While the name Yongzhou hardly rolls off the tongue of most tourists from the West, it has been a wonderful and rewarding experience to live and teach here. My first job in China, I’ve been teaching at the Hunan University of Science and Engineering since August 2009. If you are a foreign teacher looking for a place off the beaten path, one that still possesses a lot of nice creature comforts, I would highly recommend considering moving here, especially if you are someone who does not like the huge crowds and poor air quality typical of the larger cities. If you have any questions about my city guide, you may contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Being a small city in central China, there are not many other foreigners here and you will certainly feel very special. One reason I like it so much is that large Chinese cities can be so overwhelmingly crowded. People here are very relaxed. If you are used to living in the country in the West, you’d probably enjoy a place like this more than a huge city. Assuming you are not someone who is annoyed by all the passersby saying “hello!” to you, you will perceive the locals as extremely friendly.
Shops and restaurants never try to overcharge you as a foreigner, which is very refreshing compared to cities like Guilin where every shop and restaurant owner will try to set an exorbitant price for Western visitors.
Yongzhou covers a fairly large area, so I must mention that my comments are pretty much confined to Lingling district, where my school is located, and Lengshuitan district which is maybe 20km down the road. There’s a nice mix, especially in Lingling, of newer and older things to see, including some great old temples and towers very close to the school.
The climate is warm and humid, but no more so than most places in southern China. It never drops below freezing although a few times per year you can expect some heavy rain. Due to the lack of heavy industry, the air in Yongzhou is very clean. There is not a lot of pollution at all and you can expect clear skies without much haze.
There is a lot of natural beauty owing to the unspoiled environment. In nearby Dong An, there is a wonderful mountain park with water flowing so clean you can just drink directly from the stream. No joke, I’ve done it.
The food is wonderful and wonderfully inexpensive. On Yangzitang street , which is where the university is, you can find dozens of small but delicious restaurants offering several different Chinese cuisines. There’s also a fried chicken chain called Wallace, which is similar to KFC or Dico’s. They cater primarily to students so most main courses are about 6-11 RMB each. It’s entirely possible for a party of four to enjoy a dinner out for 32 RMB including two meat dishes and two vegetables.
As for Western food, it’s available at a few places a short distance from the school. It’s going to be more expensive, maybe 100 yuan for a steak, but it’s a nice change of pace on occasion. Basically, any restaurant that has the word “Coffee” in the title will serve some Western-style food. There’s also a KFC maybe 40 minutes away by bus and a Dico’s (a sort of Chinese KFC equivalent) nearby.
While the restaurants are so cheap and delicious so that I can go for weeks without ever cooking for myself, groceries are readily available. There are three large supermarkets nearby: Better Life (Bu Bu Gao), Yikelong, and Heart. They have everything you’d need to cook meals for yourself. In addition, Yongzhou has a large number of farms and a lot of open-air produce markets. The fruits and vegetables are fresh and delicious being grown very close to the city. It will be difficult for me to move back to northeastern U.S. and pay upwards of $2.00 per pound for oranges. They tend to run about 1-2 RMB per kilo. Everything is locally sourced.
There are a ton of KTV (karaoke) places near the school and in the downtown area. Some are very small and inexpensive and some are very large and elaborate. I find the students love to sing and they will always try to get us foreign teachers to go with them to KTV.
There’s also a dance club or two close to the school. While they don’t tend to play Western music, the atmosphere is very similar to what you’d expect at a dance club in a Western city. Prices are very reasonable for beer and other drinks and they sell plenty of snacks. Definitely a good time and—sometimes when you go—some local businessmen or Party members will want to impress their friends by inviting some foreigners over to drink with them. They will insist on paying your bill, despite any objections you might make!
In Lengshuitan there are a few Western-style pubs too, where no one will expect you to sing, which is nice if you are a poor singer like me.
There really aren’t any foreigners other than the teachers at local schools, so you’ll tend to make friends with a lot of your students, which is great way to practice your Chinese and really assimilate into the culture.
However, if you’re a single male looking to meet a Western girl, you are likely to be disappointed. That said, it’s really easy to meet nice Chinese girls here who speak English: they will very likely introduce themselves to you as soon as they see you!
Housing is provided by our school and—in stark contrast to many of the horror stories you read on message boards written by foreign teachers—it is quite clean and comfortable. In the city you see a lot of older buildings, including the one I live in at the university, but many have been extensively remodeled on the inside. My apartment has two bedrooms, a clean western-style bathroom, and they even got us a nice, soft western sofa!
While the city itself is quite old, and has a wonderful old city gate and wall downtown, there is a fair amount of new construction. A brand new downtown shopping area has just been constructed and will be opening shortly.
Prices for nearly everything are quite low. If you are looking to save some money, this is a great place to do so. I find that I usually spent around 1100-1500 RMB per month and that includes 150 RMB for a gym membership and eating out for almost every meal. You’ll have plenty of money for travel: I spend only around 25% of my monthly income, maybe even a little less.
There are a ton of clothing stores in the downtown area with a good selection of Chinese brands. You are, however, not likely to find many Western brands in LingLing district. In nearby Lengshuitan district, maybe 40 minutes away by bus, you can find Nike and Adidas as well as some other Western brands. I’m just under 6ft tall and weigh 160lbs, so while I’m on the tall side for Chinese people I have no trouble finding things that fit. However, my friend is very tall and he cannot find clothing in his size. If you are very tall or large, you will likely have trouble doing your shopping here. Your best bet would be to take a trip to Changsha or spend a weekend in Guangzhou shopping. Bring a Chinese friend, preferably one who knows the city well and they’ll get you some amazing bargains.
There is a large electronics market where you can find such things as MP3 players and Lenovo computers, etc. I bought a copy of Windows XP for 10 RMB. The best deal you will find is a build-your-own desktop computer, which I’m sure can be bargained down to a very good price. However, most English software titles are not readily available, so you would be wise to bring them with you or, better yet, order them on Taobao.com (a sort of Chinese eBay) for very little money.
You can find most Western major brands of shampoos, soaps, toothpaste, and the like (Head and Shoulders, Dove, Crest, Colgate, etc.). At some salons you can find higher-end brands like L’Oreal but they will be imported and more expensive. If you are an overly fussy person or need to compulsively shop for new clothing on a weekly basis, you may not find what you are looking for. You have to be open-minded and willing to accept substitutes.
Transportation is quite easy as the city has a comprehensive bus system that is very convenient. One of the bus routes goes right up to the gate of my university.
There are also lots of regular and motorcycle taxis around and, once you learn a few words of Chinese, you’ll have no trouble getting around the city. You can also buy an electric or gas motorcycle as I did and have a great time exploring the city more intimately. My bike was an electric model and was sold to me by a student for only 700 RMB, amazing to get something so useful for around $100 US. As it was electric there was no registration or licensing issues whatsoever, and I suspect that even if it was a gas bike I wouldn’t have had any issues.
Unlike larger cities, traffic is usually light, although you must get used to the “unique” manner of driving etiquette you tend to find in China! There are two train stations and a large bus depot fairly close to the university. There is also an airport with regular flights to Changsha and Guangzhou for those more inclined to fly.
There are a few hospitals in LingLing district but, with only one exception, the standards seem quite low. There is however a new and very modern hospital located at a nearby medical college.
A friend of mine became seriously ill and the doctors at one of the local people’s hospitals just assumed it was swine flu without running any tests. After being taken to the better hospital, he was found to simply have tonsillitis and given a course of treatment that had him back on his feet in no time. The difference in cost between the two is negligible and the school helped pay for his care, so it will ALWAYS be worth it to go to the medical college hospital.
There are many middle schools in the surrounding area, some of which hire foreign teachers. I’ve never been to one, but I know people who have taught there and I’ve heard they can be a mixed bag.
I would definitely recommend teaching at Hunan University of Science and Engineering. They have treated us very well. Everything you read on this website about foreign affairs office horror stories do NOT apply to this school. Any time I’ve had an issue with my apartment. from a leaky pipe to noisy neighbors. it’s been resolved very quickly and I’ve never felt my needs were ignored. That alone is a HUGE selling point judging from what I’ve read about FAOs at other schools. The staff is very friendly and speak excellent English.
Pay is good for the area. Being a 23-year old with a bachelor’s degree in economics, I was offered 4800 yuan per month for 16 40-minute periods. There are a few foreign language schools that will offer you extra classes if you so choose, but basically there’s no need to moonlight. My salary has been plenty.
The university campus is pretty nice, the buildings are fairly new, and the classrooms come mostly equipped with computer projectors and A/V equipment. The visual aids make teaching much more convenient and easier.
I’ve had a great time in Yongzhou. It has been great as an off-the-beaten-path experience. You can really see a side to China that most tourists never do. The greatest thing, I would say, is that it really makes you assimilate. It would be nearly impossible to live here and not learn any Chinese. You really start to get used to more traditional Chinese culture here as the influence of the West is not so readily apparent.
Teaching at my university has been great and—based on what I’ve heard about other schools—the FAO is truly exceptional. They are helpful at a moment's notice and very nice people. The students are mostly very eager to get to know you because many of them are from the countryside and have never met a foreigner before. It’s really been quite an eye-opening experience for me as someone who came from a large American city full of diversity.
Living here will not be ideal for everyone, if only because you will not be able to perfectly recreate the Western life you had back home, at any price. To enjoy it here you must be willing to try lots of new foods and Chinese brands. If you are not particularly flexible, you may not enjoy yourself here as much as I have. I have been able to find a substitute for everything I had grown accustomed to back home and am quite comfortable, but I am an easily adaptable person. If you are too, then you can really enjoy your new life here in Yongzhou.
It’s been a remarkable experience I’ll never forget.
Hunan University of Science and Engineering
Chen Biyuan (Cindy)
Foreign Affairs Office