Ask the Yangxifu: What To Consider Before Moving To China

moving to China
Considering a move to China with your Chinese spouse or loved one? Here’s what you should think about first.

Anonymous asks:

The reason I am writing is — why did you not stay and live in China? My Chinese wife says if there is any problem with her actually coming to my home country, then I should come and live there…with her….

I know you are very busy, but if you could give me your impressions, about what I have asked, I would appreciate it.


To move or not to move to China? It’s a dilemma that a lot of cross-cultural couples in China face.

We left China for one major reason — John’s education. Psychology graduate school is better in the US, so we moved here with the goal of getting him into a Ph.D program. The training and education he receives here will put him in a better position to fulfill his longtime dream (to create a “humanistic care center” in China). But, once he’s done, we plan to move back to China — permanently.

For many couples, the answer — and journey — is less obvious. Moving to China permanently is different than a year of teaching English, and poses new questions to a foreigner. Here are a number of issues you should consider before planting your feet in China’s good earth:

Career. How will the move affect your careers? The answer gets complicated when you have one Chinese and one foreigner in the mix.

Usually, foreigners tend to earn more in China than the Chinese do — it’s not fair, and in some cases it’s changing, but it generally remains true. If you, as a foreigner, can find a steady, high-paying job in China, you will probably be the primary breadwinner in the family. While this fits the usual family roles for couples of foreign men – Chinese women, it challenges them for couples of foreign women – Chinese men (and, in some unfortunate cases, drives the Chinese man to leave the relationship, because he cannot stand being overshadowed, monetarily, by his wife). Still, some couples are enlightened enough to adjust to the new family dynamics — for example, Jessica at the Local Dialect is the main provider for her family; up until recently, her husband stayed home with the kids.

For some foreigners, there are no promising career opportunities in China (I recently got an e-mail from a reader mentioning this problem), but there are for your Chinese loved one. What is the right answer in this case? It depends on what you value. If you really value your career, maybe you need to think again about China. If you value your family and relationship more, then you might learn to live with a different kind of job, or even without a job,  instead spending your time taking classes or helping to raise the children.

For your Chinese loved one/spouse, career options can be tricky too. Remember, as I mentioned above, John and I left for the US to get an education — that’s because his degree led to some depressing, low-pay career options. That’s not the case for everyone — but again, Chinese are often sorely underpaid for what they do. It pays (no pun intended) to know your Chinese partner’s industry, and find out what, if anything, you can do to improve his or her career prospects. But, sometimes you have to respect your Chinese loved one’s desire to work, even if their salary cannot match yours.

Visa. In a perfect world, we’d be eligible for a Chinese green card the moment we married a Chinese. In reality, you’re only eligible if you’ve lived continuously in China for five years — and meet certain criteria that leaves some foreigners worried they’ll never get one.

If you work in China, your visa issues are covered. Your employer will provide you with your work visa and permanent residence card.

But what if you’re simply accompanying your husband or wife? Where is that permanent residence card coming from? Foreigners — often freelancers and other creatively employed people — used to lean on “visa agencies” to solve their problems. Not anymore, since China began cracking down on barely legal visa operations. I don’t have any answers, except to say, ask a lawyer (like Dan at the China Law Blog) and hope for the best.

Hospitals. Chances are, hospitals in China are a different experience for you, if you’re a foreigner. Does this mean they’re bad? Not necessarily.

Just like any country, there are hospitals of different quality. Many local Chinese hospitals offer excellent care — on par with what you’d get at these exclusive “expat clinics,” but at a fraction of the cost — especially in larger cities. In fact, in most large cities, you’ll probably find a number of hospitals you’re very happy with, that offer every service you’ll ever need, with quality and even Chinese traditional medical options. I did.

The question gets complicated as you get inland. Large inland cities, such as Chengdu or Xi’an, have good options. Other cities may have less. And others — especially small cities — may not have much at all that you like.

Also, remember — unfortunately — that China squeezed most of its top hospitals into the coastal cities, leaving less to go around for the interior. Before you consider that move, make sure you “take a temperature” on the hospital situation.

Schools. If you choose to raise your children in China, where will you send them to school? No matter what you decide, it’s going to mean paying tuition — because even public schools in China charge parents for attendance.

In the early days, most foreigners just sent their kids to the gated international schools. Many still do. But that may not be your style — or fit your budget.

Fortunately, the past decade in China has meant new choices — from charter schools to even sending your children to local Chinese schools.

Melanie at the Downtown Diner (who also has a Chinese husband) sends her kids to local Chinese schools in Beijing — check out her blog to learn more about her experience (and why she made this decision).

Noise. When you have over 1.3 billion people — most of them crammed into China’s coastal areas — you create a new endangered species: quiet.

Sometimes it’s because of renovation or construction. Sometimes you live next to lao taitais that hold a rousing conversation outside your window, at 6am on a Saturday morning. And sometimes, you have a neighbor that thinks anytime — even the middle of the night — is good for rearranging their living room furniture.

Expensive doesn’t always mean quiet. One of my coworkers in Shanghai struggled with the madness of ear-splitting renovation noise, in what was supposed to be a high-end residence.

The worst offenders, sadly, are sometimes found in the countryside. Whenever I visit my inlaws, the 24/7 drone of diamond saws slicing through marble slabs is the permanent soundtrack for our stay.

This troubles Chinese as much as foreigners. My Chinese husband, in fact, is even more sensitive to noise than I am!

Take the time to choose where you live — carefully. For example, a half-finished residential community probably means a renovation noise nightmare; so does a high-value, older community in the center of the city (where people are either already selling their apartments, or about to, to turn a good profit). Get to know the neighborhood’s characteristics, and then try to choose a place with the best potential for quiet.

But, as long as you live in China, you’ll still have to face the noise, sometimes.

Environment. During 2008, fears of air pollution clogged the presses in the leadup to the Beijing Olympics. Some fears were just exaggeration.

But, one thing is certain — China’s environment has changed since the country opened up, and that change isn’t always good. Smog is a problem. So is water quality — and more.

Pollution levels can vary from city to city. The best thing to do is visit your target city — if you haven’t yet — and find out what the situation is. Don’t just experience it briefly (because the conditions you get on that day may not represent reality) — talk to people who live there throughout the year.

For further reading on the environment in China, the China Environmental Law Blog has an exhaustive list of links to China Environment blogs. And for some really wonkish reading, download the publications from the China Environment Forum at the Woodraw Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.

Real Estate. The exponential rise of real estate prices in most Chinese cities continues to make headlines in China’s papers — and gives many would-be buyers pause, especially in China’s largest cities. While no one is really sure when the bubble will burst, one thing is certain — you’ll probably get less home for your money in China.

You’re also facing life in an apartment, instead of a home with its own yard and grass/garden. Still, that can be one less thing to worry about during the warmer months (if you’re tired of mowing that lawn!) — and, many communities do provide a small green space for walking or that early morning Tai Chi.

Conclusion? From your career to real estate, you’ve got a lot to think about before living in China, permanently. But, many foreigners make China their long-time home, and many more will. Will you be one of them?

Good luck with making your decision. 😉


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

5 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: What To Consider Before Moving To China”

  1. Aww, thank you for the link love! 🙂

    Another thing we considered before we got married was – does my country need me more or does his country need him more? At the time China was suffering from a severe Brain Drain and was heading into a period of rapid economic growth that would hinge on trade with other countries. My husband had a degree in law and business from a Japanese university. It seemed to us that his country really needed him, whereas I didn’t get that same feeling about me and America. I mean, of course my family and friends would love for me to live there and so would I, but was there some unique contribution I would make to the country that no one else could come close to delivering? I didn’t think so.

    So we agreed to live in China, but we spent a few years in the US first so we could both finish graduate school, and so we could have our kids there.

    1. @melanie, thanks for the comment! That is a really thoughtful point about consider the country that needs the spouse more. It’s the reason why John and I are going back to China.

      @ellen, thanks for commenting, and so glad you found the post useful.

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