What do foreigners think about Kunming

Preconceptions about China can be wrong, says Matt, an American expat, student, and teacher who lives in Kunming. Here he tells us about moving to China, his thoughts on the people, language, and culture, and what he likes the most and the least about the Middle Kingdom.

Matt Schiavenza

-Where were you born?
I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA.

-In which country and city are you living now?
I live in Kunming, China.

-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live alone, as I have done since my arrival here. Several other foreigners choose to live amongst themselves in apartments, and only a handful that I know unhappily stay with a family.

-How long have you been living in China?
I've been living in Kunming since February 2007, and have been in China on and off since September 2004.

-What is your age?

-When did you come up with the idea of living in China?
Long story. I had decided after college to pursue teaching English abroad, ideally through the U.S. Peace Corps. I discovered that the best teaching jobs were located in East Asia, and with that in mind I began looking for them in earnest when the Peace Corps gig fell through. I decided that of all the countries in East Asia, China would be the most interesting to live in, and Mandarin would be the most useful language to study.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
No. My company in China sent all the necessary paperwork to my home near San Francisco, where a Chinese consulate is conveniently located. Most expats arrive in China on a tourist visa and later switch to a work or student one.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
Again, no, because my company took care of those details. Others I have heard have had trouble, though.

-How do you make your living in China? Do you have any type of income generated?
For two years I taught English for a company based in Beijing that distributed its English teaching employees to high schools throughout China. I found them via a Canadian recruitment company that worked with the TEFL language course that I had attended. Now, I live as a student in Kunming and use my savings and the odd teaching or tutoring gig to support myself.

-Do you speak Chinese and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
I do speak Mandarin decently, read it slightly less well, and write it quite poorly. But the answer to your question is....yes! You will never be able to understand a country as complex as China without attempting to learn Mandarin, both spoken and written. (This goes for other countries, too, by the way). Too many foreigners I have met here feel isolated and lost because of the language barrier. Without Chinese, your contact with local people will be limited unless you live in a major city. And, after all, didn't you come to China to learn it, anyway?

It's absolutely important to respect local customs. You wouldn't want foreigners coming to your country and disrespecting your customs, right? It cuts both ways. Many foreigners act like the rules of society don't apply to them, and many learn the hard way that they do.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Like anyone who is away from home for months at a time, I do miss my family, friends, and various other things that make home home. That being said, the longer I stay away the more used to being away I get, which makes things easier. Odd, huh?

-Do you have other plans for the future?
I plan to go back to school eventually, but I'm not sure when, where, and for what reason.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
I rent an apartment in Kunming near the university that costs about $140 US per month. It's a two-bedroom apartment that came fully furnished with a kitchen, bathroom, and large living room. It also had a washing machine and a water heater. Utilities seem to be paid sporadically, and I actually haven't even figured it out yet! (as long as it keeps working, I don't mind...)

In this part of Kunming, housing is cheap...something roughly analogous to mine wouldn't be hard to find.

-What is the cost of living in China?
It depends. Certain foreigners who eat local food, avoid bars, don't go out much, and don't go shopping can get by for as little as $5 per day. Most foreigners I know live very well on about $350 a month (spending money). $250 is also possible. Of course, if money is burning a hole in your pocket, there are ways to spend it :)

-What do you think about the Chinese locals?
The locals in China tend to be very courteous, kind, and helpful toward foreigners. They often do not understand foreign culture well and thus can come off as rude or aggressive, but after some time spent in China one begins to relate to them better. Their treatment of foreigners is good aside from the occasional annoying "Hello" shouted by teenage groups of boys.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in China?
Positive: low cost of living, lovely scenery, fascinating history, cheap, good food, cheap pirated music and movies, attractive women (sorry, I'm a guy), low crime, plenty of traveling opportunities, and plenty of opportunity.

Negative: difficult language, urban pollution and noise, limited access to familiar food, culture, etc., crowds, occasional bureaucratic nightmares, lack of nightlife options (in smaller places), lousy beer.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in China?
Yes - come with an open mind (duh). Most conclusions you reach about China will be drastically wrong, as understanding the language and culture here takes a lot of time (trust me, I'm not even close). Be friendly and don't be afraid to try new things, even things (like karaoke) you might think you hate. It's easy to get used to things here...

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about China?
You can always catch my blog (www.mattschiavenza.com) for my diary of Chinese travel, culture, history, politics, etc.

For interesting posts on language, I recommend www.sinosplice.com/life, a blog by an American linguistics student living in Shanghai.

The essential site for China-related news and news analysis is www.chinadigitaltimes.net, which is currently blocked in China.

My friend Ben Ross keeps an interesting blog on Chinese culture at www.benross.net/wordpress.

Finally, for Chinese urban life and media analysis, Beijing's danwei.org is superb.