Moving to China is something that my husband Isaac and I did on a whim. We were happily living in Prague, Czech Republic but we were bored and had never explored Asia. Isaac is a teacher, so when he got a spam email suggesting that he apply for a job in China he laughed and told me about it. I said, ‘wait, but why not?’ He applied, got hired and three months later we were on one-way flight to Shanghai. I do not suggest that you sell 20 years of belonging and get on the first flight out of your country like I did. But I do suggest considering relocating to China for the following 10 reasons.
Salary was the number one reason we decided that moving to China was a good idea. Foreigners who teach English in China get a hefty salary. We left China two years ago, so the exact salary may have changed, but Isaac’s salary was the almost same in Shanghai as it was in New York City when we moved in 2018. The thing is, though, that living in China costs significantly less than living in NYC. But I’ll get to that next.
The high salary that foreigners get to enjoy was a bit of a double-edged sword. Obviously, it is hard to find native English speakers living in China, so it makes sense that they would be paid more than locals. Plus, said foreigners have to give up certain comforts when they live in China – see reason #6. But it was difficult to see an American working a comfortable 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and earning several times more than their Chinese colleagues who worked for 12+ hours a day, 6-7 days a week.
It should also be noted that Shanghai is probably the best paying city for foreign English teachers. Glassdoor can give you more insight but keep in mind that private schools can pay even more than 18k a month, which is around $2,600.
2. Living Costs
So the salaries in Shanghai, China are HIGH. But what about the living costs? First, you need to understand that Shanghai is a huge city with over 25 million residents. They also have the biggest subway system in the world and it takes hours to get from one end of the city to the other. Living in the center is significantly more expensive than living on the outskirts, but your commute may only be 30 minutes to save thousands.
I love using Numbeo to see costs of living in various cities – they also offer comparing different cities side by side. So let’s do New York City again, to show the stark contrast. Again, keep in mind that Shanghai is one of the pricier cities in China. The salary vs living costs is a big reason for many foreigners to pick teaching in China vs Korea, Vietnam, Thailand or Japan. It is by far the most profitable to be in China. We met a lot of Americans who were living there for just two or three years to pay off their student loan debt before returning home.
3. Travel Opportunities
This isn’t something we considered much – because we didn’t actually think the move through AT ALL. But traveling around Asia from China is disgustingly cheap. Especially on a foreign teacher’s salary. You can go to Australia for $300, Thailand for as little as $100 and all major Asian cities are accessible for between $200-400 round trip. I obviously can’t show you current flight prices as they aren’t accurate, but trust me, you can travel easily and often if you live in China and make a foreign teacher salary.
Annoyingly enough, it can cost a lot more to travel locally within China. Tourist attractions are often priced high and taking the bullet train or flying locally isn’t cheap. I wanted to visit the Great Wall one more time before we left China, but it was a third of the price to go to Thailand, so we did that instead.
4. Resume-Building Experience
Do I need to elaborate much on this one? Living and working in a foreign country is super impressive if you’re joining a big company. It shows that you are open-minded, well-traveled, understand different cultures, and it can be a great way to be remembered. The company I currently work for has several people on my team that have lived in Shanghai, including one girl from China. Would I have gotten the job if I wasn’t “that girl who lived in China?” I’m not sure! But it’s great to be able to use the few Chinese words I know with my international colleagues! Plus we all say ‘ayyaaaaaa’ when annoyed.
5. Broaden Your Horizons
I am a third world child. This means that I grew up in a foreign country but I also grew up around other foreigners. I’m an expat for life and I don’t know where I belong. At the same time, there is nowhere that I don’t belong. As international as my upbringing was, China was a HUGE culture shock. It taught me so much. Like the fact that what I consider to be universal hand gestures are actually not. Shaking your head doesn’t always mean no, spitting on the ground is not necessarily rude and you can offend people by doing basic things that you normally wouldn’t think twice about.
Even though I visited a lot of places in Asia while living in China, I still feel like China taught me the most and was the most unique experience. Don’t get me wrong, I was plenty shocked when I moved to the USA as a European as well. But China was more in your face with the differences in their culture and pretty much EVERY aspect of life. It wasn’t always easy to live there, but I have zero regrets and will take the lessons I learned with me everywhere I go.
6. Appreciate What You Have
China has two major walls that you sure be aware of. There’s The Great Wall of China and then there’s The Great Firewall of China. I have experienced both and in some cases, the physical wall is easier to infiltrate. I am not just saying that because I peed on it – yes, I own it now and no, it wasn’t offensive, we were on a camping trip in a remote part and I wasn’t the only one who did it.
Moving to China definitely taught me how lucky I am to have unrestricted access to the internet. Even with a VPN it wasn’t always possible to access the websites I was used to. I also learned to appreciate drinkable tap water, people speaking my language and looking like those around me so that I’m not pointed at or photographed.
There were some perks of being a foreigner in China too. A higher salary was just one of the advantages. Foreigners can get away with a lot in China. When the police would pull over buses to check IDs, the foreigners weren’t bothered. We were allowed to go anywhere we wanted and do whatever we pleased. Of course, there are certain laws that even a foreigner can’t get away with breaking. But severe punishment for foreigners is generally deportation and fines rather than jail time or worse.
7. See What the Future Holds
In some ways, China seemed like a third world country. The subway and city weren’t the cleanest and people were rude in public. However, in many more ways China is WAY ahead of the world. They have crazy technology used for both good (paying for everything with your phone) and for bad (face recognition that can be used to discriminate against people.) When COVID started they had drones flying around yelling at people who were outside!
Also, despite their typically low salaries, everyone in China has a smartphone. We had 90 year old farmer ladies accepting electronic payments at local rundown markets with their new iPhone. Everything is online, high-tech and modern. Then there’s their public transportation – dirty? Yes. Amazing, on-time, frequently running? YES. I wanted to murder people twice a day on my commute to and from work. But I was still impressed with their subway system.
8. The Food: Moving to China
Obviously, China has GREAT food. The downside of living in Shanghai is that their food is considered the worst in the country. As someone who doesn’t like spicy food, I was relieved that Shanghai had ‘mild food, great for children.’ Do not eat stinky tofu in Shanghai, go to Hunan for that… but do take advantage of all the food they have to offer.
To our annoyance, Shanghai didn’t offer much of an insect eating experience. But they did have almost anything else you could imagine. Also, since it’s a popular city for foreigners, they had a great )if not expensive) selection of foreign restaurants. The two things we miss the most are their 3 meter long belt thick noodle (that I have a tattoo of) and Jianbing. Disclaimer: you may start hating Chinese food outside of China after tasting the real thing, even if it’s the boring Shanghai variety.
9. The People
I was shocked by how rude people were in public. Commuting was terrible because people pushed, spat, cut their fingernails and yelled right in your ear. Plus, people would touch and photograph you in more rural areas because foreigners are a rarity. The final straw for me was going to the zoo and having a mother point me out to her child instead of showing her the animals there.
On the other hand, when you meet people in China they are the kindest, most generous and caring people in the world. They take you in, pay for you at restaurants despite you making more than them, and they will be your friend for life. Anything you need, they will be there for you. If I was in a pickle, I could call up anyone I had met when I lived in China. Even those who I hadn’t spoken to for years would come and help me if I needed them. They are amazing, loving people. They just aren’t scared to show their worst side when in public, which can be better than being fake nice, which is more common in the West.
When I first told my parents that I was moving to China, they freaked out. They thought it was unsafe and tried to persuade me not to go. I was slightly worried myself after being spoiled by growing up in one of the safest countries in the world, the Czech Republic. Shanghai was safer. I could not imagine a safer place to live. You may be hit by an old lady on her e-bike while crossing the road on a green light on a cross walk. However, the likelihood of you being robbed, beat up, kidnapped or murdered is way lower than most places in the world.
Of course, if you’re ruining around breaking the rules or saying something bad about the government, you may be deported or worse. But if you are following the law, you are perfectly safe to walk around late at night, take taxis alone, etc.
Summary: Moving to China
Moving to China can be the best thing you’ll ever do. Or the worst. I didn’t love my daily life in China. There was pollution, a tough daily commute and it was hard to have a healthy social life. Many people I met there felt the same while so many others loved every minute of it and never wanted to leave. Living in China for two years was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t change for anything. Even after living there, I would love to come back to visit and see more of this amazing country.
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