Guizhou is a sadly overlooked part of China, both by foreigners and the national government. For foreigners looking for a somewhat gritty and challenging experience in China that forces them to become self-reliant, develop a taste for spicy food and Baijiu, and learn to live and think like the Chinese, it can be a great adventure. I lived in Guiyang from January 2007 to August 2008 and Zunyi (in northern Guizhou) from June 2004 to July 2005, and from June 2006 to August 2006. The information below regarding lifestyle, culture, and work should be regarded as personal viewpoints based on my experiences. If you have any questions, please feel to ask them directly in our readers forum.
“No three acres without a mountain, no three days without rain, and no three coins in any pocket.”
Guiyang is the capital city of Guizhou province. Guiyang means “precious sunlight” and Guizhou “the precious land.” For scenic beauty the titles are fitting although, given its rainy climate, the appellation “precious sunlight” should be regarded somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
Guizhou lies in southwest China with Sichuan and Chongqing municipality to the north, Yunnan to the southwest, and Guangxi and Hunan to the east. The major cities are Guiyang, Zunyi, Anshun, Liupanshui and Kaili. Each city consists of an urban core of several hundred thousand to several million (for Guiyang) residents surrounded by large rural areas that include relatively large townships such as Maotai in Zunyi or Huaxi in Guiyang. Geographically, Guizhou is mountainous with karst limestone hills and valleys making up much of the province. Composed predominantly of limestone, the province has many caves and sinkholes, many of which are only now beginning to be developed and opened for tourism.
Isolated in the mountainous mists and valleys are many of China’s minority cultures of which the Miao, Dong, Bouyi, Gelao, and Hui are particularly numerous. Altogether about 34.7 percent of the population is non-Han, although they are most visible outside the urban areas especially in the south, east and west of the province.
The climate in Guiyang and Zunyi is temperate. Summers are warm to hot with high humidity, although, owing to its elevation, Guiyang tends to be breezier and cooler than Zunyi. Winters are cool and damp with occasional but infrequent snow. The province is known for its rainfall and indeed has the highest average rainfall in China. Cloudy days and rain are frequent all year but particularly from May through November.
Economically the province consists of a mixture of traditional agriculture, heavy industry and mining. Tourism is the current growth industry with minority tourism and revolutionary tourism (especially in Zunyi) growing rapidly, although it is primarily limited to domestic tourism. Many tourist sites will have at least one or two English speaking guides but not all, especially in those not ranking as national-level sites. Coal is the major mining commodity although aluminum, iron, and gold also support major industries. These in turn feed the heavy industrial base, much of which dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when the region was part of a strategic military-industrial initiative called the “Third Front.” The major industries include aluminum, cement, machine tools, and aircraft. The climate and terrain have led to a boom in dam construction for hydropower generation with the output frequently sold to other provinces. In agriculture the major commodities include rice, canola oil seed (rape seed), sorghum, and chili peppers. Altogether potential residents should note that Guizhou’s economic base remains underdeveloped and the province consistently ranks at or near the bottom of China’s economic growth statistics.
Guiyang does not have a truly different local language such as Cantonese, Hokkien, or Hakka. The local dialect, intonation, and vocabulary do differ significantly from standard Mandarin which takes some getting used to. This author developed a local accent by living here and learning to use Chinese in this region. However, standard Mandarin is taught and spoken in all the universities and throughout courses offered to foreign teachers. English is spoken by private language school employees (though not all and with varying degrees of fluency), among some university students, and some exceptionally motivated younger students. On the whole, this is a zero-English environment. Most teachers learn to speak at least some Chinese in order to help themselves get around. There have been quite a few foreign teachers who speak passable to excellent Chinese. For students of Chinese, the opportunities to improve are great. Some teachers take the opportunity to study Chinese at Guizhou Normal University (see link below) as their teaching schedules permit.
While teachers in Guiyang tend to engage in the same daily pursuits as most other foreign teachers throughout China, i.e., spending lots of time on the Internet and watching pirated DVDs, this is far from the only option. With the pleasant climate and low cost of living, many teachers spend significant amounts of time eating and drinking. The local cuisine is typically spicy and sour, or spicy and savory. The sweet meaty dishes of Shanghai are not popular here. Hot Pot is the main winter food but is also eaten throughout the year. A few regional delicacies include:
More exotic fare is available for the adventurous including whole roast marrow bones, large roasted snails, tiny paddy snails in chili sauce, and every variation of organ meat imaginable. Guizhou also makes wide use of different types of mushrooms and fungi as well as the uniquely flavored Zhergen (折耳根), a thin-root vegetable used only in local cuisine.
Many teachers in Guiyang are big fans of the outdoor barbeque and shish kebab restaurants known as Shaokao (烧烤). Cheap beer, good food, and pleasant evening breezes make this a common pastime after work and into the wee hours of the morning. Almost every neighborhood will have a row of carts in the evening serving up different skewered and grilled offerings.
Western and foreign goods, while occasionally available, are very expensive. The Wal-Mart in Guiyang tends to offer the best selection. In general, the cost of food, especially given the low local incomes, is comparatively high—probably a factor of the mountainous terrain that results in higher transportation costs. Chinese visitors from Beijing and Shanghai have been known to comment that cost of food is as or more expensive than it is in their respective cities.
Guizhou’s people are infamous in China as heavy drinkers, second only to the hearty residents of the northeast. Home to the finest brand of Baijiu there is, Maotai (the main regional brand), and a thousand variations of inexpensive local beers such as Pubu and Gaoyuan, the men here, in particular, love to drink. Beer bars are busy nearly every night and their outdoor seating areas do a brisk business from spring through the end of autumn. Most foreign teachers also enter this scene and there are a few bars known for foreign patronage.
Apart from alcohol, Guiyang has a large number of coffee houses, both Taiwanese chains, such as Shangdao, and local independent ones including the foreign-owned and operated Highland Coffee. The costs tend to be high by Western standards although the quality is what you would commonly find across China. Many coffee bars also serve food and alcoholic drinks.
Guiyang is a mixed bag in terms of housing. Much of the inner city’s housing infrastructure is composed of gray cement construction dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. While not much to look at, most units have been heavily refurbished on the inside and can be quite pleasant. As one moves further from the city center (but still within a 10-20 minute taxi ride), the housing is newer and more appealing on the outside. Housing is typically quite inexpensive with inner city housing (two bedrooms) running between 1500 to 2000 RMB per month and 500 to 1000 RMB per month further from the city center. Due to the relatively temperate climate, utility costs are lower than you would need to pay in the frigid north during the winter or extremely hot southern parts of China during the summer. Having just written that, those who generally feel cold or hot most of time will likely have much higher bills to pay because buildings are not insulated and, therefore, not energy efficient when using heaters or air conditioners. Many foreigners start by living in the housing provided by their employers and then eventually move into their own rentals if they intend to remain in town for a long period, once they have a feel for the lay of the land. Guiyang landlords occasionally will rent on six month leases but usually seek one year or longer commitments.
Most foreigners are treated at the Guizhou Provincial Hospital in the city center although the Guiyang Medical College Hospital is also decent, by local standards. The hospitals do not, with very few exceptions, have English-speaking medical staff. Many foreigners may find the hospitals to be chaotic and dirtier than one would expect. It is also not uncommon to see patients or even doctors smoking in the halls. Getting check-ups and routine care for colds, flu, and other minor ailments, however, are generally straight-forward procedures with few problems or difficulties. The staff in most pharmacies understand the types of medications needed for various common ailments although newcomers may be shocked at the volume of pills they are expected to take per day. Foreigners who are likely to require advanced medical care or procedures may want to consider the more developed regions of China.
Guiyang offers types of shopping amenities similar to what can be found in other second-tier Chinese cities. Computers and electronics can be purchased at the reasonably-priced Nao Bai Xing (脑百姓) computer mall. Higher end shops for clothing, including foreign and Chinese brand names, can be found in the towers along Zhonghua Road near Penshuichi (喷水池). A limited selection of foreign grocery items is available at Wal-mart and the Beijing Hualian supermarket. Most daily necessities can be purchased from the ubiquitous independent quickie-mart style shops and supermarkets typically found adjacent to apartment complexes. For foreigners requiring large sizes, especially shoes, it will be difficult if not impossible to acquire them in Guiyang. However the city does have tailors who can custom make shirts and pants for those unable to find large enough sizes.
The foreign community is small and mostly young. The majority of English teachers are university graduates between 22- and 30-years old. While it is not uncommon for some middle-aged or retirement-age teachers to come to the province, they are in the minority. The entertainment options and culture are generally geared to younger foreigners. Despite its small size, the expat community is actually quite fragmented and most foreigners interact primarily with their coworkers. In "foreigner bars," such as South Park on Huanchengbei Road (环城北路), there are opportunities to meet other Westerners in the community. The foreign-owned Highland Coffee is also an excellent location to learn about the community and meet other foreigners. Most of the foreign families appear to be serving as missionaries. There is no international or foreign school in Guiyang so children are either home-schooled or can attend local schools, if they so desire and have the language ability to do so.
Guiyang, and Guizhou in general, is not for everyone. Those hoping for a thriving night life and a music scene will likely be disappointed. The foreign community is also quite small (although for some this is actually a benefit). The community is estimated, including foreigners in all different occupations, to number around three-hundred. Other cities in the province have even fewer than that. As a result, you will be stared at and hear the ubiquitous calls of “laowai” and “hello.” Foreign amenities such as Western food and restaurants are also few and far between: As of August 2008, there was not even a McDonald’s or Starbucks. Once again, this may actually be a benefit for some, depending entirely on what one is looking for.
One of the main attractions of Guiyang and Guizhou are the opportunities to travel. Many teachers interested in minority cultures find the villages and townships around Kaili particularly interesting for their large Miao and Dong communities. A few regional highlights include:Near Guiyang
There are abundant teaching opportunities in Guiyang and Guizhou in general. While far from being as saturated with English training schools, universities, and public middle schools as other areas, there is still plenty of work to be found. Since Guizhou is not at all a well-known part of China and the number of foreigners actively seeking work here is limited, most schools hire on a rolling basis, i.e., will just take in teachers as they become available.
Most of the foreign teachers in Guiyang are employed in private English language schools including the two major franchises. The local independent private schools offer similar salaries and benefits as do the national or global chains. The pay in Guizhou is typically quite high, especially given the comparative level of local economic development, ranging from 4400 RMB, at the low end, to 9000 RMB per month for standard teaching contracts with experienced teachers or program directors earning even more. Most salaries and benefits can be at least partly negotiated as part of one's contract. Benefits usually include partial or complete airline ticket bonuses at the conclusion of a contract, travel bonuses, free Internet at home, and at least 30 days paid holiday. The weekly teaching requirements at private English language schools vary but, as noted elsewhere in this guide, tend to be higher than at public schools. Housing is provided in several apartment complexes across the city that, more-or-less, meets local working- to middle-class standards. Most are not air conditioned or centrally heated. Schools provide the apartments furnished and often include new bedding for new teachers. However, new teachers should make specific furnishing or other demands known during the negotiation process. As private entities, most school owners are willing to negotiate with their teachers directly as they do not employ foreign affairs officers and are not limited by government guidelines.
There are not many opportunities for outside work in Guiyang as the region’s economy is not well developed. Some foreigners have opened bars and coffee shops in town that have been quite successful with both the foreign and Chinese communities. Other foreigners have opened their own travel services. In general, Guiyang has several underdeveloped industrial parks in the suburbs seeking foreign investment in heavy industry, machinery, aviation and pharmaceuticals. For those with the right credentials, there are opportunities for investment in these areas.
Private schools tend to strongly discourage, if not outright forbid, their foreign teachers from engaging in outside employment (moonlighting). Each school has different policies that should be clarified before accepting a position. Many teachers seem to just ignore their school’s policies despite having been expressly forbidden to conduct outside teaching.
As a rule, many teachers in Guiyang and Guizhou arrive first and then look around for employment opportunities later. Similar but far fewer positions are also available in Zunyi. In addition to hiring oral English teachers, private schools often seek foreign directors of studies (DOS) with teaching and management experience. The names and contact information of the two major universities in Guizhou are provided below for your convenience. To learn about private English language schools in Guiyang, simply conduct a search using your favorite search engine.