9 November 2017

Sergi Portolés - Expat in China

Sergi Portolés - Expat in China

We’ve had the chance to talk to Sergi Portolés, 35, a Spanish expat who has moved to China alone. Mr Portolés, who has been living there for almost five years, now works as a Researcher and Entrepreneur. Read more about his/her experiences in the full interview below.

Q: Where are you from originally?
A: Spain

Q: What made you move out of Spain?
A: When I finished my PhD, I wanted to expand my professional and personal point of view by moving to a country completely different from mine.

Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?
A: After several years living and working in China, right now I’m back home.

Q: How long have you been living in China?
A: I lived there for almost five years.

Q: Did you live alone or with your family? If yes, how did they adjust to the expat lifestyle?
A:  I moved to China alone, and before moving back to Spain, I married a Chinese national. It wasn’t easy for the both of us to adjust to our new life in Spain.

Q: Did you miss home and family at times? How did you cope with homesickness?
A: I had daily contact with my family and didn’t feel that homesick. Regardless, sometimes hanging out with my European friends helped me to cope with homesickness.

Q: What do you think about the locals?
A: That’s a difficult question. Chinese people are usually friendly, but as is the case everywhere, you can run into everything. Generally speaking, in China, it’s easy to meet people but not so easy to make close friends.

Q: Was it easy to make friends and meet people? Did you mainly socialise with other expats in China? How did you manage to find a social circle there?   
A: I was lucky to move within a European program with other researchers from different countries, and at the beginning, I manly socialised with them. After some time, I started to meet some locals and other expats at work and my Chinese lessons.

Q: How does the cost of living in China compare to your home?
A: Right now, the cost of living in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou is quite similar to Spain, but second and third-tier cities are much cheaper.

Q: How much is a cup of coffee?
A: Coffee is quite expensive in China. An expresso costs between 15 and 30 Yuan (2 to 4 USD)

Q: How much is a meal at an inexpensive restaurant?
A: You can eat for less than 30 Yuan (4 USD) at small street restaurants. Cheap restaurants normally cost less than 60 Yuan (9 USD) per person.

Q: How much is a meal at an expensive restaurant?
A: The price of eating at a quality restaurant in China can vary greatly. However, you can find a lot of good local and foreign restaurants with prices that are usually under 300 Yuan (40 USD) per person.

Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?
A: Wine is a luxury product in China, and an average Spanish or Italian wine ranges between 150 and 300 Yuan (20 to 40 USD). Local wines are low-quality and expensive.   
The price of cigarettes can change a lot depending on the brand. You can find cheap cigarettes for 5 Yuan a pack (0.7 USD) and expensive ones for more than 50 Yuan a pack (7 USD). The average price is between 10 and 15 Yuan (1.5 – 2 USD).

Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in China?
A: Opening a bank account in China is quite easy. You only need to show your passport, and you’ll get a Union Pay debit card. Bank staff don’t usually speak English, so if you don’t speak Chinese and you need to do something other than opening a simple bank account, it’s better to ask for help.

In China, online payments can’t be made with credit or debit cards, so if you want to use their online payment system, you’ll have open a local bank account and ask them to activate online banking  (they will give you the instructions to install it along with a code generation key).

Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork, such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?
A: Paperwork in China can be a nightmare, as rules are usually vague and can be flexible depending on the circumstances. Work permits are difficult to obtain and take at least one or two months once you get a job. Note that you can only apply for work visas in your home country.

Q: Would you say that healthcare in China is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?
A: Chinese public and private healthcare isn’t reliable and is business-oriented. It’s common to see people bargaining with doctors about treatments and medicine (most doctors will suggest medicine and treatments that you don’t need). Public hospitals in China are usually crowded; privacy is rare, and they lack staff. International hospitals are usually more reliable, but extremely expensive.

For all these reasons, it’s really important to have good international insurance, even if you have local insurance.

Q: Did you secure a health insurance in China?  What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?
A: I had two insurance policies: one basic policy provided by the university where I worked and an international insurance policy that allow me to receive treatment at international hospitals.

In my opinion, insurance should cover the costs of expensive treatments at international hospitals in case you have a serious accident or fall seriously ill. Local public hospitals are fine for small health problems.

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: Moving isn’t always easy, and it’s a time when I always realise some useless things I can accumulate in a short time.

When I move to China, I packed up all my belongings in less than one week. It was a nightmare, and I didn’t sleep much during those days.

When I moved to China, I didn’t use any moving company. I only took some clothes and my laptop (only one suitcase), storing the rest of my belongings at my parents’ house.  

When I moved back to Spain, I sent a part of our belongings by boat though a local company called Geleem Worldwide Service. They offered a great service.

Q: What was the biggest challenge that you faced as a new expat?
A: The two biggest challenges were the language and the visa. The first year, I had five different visas, and I had to travel to Hong Kong and Spain to renew them. After getting three tourist visas and one student visa, finally, I managed to get a work visa.

Generally speaking, the English level in China is quite low, so to manage to work efficiently, I had to learn Chinese, a language completely different to Western languages and therefore not so easy to learn. After more than two years making a huge effort every day to attend Chinese lessons, I managed to reach a basic level that allowed me to communicate effectively in China without any help.

Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in China?
A:  In my opinion, one of the main positive sides of living in China is to be able to experience a thousand-year-old rich culture and the vibrant society of the second most powerful economy in the world.

Another good aspect about living in China is that many Chinese people are welcoming and eager to help foreigners, so it isn’t difficult to find people that will help you to ease through the initial shock when you arrive in the country and when you have any problems during your stay.

On the other hand, the main negative aspect of living in China is related to health. First of all, air pollution in some cities is high, and over the long term, it can affect your mood and health.  Healthcare is also a big issue because you can’t completely trust their professionals.

Another annoying thing about living in China as an expat is an internet. Many Western websites are blocked or slow unless you use specific software called a VPN.

Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?
A: My favourite activities while I was in Beijing were eating at the “night markets,” getting lost in the small streets of old town and going for a walk in the mountains north of the city, where you can find several sections of the Great Wall.

Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?
A: I’ve already moved back home.

Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?
A: I would say to them to leave expat bubbles and try to experience the real China without prejudices. Also, to have patience, as things in China are much easier than it seems.   

Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about China?
A: I’m not impartial in this aspect because, in 2012, a friend and I started a website called Sapore Di Cina. On this website, we share all the tips you might need to live or travel in China. We created the website we would have liked to have when we moved there.  Over the years, we’ve received a great deal of positive feedback, so I’m happy to say that we managed to achieve our goal.
Other websites I like are the Shanghaiist; a newspaper focused on expats living in China, China Law Blog, an excellent website with updated information about legal issues in China, and Hacking Chinese, one of the best websites if you are looking for tips on how to learn Chinese.