the stuff they have in China is not nearly as good.

There's a Western-quality hospital here in Beijing called United Family Hospital, so no need to worry on that front. I have had a good experience with them.

You might want to buy a electronic English-Chinese dictionary for your curiosity. Definitely learn how to pronounce Pinyin. In general, it's pretty phonetic. But "c" is pronounced "ts" and "q" is pronounced like "ch" but with the tongue more forward on the top of the mouth. And so on.
posted by jbb7 at 9:43 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: Register at Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum, read their FAQ, and ask questions there.

It's not interactive, but here is a .pdf of the best Beijing map. The Fourth Ring road is Beisihuanuan Dong Lu.

Fourth Ring Road is pretty far out from the center. Learn to communicate with taxi drivers, or learn the transit system. Do not even think about getting a car or motorcycle. You can't drive legally unless you are a permanent resident and pass the exam, and the traffic is insane anyway. If you get a bicycle, be very careful when riding - lots of other people aren't.

It may not be so cold when you get to Beijing - I was there last week and it was hot. It will get cold, though.

When you go, bring chocolate, Marlboros, and Johnny Walker (Black, I think) for gifts. Don't give it all away when you arrive, put it in a closet so you'll have it when the occasion arises.

Chinese people always try to refuse gifts. Often this is just a formality, and they fully intend to accept the gift, but there's always a friendly argument about it. You'll fit in better if you don't just say, "Oh hey, thanks, man" and accept gifts immediately.

There's at least one foreign-language bookstore, where you can buy older American novels for too much money. Care packages from the States are a better way to get books.

Pearl Market itself is pretty bad, with aggressive salespeople trying to get your business, but the place behind it, which has toys on the first floor and other stuff above, is much better.

There are now mosquitoes in Beijing. Check the windows in your flat to see what opening conditions keep them out. (At my mother-in-law's, the sliding windows have to be either closed or fully open, or there are big gaps the bugs fly through.)

My wife refuses to eat any food sold on the street in Beijing, and will only eat at home or in restaurants. She grew up there, so I trust her judgement on that, but others disagree. Do get to eat some Beijing Duck - it's fabulous. Your Chinese friends may want to take you to a "hot pot" restaurant. They aren't so bad, but I find boiled food pretty boring.

Get out and explore your neighborhood. There's probably a park nearby where you can practice your Mandarin on people. Check out the little variety stores - the prices are usually marked on items, and there are some interesting things for sale.

Shopping districts are often segregated by merchadise type. There's a "guitar street" that has only musical-instrument shops. Near my mother-in-law's there's a clump of "outdoor" stores that sell North Face and the like. (They all have climbing gear in the window, but only one actually has carabiners and such for sale; the rest mostly sell clothing.)

There are three price tiers in places the tourists shop: a low price for Chinese customers, a higher price for foreigners, and a much higher price for Japanese. You can offset the impact of this by haggling.

Do not allow any young ladies to convince you to go to a tea house and practice their English. It's a scam, and the bill for your tea will amaze you.

The KTVs BobbyDigital mentioned are karaoke bars.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:06 AM on October 11, 2006

I've only visited for a few weeks, but one thing I had to get over was my western/middle-class discomfort with being served by people.

Labor is very cheap in China, so there are a lot of people ready to serve you. For example, a store in the U.S. which would have one inattentive cash register jockey will have six to ten eager salespeople. Let them serve you, it is so much easier.

The Beijing Duck place near the Peace Hotel in Beijing was seriously one of the best meals of my life. Highly recommended!

Silly thing, but, if you like pretzels, bring them with you. It is my favorite snack, and it never occurred to me that I couldn't find such a simple thing in a place with so many tourists. I finally found some Rold Gold for $6.50 in Guangzhou and happily paid the price for comfort/home food.
posted by Invoke at 10:21 AM on October 11, 2006

Best answer: Don't rely on Chinese people for everything. A lot of times your Chinese friends or coworkers will do something for you out of obligation even though they don't have the knowledge or time to do it. Chinese people can be shockingly ignorant about things in China. Sometimes it's best to try and work something else out by yourself.

Your going to be living pretty far from the center of the city so be prepared to get lonely. The only way to beat this is to stay busy. If you are not busy at work I would suggest taking some kind of class, Taijiquan, cooking or something. These are usually really cheap. Also find a good DVD store, one that has boxed sets of TV shows. Series like 24 and The Shield are much better when watched in 4 hour clumps.

Also eat at dirty little restaurants as much as possible. The food is as good as the more expensive places and you can actually watch them cook the food. Who know what happens behind the doors at the big restaurants. Usually when a place is busy it means it has good food. Eat "ethnic" food: Korean, Hui, Uighur, "Muslim" etc. You can also get all you can eat and all you can drink Sushi for 130-200rmb.

It is polite in China to order more food than will be eaten when taking a guest out to dinner. This waste drove me nuts when I first got to China, but you just half to deal with it. Also if you do not have food on your plate people will keep offering it to you. If you are full, put some soup in your bowl and pretend to eat it.

A mefi Chinese meet up would be cool, I'm in Wuhan now.
posted by afu at 10:41 AM on October 11, 2006

afu: Yeah, I'd be up for a mefi Chinese meetup, too, and it sounds like tons of people here are living in China. Any idea how to get one of them started?
posted by jbb7 at 10:57 AM on October 11, 2006

For a weird and little-known tourist attraction, go take a tour of the Underground City. There's less there than you'd think, but it makes for a decent story when you're back home.

When in doubt or in need of assistance making a telephone call, walk into the nicest hotel you can find and ask to speak with the concierge, who will likely speak English. A lot of times they will either assume you're a guest and help you or you can sweet-talk and/or bribe them into helping you.
posted by gd779 at 2:52 PM on October 11, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for wonderful, thoughtful replies!

BobbyDigital, you may hear from me via e-mail sometime after I get my bearings - hope you don't mind.

And if there is a Beijing mefi meet-up, I will most certainly be there.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 8:32 PM on October 11, 2006

I'm insanely busy for the next 2 monthes.
I will actually be in beijing tomorrow, but I leave tomorrow night so it dosn't do much good, It'd be fun at least to know where china meifites lived.
posted by afu at 6:56 AM on October 12, 2006

Hangzhou meetup anyone? Well, maybe Shanghai then?
posted by NewBornHippy at 10:02 PM on October 23, 2006

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