Expat Tales: Cara Crawford, American Living in China

Welcome to another edition of Expat Tales, where you meet some of the many interesting expats living around the world, and hear their top tips for life as an expat.

This edition we’re talking with Cara Crawford, who moved from the United States to China. I loved reading this interview, as China is about as far from the United States – culturally, geographically, linguistically – as you can get, and Cara shares some great tips for adapting to a life that was far different to what she was used to.

Name: Cara Crawford
Originally from: Doylestown, Pennsylvania, USA
Now living in: Zhuhai, China

What brought you to Zhuhai, China?

I moved to Zhuhai, China for my husband’s job. He was working as a chemical engineer in the U.S. and his company asked for volunteers to move to China and open up a new factory. My husband has always wanted to live outside of the U.S. so we figured if we didn’t say yes to this the opportunity might never come around again.

Is this your first expat experience?

Yes, this was my first expat experience.

Zhuhai is a city of 1.5 million people in China, and where American Cara Crawford spent 4 years as an expat

What do you do for a living?

In the U.S. I worked as an animal technician. When we moved to China for my husband’s job, I was a trailing spouse on a spousal visa and was not allowed to work in China.

Instead, I studied Mandarin Chinese and did some odd jobs such as pet sitting, photography, and later teaching beginner Chinese lessons as well as building up my travel blog.

How easy is it to live in Zhuhai? Is it easy to get a visa to live in China?

Zhuhai is rated as “China’s most livable city” mostly for its “clean air” and location (on the ocean right next to Macau and Hong Kong). I put clean air in quotation marks because, of course, this is in comparison to other Chinese cities. As Zhuhai grows every year, the smog gets worse and worse in the winter time.

In terms of the cost of living in China, location and general quality of life, Zhuhai is very easy to live in. However, because it’s a small city by Chinese standards (population 1.5 million), not many people speak English so the language barrier is tough. Because Zhuhai is located in Guangdong Province, most local people’s first language is Cantonese, not Mandarin, which makes communication that much more difficult. It’s not uncommon to go to a local market and find sellers that can’t speak Mandarin (the common Chinese language) let alone English.

Of course, I know many expats who never learned much Chinese and get along just fine, but learning the language is a huge help in making you feel at home here.

China is about as different of a country as they come compared to what we are used to in the West. The culture shock is real, and it usually takes people a good six months to adjust to living here. Basically, you can take just about all the social norms you’re used to from home and throw them out the window. In China you can spit in the street, have an absurdly loud conversation on your phone in a restaurant, and cut in front of people in line no questions asked. Life in China takes a lot of getting used to, but that’s part of what makes it so fun and exciting. You’ll hardly ever get bored here!

The best part of living in China, for me, was the opportunity to travel both within China and around Asia. Coming from the U.S., Asia is simply too far away to make it worth travelling to on any kind of regular basis. But, being based in China, especially in Zhuhai where I was close to so many major airports (Zhuhai, Macau, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou airports were all within a 2-hour drive from my apartment) it was cheap and easy to explore all the incredible places around China and Southeast Asia.

Living in China gave expat Cara Crawford an opportunity to explore a lot of Asia

I’ve also loved learning about a new and fascinating culture, even if some of it still seems crazy to me even after four years here. If you keep an open mind, China is truly a playground of new experiences. I not only studied the language, but tried out different Chinese medicine practices such as acupuncture and cupping, went to tea ceremonies, took calligraphy lessons, and, of course, learned to cook all sorts of delicious Chinese dishes. You could easily spend a decade in China and not see and experience everything this country has to offer.

One of the best parts about living in Zhuhai specifically is its proximity to Macau and Hong Kong. As an expat, China can be a really overwhelming place, and sometimes you just need a break. Being able to take a day trip to Macau or Hong Kong and get a dose of western norms is heavenly when you’re feeling like you just need to get out.

As for getting a visa to live in China, well, it’s not easy. The only way to get a residence permit is to have a company apply for you. This is because you need to prove that you are employed with a company in China before you’re allowed to live here. Now, of course, you can come over on a tourist visa, look for a job, and then, once you accept a position, you can obtain a work visa followed by a residence permit, but this process seems to get harder every year.

Recently, China changed its qualifications for foreigners living in China. Now, the government rates each person who applies for a work visa and puts them into one of three categories, A, B, or C. Someone who has a PhD, for example, would be an A, a college graduate with so many years of experience a B, and a new college graduate with no experience a C. Priorities for getting a visa are given first to A’s, then B’s, then C’s. If you haven’t graduated from university you can pretty much forget about getting a job in China.

What’s the cost of living like in Zhuhai?

The cost of living in Zhuhai is pretty cheap, especially compared to what we’re used to in North America and Europe. You can get a nice 140-160 square metre 3-4 bedroom apartment with marble floors, air conditioning and multiple balconies for 5000-7000 RMB a month (USD700-1000).

Fast internet costs 1500 RMB per year (USD211). Utilities vary a lot depending on how much you use your air conditioner (Zhuhai is super hot and humid for about 6 months out of the year) but generally cost between 1000 and 2000 RMB per month (USD140-280). A phone plan in China costs between 80 and 100 RMB (USD12-16) per month.

Keep in mind though that most expats in China get their housing covered by whatever company they’re working for. Most expats I know, myself included, got rent covered by our company so all we had to pay for in terms of monthly bills was our utilities and phone bill.

While eating western food out is priced comparably to what you would pay at home, eating local Chinese food is dirt cheap. My husband and I used to get a giant plate of hand pulled noodles from our local noodle shop for lunch every weekend for just USD1-2 per person. Stir fried dishes will cost you a little bit more at a whopping USD3-4 per person.

Transportation is also super cheap in China. You can take a bus across the city for 2 RMB (20 cents or so) or a taxi for 40 RMB (USD6).

What are your favourite spots in Zhuhai and China more broadly? Where do you always take visitors?

My favorite spot in Zhuhai is Wanzai Ridge, which is a mountain conveniently located right behind my apartment. From the top of the mountain you get an incredible view over Zhuhai and Macau.

Wanzai Ridge is expat Cara Crawford's favourite place in Zhuhai, China

But my absolute favorite spot in the area is this awesome waterfall and swimming hole located in Jiangmen, about an hour drive northwest of the city. It’s a really picturesque place hidden in the mountains that gives you a nice hour-long hike and a swim at a beautiful waterfall.

More broadly, some of my favorite places I’ve been to in China include Yangshuo/Guilin, Lijiang in Yunnan Province, Tagong in Sichuan Province, Zhangjiajie National Park, Huanglong National Park, and the Rainbow Mountains in Zhangye.

Is there anything you don’t like about living in Zhuhai?

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the climate. Zhuhai is in the tropics so it’s humid all year round, but the summer is especially unbearable, and it lasts for 6 months. You start sweating as soon as you walk outside! Winter is also not fun as it’s cloudy almost every day and most of time smoggy as well with air quality indexes often reading “unhealthy”.

Because of its tropical climate, Zhuhai basically has two seasons, summer and winter, also referred to as the wet and dry season. Because of this, there’s really only nice weather for about two weeks each in the fall and spring. The rest of the year it’s either dreary and polluted or blazing hot and humid.

Also, even though Zhuhai is a coastal city the ocean is really dirty because of its location on the Pearl River Delta. On most beaches you’re not even allowed to swim in the water!

Any advice for anyone considering living in China?

My advice to anyone considering living in China would be to keep an open mind, a good sense of humour, and an adventurous spirit. A healthy dose of patience will help a lot as well.

Also, if you can take the time to learn at least a little bit of the language it will make your life in China so much easier. Read some books on China, too, to understand what you’re getting yourself into.

And besides that, I would say just make sure you get out and explore the country. So many expats I know spend all their vacations outside of China. I get that everyone needs a break from time to time, but China is such a big country with so many amazing places to explore that you are really missing out if you don’t travel within the country while you’re here!

There are so many places to visit in China, including waterfalls. Expat Cara Crawford shares her favourite places.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as an expat?

Oh man, so many!

The biggest lesson for sure is that there is not much in life that is right or wrong, just different. Being an expat is all about embracing differences.

Another lesson is that happiness is a choice. You can be happy or miserable anywhere in the world.

China can be a really hard place to live, and I (as a lot of people do) had to give up a lot to live there, but instead of focusing on everything I gave up, I learned instead to focus on all the things I would gain from living in China and all the new experiences I wanted to have as a result of living on the other side of the world.

I also learned a whole new degree of patience. Getting things done just takes a whole lot longer when you have to go through a language and cultural barrier to do it.

What’s the best thing about being an expat?

The best thing about being an expat for me is that it’s instilled in me a love for travel that I never knew I had. Being in China gave me the opportunity to travel to places I probably never would have been able to go to if I was still living in the U.S. All of the sudden traveling around Asia was so accessible and cheap, we could suddenly afford to go to multiple different countries in just one year.

Another “best” (how do I pick just one?) that I never expected was that as a result of being an expat I fell in love with traveling around China, a country I never even wanted to go to in the first place! I now have somewhat of a second home, and even though as of December 2018 my husband and I are no longer living in China, we have already been back.

Expat Cara Crawford and her husband spent their time living in China exploring much of the country

What do you miss most about home?

I miss the convenience of life in the U.S. Knowing exactly where to get things, how things work, and being able to communicate easily with everyone you meet. It’s so relaxing!

Where can people find you?

Currently the best place to find me is on my blog, Crawford Creations.


Want to share your expat experience like Cara has? Get in touch to be featured in the Expat Tales series.


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