China or America: Where Is the Better Place to Live?
In the eyes and the minds of many Chinese and Americans, somehow, the moon appears to be brighter on the other side of the ocean.
The recent surging waves of retiring overseas are felt on both sides of the Pacific. The newly enforced historical 10-year visa agreement for all U.S. and Chinese citizens making the idea appear to be even more realistic. Presently, we are living in the most competitive, yet peaceful era, in which both Chinese and Americans are welcoming one another with open arms as never before.
On the American side, baby boomers are starting to feel the urgency to look for an idyllic and gratifying retirement. Unfortunately, everything around them seems to be outrageously expensive: healthcare, medicines, transportation, groceries, even a bite at the local restaurant. The worst of all, with ever-growing government debts, taxes are expected to take more away each year from the money they make, things they buy, and the houses they own.
Inherently, many are not ready to accept a life where the rear windows of their houses cast the same view forever. Therefore, they seem to see their last chance to jump off the hamster wheel. Meanwhile, the media has painted a picture of Southeast Asian countries, including Greater China Region, offering more bang for the buck and exotic lifestyles, which could not be more seductive and tantalizing.
Across the ocean in the meantime, millions of newly rich, upper-middle-class Chinese are thinking the exact same thing. Plus their concerns about their children’s education.
They start to gaze at the other side of the world, sketching their own version of American dreams: a spacious house surrounded by emerald-green lawns, against the sapphire-blue sky, set in beautifully serene suburbia. Brisk and refreshing air like they’ve never sniffed before surrounds them as they see their children (or grandchildren) off to a school bus in the morning, among some of the richest kids attending the best schools in the world.
Is it a mirage? Or people from both sides can find what they are longing for, like a piece of heaven on earth, but only on foreign soil?
I spent the first 27 years of my life in China, and since then, have resided in the U.S. for several decades now. Our family has homes from coastal to inland cities in both countries, and I take yearly trips between the two. I will shed some light on the lifestyles I’ve witnessed and compare major living expenses of both countries for those of you sitting on the fence. Don’t rush to put your home on the market, uprooting your family for the once-in-a-lifetime move yet.
Let me start by telling you something you already know: No place is perfect. They are just different, and in many ways, more than you have heard or could even imagine.
Managing your expectations is the key
Keep this in mind before going too deep into even thinking about booking your one-way ticket. Like a coin, any place and lifestyle have two sides. A life in exotic Megacities can be vibrant and lively—incredibly fascinating when looking at it from afar–but at the same time, loud and congested when you actually live in it. Crime could be an issue, in the mind at least, when guns in one country are as ubiquitous as bicycles in the other. Guns are far more deadly than bicycles, especially when they fall into the wrong hands.
However, bicycles, even pedestrians, fighting the right of the way with cars are not nearly as disastrous, but no less appalling, nonetheless, when it has become a scene in everyday life. And almost every major city in China will seem massive for Americans. Each easily has more than several millions of citizens in it.
Convenience in the U.S. is like birthright for everyone who lives here
No other country in the world could be as comfortable and convenient as the U.S. It’s clean, spacious, most buildings fully air-conditioned including many public bathrooms. No matter what people say about McDonald’s food, its bathrooms, even in the third-world countries, keep the usual American high standard. Most Americans are courteous behind wheels on the road and will hold the elevator doors for strangers. Their cars are parked in the garages or driveways, just a few steps away from the living room. People are living in a complete weatherproof environment—their homes, offices, shopping centers, department stores, and anywhere in between on the road in their cars.
With almost one car for every legally driving-age person in the U.S., businesses are designed to be as personable as possible. Often times people conduct daily errands by drive-through services, namely banking, fast-food, laundry, groceries, picking up kids at schools.
In China, like most other Southeast countries, however, you can forget the above. Be prepared to wait in lines going to those places. Sometimes, lines are invisible, and you might need your shoulders and elbows to move along instead. During the morning commute in the subways, be ready for some sweating–yours and others. You may more likely pay some bills in person, going to the offices, with cash. Although the internet is prevalent almost everywhere, services are not quite catching up just yet.
Food could be a pro or con
Authentic indigenous food could be the best gateway to lead people into a new culture. Only if you are armed with curious minds and resilient intestines or, conversely, it could be your first major roadblock. It is true for both Chinese and Americans when landing on foreign soils.
Even though there are Chinese eateries around each corner in the U.S. McDonald’s golden arches often find the best spots on major streets of the cities in China. Both are nevertheless hardly representative of everyday food people eat in their home countries. Recent reports indicate a wave of Chinese moms coming to the U.S. mainly to cook for their student children attending American schools because they can’t get used to the cafeteria food here—not even those labeled as Chinese food.
But for most Americans, authentic Chinese food is a major draw, especially for those who are adventurous by nature. Going from place to place in different parts of China, you will always find something intriguing down a culinary tour. Food is mostly safe and very inexpensive once you know where to go. Last year our family went to Chengdu, where Szechuan cuisine is originated. A large bowl of beef and hand-made noodles cost me one US dollar. A spicy bowl of freshly made tofu (you can mix the sauce any way you want) costs less than 50 cents.
With organic food in mind, we went to a farmhouse eatery near Chengdu. I pointed at a chicken in a flock running on the hillside, and it became a delicious meal on the table within 30 minutes while we were having a pot of tea, the tea leaves freshly picked from the nearby mountains. The whole dinner for four, including homemade wine, cost about 20 dollars. No tax and tip are added to the bills in any restaurant throughout China.
Major cost of living comparisons between the two countries
In many ways, living in the U.S., when compared to China, costs less than many people think for middle-class families. Middle-class families are between $50,000-$100,000 annual income for a family of three in the U.S., per WSJ June 22, 2016. Chinese tourists often scooped up brand-name merchandise, like designer bags and iPhones half a dozen at a time. That was yesterday’s news now. My friend’s daughter came to the U.S. on a business trip last year. She bought 10 cans of baby milk powder. That was only one item on her long shopping list to ship back to her home in Beijing.
Quality clothing with any known brand can cost about half of the price in the U.S than in China. Overall, produce in the supermarket is close to the same price range in both countries, like pork, eggs, and fruits. If you primarily cook at home, $1000-$1,500 per month should be enough to cover total food cost for a family of three living in the U.S., including decent bottles of wine routinely. Wine is particularly a great buy in the U.S. At $10-$15 a bottle, one can find plenty of good choices for everyday sipping.
For people who plan to live in the U.S. year-round, one major expense is automobiles. On average, it is about 1/3 cheaper than in China for similar models. Plus, you will find the cheapest gasoline in the world in the U.S.
Residential houses in the U.S., except for a few major cities, are reasonably affordable for middle-income families. A Chinese couple in their 50s sold their apartment in Beijing and bought three townhomes a couple of years ago, each having more than 2000 square feet with two-car garages, in Cary NC. They planned one for themselves and two for renting out. Similar cases have become common in many cities in the U.S. just over the last few years. You don’t need a Green Card to buy real estate properties in the U.S. and no need to come for all-cash transactions. Real estate agents can take care of everything for you by mails. Sellers usually pay all the fees for the agents in the U.S. Within less than 30 days, one can own a piece of America forever.
In the U.S., the average sales price for new houses is $358,000 USD (2500 square feet) according to 2016 data.
On the other hand, for Americans who wish to live in China for a longer term, however, the best advice is to rent first.
In major cities like Shanghai, you can find a centrally located two-bedroom apartment at $1500 per month. In most second or third-tier cities, like Shenyang (my childhood city in Northeastern China, with a population of eight million), you can stretch your dollar a lot further, renting the similar unit at 1/3 of the price while living very comfortably. Plus, you would feel like a king by hiring a housekeeper in Shenyang. To clean and cook for you, four times a week, cost about $200 a month.
I met a black American guy in his 40s strolling in the subdivision where I lived in Shenyang last year. To my big surprise, he had lived there for more than 10 years, very happily, teaching English in a college. “Most Chinese school kids can speak good English now,” he said, “and they are very eager to talk to me wherever I go.” I ran into another American in an elevator in my apartment building in Shanghai, also an English teacher. He was in a hurry at the time but with a smiling face like a summer sunflower. “I need to go home and change before going to happy hour,” he said. It was already around 9:00 pm.
For Americans who plan to live in China on a long-term basis, part-time teaching would be a great idea.
You can get involved in social and cultural activities. You can use the extra money to pay for traveling to other parts of China, and beyond.
In contrast, hiring a housekeeper, who also cooks for you, would be unthinkable for middle-income families in the U.S. Once-a-month house cleaning can easily cost $150-$200 where I live in NC. Furthermore, part-time jobs are few and far between in the U.S. even for those who have work permits. Especially for those, being a cashier in the Chinese supermarket is not what you have in mind.
After all, it’s not only about low expenses for a high material standard of living that matters. Knowing what you can do with your time somewhere halfway around the world is neither a small factor nor an easy task for a fulfilling and comfortable life.
It’s widely known that Americans spend the most amount of money in the world on their health-care. That is 17.5% of their GDP; whereas, in China, it’s 5.5% according to 2014 World Bank data. As a result, around 900,000 Americans traveled overseas for medical treatments in 2013 because of the high cost at home.
Medical tourism, seeking lower cost for medical treatments overseas, is booming. Many countries are jostling to offer high-quality healthcare at very attractive prices. The top 5 countries for American tourism are Malaysia, India, Turkey, Brazil, and Thailand. Treatments include cosmetic surgery, dentistry, fertility, orthopedics, cardiac and oncology problems and organ transplants. China has been improving its medical facilities and technologies steadily in recent years. With no doubt, many could consider China as one of the options in the years to come.
For Chinese coming to live in America, health care can be one major concern as well. Each one’s situation is different though, such as If you are qualified for some medical insurance coverage, your age, current health conditions. How often you go back to China, and above all, how loaded you are. With a deep enough pocket, however, you should have none of these issues. You can enjoy world-class medical facilities ready to serve 24/7, whenever you need it, in the U.S.
A conclusion without conclusions
So, where is the best place to live, to raise our families, and then, joyfully to grow old in our golden years? Especially we are living in a global village, where the doors are wide open on both sides of the Pacific. Evidently, there is no one place fit for all anywhere. Both cultures and lifestyles are fascinating but in completely different ways. The best advice is to keep an open mind and explore it yourself. You may not find the dream place that has everything for you, but you will learn more about yourself along the way, such as what we really want out of life.
For me, I like the idea of Vacilando. A Spanish word means experiencing the journey more than reaching any particular destination.