Living Abroad in China
What to Take to China
2006 © Stuart & Barbara Strother, from Moon Living Abroad in China, 1st Edition. Used by permission of Stuart & Barbara Strother, and Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.
Deciding what to take will, of course, depend on how long you will be in China and what sort of a shipping budget you are working with. To get you started in your selection process, there are three broad categories that will help you decide what to pack: availability, an initial supply of necessities, and personal items. For everything else, try to leave it behind. Most expats find their Chinese homes much smaller than their western homes, with very limited storage. Unless you are relocating with a long-term position in a corporation that provides a significant shipping budget, it’s just not worth the cost and effort to bring too much.
China is a shopper’s paradise: cheap clothes, handbags, watches, and scarves; gorgeous Chinese antiques and trendy Ikea-style furniture; elegant Asian art and funky Chairman Mao tchotchkes. There’s enough retail therapy to keep you happily out of your shrink’s office for years. But even with the great deals and amazing finds, there will be some items you’ll want that, no matter how hard you search, you just won’t find. Or you’ll find it but it will be of such inferior quality or high price that you’d be better off just bringing it with you from home. Here are a few items in this category.
• Reading material in English
• Board games
• Musical instruments (common instruments like guitars can be purchased cheaply in China, though you get what you pay for)
• Bike helmets and specialized sports equipment (such as camping or rock-climbing gear)
• Barbecue utensils
• Oven thermometer (if you are lucky enough to get an oven, it won’t have dials marked in Fahrenheit)
• Baking pans, pie plates (the Chinese don’t bake)
• Quality potato peeler and can opener
• Maple syrup, salad dressing, yellow mustard, pancake mix, western-style pickles, BBQ sauce, any Mexican food, real coffee, mayonnaise that isn’t sweet, Thanksgiving foods (stuffing, cranberry sauce)
• Spices—if you have favorites, bring them
• Deodorant (bring lots!), dental floss, tampons, perfume (major shampoo brands are readily available, including dandruff shampoo)
• Make-up—it is available at department stores but is expensive and often of the “whitening” variety
• Clothing in large and tall sizes, bras above size 34
• Thick socks (socks are plentiful but very thin)
• Large-size shoes (above 9 for women, 11 for men); if high-quality shoes are important to you, bring your own—Chinese shoes don’t last long
• Men’s swim trunks, if you don’t like to wear Speedos
Household and Children’s Items
• Construction paper, index cards, cardstock, quality markers/pens/sharpies, felt (most other common office supplies are readily available)
• Items for the minor holidays such as Easter-egg dye (Christmas decor will be easy to find)
• Smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detector
• Quality toys (cheap toys are everywhere, but name-brand toys like Legos are only at department stores and carry a high price tag)
• Books and educational materials for older kids in English (there’s plenty for preschoolers, though you won’t find the classics like Dr. Seuss)
• Insect repellent (non-aerosol)
The few personal items that you will need to keep with you are mostly documents, such as birth certificates, immunization records, diplomas, marriage certificates, extra résumés, your will, banking and financial information, drivers license, health insurance documentation, and so on. There are also personal items you’ll want for their sentimental value; you never know when—or how hard—homesickness will hit you. One of the best ways to get yourself through is to have a stash of items that make you feel those good “home” feelings again, things that celebrate who you are and where you come from, such as:
• Photos of your family, house, pets, and hometown—these are also great to share with new Chinese friends to show what your life was like “back home”
• CDs or mp3s for relaxing (or partying!) with music that is familiar to you—you’ll be able to pick up plenty of mainstream CDs in China, including lots of oldies from the ’60s and ’70s, so just bring your favorite and hard-to-find selections
• Your kids’ most favorite toys and DVDs (don’t bother bringing VHS tapes; VCRs are obsolete in China); like CDs, English DVDs will be very easy to come by, at least until the government gets serious about cracking down on piracy
There are a few things you will need to use immediately before you’ve had time to find where you can buy them. Items that you may find embarrassing to shop for (i.e. feminine hygiene products, condoms) are better brought with you in the beginning to help minimize the stress of the transition. If you are moving with a small child, think through what you will need for the first month and be sure to bring enough diapers, wipes, rash ointment, formula, and anything else you normally keep in the diaper bag. While many popular brands of hygiene items, such as shampoos and soaps, are readily available, you may want to bring a small supply of your favorite brands until you can determine where to buy them in China.
A Word on Electronics and Electricity
Electronics are plentiful in China. It is easy to pick up digital cameras, mp3 players, computer components, and more. But contrary to what most foreigners expect, the prices are no cheaper and often considerably more expensive than in the United States, even for items manufactured in China. According to Chinese law, all foreign-branded items that are made for export but consequently sold in China must include an import tax. Additionally, you’ll have to deal with lack of instructions in English, low product support for repairs, and voltage/outlet problems when you leave China. As a general rule, if you’re only going to use the item in China, buying it there ensures the proper electrical components. But if you will be using the item long term, even after you’ve left China, then you’re better off buying it before your move.
The voltage in China is 220. Most buildings will have outlets that will fit several configurations of plugs; adapters are easy to pick up at local markets if you have a plug that does not fit. Transformers are available for converting the voltage on small appliances, though it is not always easy to find the one you need (which is why we eventually sent back our unused sewing machine and an older camcorder whose charger was not compatible). If it is possible to buy your appliance there, it is often better to do so, rather than having to deal with finding and using a transformer.