I wrote an article about Beijing for the expat magazine Tales from a Small Planet (registration required), which I’m republishing here.

Where is your home base, and how long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? My home base is Seattle. There are easy 12-hour nonstops on both Hainan Airlines and Delta Airlines several days a week. Air China also has a daily nonstop to Vancouver with an easy connection to Seattle on Air Canada (you pre-clear US Customs in Vancouver, which saves time). Major Chinese international carriers have excellent safety records and fly new, modern aircraft. I am comfortable flying them. Beijing is Asia’s busiest airport and there really isn’t anywhere you can’t get from here.

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country? If you enjoy Chinese culture and want to learn more about Chinese history, there is no better place than Beijing. It’s the capital and there are thousands of years of history here. Beijing is a great home base for exploring China and the rest of Asia. Nearly every country in the world has an embassy here, so it’s relatively easy (though rarely cheap for US passport holders) to get visas. With the incredible air, rail and bus connections here, it’s easy to find a change of scenery. All of the Western conveniences are available here (at roughly European prices), but you can live really inexpensively here if you want to. I traded my $200 car payment (and roughly the same amount spent on gasoline a month) for a clean, fast and efficient subway commute that costs only 60 cents a day roundtrip.

What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country? Oh, too many to list! Dancing while the sun comes up on a beach in front of the Great Wall with over a thousand people enjoying listening to some of the top DJs in Asia. Ringing in the New Year in a former Communist weapons factory packed with thousands of revelers and the most ridiculous sound system I’ve ever seen. Being instantly befriended by a bunch of college students in Tianjin and taken on a whirlwind tour of that city after riding there on a bullet train. Riding in a Beijing taxi at 2:00 in the morning listening to gangster rap, which the driver perfectly mimics (while understanding none of the lyrics). Having dinner with friends in a restaurant while a gang fight goes down in the room next door and pretending not to notice (eventually one of the gangsters came over and apologized–in perfect English–for the disturbance). Waking up every morning and looking out the window at the Confucius Temple, then walking through a narrow hutong alleyway that looks like it is straight out of a movie, but this is actually just my everyday life and it’s just my normal commute. Going to the little foreigners’ shop—you know, kind of like the Chinese or Indian market back at home: small selection, jammed shelves—except that it’s all full of American stuff because the tables are turned and you’re the foreigner buying weird stuff now. Too many more to list, and I’ve only been here a year!

What is the air quality like (good, moderate, unhealthy, or very unhealthy, with comments)? It’s actually all of these. Occasionally the air is clear and you can see the mountains. The clearest day here is like a pretty bad air day in Seattle. Usually the air quality (according to the US Embassy) ranges from unhealthy to very unhealthy. Sometimes it gets off-the-charts hazardous. The embassy described it as “Crazy Bad” when this happened just before Thanksgiving, which just about sums it up. Most of the time the air quality isn’t very good, so you don’t want to spend a lot of time outside. To give you an idea of how bad it is when it’s really bad, you’ll blow your nose after an hour outside and it comes out black. There is nothing anywhere in the US or really developed Western countries that could even so much as give you a point of reference for how bad the air quality can get here. So, don’t come here if your lungs are sensitive or you have asthma. On bad days, I lock myself in my bedroom with my Ionic Pro Turbo and I have to clean it every day (normally you have to clean it once a month).

What is the climate like? Weather patterns? Ridiculously cold winters, and very dry (it’s near the Gobi Desert, folks). You will need humidifiers in every room, and if you go to sleep without running one, you’ll wake up with a bloody nose. In spring there are crazy dust storms that blow sand in from the Gobi, and you can’t even see across the street sometimes. Summer is very hot and humid, just like most places in Asia. Fall is the best time to visit, but it’s really short (only 6 weeks or so).

What kind of insect problems are there, if any? Lots of mosquitoes in the summer (some places worse than others), also cockroaches and ants. There is no malaria here, though.

Are there any special security concerns? Beijing is the capital city of the world’s largest population and second largest economy. There are definitely special security concerns, but they generally won’t affect you. The Chinese government maintains excellent security in Beijing. I feel safe everywhere here. That being said, petty crime and small-time scams can be a problem in tourist areas.

Housing types, locations, commute time? Let me start by saying that housing is a nightmare in Beijing. The real estate market in China is white-hot (think California in 2005) and people are buying to flip. This is beginning to have a major impact on rents. Many landlords would prefer to leave a unit empty for months, hoping for an inflated rental rate, rather than set a reasonable price and rent their unit right away. So, you’ll see a huge amount of overpriced inventory and a limited amount of reasonably priced inventory that disappears almost immediately. Having a good agent is your only hope of finding anything reasonable. My transitional housing allowance ran out, and I ended up in a hotel for a couple of weeks before I eventually found a (not perfect) place because the housing situation is just that ridiculous. Start looking early and negotiate for 90 days of transitional housing in your relocation package if you can. So, let’s talk prices and areas. Most foreigners live in the Shunyi suburbs or on the east side of Beijing in the Chaoyang district. Shunyi looks like an American suburb, soulless and corporate. Families with small kids and embassy personnel like it. And that’s great for them, and I wish them well. You’ll need a car if you live there (although there is a new subway line park-and-ride that just opened last month, so commuting on public transportation is now an option for suburbanites). Rental prices start at around USD $3,000 per month and go up from there. Many other foreigners live in a few “international standard” complexes: Seasons Park, Central Park, Park Avenue, and a couple of others. These were built by US, Hong Kong, or European developers, and have international management companies. Corridors are bright and well-lit, elevators always work (and don’t have blaring advertisements outside). When something breaks you have an English-speaking management office to call, and someone competent will come fix it. And your apartment will be equipped with all the stuff you expect: stove, oven, coffeemaker, nice microwave oven, washer and dryer, etc. Of course, this comes at a price. You’ll pay upwards of $1,500 for a 2 bedroom. Okay, so you can’t afford that. You can try a Chinese “international” complex. These are usually Chinese developers and Chinese management companies. The management office may have someone who speaks English, but more likely not. Chinese companies usually have different standards of maintenance than American or European companies, and different ideas of what is acceptable. Be prepared for this. Some of these buildings are quite nice; Boya Garden, for example, has a Chinese management company but it was originally built by a French developer, so the amenities are good, and the Chinese company has maintained the building reasonably well (although the paint is peeling). Other buildings, not so much – Phoenix City is visibly falling apart and it’s only a couple of years old. You generally cannot expect the same amenities in a Chinese building as you can in an international complex. The kitchen will likely be tiny, and will not have an oven (make sure the thing that looks like an oven isn’t actually a dish drying rack). Electric clothes dryer? No way! You’ll have a balcony built into your apartment where you can hang your laundry for 3 days in the frigid winter until it dries. In a Chinese building, you’ll pay anywhere from somewhat less to considerably less depending how “local” the complex is. I am living in an entirely local, and older, but high-end building in the central Dongcheng district. I choose to live in a more local building and neighborhood since I wanted a better commute and a more historical area to live in. It’s away from the “expat bubble” and this limits my social life, but I don’t have much of one anyway in between work and Chinese lessons. Customarily, apartments are furnished, but everything is negotiable. I hated my landlord’s furniture (it was used and broken) and negotiated for him to get rid of most of it, and I paid lower rent since I’m buying my own furniture (cheap IKEA stuff – I can buy a whole house full of furniture for less than the differential in 3 months’ rent). Generally you will deal with an agent to find an apartment. They will not charge you a commission, but the landlord pays them a commission of an entire month’s rent. This in effect builds an automatic rent increase into the second year’s rent since they will be charging you as if the commission is bundled, but it will no longer be. So, you may be able to get a better deal if you pay the commission to the agent. Finally, you may need a fa piao (official invoice) if you have a housing package and want to claim the expense. Even if you don’t have a housing package, your tax situation can benefit by having a fa piao. You’re exempt from income tax on up to 30% of your income upon presentation of a fa piao proving rent payment in that amount. This is no small savings – you’ll save a minimum of 5% and up to 40% income tax depending on your tax bracket.

International schools: There are international schools, and parents here have the same complaints about the schools as they do anywhere else in the world (with some unusual ones like one school where a kid was run over on the playground by an Audi – no, I have no idea what it was doing there). I don’t have kids, so if you do, do your research. I’ve heard that the Chinese government allows children of foreigners to attend local schools, and this can be much less expensive than the private international schools.

Preschool/daycare available: These are available but very expensive.

What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids? No idea. China isn’t a great place to be for someone with disabilities or special needs.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples? Yes, for all of these. It’s a very diverse city and there is something for everyone.

From what you have heard, is it a good city for gay or lesbian expats? I am gay. There is a small but growing scene here. The government seems to be coming to grips with this and trying to figure out how to manage it – they don’t seem to particularly want to suppress it, but they also don’t want Beijing’s image tarnished by lots of public cruising or bathhouse orgies. A cruisy park and bathhouse were both busted this summer. So far, the happy medium has been Destination, the nexus of gay nightlife in Beijing. A couple of new gay bars just opened, and I expect they will be successful. There isn’t nearly as much gay culture here as other cities of Beijing’s size, although there is a very big arts scene and I expect that the two may intersect at some point in the future, when there is more clarity from the local authorities on what is legally acceptable.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices? Yes, definitely. You are laowai, and while Chinese are unfailingly polite in business and in friendships, you will never be one of them.

What difficulties would someone with physical disabilities have living in this city? Beijing made great strides toward accessibility during the 2008 Olympics, and major tourist sites and transportation hubs in Beijing are accessible. However, some of the infrastructure that was put in for the Olympics hasn’t been maintained since the events ended. There’s a big difference between being a tourist and living here, though. I don’t recommend living in Beijing if you are physically challenged; daily life requires an awful lot of stairs.

Interesting/fun things to do in the area: Great Wall, 798 Art Zone, the Summer Palace, Beijing’s many parks, the Forbidden City (which is worth seeing once or twice), Zhongguancun Electronics City, and … honestly, my favorite thing to do here is to take the subway somewhere I have never been and just wander around. There is as much diversity among the neighborhoods here as there is in New York. It’s a really incredible place and you’ll never get bored if you have a sense of adventure.

Are gyms or workout facilities available? Yes, most of the high-end expat buildings have these. There are some private clubs as well, but beware: these sometimes go out of business with little or no notice, even if you just paid your annual fee yesterday. In cash, of course, because that is how you pay for everything here. Sue them? Hmm, maybe you can try. Good luck with that.

Are sports programs available for kids? There are soccer moms in Beijing just like anywhere in the US.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range? American chains McDonald’s, Burger King, Fatburger, KFC and DQ are all here. Except for McDonald’s and KFC, they all cost $1 to $2 more than the same thing would cost in the US. KFC is cheap but has a very different menu than the US. McDonald’s has a localized menu as well, but they have many American favorites (the Big Mac) and things cost $1-$2 less at McDonald’s here vs. the US. There are plenty of other great restaurants as well – Chinese people love to eat out, and being here in the capital, you can sample any type of Chinese cuisine from anywhere in the country. You could eat at a different restaurant every meal every day for 3 years and maybe sample 10% of the restaurants in Beijing. Chinese food is cheap, too, you can go with 10 people to dinner and the bill comes to maybe $3 each with drinks.

What is the availability (and the relative cost) of groceries and household supplies? Everyone says “you can get anything here.” This is true, except for Ivory soap. And what they don’t say is “…and it’ll cost you.” At the market around the corner from me, milk is $12 per gallon, butter is $1.50 per stick, and at Wal-Mart cheese costs $7 for a small block of Land O’ Lakes cheddar. Extrapolate accordingly. Obviously, your average Beijing resident who makes $600 a month isn’t paying these prices, they just eat entirely different things, some of which newly arriving Americans would consider weird and alien. You’ll either need to change your habits (and lower your standards – Chinese products are not the same quality you’ll be used to) or pay through the nose.

What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc? China is very modern, but is still a developing country. You may be able to find this stuff, but good luck.

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs? This is mostly a cash economy, although an increasing number of merchants are taking local credit cards. The credit card system here is called Union Pay, and merchants need a separate machine to take Visa, MasterCard, etc. Most of them won’t have this, so until you have a local bank account, you’ll need to be prepared to pay cash. Many ATMs do not take foreign cards. Bank of China, HSBC and Citibank ATMs work with foreign cards reliably. Of the three, I trust HSBC the most. ATMs are sometimes stocked with counterfeit bills, and you have no recourse if you are cheated. For this reason, I always use the same ATM in the lobby of my office; it is always stocked with brand new fresh uncirculated bills.

What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of rugged terrain, lack of parts and service, local restrictions, duties, carjackings, etc? Don’t bring a car here. The paperwork is an incredible hassle and you won’t be able to get parts for it (foreign-branded cars are manufactured through local joint ventures and have different designs in China even though they look the same). Beijing recently implemented a new system that makes it incredibly difficult to get a number plate. As a result, you will have great difficulty buying a car here. If you do get one, your reward is joining traffic-clogged streets that make LA rush hour traffic look fast. Take the subway or ride a bicycle (or electric bike) if you want to get anywhere.

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable? Trains and subways are safe, fast and efficient—although often very crowded. Taxis are sort of safe; drivers are very aggressive here and do not follow the rules of the road that you may be used to. Petty crime is common on buses. One time when I rode one, a fight broke out and the driver locked all the doors, not letting anyone off the bus until the police came. Transportation is affordable. You can ride a taxi for 2.5km for $1.50. After that, it’s a 15-cent fuel tax and then 30 cents for each additional km. This is the most expensive option. The subway is 30 cents (this will get you anywhere in the system, well over 100km of track) and buses cost 6 cents.

Do you have any recommendations regarding cell phones? China Mobile has the best coverage but they don’t have international standard 3G service (it’s a local Chinese standard that only works in China with Chinese phones). China Unicom has far worse coverage but uses the same 3G international standard that AT&T does. China Telecom runs a network using the same 3G technology Verizon and Sprint do in the US, but you can’t bring your phone from home and use it here (except through roaming, which is very expensive). You will have to buy a local one if you go with China Telecom. I use China Unicom and the service is anywhere from bad to awful, but it’s a job requirement that I have a world phone, so I don’t have any choice.

How do you get and send your letters and package mail? The company has a lot of people traveling back and forth to headquarters, so I usually send things back with colleagues to mail, or have them bring me things when they visit. The local mail is inexpensive, honest and reliable, but you have to go to the post office in person to mail packages. This takes a long time because post offices are very busy (like everything in Beijing).

Items you would ship to this post if you could do it again? Drain cleaner. I haven’t found it here yet. Otherwise, I did pretty well – I made a big Costco run before I left and bought a bunch of stuff I knew I couldn’t easily find here or was prohibitively expensive (camping food and supplies, glow sticks, everything electronic I could possibly want for the next 2 years, good quality paper towels and toilet paper, spices). One thing I have had a heck of a time finding is an electric frying pan to make pancakes, so if you like pancakes, bring one of those. For the most part, it isn’t that you can’t find it here, it’s that when you do, you won’t want to pay $4 for a roll of paper towels even though they’re good and work and the local ones are terrible and don’t. Bring any supply of medication with you (prescription and non-prescription) that you will need for the length of your assignment. There are problems with counterfeit drugs and you may have trouble finding what you want (especially Pepto-Bismol).

Availability and cost of domestic help: My apartment came with a housekeeper. She’s worked here for the past 7 years for the previous 3 tenants and already had a key so just assumed she worked for me now. She is cheap (works for $3 per hour with a 4-hour minimum) and only expects to come once a week, and she’ll do things like come during the day and wait for deliveries. Seems to be honest, too. I am still not sure that I really need someone to do my laundry for me and clean my house, but that’s just an example of how cheap and available domestic help is, I guess.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living? You can get by without knowing any, because most signage is in English and Chinese. You won’t make many Chinese friends or get close to the culture, though. After 6 months of living here without language skills, I’m now spending 10 hours a week taking Chinese lessons. It’s sufficiently disruptive and isolating not to speak the language to merit this much of a time investment.

English-language religious services available? Denominations? Yes, just about anything you can think of is available here. However, I’ve been told that Chinese people are not allowed to attend religious services with foreigners and you have to bring your passport to church. I am not religious myself, so you’re advised to double-check this locally.

English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost? Global Times is the communist party’s newspaper. It costs 30 cents and runs a lot of local interest articles, some of which are pretty controversial. It’s important to note that the party isn’t the government; there are many factions, and the Global Times is left-leaning. China Daily is the official government newspaper, staid, dry and conservative. GDP is the big story, every day, inexorably marching to the moon and stratosphere in a great harmonious society, and by the way, won’t you visit Wenzhou, too? Here’s a dry profile about how they manufacture butane lighters. You can obviously tell which I like better. Some free-to-air satellite channels are available, although I think having a dish is technically illegal (there are tons of them everywhere, so this isn’t enforced if it is). Programming comes mostly from the Philippines. I don’t have a TV, so I don’t really care. The Chinese government has an English-language TV station called CCTV 9. It is very special. CCTV 9 is legendary in expat circles. Hope you packed your Pepto.

Is high-speed internet access available? Cost? There is a 10Mbps service shared with the entire building for $18.25 per month. I have this, but I also subscribed to my own 2Mbps ADSL line for $24.25 per month (so I have two connections in the apartment). Between the two, I have enough bandwidth to do what I want. Keep in mind I’m a very heavy Internet user and work in the high tech industry, and this is barely enough. Speeds are variable depending on the time of day – in Beijing, the Internet has traffic jams just like the streets. You will need a VPN to access YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and many other sites outside China.

Size of expat community: There won’t be official numbers until the census results are out later this year, but official estimates are over 100,000. Keep in mind that nearly every country in the world maintains an embassy here, so many of these people are embassy personnel from small Asian and African countries. There are probably around 20,000-30,000 people from English-speaking developed countries. This includes a mix of students, professionals and embassy personnel.

Morale among expats: Depends on the expat. Some people are amazed every day that they are here, some can’t wait to leave. Sometimes it’s the same people and a different day of the week.

Are there decent job opportunities for expats on the local economy? There are lots of jobs, but at local pay. Ever thought of being a model? You could be one here, and see your picture on the front of thousands of boxes of some product exported all over the world. Chinese companies always have a need for someone to provide English customer service. Or maybe you just want to wear a nice suit and go to a formal dinner where you have no idea what’s going on, but you smile and nod and shake hands and enjoy the very high-end cuisine, and get paid for showing up (some companies just need to have a white guy somewhere for whatever reason). Have a nice voice? Why not try making voice-overs? And of course you can teach English, anything from teaching adorable first graders how to say their names to helping Chinese businessmen improve their conversational English. Now let’s talk about the pay. The average salary in Beijing is $600 per month. If you aren’t working for a multinational company or an embassy, the most you can hope to pull in is about $2,000 per month.

Entertaining/social life: Practically anything you can imagine and lots of things that you can’t. You’ll never want for something to do in Beijing. From wandering the hutong of Nanlouguxiang late at night to dancing all night at the Great Wall to learning great Chinese cooking to trivia nights, the social scene is exciting and vibrant. Or try board games, tea and KTV with your new Chinese friends.

Dress code at work and in public: In my industry, it’s casual, but this is an exception. In China, people consider it important to look professional – suit, tie and slacks are standard professional attire for men, and women wear slacks and a blazer. That being said, as a foreigner you may be able to get away with a lot – people expect foreigners to be different.

Any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available? There is one JCI certified, international standard hospital in Beijing (United Family). It’s very expensive, for some procedures even more expensive than US hospitals, but it’s really your only option if you want the quality of care you’d expect in the US. A handful of international-standard clinics are also available, all much more expensive than local hospitals but more familiar environments. Local hospitals are very cheap, but 70% of people who show up there end up on an intravenous IV antibiotic drip (antibiotics are grossly overused here, to the point it’s scary – you can buy hardcore ones over the counter at the pharmacy). I try to avoid setting foot in any medical facility since I don’t want to be exposed to MRSA or other multi-drug resistant bacteria. The quality of care is OK, but if I could, I’d personally head back to the US, Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore for anything serious. Excellent quality and inexpensive dental and vision care are both available. Take advantage!

Do incoming pets need to be quarantined? One of my co-workers had to quarantine his cat on the way in, but it didn’t have to be quarantined on return to the US.

You can leave behind your: …expectations of traffic rules, propriety, and preference for uncrowded places.

But don’t forget your: Everyone says patience and sense of humor. You will need both of those, but also don’t forget the most important thing: your reason for coming here. This place will test your patience to the limit and then some, so have a really solid reason why you want to be here. Otherwise, after a Bad China Day, you’ll be on the next plane home wondering how to put your life back together.

Can you save money? This really depends on you. If you live in a high-end foreigner complex, eat Western food every day, shop at the foreign market for everything, have an ayi who waits on you hand and foot, insist on either having a car and driver or taking taxis everywhere, and buy lots of consumer stuff, no way. The ayi and taxis are relatively cheap, but you’ll be paying 3-4 times as much for everything in general vs. the US. Oh, and the bars. Many expats, unable to figure out that they’re living in an amazing city of 30 million people with virtually limitless possibilities, drink away their evenings to the tune of several hundred dollars a month (or more). Anyway, just come to accept that you’re not in the US anymore. You can have an American lifestyle here, but will it ever cost you. And it’s totally not worth it. If you’re going to be in China, do things the Chinese way! Take the subway most of the time, use local products, downgrade to a local complex (albeit a nice one), shop at local markets and buy local products, eat mostly Chinese food when you eat out, and take full advantage of your employer’s benefits and reimbursement policy (taking full advantage of your meal allowance and filing for reimbursement for any little thing you’re entitled to claim – it sounds weird, but locals do it so you won’t raise eyebrows). If you’re making a decent salary (more than 10,000 RMB per month), you’ll be truly amazed how quickly the RMB pile up in your bank account.

What unique local items can you spend it on? A society with 1.4 billion people makes few unique things. Settle for things that are definitely Chinese. The best gift I’ve found is silk bathrobes at YaShow market – real pure Chinese silk, very high quality, about $30. There really isn’t much to buy here, though – it’s all the same stuff you can get at Wal-Mart in the US, except lower quality and at higher prices (China has a 17% value added tax, and with incomes so low, the quality of items sold here tends to be either akin to dollar stores or super high end luxury goods). Of course, you can always buy a “Pravda” bag or a “Cucci” watch. If you’re a geek, head to Zhongguancun. The fake (aka “Shanzhai”) iPhones are hilarious, and you can buy incredibly powerful laser pointers with a 2km range.

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there? Ask me again in 6 months. It’s been a blur since I got here (I transferred in at a very busy time in my job, so I’ve spent way too much time at the office) and I’m just finally starting to get my life together and get established here. I’m either going to love this place or hate it in 2 years.

Recommended books related to this city: Any Judge Dee mystery novel you can find. Or all of them.

Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city: There were a lot of DVDs produced for the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party. While they’re in Chinese and hard to find outside of China, there is a lot of great cinematography showing off the city.

Any other comments: Beijing is at the epicenter of one of the most incredible transformations that has ever happened in human history. There are definite challenges and growing pains, along with an exciting new confidence and pride in a nation both young and old. There are skyscrapers juxtaposed with upper-middle-aged couples happily dancing in public squares on warm summer nights. The hyper-modern technology district of Zhongguancun sits side by side with thousand year old hutongs. Belching smokestacks point to smoking tailpipes idling beside orchards tended with donkey carts, with bicyclists always traveling faster than the incessantly honking Audi A6s. Everything in China is layers upon layers of complexity that you can hardly begin to understand, and everything is seemingly contradictory, but uncannily consistent in the context of five thousand years of history. Chinese people are inconsiderate yet warm, pushy yet polite, avaricious yet honest, and always eager with a “can do” attitude except when they’re saying mei you. Sometimes it’s enough to drive you to distraction, and then one of your Chinese friends calls and invites you to dinner just because and you have the most amazing meal of your life, except that you just had that last week, and you could have it every day here.

Never lose sight of how amazing your life can be if you just open your mind to the possibility, and you’ll do fine.