What’s it like for native English teachers/expats to live in Changsha, Hunan, China?
I should preface this post by saying that Julianne and I have not had what I think is the ‘typical’ living and teaching experience in Changsha, or China for that matter. First off our apartment sits inside a compound with a guarded gate. A number of Chinese teachers and some other native English teachers also live within the compound which sits on the edge of a military university campus. Having a guard at the gate gives a degree of safety and security against apartment break-ins and other problems that might occur. Second, we have been teaching for a national government military university so this has, in my mind, isolated and protected us from what I perceive as the ‘normal’ and ‘everyday’ experiences other native teachers experience when living in normal apartments and teaching at normal schools/universities. Third, our travel to and from work has been on a coach style bus along with other officers/instructors so our frequency of interactions and experiences with non-government/non-military Chinese people has also not been as frequent as what I think other native English teachers experience on a daily basis. Those are just some of the things that have made our experiences here different from what I’d say is ‘normal’ for native teachers/expats in Changsha (and China).
All that being said, here’s what I think about living and teaching in Changsha.
Traveling in Changsha is pretty cheap and easy. Taking a city bus costs 1-2 yuan. If you get on a bus with a * next to its name you pay 2 yuan; this is because these buses are ‘nicer’ than the non-* buses (meaning they have air conditioning, for example). If it’s your first time in China you should prepare yourself for a wild ride as bus drivers here drive as fast as possible pretty much at all times. This is generally because traffic can slow them down too much and I’ve been told that if drivers are late they get fined or something. Buses will at times do a ‘rolling stop’ for you to get on . . . and conversely they may not completely stop while you are trying to get off–oh, and sometimes they don’t stop at all and you have to yell (there may be so many people on the bus that they are unusure if you want to get off, for example). Be forewarned that hard breaking will happen, swerving into the oncoming traffic lane to get around any cars that are slowed/stopped, and other kinds of driving that in North America would get the driver a pink slip, a major traffic violation fine/s, etc.
Prepare yourself to be on a bus with so many people that you may feel like you’re being crushed from multiple directions. There are no limits to how many people will try to get on a bus here, and I’ve seen people pushing and hammering other people into the doorway of buses trying to cram the person in front of them onto the bus so that THEY can get onto the bus too, lol.
Julianne and I have discovered that the best time to travel on city buses is from 10am to 12pm, and 1pm until about 4pm. After the insane morning rush hour and before lunch time, and after lunch time during the siesta (rest time) until about 4pm the number of travelers and traffic on the roads is actually not bad. You will find your bus trip takes a lot less time and you might even be able to get a seat!
Pick-pockets seem to be a bit of an issue on the bus . . . but at the same time don’t think that you’ll have someone’s fingers trying to get into your pocket/purse every time you ride the bus. I will given an example of how Julianne and I spent nearly an hour trapped on a bus full of angry and yelling Chinese people one time after someone had had their cell phone stolen out of their giant open purse. The bus driver pullled over to the side of the road and wouldn’t let anyone get off until the police arrived . . . yeah. Julianne and I joked with our student assistant who was with us at the time (the university assigns one to native teachers to help with day to day things) that we wondered if the police were going to strip search all of us–to which we got a blank-stare-response.
We then had to explain that we wondered how on earth the police could figure out who to detain or who the criminal was when they arrived; our assistant responded that they had ‘special training’ and that the police would look into the eyes of each passenger and find the criminal–LOL! Riggggghhhhht . . . After the police arrived one of them walked up and down the bus searching under seats and looking in the garbage can by the exit door–and then they let off a few people at a time asking each some questions and then letting them go. The thief was never caught, and we finally got off the bus and continued our trip on another one. The point of this little anecdote is to not keep your wallet/cash/cell phone/ID in large open pockets or open bags, etc. Even a backpack is a risk as a friend of ours also told us a story about how she was going up an escalator (I know it’s not the bus, but it was in public) and turned to find a man with his arm up to his elbow inside her backpack ! Be cautious and alert and it’s likely nothing will happen to you–be careless and you’ll likely have a bad experience.
I should also mention that there’s no such thing as a ‘bus schedule’ in Changsha. The bus comes when it comes. Sometimes the same bus route number will go by THREE AT A TIME, and if you’re unlucky and miss all of them you get to stand there for several minutes till another comes by. Also, bus drivers can and will change the regular route at will for whatever reason they want to though to be fair it’s usually because of traffic congestion or construction. They eventually get back on track but you may have to walk for a bit if your stop happens to be the one they detour around. Add to all this that extreme acceleration and breaking are a NORMAL part of the bus trip and I think that’s as much advanced warning as you can get before getting on a bus here.
Taxi fares begin at 7 yuan on the meter . . . I’m not really sure how much distance per yuan the rate is but when you’re shopping or don’t want to be on the bus it’s generally not too expensive. The general size of taxi cars is small relative to western body sizes and whether you’re fat or tall or big boned you’ll find it’s a small space to get into. A metal bar grate barrier sits between the back seat and front seat and there’s usually a small TV playing advertisements or bizarre animated cartoons (you’ll ‘love’ how other ethnicities are drawn–not).
It’s a good idea to have your destination written in Chinese by a Chinese person because drivers often either struggle to undertand native English speakers saying anything in Chinese or aren’t willing to make much efforts to understand you–that being said, we’ve generally had decent experiences with drivers (though we always hand them a piece of paper with our address).
Some drivers will try to ‘take you for a ride’ and you should be aware of this problem. Click here to read about one driver who tried to rip Julianne and I off.
There are two department stores in Changsha where Julianne and I go regularly to get foreign foods: Metro (it’s like a COSTCO) and Carrefour. Of the two we like Metro better as it has a much bigger selection of foods and other things.
Metro has some of the following things: spices, foreign wines/beers/liqueurs, imported cheese, imported cereals, imported canned goods, fruits and vegetables, a bakery, electronics, etc.
NOTE: During your first visit to Metro you have to get a free membership card. Bring your passport.
Carrefour has a few things that Metro doesn’t but in general it’s foreign foods section is very small and Metro should be your first stop.
There is also a Walmart in downtown Changsha which has some foreign foods and other items.
Changsha’s weather is one of extremes–period. It either feels like it’s cold, or like it’s hot, most if not all the time. Spring and fall seasons seem to be very short. The spring lasted maybe 2-3 weeks and then the summer heat and humidity hit hard. The fall also was pretty much the same. Winter temperatures, while not as cold as in Canada and parts of America, were cold relative to what we’d become used to in Changsha. While Julianne never needed to use her Northface down filled winter coat she did want a polar fleece sweater and jacket during some parts of the winter.
The heat and humidity of the summer are severe. Julianne and I used wide packing tape to seal up most of the windows in our apartment so that heat during the winter wouldn’t escape and cold get inside, and it’s also been working well so far this summer to keep the cold air from our air conditioning in and the heat and humidity out. The design and construction materials used for our apartment (and I think it’s safe to say for most apartments in China) do not work very well as insulators. Large size windows with poor caulking and thin/low quality glass do nothing to keep out heat or cold temperatures, and the glass door (our bedroom wall has a massive window and large glass door which exposes it to the elements) leading out onto the balconies (there are 2) of our apartment have gaps at the bottom of the doors and let in the outside temperatures.
Women and Safety
Julianne and the other expat women we work with haven’t had any bad experiences while out and about during the daytime. At night, however, two of our friends decided to walk home from downtown Changsha after 11pm at night. During their walk a man decided to expose himself several times as he would drive ahead of them on his scooter, find a spot that shielded him from all directions except for the two girls, and then he would expose himself . . . fortunately that was all he did. I would NOT recommend female expats walk anywhere alone late at night as the risks are too great. Add to that that from readings on other blogs I’ve learned that there is a general cultural pattern in China of looking the other way when some kind of violence or bad event is happening. One cannot rely on the fact that they’re in a busy area and that people passing by will help let alone late at night when there is hardly anyone out and about.
I forgot to mention that during the daytime women generally just have to tolerate being stared at . . . and stared at . . . and stared at for long periods of time.
Bring everything with you–EVERYTHING! Work visa, copy of contract, passport, Foreign Expert permit, your home banking information: account number, transit number, address of the bank . . . and anything else you can think of. Do NOT go alone when opening a bank account–go with a Chinese friend or co-worker. Expect everything to take a long time to do.
Transferring money home . . . ask what the daily limit is for converting Chinese yuan into your home country currency. Ask what the daily limit is for sending money home to your account. Ask what the fees are for converting money into your currency, and what the fee is for sending money home.
Apparently there is an income/salary declaration form you can get your visa sponsor/boss to fill out that allows you more freedom with sending money home.
Do not take large amounts of cash out of ATM’s at night and if you need to get cash out try and do it in more upscale and busy areas. Also, don’t leave cash lying around in your apartment in plain sight. It’s likely that others may have copies of the keys to your apartment and undisclosed visits may be made while you are at work or traveling or just out. Add to that that break-ins seem to be a common problem (there are bars covering the windows of most apartments in China) and you should find a nice little hiding place for any cash and valuables that you keep in your apartment.
Basically I’d say the following thing about hospitals: if you don’t have to go . . . DON’T GO! Read this post of mine about a trip to a hospital that Julianne and I experienced.
Julianne and I never got around to checking out a place called the “Global Doctor Changsha Clinic.” Here’s the contact info we found online if you want to check it out. I imagine it costs a lot more but if the medical and hygiene standards are near or at western levels and the doctor speaks good English I imagine you’ll pay the extra happily.
|Tel:||+ 86 731 523 0250Hunan 2nd People’s Hospital
No 427, Furong Rd (M)
Otherwise if it’s an emergency or you have no other choice you will end up going to one of the hospitals in Changsha. Get a Chinese friend or colleague to go with you to translate. Expect that there will be no privacy whatsoever and that translations of information/diagnosis and other things might not be accurate and/or possible.
In other words–don’t go if you don’t have to go.
There is a “Stomatological Hospital” in downtown Changsha that a friend of ours went to and she says it was clean and had good hygiene practice, and that the dentist she worked with had fairly good English and knew what he was doing. Also, the fees were
reasonable UPDATE: I was reminded tonight by the friend who went to the hospital that compared with dental fees back in America that she felt that the fees were incredibly low compared with the ‘thousands of dollars’ she would have paid back home.
Leisure and Recreation
Before moving to Changsha Julianne and I spent our last year in South Korea living in the center of Seoul . . . so Changsha . . . didn’t really do much for us in terms of leisure and recreation as we had to adjust ‘a little.’
That being said there is a fair bit to do inside Changsha: Kaifu Temple, Walking street shopping area, Giant Mao head on Orange Island on the Xiang river, Martyr’s Park and lakes, Xiang river walkways, Yuelu Mountain (bird zoo (very depressing), Changsha Window of The World (didn’t go), Changsha Seaworld (didn’t go), Embroidery Museum (didn’t go), Taoist temple, Hunan Botanical Gardens and animal zoo (very depressing), and more.
If you make friends with Chinese teachers and (if you teach university/college) students you’ll gain access to activities and traveling in a much easier fashion. Be a little wary of Chinese people who approach you on the street as there are common scams that native English speakers fall for like invitations to a tea room and afterwards the prices suddenly skyrocket and a couple of large boys appear to intimidate you into paying, etc. Do a Google search to find out more about these scams–and avoid them!
Nightlife and Clubs/Bars
I really can’t comment much on this aspect of Changsha because Julianne and I don’t do the clubbing/bar scene (not regulary, anyways, lol). For some stories about clubbing/bar hopping in Changsha I’d suggest reading this blog. You’ll have to scroll back a bit through his posts but there are several funny and well written INSANE stories there.
The one blog entry I do have about going to a pool hall/bar can be read here.
One thing I have experienced (this was after the pool hall night was over) is that getting a taxi after 12am can be hell with so many other people trying to get home too! Keep this in mind when you’re out late at night.
Chinese Food and Restaurants
Julianne and I eat at about six different restaurants fairly regularly and most of the time have not had any problems with the food. If you go out to eat and don’t speak Changsha-nese or Mandarin make sure you bring a phrasebook with you or if you have an iPod download a translation app. If you don’t like what I call ‘nuclear-spicy’ food make sure you repeat several times to the waiter/waitress that you don’t want your dishes to be spicy and show them the translation too. You should still expect your dishes to have some ‘heat’ to them but for the most part–if the server understood–you can expect your dishes to not be too spicy.
Let me stress one more time that you should make extra efforts to be understood when asking for dishes not to be spicy–Hunan province dishes are what I would call ‘chemical burn’ level intensity!
Until you learn the basics of ordering and general restaurant culture it’s a good idea to go with a Chinese co-worker or friend (or expat who speaks Chinese–thank you Amy!) during your first few forays into Chinese restaurants. Bring an English-Chinese dictionary with you, or iPod with translation app, so that you can help your Chinese friend with vocabulary and expressions they may not know.
If you order it, you pay for it–this is something I really dislike about food and restaurant culture in China but it is what it is. Recently I ordered a Coke while out with friends and got a glass of ice water with a small splash of Coke in it. I sent it back twice and each time it was ridiculously watered down–and I still had to pay for it. If I’d been alone or just with Julianne I probably would have argued the point but I could see that the two younger native teachers I was with would have been mortified if I did that so I just let it go. I’ve read on other blogs about this particular aspect of restaurant culture in China and how even Chinese people pretty much have to yell and scream if the service/food is crap and they don’t want to pay for it . . . and as a foreigner with no legal rights in China it’s probably better if you just ‘take one for the team’ and let it go if this happens to you–that, and never eat at the place again and tell all your friends not to go too.
After reading several news stories and blogs about food safety issues in China I have been a bit wary of eating anything from them. That being said, Julianne and I have bought meat on a stick a few times and not had anything terrible happen to our digestive systems. We also get egg-canape-style things at a vendor and haven’t had many problems either. If many Chinese people are buying from the vendor then it’s likely okay to eat there–if not, you’re taking a risk that you’ll be sitting on the porcelain throne for several hours.
Traveling by train
I cannot speak from personal experience about traveling by train but I have heard several stories from friends, colleagues, and students. If you choose to travel by train during any of the major holidays in China be prepared for the most insane train experience of your life (the only place I’ve heard more crazy stories about is India)–if you don’t believe me Google “Golden week traveling by train in China” or “Lunar new year traveling by train in China” and look at the pictures!
Bring snacks and drinks with you and keep your eyes on them at all times! Expect that someone will likely be in your bed or seat if you buy a ticket that comes with one and that you’ll have to force them (politely but VERY firmly) to move. Expect that it will be noisy and packed on the train. Expect that the toilets will not be clean and that they will be squatters. Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. If you decide you’ll be able to buy food on the train expect it to be things like chicken feet and other Chinese foods that may not be to your taste. Expect that sleeping on the train may not be possible due to snoring neighbors, loud children, talking, etc.
Expect that getting to the train station may/likely won’t be easy, and expect that getting from the train station to wherever you’re traveling to also won’t be easy–especially if you don’t speak the regional dialect let alone Mandarin. Also expect that the travel time may not be as advertised on your ticket and can take hours longer than you expect.
Traveling by plane
In terms of traveling I think this is the best option based on what I’ve heard and read from expats in China with more experience. Departure and arrival times are for the most part on schedule. The general safety of your luggage is much better than on a train too. Depending on when you buy tickets for long distance trips within China the cost of train ticket versus a plane ticket can make taking a plane seem a lot better too. Also, the seats on a plane compared to a train . . . well, from what I hear there’s no comparison.
In general it seems like native English teachers get put in good apartments–for inside China. “For inside China” is an expression that if it’s your first time living and teaching overseas you’ll likely hear a lot and begin to say yourself. Relative to the average living space of Chinese people, native English teachers have it pretty damn good.
You can expect, however, some of the following things.
Rolling blackouts (click here for a story) during the summer when air conditioners are running on full blast. Make sure to back up work on your computer regularly, and have power surge protection on your power bars.
You will have to purchase canisters of natural gas regularly for hot water and cooking on a gas range.
Noise pollution will become a regular part of your life inside your apartment. Scooters, cars, trucks, buses all passing nearby will honk and honk and honk and HONK . . . and, of course, if you have any schools nearby expect to hear a lot of noise early in the morning, at lunch, and when school lets out.
Check the air conditioner/heating unit vents when you move in because they’ll likely not have been cleaned in . . . well, probably not since they were installed.
Buy some rolls of wide packing tape and seal off window seams and glass door seams to help keep it warm or cool inside the apartment. Be careful how you do this, though, as there are safety issues for not allowing any air flow throughout your apartment.
Bugs and mice/rats may be a problem in your apartment.
Drinking water — we purchased a small water cooler and 40 tickets for 5 gallon barrels of water replacements for 400 yuan (prices will vary).
Curtains may or may not block out light enough for you to sleep. Julianne and I bought some thick sheets of paper and taped them up over our bedroom windows as we didn’t want to shell out big bucks for thick curtains and/or blinds.
Make sure to keep your apartment door locked at all times because all too often in China people will knock and then open the door at the same time if not before knocking. Also, the quality of the lock on your door, and even the door knob (our’s fell off!) may not be good so you might want to invest in a new lock on the inside or something along those lines.
What to pack before coming to China
1. Medicine – cold medicines, cold/flu/cough medicine, diarrhea medicine, anti-nausea medicine, Neosporin, Neo-Citran (Canada) or Thera-flu (America)
NOTE: Birth control – your particular kind of birth control may be very difficult/impossible to find inside China so bring a year’s supply (or 6 months and have a friend or family member ship you another 6 months later). That being said, cost of medications is pretty cheap here so if you can find a type you’re happy with it won’t cost you much.
NOTE 2: Google for news stories about condoms and quality control in China–and then seriously reconsider whether or not you’ll buy/use them. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
2. Bed sheets – Sheets are not common in department stores and those you find are expensive yet low quality.
3. Film – If you’re an ‘old school’ photographer it may take you time to find a place that sells film.
4. Spices – If you love to cook you can find quite a few spices (at Metro or Carrefour) but there will be some that are impossible or very expensive to buy.
5. Clothing, shoes, sandals – Between counterfeit stuff and the risks of being swindled while shopping it’s just safer to bring what you need with you. Sizes are also an issue too if you’re anything above a western size SMALL back home.
6. English teaching books and resources – Very hard to find and very expensive when you do find them.
7. English novels and leisure reading – Very hard to find and very expensive when you do find them. Also, very limited range of choices. If you have an e-reader you can download titles (though your Net speed may also be slow) and this is one way to deal with the issue.
8. For men and shaving – If you prefer shaving with a blade be prepared to have to spend some money each month. Gillette Turbo packs of blades run 89 yuan each. To put that in perspective a large plate of noodles at a restaurant costs 10-12 yuan so you could go out to eat 9-10 times for the price of one pack of disposable blades. Bring an electric razor with you and you’ll save a lot of money each month.
9. For women – If you’re endowed with a large bust you will want to bring a good supply of bras with you.
10. Deodorant! Bring at least a 6 month supply with you and if you don’t know for sure that a friend/family member can resupply you bring an entire year’s worth.
Well, that’s all for now . . . if and when I think of other things I’ll add them to this post. Any expats living and teaching in Changsha/China who think of things I’ve missed, or if you think I’ve misrepresented something or have an error, please write a comment.
For newbies coming to Changsha–good luck!