the pros + cons of living in Nanjing, China

Before I moved to China, I spent hours upon hours researching blogs and articles on the internet in hopes that I'd make my new move every bit prepared. Most sites covered the basics of expat life in Beijing and Shanghai, but there was very little that was comprehensive regarding life for foreigners in Nanjing. Which is why my next few posts will cover expat life in Nanjing extensively. 

After living in the southern capital for nearly 10 months, I know what Nanjing offers expats and what life there is utterly lacking. If you're considering making the move to Nanjing, this post aims to help you understand the good and bad that exists. 

Here's what sticks out... 



IT HAS AN AFFORDABLE COST OF LIVING: While Nanjing's cost of living isn't as low as other places I've lived {namely Laos} or traveled {Southeast Asia and South America}, it is still much cheaper when compared to England, New Zealand, and the United States {other places I've lived}. When compared to other cities in China like Shanghai or Beijing, Nanjing is, once again, more cost-effective. If you're looking to save money, Nanjing is a city where you can not only make decent cash but a place where you won't spend it all. 

IT'S EASY TO GET AROUND: Between a metro system, the DiDi app, share-ride bicycle hires, and regular taxi cabs, getting around is simple. I never had much issue getting from one place to another. I learned to love urban biking and appreciated the metro system being user-friendly. Cabs are inexpensive and a screenshot of your destination's address makes it easy to get from point A to point B. 

MEETING OTHER EXPATS IS RELATIVELY EASY: Let it be known that I believe firmly in making local friends. Amy, Nicole, Lexie...these wonderful Chinese friends of mine saved me from creepy aggressive DiDi drivers, getting scammed, and also taught me how to order coffee in Chinese without milk or sugar {hallejujah, amen}. They were life savers and gave me some of the biggest laughs during my time in China. I love them and I'm so grateful for our friendships. It's not always easy to make local friends given the cultural and linguistical barriers that exist. Sometimes you need to find another expat. My second day in China I went to look at a room in a flat that two Australian guys were renting. We immediately hit it off but, spoiler alert: I didn't end up living with them. Instead, James, Russell and I had coffee dates, movie nights, and James even slept over a time or two when I was stricken with a seriously nasty case of pollution sickness. It only took one work meeting for me to instantly bond with Amy and Katie, both of whom became my closest friends in China. People tend to bond quickly and offer Nanjing related advice when needed. There are always expat events going on in Nanjing and an abundance of WeChat expat groups to join that make it easy to meet and make friends {these will be listed in my comprehensive expat's guide to Nanjing}. 

THERE ARE A VARIETY OF INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS: Thanks to everyone wanting the booming Chinese travel business, there are an abundance of direct international flights that exist at low-cost. Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, and the Philippines are just some of the many places you can fly to directly from Nanjing making it a traveler's dream {aka me always looking for a good hub city}. 

WESTERN COMFORTS EXIST: This is one that I had to be reminded of time and time again by my partner. Compared to remote or underdeveloped places I've lived and visited, yes, Nanjing offers all the things you need to remind you of home if you are willing to ask around and search for them. Obviously, you don't move to a foreign country for the home comforts. If anything, you move abroad to be shaken out of your comfort zone. That said, sometimes it's nice to see something you an IKEA with fancy bedsheets or Hundreds and Thousands biscuits. 

YOU'RE CLOSE TO OTHER MAJOR CITIES: China is a massive country. Like, more massive than anyone realizes. People often ask if you've visited X without realizing it's a 30-hour bus journey away. Being just a short train ride away from Shanghai and a few hours journey from Beijing makes day trips and getaways financially doable without taking days to get there. 

ALL YOU NEED IS A PHONE: This could technically go under the "con" column, but we're being our most sunny-side up here. Your phone in China is everything. It's connected to your bank so that you can pay my rent and utilities, hail a DiDi {China's Uber}, unlock your Share Bike and grab groceries. It's got your WeChat account on it, i.e. the only form of communication with your friends that doesn't require the use of a VPN.  Basically, there is no need for a purse in Nanjing. No need for cash or credit cards in a clutch bag. All you need is literally your phone. 



THE LANGUAGE BARRIER IS STEEP: Unlike Shanghai or nearby Hong Kong island, Nanjing isn't booming with diversity. Yes, there is an expat community {as mentioned above}, but comparatively...Nanjing is fairly homogenous and it tends to be quite set in its ways. You should always try to learn the language and bend to the culture you are the guest of, but it's important to know that unlike Thailand or Vietnam, China's language barrier can make everyday tasks total obstacles in no time. 

BANKING IS A PAIN IN THE ASS: I don't even know where to start with this honestly. Banking was pretty nightmare-ish. You need so many documents and a few hours to set up your banking, and that's where the frustration begins. You then need a Chinese SIM that will be connected to your banking so that you can pay for everything with mobile apps. When it comes to transferring money back to your primary account, I was lucky enough to find a few apps that allowed me to transfer money at little to no cost thanks only to the place I bank within America. I know others who have to either transfer their money to a local friend who then transfers it back to them in their foreign account. Others still just use PayPal {fees, fees, fees}. You'll get asked what you need your money for when you withdraw it from the bank {life? food? none of your business..?}. There's also a lot of red tape. Foreigners can't have credit cards. Their Chinese debit cards don't work overseas. Dramatics aside, it's just an absolute pain. 

STARING IS EXCESSIVE: Much like what I've heard from friends about India, China seems to be a place where a good majority of people never get used to seeing non-Chinese. Despite international schools and a reasonably large expat population, I constantly got asked to be in photos with complete strangers. But...that was the very tip of the iceberg. I also got photos taken of me without my consent while riding the metro, at the park with my friends, and shopping at the supermarket. I've had old men stare at me despite me staring real hard and angrily back. This really started to aggravate me towards the end of my time in Nanjing. I just got to a point where I was sick of being looked at like a zoo animal. It's not a total deal breaker, but it gets pretty exhausting after the millionth time. 

MAJOR HEALTH CONCERNS EXIST: Whether expats in Nanjing care to admit it to themselves or not, living in a place with such insane pollution is bad for you-- that should be a super obvious statement. Breathing in air that contains metallic toxins is, well, not exactly the ideal lifestyle your lungs had hoped for. It's no secret I was sick in some way during my entire time in Nanjing, whether it be minor congestion or full-blown pollution sickness. It's never fun being sick, so keep in mind that Nanjing has major factories, making its air quality incredibly poor during the winter months. Air pollution in China has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular problems, and developmental issues in children-- it's serious shit. 

BEING PLANT-BASED IS A JOKE: I try to be vegan when possible, but even being a vegetarian in China was a regular struggle. Hotpot, a Chinese social staple, is almost exclusively carnivorous. Vegetarian choices at Chinese restaurants in Nanjing are usually limited {if they even exist at all}. This could have been a great opportunity to get into cooking, but my flat had a one-hub stove and I was often too tired to cook for just me, leaving me to enjoy a tasty dragonfruit for dinner. 

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES ARE DIFFICULT:  Listen, I get it. I went to China and when you go somewhere, you should do everything you can to "take on" the culture. But...I did. I tried learning the language. I went to the museums and saw the sights and made local friends. It was all for not. The cultural differences that exist are the hardest part of living in China because even the locals can't explain why things are the way they are. You'll hear "This is China" a lot as a reason for you having to give your employer your bank details every month before payday instead of them keeping them on file. You'll hear that same phrase as the reason behind why people stop to take photos on their phones when someone is in a horrific car accident or when your doctors prescribe boiled water as the cure for the flu. And, after initial frustrations, you'll realize that you are in fact never going to out-logic the "This is China" excuse because it is China and it isn't changing for the sake of being reasonable or efficient. It's a stubborn country, much like America, aye? 

NOTHING WILL BE AS IT IS ADVERTISED TO BE: Since wealth is a new concept, everything in China revolves around status. Labels, brand names, shiny exteriors-- these are the things that matter. So, if China has to lie a does. It will advertise one thing and then deliver something entirely different without realizing how frustrating that can be. Some examples- Advertisement: "Come visit the temple of 9,999 Buddhas!" Reality: there is one Buddha statue in a room that also sells souvenirs. Advertisement: "Our new organic fruit and veg shop sells 23 kinds of lemons!" Reality: Lemons are actually the only thing the fruit and veg shop sells, and they are not organic but, rather, the size of watermelons as they have been injected with sugar-water to "improve" their taste. 


Like anything in life, when you make a big choice you're making an agreement with the Universe to take the good with the bad. Long hours that come with high pay. A relationship that comes with bouts of long-distance separation. City living that comes with high costs. You get the picture.

My life in China was no exception-- it was 10 months of trotting along and taking the trials with the triumphs. There were about a million pros and cons of living in Nanjing. I tried to make this list as balanced as possible and I hope it helps those looking to become Nanjingers understand both sides of the coin.

Ultimately, I'd still do it over again. The people I met. The way I drastically changed as a person. The lessons I learned. The opportunities I was afforded. I can't say I'd do it a second time...but I wouldn't change trying it out once. And I'm desperately hoping that visiting as a traveler will be a...let's just say better experience. 


14 Things to consider before you move to Nanjing, China