Im thinking of moving to china, maybe to one of the bigger cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou or Shenzhen. How easy is it to live in these cities (and travel outside these areas) without being able to speak Chinese?
I’ve been living in China for over 10 years now and it’s a question I get asked a lot. Many people assume that you need to be able to speak Chinese to live in China. The short answer is you don’t.
Having said that, the difference between Tier 1 cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and smaller Tier 2 or Tier 3 cities can be large, but there are some basic things they all have in common:
• All cities have street signs in both Chinese and English
• If the city has a metro, the maps have English on them, and to my knowledge the train announcements are in Chinese and followed in English.
Then there are many things that are different, in the larger cities, finding someone on the street in an emergency who speaks English would be easy I would say a 1 in 5 chance of finding someone who speaks pretty good English, if you are in a downtown area. Most restaurants accept the very local cheap ones will have an English Menu. Most of the local Cheap ones will have picture menus accept for a very few very local ones. For these things, basically the smaller the city the less frequent they will become.
Then there are a couple of things that most people struggle with right at the start and then learn quickly. One is taxi directions; taxi drivers will not know the English names of even the most famous landmarks or hotels. You will need the Chinese name or the cross streets, even in the biggest of cities. Retail stores is another area that you will likely find no English.
Learning some basic Chinese is your best bet. It doesn’t take long to pick-up the basics. Many of the large cities have English expat magazines with listing, you can order movie tickets online from English Cinema websites, your favorite expat food from online grocery stores in English, although these are more expensive than the local supermarkets. You can even download a multitude of apps these days that will help you book restaurant tables, give you restaurant reviews and even apps that will connect you with A Chinese person who can speak English to help you out.