9 September 2016

Kirsten - Expat in Chengdu, China

Kirsten - Expat in Chengdu, China

We’ve had the chance to talk to Kirsten, 29, a Scottish expat who has moved to China with her boyfriend. Ms. Kirsten who has been living there for 14 months, now works as an ESL teacher.

Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?

A: I am originally from Scotland – born and raised in Aberdeen, after 18 years there I moved to Edinburgh for university before relocating to work in London in early 2009.


Q: What made you move out of England?

A: After six years working in the fundraising sector in London, I was completely disillusioned with the not-for-profit sector and feeling increasingly depressed about being stuck in a career that I didn’t enjoy. I’d spent four months doing the cliché backpacker bit after graduating in 2008 and subsequently spent most of my working life daydreaming about running away from full-time jobs and rent to see more of the world. Luckily my boyfriend felt the same so after a holiday where we realised we shouldn’t feel so miserable about returning to work, we decided to bite the bullet, take a sabbatical and see where life as a TEFL teacher could take us.


Q: Where are you living now?

A: We live in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province in China.


Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: We had initially been looking to move to Korea, but it’s much harder to find work there, and China offered us far more flexibility in terms of working hours and location. It also helped that an old colleague of mine had moved to Chengdu the previous year. I got back in touch with them via Facebook, and they essentially sold me on the idea!


Q: How long have you been living in China?

A: 14 months.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?

A: I live with my boyfriend who moved over here with me. Like me, he adjusted to the lifestyle (particularly the significant cut in working hours) quickly, and we are both having a great time out here.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?

A: Of course I miss my friends and family a lot. Having lived in London, the opposite end of the country from most of my family, for so long, I am used to going for fairly long periods without seeing them. However, saying goodbye for 12 months last February was easily the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Thankfully, time out here has flown, and Facetime has been a complete game changer! Being able to see everyone on video calls each week has been so much better than a mere telephone call! 


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: Chengdu is known for being one of the most relaxed cities in China and on the whole, the locals are chilled out and largely just leave you to your own devices. It is a complete culture shock coming to China so the occasional culture clash has to be expected. Being a foreigner does make you a bit of a novelty out here, and you do have to get used to the staring and comments – particularly from the older generations – but certainly there’s been no hostility and most people have shown incredible patience when it comes to our terrible attempts at Mandarin!


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in China? How did you manage to find a social circle there?  

A: Admittedly, we do mainly socialise with other expats! Having initially moved out here on student visas (we studied Mandarin for a few months at a local uni) we were lucky to meet a lovely group of friends through our classes. The ex-colleague I previously mentioned also took us under their wing and introduced us to people. It’s also easy to just meet people by frequenting the local expat haunts here.  The community is small enough to be open to welcoming newcomers, and it’s not hard to make friends!


Q: How does the cost of living in China compared to your home?

A: It is significantly cheaper – compared to what I was spending in London, my outgoings are around a quarter of what they were in the UK.

  • Q: How much is a cup of coffee?

A: Weirdly, this is actually one of the more expensive things to get in Chengdu as coffee is not terribly popular here and viewed as more of a Western luxury. To get a decent coffee (i.e., not instant Nescafe) you would have to pay around £3-3.50.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

A: Super cheap. For a bowl of noodles, you can spend as little as 60p.

  • Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

A: Around £8-9 each (assuming you are not the only diner) and that will usually include a couple of Chinese beers.

  • Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

A: Wine is still very expensive here due to almost all of it being imported. To get a bottle that is actually drinkable, it’s around £6 in a shop and £14 in a bar/restaurant. It’s best t.o stick to beers here, to be honest! Afraid I can’t comment on cigarettes as I don’t smoke, but I know it’s incredibly cheap to buy them here.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in China?

A: Ensure you take your passport and copies of your lease. It is likely to require a degree of patience as it can take a while to get it all sorted – in particular, the sequence of our names can cause confusion as the Chinese way of writing them is to give the surname first. However, unlike in Western banks where you sometimes need to wait a few days to get your bank card/pin number you will be given all of this right away! If you can get a Chinese speaking friend to go with you, then it does make things easier, but we have been able to muddle through with Pleco (dictionary app on our phone!) and mime!


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?

A: Visas are the one huge headache for expats out here. We’ve had both students and work visas out here, and they both require a large amount of paperwork. The difficulty tends to lie in the fact that a lot of this paperwork needs to be provided either by the school you are studying at or your future employers. Chinese administration is notoriously slow and it can be quite stressful as visa deadlines loom closer and you still don’t have any of the mandatory documents ready. My advice would be to get the ball rolling with this as soon as you can – it took us over 2.5 months to get our work visa paperwork together due to some admin issues – and exercise a LOT of patience. It definitely does not help to complain or to aggressively push for things to move a bit quicker. Instead, mask your irritation with a lot of smiley face emojis and regularly and politely check in. Most importantly double check that all documentation is correct in terms of dates, spellings and any other crucial details – I learnt this the hard way. Try to keep the faith – even when it seems like it’s never going to get sorted it usually does!


Q: Would you say that healthcare in China is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?

A: Thankfully I have not had any healthcare issues so haven’t had to make trips to the hospitals out here. But having heard stories from friends out here, it can be quite a stressful experience if you do require treatment for anything more serious than travellers diarrhea or a cold! Clinics and hospitals don’t tend to work on an appointment system in Chengdu so you will find that you may have to be prepared for long queues and general waiting room chaos to be seen. Furthermore, the hygiene in some of the hospitals is questionable and for any patients needing overnight stays, conditions can be quite unpleasant. 

I’ve heard good things about Huaxi VIP Hospital and Global Doctors, but both are extremely expensive so make sure your insurance is willing to pay out if you don’t just opt for a regular local hospital.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in your home or China? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?

A: We did secure coverage for our first 12 months before we left the UK but subsequently discovered that it was a bit of a scam, and we weren’t actually covered. We now have local health insurance which is very basic but should at least patch us up enough to travel home should we require more serious medical intervention. I’ve mentioned above that ensuring your insurance covers better quality hospital care is important. 


Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to China? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?

A: We moved out here under our own steam, with just a 23kg luggage allowance each so the hardest part was definitely deciding what fraction of my wardrobe to take. Having initially been worried about having so few clothes with me, it’s actually been really liberating to leave most of my material possessions behind! Plus, I have discovered that even with such a tiny wardrobe, I still only wear about two outfits on a loop anyway.


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?

A: Undoubtedly the language barrier. We were both really naive before coming out here and did not expect there to be almost no English spoken at all. Arriving at Beijing airport with our address written in pinyin, which no taxi driver could read, was a stressful way to start our China experience and made us realise we had been really ignorant and needed to start brushing up on our basic Mandarin skills and fast!  Even now, 14 months on, it can be really daunting trying to do new things – whether going travelling or something as simple as just paying our bills. However, it’s also hugely rewarding whenever we manage to communicate something successfully.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in China?

A: The positives are definitely having ready access to so many incredible places. It can be incredibly cheap to travel internally in China, and I have been completely blown away by just how varied and beautiful the landscape is. We are really lucky to live in Sichuan Province which encompasses a huge chunk of the Tibetan Plateau which is one of the most stunning places I have ever been. In addition to the travel opportunities, just having the chance to live somewhere so different and learn about the culture and the language has been a great experience.

The culture clash can sometimes be negative, but it’s important to remember these are usually just little niggles. Being stared and having locals talk about the ‘foreigner’ when you are right beside them can be frustrating. It can sometimes feel like quite a chaotic place to live. People push and shove more than I am used to, it’s literally never quiet (even at 4 am) and doesn’t get me started on the driving – but all in all, it’s just part of the fun and such annoyances usually make for a good China story at least.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?

A: Come to Chengdu for the food. You could spend weeks constantly eating here and still not try all of the amazing dishes it has to offer. Hotpot should be top of the list, though. If you think you don’t like spicy food, Sichuan cuisine will change your mind.

Chengdu’s most famous for the pandas so a visit to the Panda Research Centre is a must.

A short train ride away is the giant Buddha of Leshan which although crowded with tourists is worth the trip and just a little further on is Emei Shan. It is exhausting to climb – hours and hours of concrete steps – but is a beautiful escape from the city, and if you get a clear day, the views are incredible.

I would also urge everyone to brave the slightly daunting bus journeys to head out to Western Sichuan to explore the Tibetan Plateau. Kangding is a fantastic town, and we used it as our base when we trekked around part of Gongga Shan – one of the highest peaks in China – which has been a highlight of our time out here.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: We are moving back to the UK towards the end of the year so I can study for a Master’s degree in Glasgow. Very excited to be heading back to Scotland, having not lived there for so many years and I am following my dream of getting back into science.


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in China?

A: Find a work-life balance which allows you to see as much of China as possible. We have been incredibly lucky in finding full-time jobs which give us a huge amount of freedom to explore. Don’t get sucked into some of the terrible contracts that training schools offer out here. There is loads of work to be found so shop around and always check out the school online before you arrive – ex-teachers can leave brutally honest reviews.

Also, it took me a while to realise this myself, but don’t sweat the small stuff. China can be an infuriating place to live but it’s also wonderful so don’t get sucked into the trap of expat-negativity!


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about China?

A: Go Chengdoo was invaluable when we were job-hunting out here. Also, I have to mention my own blog which has lots of information about the adventures we’ve been on and day-to-day life in Chengdu:Kirsten.