If you’re currently a foreigner in one of the big cities in mainland China like Beijing or Hong Kong and are contemplating moving to a smaller one, this is the article for you. We’ll go through the questions you need to ask yourself and the things you need to be ready for to live the best life. You’ll be invited to the headspace that I, a 27-year-old British male followed in moving from the world’s third biggest city (Shanghai) to a small island city in the South China Sea.
Shangai vs Sanya
Shanghai is one of the largest cities in China to live in! It’s a bridge between other countries and Chinese culture. It’s home to many foreign expats who mostly make a good living working in a variety of jobs. Shanghai is a good starting location for major cities in China to live abroad as it gives you time to learn the local language whilst being around more English speakers than in other cities.
After 4 years in Shanghai, it was time to seek something a little less fast pace. Shanghai is awesome however, most of the local people are migrant workers. They move there to work in the Chinese economy, leaving their families behind. Most of the people in Shanghai are there to make some money and then send it back to their families to support them because of the cost of living. I realized that being around this type of lifestyle was a little tiring, I wanted to be surrounded by something a little slower pace for a while.
I chose Sanya because Sanya is considered, the Hawaii of China, who wouldn’t want that? Learning to surf, playing new sports like beach frisbee and volleyball, and almost small-town living. That just sounded like a lifestyle I wasn’t going to get anywhere else, without leaving China; something I was not ready to do yet.
Whether or not I stay in Sanya long-term is unknown, at this stage the plan is to do 1 year here and see what opportunities arise next. Right now, I’m loving the ocean waves and living comfortably, but maybe after a year or so I’ll miss the hustle and bustle of city life, let’s see.
How to know it’s time to move to a smaller city
The first indicator is that you’re not going out to enjoy the same things you enjoyed when you first arrived, you’re probably partying less and staying inside more.
The second indicator is that you find yourself no longer making weekend plans; when I first arrived, I knew exactly what my Friday-Sunday plans were on Thursday, I was so excited to get out and explore.
The third indicator is environmental, your plans are being cut short because of bad air quality/overcrowding/weather. This one is widespread probably in big cities all around the world, bigger cities have higher pollution levels. Anything above 100 on the AQI scale probably requires a mask. In Sanya, I now enjoy a cool 10-30 AQI, the best air I’ve ever breathed.
How to know it’s time to move to a smaller city
I’m now 1 month into my move and I feel fully settled in, I think that this fluid process happened because of the following things.
I knew a lot about this location before I moved, I came on holiday here last year, and I wrote about it here (look for Sanya). Holidaying to your potential new home gives you a big advantage in understanding what life could be like before you go. There are plenty of top hotels and apartments in Sanya that can meet your personal preferences regarding accommodations.
If you don’t have the opportunity to holiday to your new city, at least have a grasp on the local language is a plus. In the 6 levels of Chinese, I’m halfway through level 4, this gave me a good start in settling in upon arrival.
Another tip would be to understand what the locals do for fun, In Shanghai, it’s badminton, dining, and picnics in parks and next to rivers. Whilst in Sanya it’s swimming, surfing, volleyball, and beach frisbee. Sanya is a more active ‘outdoorsy’ city as opposed to the 5-star dining and brunch date possibilities in Shanghai.
How much should I save if I’m moving to a new city?
It’s important to have a bit of extra liquidity when moving home, three to six months of living expenses + 3 months’ rent would be advised. Be sure to ask in advance how much rent is in the new location. In some cities, like here in Sanya, you’ll have to pay 6 months upfront plus a 1-month deposit, 30% of one month’s rent for the agency fee, and 10% extra per month in property maintenance. Average house prices in Sanya are about ½ the price of Shanghai. I now pay the same for my 120 square meter ocean view double balcony apartment as I did for my 60 square meter city center box apartment.
Whilst saving for the new move it’s always good to remember the 50%, 30%, 20% principle, 50% needs, 30% wants, 20% savings. That way you won’t be overextending past your capability and not sacrificing ‘having a life’ either.
Will I sacrifice my career if I move away form a big city?
It seems that many other people my age (27) are looking to move somewhere a little more tropical and less urban development. What happened to the rat race? Are we all getting lazy or are we just finding new ways to make our hustle happen whilst online and finding the best place to live? I think the latter. If I wasn’t pursuing my own online business (Tripapt), which helps people find accommodation for free whilst they travel, I’d probably be in a big city working.
I think more young people are willing to take the risk of stepping off the beaten path because of how much personal development they gain from it. They’re looking for that gap in the market that can take them on an adventure, just look at all those people working remotely in places like Bali. My point is, moving away from a big city, might be the headspace you need to think about what’s best for your career. It’s not going to sacrifice your career.
It’s not impossible to go back to the big city after you’ve moved away either. However, if you are moving industries/taking a break from work. You need to keep building your skills to keep up with the other people your age putting hard hours into businesses. For example, for every 2 hours, I invest in Tripapt, I’m investing 1 hour in getting better at skills needed in other jobs I’m interested in. Udemy.com is a great place to develop skills.