It may have a history stretching back 3,000 years, but Beijing is fast becoming today’s modern ‘it’ city. With amazingly fast internet, access to cutting-edge technology like facial recognition software, significant investment in artificial intelligence and an unrivalled cosmopolitan energy, China’s capital is among the most exciting cities for enterprising expats.
“‘If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere’,” said German expat Clemens Sehi, referencing Frank Sinatra’s ode to New York City. “If Sinatra lived today, he would probably sing about a city like Beijing.” Sehi, who is creative director at Travellers Archive, says living in the city means you feel like you are “living in the new age” and always up to date.
“There’s a general feeling of being at the centre of something big, which is quite hard to put your finger on but which keeps a lot of expats there for a long time,” said Simon Norton, originally from England but who recently lived in Beijing and blogged about his experiences at 4Corners7Seas. “They want to see where it goes, and be there when it gets there.”
Why do people love it?
The city’s quick, high-quality internet and tech-friendly environment have made everyday living easier than ever before. “Beijing is quickly transforming into a cashless society and the internet integrates the functions of the traditional wallet into smartphones, making it easier for everyone to do many transactions,” said Andy Peñafuerte, originally from Manila and deputy editor of Beijing Kids.
But smartphones are just the beginning for Beijing’s tech ambitions. Facial recognition software is already widespread, and many apps use the technology to allow bank transfers and payments, enable building access to apartments and offices, and even verify that ride-hailed drivers are who they say they are. The city also recently announced its intentions to build a 13.8 billion yuan AI technology park, which will be home to more than 400 businesses focused on developing artificial intelligence technologies in everything from biometrics to self-driving cars.
Though the latest tech has its perks, old-fashioned food can also be the way to new residents’ hearts and an easy way to make local friends. “You get to know the dim sum guy on the corner,” Sehi said. And the flavours can’t be beaten. “The amazing jiaozi [Chinese dumplings] from the vendor between the station and my apartment in the mornings absolutely blew my mind every time,” Norton said.
Food is also at the heart of many of the big Chinese festivals that occur throughout the year, and expats recommend joining the celebrations. The Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, which lasts a few days in February this year, is the most important social and economic holiday and one of the easiest for expats to get involved with. “I recommend offering help to Chinese friends to prepare for the festival. Cleaning the apartment is just as important as decorating it with red paper scrolls on the door and New Year congratulations written on them,” Sehi said. “On the eve of the Chinese New Year, all family members gather for a sumptuous feast and then stay up until midnight to greet the New Year with colourful and loud fireworks. Being in the company of friends and family on this night is a real door opener for expats.”
What’s it like living there?
Beijing has a large and growing expat population, but Chinese language barriers and the ease of connecting with other expats can easily become an excuse to not fully integrate into the local culture.
“Some expatriates have lived in China for many years, but have hardly experienced their host country,” Sehi said. “If your first attempts to get in touch with Chinese people have been less-than successful, you can easily get the feeling it might be easier to spend time with other foreigners.” In these so-called ‘expat bubbles’, foreigners stick together in their own neighbourhoods, eat out in Western restaurants and only have non-Chinese friends.
The simplest way to combat this is to learn a little bit of Mandarin – and it’s easier than people might think. “One or two hours of private Chinese lessons per week or beginner radio plays in Chinese should fit into everyone’s busy schedule,” Sehi said. Even a few standard phrases are helpful for shopping, ordering in restaurants or making small talk in a taxi.
Understanding the basics of Chinese social culture also goes a long way, especially the concepts of guanxi and mianzi. “Guanxi is nurturing connections with locals, while mianzi is making sure that you give them ‘face’ or reputation, in other words, not embarrassing them in any way possible,” said Peñafuerte. “In the Western world, people might be accustomed to straightforward talk. In China, however, locals value their reputation. Being arrogant and making them feel insecure are a big no-no and you might end up being the talk of the town.”
What else do I need to know?
A part of fitting into the local culture is not being afraid to be a little bit aggressive. “If you're not… you'll definitely get pushed around,” said Mikey Wu, originally from San Francisco and blogger at WuWuLife.
This advice especially applies when shopping. “Haggle for everything! Unless it's a legitimate establishment, always bargain,” Wu said. “The price is never what it is. Doubt what you are buying, because 70% of the time someone may be trying to cheat you.”
Stubborn air pollution is also a daily fact of life here, though government efforts have curbed some of the problem in recent years. Residents stress the importance of getting outside in the warmer months when the pollution tends to be lighter, and taking those blue-sky days as opportunities to wander the historic hutongs (residential alley districts) or explore the popular Ritan Park, home to the Ming dynasty-era Temple of the Sun.
“Beijing is the Chinese city with the most to discover below the surface,” Norton said. “Good arts and music scenes, bonkers nightlife, historical wonders, ultra-modern business districts and rickety old alleyway districts.”