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Interview with Melissa – a South African expat living in China

Updated 16 Sep 2019

Melissa is 27-year-old South African currently working as an ESL teacher at an international kindergarten in China. She is an animal lover and a nature enthusiast. 

Read more about China in the Expat Arrivals China country guide.

About MelissaMelissa_China.jpg

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I'm originally from Polokwane in South Africa.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: I am currently living in Yiwu, China.

Q: When did you move here?
A: I moved here in August 2018.

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: Yes, it is.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here with my fiancé.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: Based on what I had been told by other South African expats, China seemed like a worthwhile life experience for anyone who wishes to gain new professional skills, boost their bank balance and enjoy rich cultural experiences. I currently work as an ESL teacher at an international kindergarten.

Living in Yiwu

Q: What do you enjoy most about Yiwu? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: In some instances my quality of life has improved. Due to the digital convenience, queuing for groceries at a supermarket has become something of the past. I can have anything delivered to my apartment door, anytime I want. Public transport is also very affordable, safe and convenient. I love being able to walk around anywhere (day or night), without having to worry about my safety.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: At times communicating with locals is frustrating, since only a small minority of Chinese people understand English. I mostly miss the flavourful South African food I used to enjoy back home. In my opinion, Chinese food is often tasteless. Being a vegan in China can especially be hard, since most dishes are served with some kind of meat broth or eggs. 

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: We had to get used to a much smaller living space. In winter, pollution in Yiwu is quite extreme. Also, coming from a city with a moderate climate, I found it hard to adapt to the temperate climate in Yiwu. The summers are extremely hot and humid, whilst the winters are cold and snowy. 

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in China?
A: The living costs are considerably lower. Food, transport, accommodation and clothing is considerably cheaper. However, if you don't have access to Taobao (an online shopping application), hygiene products can be more expensive. 

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Yiwu? What is your most memorable experience of using the city’s transport system?
A: Very convenient, efficient and fast. The high-speed trains have changed my experience of long-distance travel forever. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Yiwu? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals?
A: Healthcare is much more accessible. Healthcare practitioners don't charge for consultations, only treatments. However, I find that they mostly prefer to use herbal therapy as treatment, which hasn't always worked for me. 

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Yiwu? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Not that I know of. Yiwu is a very safe city. 

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city? What different options are available for expats?
A: Most schools offer on-campus accommodation for foreign ESL teachers or provide a housing allowance. From my experience, and what I've heard, expats usually rent apartments or rooms.  

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: I live in Wanda Plaza, about 200m away from a beautiful park and river. I live right next to a shopping and entertainment centre. It only takes eight minutes to walk to my school. In a 1km radius from my apartment, I have everything I could possibly need.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Yiwu?
A: I sometimes feel like a celebrity because of the way locals treat me sometimes. So far we have only been treated with kindness and respect. However, I have witnessed discrimination against black foreign teachers. Unfortunately it seems as if some schools prefer Caucasian foreign staff.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: To my surprise, there is an immense expat community in Yiwu. It is the world's largest small-commodity city and therefore hosts many foreigners. We have a South African WeChat group that keeps on growing exponentially. 

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: Because of the language barrier, I tend to mostly mix with other foreigners. I can't really give any advice to new expats. Making friends with locals isn't difficult and will all depend on the expats' preferences and personality. Chinese people are very friendly and eager to learn more about foreigners' lifestyles and cultures. 

Working in China

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: The process was relatively easy. It helps if you already have contacts in the host city. I luckily have friends who already lived in Yiwu and made my journey as smooth and easy as possible.

Q: What is the economic climate in the city like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The best way to find a job is either through an agent or another expat that you trust. 

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in China? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Compared to South Africa, the workday for a teacher is longer. If you like planning ahead, working in China might not work for you. Chinese people tend to plan on a week-by-week if not day-to-day basis. I would recommend that expats learn basic Mandarin before embarking on a business journey or to hire a professional translator.  'Hello Chinese' is a very useful free application to help with that. 

Family life in Yiwu

Q: How has your fiancé adjusted to your new home?
A:  We love living in China! At first it was hard to adapt to this completely different way of life, but we've come to a point where we prefer living here.

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in the city?
A: There are calm and peaceful parks all over the city that we enjoy visiting together.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to China?
A: I would suggest contacting expats that already know the ins and outs before moving to a city. Do your research and, if possible, have a Chinese person read through your contract work contract before signing anything. That being said, working in China is a worthwhile risk to take. 

► Interviewed September 2019

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