Saturday, January 28, 2012

My gift to future Beijing expats...

I remember before we moved to Beijing I had so many questions of what to bring, what could I find in their stores, what couldn't I find that I as an American may be accustomed to...etc. I was never able to find all of that information in one place, so instead, I gathered as much as I could from 1000 different websites. I asked a friend of mine who is about to move to Beijing what questions she has about what to pack etc and she very sweetly send me an email with most (I think) of her questions. This is not an exhaustive list by any means though, so if anyone reading this has any additional questions, just comment and I will answer them :) 

When can you not go outside due to dangerous air quality? - meaning level amounts and how often do you find yourself purposefully staying in?
The best site to check out Beijing air is and is from the American embassies air quality control thing. The days that are good and moderate days are wonderful. The unhealthy for sensitive groups days are fine and maybe only a little hazy. With children whose lungs are already developed I would even go out on unhealthy days.  Obviously, hazardous and dangerous are the nasty days. Those are the days that its hard to see across the street and going outside (for me at least) equals instant migraine. Sleeping in a room without an air purifier guarantees a shitty night sleep in most places.  So keep an eye on the website and although they look silly, get a pollution mask. There are lots of different brands, but we like ours (hyperlink).

What personal items do you need to make sure you bring when you move to China?
If there is anything that you can't live without, like certain shampoo or organic soap, bring it with you. Those awesome jersey sheets from Target, we brought two sets of those back with us this time. We also brought our foam sleep number pillows with us. Everything that’s an American/UK/Aus good (even if its made in China) is either hard or impossible in some cases to find here OR more expensive.  So if you have to search for it in the states or you buy it from a specialty place (Wholefoods, etc) than bring it if you can. Tampons: Bring with you. They use pads here…no I'm not joking. Deodorant: bring it with you. The selection here is bad. Q-Tips: The ones in China often come undone in your ears…on numerous occasions hubs has had to tweeze the cotton out of my inner ear.

How many bags do you check at the airport when you move to China? (silly... just curious)
On our initial trip, 2 checked bags each and 1 carry on. Our Christmas trip home, we brought back 2 bags we didn't leave China with. We have also had 3 boxes shipped over the year.

Where should I live when I move to China? - this opens an entire other set of questions
I love Lido, would love Shunyi if it weren't an hour from my office and hubs (it's not really close to anything except awesome Shunyi stuff), Chaoyang Park area is nice as well. Shunyi now has a subway line and soon Lido will as well but the 1 thing these 3 places have in common is that they aren't the most convenient. Hubs and I take cabs every morning because we are 15 minutes from a subway. This means that prices are lower though…so it’s a trade off. If you want to be right in the middle of it and near a subway, I would suggest the Dongzhimen area.

Is it easy to navigate in Beijing?  How are cabbies?
If you have a driver, yes. If you have the Beijing taxi guide on your iPhone, it helps. If you speak at least some Chinese, it helps. If you don't have either of those things, get ready for some trouble if you are taking a taxi. The subway is idiot proof (thank God) so that’s a good fall back assuming you are not claustrophobic or a germaphobe. The bus system is great…if you know the line goes your way or if you READ Chinese CHARACTERS. No bus sign offer English or even Pinyin (roman letters version of Chinese  written language).

Can you get most of your household items at a grocery store or do you find yourself going to several markets?
In China in general you may have to go to several places to get everything you might want…no Publix/Target places here. They have Walmart…but it sucks…sorry but it does. Jenny Lous and April Gourmet are great though. A lot of foreign goods. We generally go there and then our meat market in Upper East Side for veggies and meat. There is a big veggie market near Liangmaqiao that has a ton of fruits and veggies and meat, great for the first two in the summer and great in the winter for the meat…since it is never refrigerated, thus the smell and possibility for bacteria in the summer irks me. In Shunyi, I think its easier to one stop shop.

Do you buy your clothes in China?  Have you ever had anything tailored in the markets specifically for you?  Cost?
I did my yearly shopping in the US. Do not expect to find high quality goods here for any thing even resembling a reasonable price. Most exported brands that are made in China export their high quality goods and keep the B & C quality stuff here. I occasionally see tank tops and dresses I like in markets that I buy but I have no expectations that they will last very long.

Do online clothing companies (Anthropologie, J. Crew, Banana, etc) deliver to China?  Amazon?
Amazon I have experience with…they ship some things. Some small books, but big textbooks they usually won't ship. Banana Republic: Yes they ship here. Jcrew: Sadly…no, so have your family ship it to you. Anthropologie: $60 to ship anything to China.

Do hair salons over there compare to the states - style, color, etc?
Haha. NO. I will not get my hair colored here. There are a few places that I trust to do it, but it is so expensive that I will not do it. Paying close to 300-500 dollars to change my hair color is just not worth it. The places that have a reasonable price are not really for expats. Chinese people typically work with Chinese hair and making my hair more blonde is not the same as turning onyx black to blonde. No thanks. I will get my hair highlighted twice a year when I go home.

What are the top 5 best weekend activities/close places to sightsee?
Chaoyang Park is great, and kids would love it. Summer Palace is beautiful and also a great half/all day weekend activity, but out of the way so not for every weekend. Great Wall is an all day affair and involves hiring a car so its great but not a spur of the moment thing. Houhai lake is great during the day for kiddies and for parents at night. Sanlitun has a lot of expat stores and is a must see shopping plaza. The Silk market is also a must see for bargain shopping but both might bore your kids in 30 minutes or less. Sanlitun less so because they can run around outside.

Have you ever eaten the "crazy" street foods you see on tv?
We haven't made it so Wangfujing yet…but its on the list of places to see in 2012. Street food in general I will not touch because its made on the side of the highway and I care about my internal organs too much to eat it.

Are there diapers?  Formula?  Are they easy to get/cheap or expensive?
While I have no personal experience with either of these things, I know you can buy both here. I would be real careful what type of formula you buy though. Every year there is a Chinese formula scandal involving corner cutting and babies dying. Buy brands that you recognize. That is my overarching advise for anything that goes on your skin or in your body. I work in the pharma industry so I can tell you that FDA (American) standards and Chinese standards are not the same…not even close. Things like lotions that HAVE TO BE TESTED in the US and Europe etc… do not have to be tested in China before they are put in the shelf. Unless you enjoy the idea of you or your child being a guinea pig…buy brands you recognize.

75 kuai for a 24 pack of Pampers
461 kuai for a big 900 gram Organic Formula
15-23 kuai for Gerber baby food

How long before you start picking up Mandarin and using it?  Do you use it everyday?  What is the best way to learn?
1 month after arrival I knew a little bit more. 6 months later I knew enough to get around and be comfortable taking a taxi, ordering food and buying what I needed. I use it everyday. No taxi drivers speak English so don't expect that they will. A lot can not read maps either, even if they are in Chinese. The best way to learn is to have a really good tutor. Group classes did nothing for me except expose me to people who mispronounced words…and of course that was the pronunciation I remembered.

What is the best way to meet others and socialize?
This is so easy. Other expats tend to be friendly if you are friendly back. We met 1 set of friends at a Chinese school's one year anniversary party, others through them and other just randomly at the gym or in the subway. I had a MUCH harder time making friends in the US than I do here.

What kind of air purifier do you have?  Is it a necessity?  How much do they cost?
If money was no issue I would have gotten an IQAir but because we don't have money growing on our inside plants, I got a BlueAir. The difference it has made in our sleeping is insane. We love our BlueAir (500 series). It was about 6200 kuai (984ish dollars). We would love to buy the next size up for the living room but it is about $1550 so we need to be sure before we make that kind of commitment. Does every expat have one? No. Would I be able to give mine away and still live here…Not anymore. On bad days we take that into whatever room we are in and can survive a really bad day.

How do you launder your clothes?
Almost every apartment has a washing machine. Not a dryer though, those are speciality goods in China. We sprung for one anyway though because line drying your clothes outside here is not something I am willing to do…we did it once and it felt like fire ants took up residence on my skin (thank you concrete dust). Inside takes a while and your clothes feel crunchy. So if you can and you have space, get a dryer. Or a two in one but a stand alone dryer is better.

How much is an ayi?  What all does that cover? How do you go about hiring one?
We have an ayi come once a week for 2 hours. We pay her 50 kuai an hour, so $15 dollars a week. If she came more often, like 3 times a week we would probably pay her less than hour. Most people pay 25-30 an hour but we leave her here alone a lot and don't want to jip her and make her bitter. She does a great job and we can afford to pay her the extra 5 dollars. We found her on theBeijinger. The agency's here charge a fee to sign up, usually 100-300 kuai, and it involves ZERO training of the ayi, zero equipment for her and zero English speaking ability. I tried it and after I paid her the fee she tried to get me to pay her more than what the agency had quoted her because she saw more in my wallet. She didn't do a very good job and the house smelled worse when she left than when she arrived. Obviously, I didn't have a good agency experience. Personal referral from another expat would be my first try.

Do you tip?
Nope. There is no sales tax in China and they do not tip. Trust me, if you eat and stay in expat places they are already charging you a minimum of 15% more than for the Chinese equivalent…no tip necessary.

Where is your favorite place to shop for clothes?  Food?  Flowers?  Household items?  
The United States. April Gourmet. The Flower Market: Lai Tai Hua Huai (next to Ladies street). No favorite…we go to department stores and hope to find stuff or we go to Ikea…or hope that April Gourmet has it.

Did you take your own linens to China from the states or buy them there?
If you can, bring them from the states. You can find them, at Ikea or Zara home, but generally it is hard as hell to find fitted sheets here.

What phone company do you use for cell phone?  Home phone?  
There is no competition here as far as cell phone or home phone providers. China Mobile for the cell phones. You can buy a plan if you have a Chinese person with you or you can pay as you go after buying a sim card. Most magazine shops sell recharge cards or you can buy them at your grocery store…sometimes.

Does your iPad work in most places - meaning WiFi availability?
Yes :) if you are near a coffee shop.

What foods do you miss the most?  What is the best food there?
You an find a decent amount here if you are willing to pay for it. There is a specific grocery store here, City Shop, and it is outrageously expensive but they have an awesome selection of western food. As far as restaurants, I like Parkside Grill (Lido), Element Fresh (across Beijing and Shanghai), Blue Frog (same) and Annies for lunch almost every day.

Are Chinese people timely and rushed like New Yorkers or laid back more like Southerners?
A mix of both I would say. Most people you meet will be on time, so that’s nice. People in the subway will push and shove you to walk faster, so that’s not so great. A mix.

Subway vs Cabs vs Buses
Depends on where your going and your level of Chinese.

Have you had to deal with dentists?  Doctors?  
Hubs had one experience with the dentist and it went well. I have had several experiences at the hospital (there are no doctors offices in China…if you need something, you go to a clinic or the hospital) and they were both good. Unfortunately, we had to pay for them out of pocket. Both of us are only covered on Chinese hospitals, and from all of the horror stories I have heard, I would rather pay for Western standards.

What about TV programs?  Cable?  English channels?
We don't have cable anymore but we have had it before. Regular cable is Chinese programming: 98% + HBO Asia (also known as HBO Family), CNN and Discovery Channel. Satellite is an option but because it is technically illegal, we decided against it.

Favorite time of year in Beijing?  Least favorite?
Favorite would be the short Spring and Fall months. The Summer is also nice but it does get very hot (and I am from Florida). Winter is 4 months of pure HELL for me because it is cold, windy, the air is terrible and it is soooo dry.

Best festivals?
Spring Festival/ Chinese New Year is an interesting holiday. It's great because you get a week off of work, but very loud because of the 7 days of non stop fireworks. They believe/ still practice the act of setting off fireworks to scare away the demons. The Dragon Boat festival is definitely my favorite holiday because of all of the great decorations.

Favorite area in Beijing? 
Chaoyang Park, hands down. To live, Lido. 


  1. OMG.... LOVE this post! Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the answers! I made reference to this site on my blog today - hopefully you get a bunch of hits! Great info - you're awesome!

  2. So glad I found this, thank you! Do you still recommend Lido and Dongzhimen to live? We have school age kids, but don't want to be too remote from it all.