The Best and Worst Things About Living In Beijing

Blue Sky Day on The Great Wall
Blue Sky Day on The Great Wall

I meant to do a “Yippee we’ve lived in Beijing for a year post”, but I didn’t really have a chance and the moment passed (6th August was our one year in the ‘Jing anniversary and that was forever ago now!). So instead, here is a different post I’ve been meaning to write for a while: my list of the best and worst things about expat life in Beijing.

The Best Things About Living in Beijing

Beijing, baby!
Beijing, baby!

It’s Beijing, Baby!

Ok, this first one is a bit of a cop out. But surely the best part of living in Beijing is LIVING in Beijing! Experiencing something new every day, having endless places to visit, a constant sense of wonder and excitement! It’s amazing!

Food

In Beijing, you can have it all. I have all the Chinese food I could want to eat and all the international food I could want to eat. And I want to eat a lot! Beijing has something for all food tastes. There are plenty of vegetarian restaurants too! Check here for a few of my favourite Chinese foods.

Yum! Fried or boiled dumplings- which to choose?
Yum! Fried or boiled dumplings- which to choose?

Meeting people

In case you didn’t know, there are rather a lot of people in this town! There are plenty of opportunities to make friends with Chinese people and other expats. There’s a rather large expat community so you can find people from your home country to hang out with! Many young Chinese people can speak some English and, if you can speak Mandarin you have even more friends to make!

There’s So Much Available For Expats

Unlike some other places I’ve lived, there are expats in Beijing doing almost every job you can think of. Bankers, fashion designers, international school teachers, writers, bar tenders, students, ESL teachers, businessmen and women- they are all here and it makes for a really varied expat community with people at all different stages of life and career. Because of this, there are so any resources and facilities available to English speakers- exercise classes, sports clubs, English magazines (e.g Time Out, City Weekend, The Beijiinger, and That’s Beijing), dining events, book talks by visiting authors, craft beer.  So much to do!

Me on my horse
Me on my horse

 Travel Opportunities

This is China. It’s huge. There are endless places to go! We’ve already spent a lot of holidays travelling this country and have barely seen a slither of it! You’ve got the big cities like err Beijing and Shanghai, the Tibetan areas, countryside, rivers, mountains, historical sites. And if you hop on an international flight you can be in Seoul in under 2 hours, Tokyo in 3 and Bangkok in around 4. Myanmar and Vietnam are also really easy to get to.

Squat Toilets

Ok, so really this should be in the worst section. Squat toilets can be gross and I honestly do not believe squatting is more hygienic- judging by the amount of pee splashes I see all over the bathrooms here! But, once you have completely mastered them and are no longer even afraid to use the open ones with no door or partitions, you do feel like you’ve accomplished something! Although, since I started putting together this post I’ve had a terrible experience with a woman trying to look at me in the bathroom so errr, there’s that.

A typical toilet sign. I should make a book on Beijing toilet signs.
A typical toilet sign. I should make a book on Beijing toilet signs.

Learning the Language

This is under best and worst! But for the best- the first time you realise you understand something in Mandarin, can recognise/read a character, get your point of view across or even order food on the phone- then you feel like you’ve made it in Beijing!

Finding your place

I never disliked Beijing and I fortunately never experienced any kind of culture shock (living in Asia before must have helped) but it took me a while to really LOVE this place. Now I feel like I found my love for Beijing and it’s amazing!

The Old and the New

Beijing is such a mix of old and new. You have the old hutong alleyways where barbers still cut hair on the sidewalk and the sky high towers in the CBD. The tiny hole in the wall restaurants and the fancy places in Sanlitun. I love them all!

Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Temple of Heaven, Beijing

The Famous Sites

Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Lama Temple, The Great Wall. Yep, we have all that here and more!

Cafes, Shops and Bars

I love me a cute cafe, trinket shop or a funky cocktail bar. Beijing has all that too! Don’t forget all the craft beer. Mmmmmm.

Wudaoying Hutong
Wudaoying Hutong

The Hutong Areas

I might have to ban myself from proclaiming my love for the hutong areas (the small alleyways of traditional style buildings and houses). I love wandering them- from the most traditional style ones full of old family homes, to the ones overtaken by cafes and shops like Wudaoying- it’s my favourite way to spend time in Beijing. And now we even live in our very own (ok, rented) Hutong Courtyard home!

 The Worst Things About Living in Beijing

Pollution Mask Beijing- I wear it on very high pollution days. If I wore it on just 'high' pollution days and not 'very high' days I'd hardly have it off!
Pollution Mask Beijing- I wear it on very high pollution days. If I wore it on just ‘high’ pollution days and not ‘very high’ days I’d hardly have it off!

Pollution

It’s gross, it’s bad for you, it makes you feel guilty if you don’t spend every moment outside when you finally get a perfectly clear day. It doesn’t really need any more explanation. Just yuck.

Crowds

Beijing is crowded- fact. I have pretty much gotten used to the lack of personal space and the huge crowds of people. But I can imagine it could be overwhelming for some visitors (you’ll survive though!). And there are always quiet places to discover somewhere in Beijing.

Wangfujing Street, Beijing
Wangfujing Street, Beijing

Cultural Differences

There’s no escaping it- Chinese and British culture are very, very different. I have gotten used to most things here and I also don’t believe in degrading someone else’s culture. But it would be silly to ignore the fact that, yes sometimes things here are going to be done in a Chinese way that really annoys you. I’m sure Chinese people think the same the other way about British or American society or Culture (In fact my Chinese Teaching Assistants love pointing out the differences between our cultures!).

Hopefully no gutter oil in this food!
Hopefully no gutter oil in this food!

If You’re Injured, No One Will Help You!

To avoid going into a huge panic, I try to avoid thinking of this subject. But sadly in China people don’t always want to help those who have been hurt or injured. Recently there was a case where a western man fainted on the subway (this was in Shanghai but it could be the same in Beijing) and all the passengers RAN off the subway to avoid helping him! Supposedly people are scared they’ll be the ones to get sued if they try to help. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I would always, always help someone first if they were ill or hurt.

You Have No Rights

At times it can feel like you have no rights in Beijing. There are multiple random reasons they can find to deport you here. When you move to Beijing with a work or spouse visa you have to undergo a lengthy health and body check, including chest x-rays, urine and blood tests. You will never be given the results of these tests. You will never know who has seen them or how private they are kept.  And anyway, my health is definitely worse now after a year + living in China- are they going to test when I leave and then apologise? Nope! And don’t forget, you can get kicked out of your apartment any time!

Pollution vs no pollution (this day wasn't even that bad by Beijing standards). Oh yeah and then we got kicked out this apartment!
Pollution vs no pollution (this day wasn’t even that bad by Beijing standards). Oh yeah and then we got kicked out this apartment!

Animal rights

Animals don’t have a lot of rights here either. From being eaten in all kinds of ways, to pets being mistreated, to animals in zoos and aquariums being kept in completely inappropriate cages/tanks (and visitors thinking it’s fine to taunt the animals and bang on the glass) to wildlife and sea life being disrespected. And don’t even get me started on the place in Harbin where you can hold a live chicken over a tiger’s cage and watch as the tiger rips it to shreds. So yeah, China is not a great place for animal lovers.

Baochao Hutong
Classic Beijing.

Poverty

There are a lot of bright lights and big skyscrapers in Beijing. But there is still a lot of severe poverty in Beijing. The difference between the “new rich” and the poor here makes me sick. Of course we have poverty in England too but the difference is not so great and there are support systems in place (they don’t always work but that’s another story). There are also supposedly gangs that force disabled people to beg and then give the gang all the money, so I never, ever give money to beggars here.

Traffic and Public Transport

There are too many cars in Beijing. Not only that, but there are too many terrible and scary drivers. I love taking the super cheap subway instead of a taxi, but it’s not always convenient (there is no stop anywhere near my work!) and it’s not that well designed. Some of the line changes have you walking for what feels like miles.

Construction

Will they ever finish building Beijing? Nope! There is construction everywhere, all the time! Buildings go up, buildings get ripped down. Sometimes parts of town just feel like one big construction site.

Tiananmen Gate Beijing
Tiananmen Gate Beijing

Unmentionable Moments of History and Blocked Internet (Censorship)

The lack of freedom of speech and the internet censorship are two of the absolute worst things here for me.  Don’t mention Tiananmen square on 4th June, say bad things about Mao or try to get on Facebook, Twitter, Google, Youtube, The New York Times or even WordPress. Luckily for us we know how to get a VPN so we can still use all those websites. Unlucky for me, having to bite my tongue on these political issues does not come so easily.

Learning Mandarin Is Really Hard

I found Mandarin really hard to learn. So I quit (ok that was more to do with having a bad teacher and being too tired after work but I’m going to start again, I swear!). It feels like learning three languages instead of just one. You need to learn to speak and use the correct tones, you need to learn to read and write the character and you need to learn what the words actually mean (for example Ni Hao doesn’t mean hello, it literally means “you good”. The word for exit means something like “out the mouth”). If you want to be really good at Mandarin you need to learn those different components and yeah, I probably don’t have time to do that.

Another toilet sign, because, why not?
Another toilet sign, because, why not?

Contamination Scares

One final bad point- the constant contamination scares. There’s always something- poisoned baby powder, toxic toothpaste, hormones in the milk and excess antibiotics in the water. There’s also gutter oil to worry about (oil that is dredged up from the sewers, amongst other places, and repackaged and resold!). I only use imported toothpaste and milk and would never drink the water (it’s full of heavy metals from the crappy old pipes). But I have a choice. What about all the lower income Chinese people who don’t even have clean water (or air) as a basic right?  

 

Best and Worst Things Beijing
Beautiful Blue Sky Day!

 

So there you have it- the best and worst parts of being an expat in Beijing! I do love living here and I love learning about a new culture. But I have tried to be honest about what difficulties are faced here. I think the good things outweigh the bad though (for now) and I’m really happy I get to live here! I just hope that (more for Chinese peoples sake as they have to live here forever) some things, like the pollution and censorship, get stopped soon!

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Living In Beijing Best and Worst

What do you think-any surprises here? What would you love or hate about Beijing? What are the best and worst parts about where you live?

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44 thoughts on “The Best and Worst Things About Living In Beijing

  1. It’s really interesting to read about culture on the other side (of what increasingly feels like an angry divide) between China and Hong Kong. I’m glad to read there are so many awesome parts of Beijing life. Some of my Hong Kong friends make it out to be a terrible place but I knew it couldn’t be. There is a lot of anti-China hostility here. Which is in some ways understandable, but in other ways totally not. “Rude Chinese tourists” is something that gets bandied about out here a lot, which is ironic really – despite encountering some brisk characters in my time here, this is where the bulk of the tourism industry in HK comes from! For you, the censorship must be a very hard thing to get used to. I have noticed a little more tension about talking openly and politically since the riots. I suppose I just hope that it all can be sorted out, but that’s probably just wishful thinking…

    1. Thanks for your comment Amelia. It’s interesting and really great to hear from someone in Hong Kong. Sometimes HK and China feel like worlds apart! I can kind of understand why people in HK would see China as a terrible place- it’s a difficult situation and I think the culture is kind of different. I’ve heard about Chinese tourists having a bad rep in HK- I remember a Chinese mainlander let there kid pee in the street there and Hong Kong people went crazy about it. But that still happens EVERYWHERE in China so I guess they didn’t know not to do it in Hong Kong haha (though maybe they should stop that here too!)! I do hope things will get sorted out too but I think it will take a long time sadly..

  2. Every place to visit or live in has its ups and downs. I have been to China only a few times always for only a month or so but can relate to many of the things you mentioned. But one thing is for sure, I will never get used to the squat toilets/ public toilets in general, it is just disgusting.
    I think you also forgot to mention the fact that children all have these split pants so they can pee and poop everywhere :p

  3. Beijing looks like a great city to live in, but I can totally understand the frustration. The pollution issue looks so intense. I mean it’s pretty bad here in Jakarta, but it looks insane in Beijing! Censorship is the number one thing that would drive me crazy. It still boggles my mind that China bans sites like twitter and Google (for some reason I didn’t know The New York Times was on that list…). It’s a crazy place, but it does sound fascinating. And I really do think I’d love to live there if I ever had the chance!

    1. What I find the most crazy about the censorship is that the government knows so many Chinese businesses (even the state run newspapers) still have twitter/FB accounts etc by using a VPN- but they still persist in blocking it! It really is a crazy place but yes, also a fascinating place to live! I think you’d like living here for a while.

  4. Oh god- these are all so true. What is the deal with people not helping each other? I saw an old man fall down and I went to help him and my friend dragged me away and said to never help someone if they’re hurt because they would sue me. That’s horrible. The censorship isn’t cool, it pisses me off that they just banned IG with no explanation either. Its weird because there is SO much that is frustrating about China… but the very fact that’s its CHINA makes you still love it. I really liked Beijing when I was there this summer- its a pretty intense mix of old and new, and the craft beer was amazing.

    1. Oh no- that’s awful about that man. I’ve been in a taxi twice and seen injured people but couldn’t get out to help! But yes- Beijing is still an awesome place and I;m glad I get to live here! I’m with you on the craft beer- I love it!

  5. I love how honest you are. I can definitely relate to a lot of this from Hanoi: bad air (not as bad as Beijing, but still), censored sites, etc. Haven’t been to Beijing yet, but I hear great things and will definitely visit one day.

  6. damn girl! I feel bad for you – at least I don’t have the pollution and I have never seen a “no pooping” sign lol but the negatives on your list are really negative. I tried to imagine if I’d like to switch you and I’m not sure. Here animals are mistreated which is so hard, but I have freedom of speech…. there you can’t say what you want & have pollution like mad but u have 10x better food and probs dont get grobed on the regular. lol… hard choice! I think we would have some stories to share if we ever had drinks together!

  7. I admire you for braving the crowds in Beijing on a daily basis. My wife and I have been to several of the bigger cities in China this year, including Guangzhou and Chengdu, and we both can’t get over just how overpopulated these areas seems to be. We are both grateful to be living in a much smaller city of “only” a million people. 🙂

    1. Haha it’s funny how a million people seems like a small city in China isn’t it?! have you heard about the plans to eventually join up Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei…? That is going to be one crazy city….

      1. Nope, I hadn’t heard of those plans. Sounds like the plan to make Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong into one giant mega city! Or maybe that was just a rumor…

  8. I’ll never forget my first experiences in the back seat of a car in semi-rural China! Talk about hanging on for dear life!

    Also for the reasons you’ve already mentioned, we try to avoid zoos and other animal displays/shows in most developing countries as to support/patronise such things, we feel, encourages the continuation such poor practices.

    Great post by the way! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Chris! Yes, I completely agree about avoiding those kind of animal places- for that reason I wouldn’t even take the horse and carts in Bagan or the Gilis because it looked like the animals were really poorly treated.

  9. Yes, yes, yes to all of this! I remember when I first moved here that I was told many times that I would have “I love China!” days and “I hate China!” days. So true!

  10. The one that stands out for me is that no one is willing to help. I have only been to China for a short vacation but it saddens me to hear that locals wouldn’t lend a helping hand to a foreigner in need. It is the exact opposite in Taiwan. People are so friendly and are willing to go out their way to help you in any way. ( I wrote about it here – http://foreignsanctuary.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/5-reasons-to-love-taiwan/ ) It is one of the many reasons why I love living Taiwan so much.

    1. Thanks for your comment Constance. I’ve heard so many good things about Taiwan and the people there. Although my Chinese friend and colleagues are very helpful themselves, I must say. Going to read that blog post now.

  11. OMG – You have to publish that book, even as an ebook here on your blog – haha! A coffee table book on the toilets of Beijing, lol. You had me at the food, those dumplings look amazing! The bad things would fade a little since there’s dumplings. I think the pollution would bother me the most. Did you find a new apartment?! That situation seemed so terrible!!

    1. The animal cruelty really is just awful. I’ve got friends that have seen such upsetting things on their travels around here I can’t even listen to their stories! Definitely agree- some days I love it here and others I just think..why? We’ve had so many bad pollution days in Beijing lately, but it’s lovely today!

  12. pollution in big cities like shanghai and beijing really gets on my nerve. apart from that,everything in beijing is embraceable for me. speaking of toilet,I admit sitting on a pot is more comfortable than squatting. but I hate the water splashing on my butt when I dropped some big poo poo. it makes me feel so uncomfortable. so I may stick to my squatting toilet.

  13. Now I’m really missing China :-(((((((( Your post brought back so many amazing memories from the Land of Dragons!!! Awwww, I’m so glad you’re still enjoying yourself :****

  14. One of my good friends lived in Beijing and complained about a lot of the things you mentioned, but also loved a lot and really missed it. It sounds like a fun place to be an expat, but I’m not sure I’d deal with the air quality for that.

  15. I can relate to all of this. 🙂 My husband who is Taiwanese had to bite his tongue more times than he can count when it comes to this own country…and that was hard considering he had to listen to lies and propaganda that is simply not true. At all.

  16. I’m not sure I could live in Beijing. It was so crowded and the pollution was terrible. I was only there for a few days but I felt awful the whole time. I really love China, and I read anything I can about it, but I don’t know if I’d want to live there. I lived in Korea and the bad things about Korea seem like nothing compared with the bad things about China!

  17. In your post :”I think the good things out way the bad though (for now) …”—it’s outweigh 🙂 otherwise pretty informative post!

  18. Aah, this was such a great read Joella! I’l be visiting Lanzhou and Beijing in August! I know it’s going to be SUPER hot! That picture of you on the horse is too cute:)

  19. Awesome post! I lived in Beijing but only lasted 8 and a half months- was offered a job in Saudi and when my visa came through I couldn’t face another winter full of pollution so moved back to Thailand. I would definitely put the nightlife in the best category, I had so many amazing nights out in Beijing! But it’s definitely a hard place to live and ultimately I got sick of spending so much time on the subway, the pollution, crowds etc.

    I’ve lived all over the world and would definitely say I had the worst culture shock in Beijing! I remember seeing the video of that guy on the subway and hearing about my friends dog who was beaten to death by those police who aren’t police (you know the guys I’m talking about- they keep an eyeon/bribe the people who own the carts on the street) because he wasn’t registered (he had just gotten the dog but I think he mouthed off to them). That’s the kind of stuff I just couldn’t handle!

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Stacey. The stuff like the guy on the subway and the dogs being beaten really freaked me out. Pollution was a big reason for not renewing my contract as well- I’ve been loving it here in CA by the coast with all the fresh air. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  20. Great Post, I am planning going to Beijing for 3 months and this post help me to get an idea abour what to expect. I also would like to ask you how to get a VPN and wich one would you recomend me, do you have a post about that? Thank you!

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