I've spent time in both China and Latin America and found the differences usually far outweigh the similarities. There are some experiences which are common to travel anywhere, and some which are common in the developing world; but if you live in these regions, the culture and experiences are jarringly different. China is safer, and more profitable; the Latin world is known for the warmth of its people and its abundance of intact historical neighborhoods. Both offer a wealth of natural scenery and the wild contrasts of the developing world. Expats in China are often so focused on their lives here that we forget what expat life can be like elsewhere in the world. Here’s a side by side comparison of how expat life in China and the Latin world compare when it comes to the things that matter to expats most.
In China, once you have a job set up and a contract signed, life is pretty easy, at least for a year. Employers often pay the cost of the visa and the residency. As long as you don't let the residency run out, you can stay another period without crossing any borders. Hassles typically only occur when you or your employers don’t know what you're doing, or you let something important expire.
In Latin America, many teachers still work on a tourist visa and cross the border every few months to renew it – a major hassle unless you really enjoy having to travel a few hundred miles every three months, hang out in a dodgy border town, and then come back. China is comfort by comparison.
Monetarily speaking China is easier for expats; even lower range teaching jobs can bring in enough cash to get by and save money. A significant portion of the teaching in Latin America, on the other hand, is like paid volunteerism. You will get by only if you are very financially conservative. You will dip into savings if you are not, and will certainly have to do so to travel. There are exceptions though, particularly in Mexico, but the salaries in China, and the fact that many schools offer free flats make it enormously better for income.
You can get robbed in either place, but when it comes to ending up in the hospital or morgue, it happens more often in Latin America. In China, I’ve met people who’ve been burgled or had relatives hit by motor vehicles; in Ecuador, I met people who'd been violently robbed in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. In China, I regularly walk around at night; in Ecuador, I always took a cab after 10pm. Every time I mentioned to my students in Ecuador what street I lived on, they always showed concern and asked me if I'd ever been robbed or attacked – this was not encouraging. The narrow, dark avenue a few blocks from my home was nick-named El Pasaje del Perdon (The Path of Forgiveness) supposedly if you walked the entire street late at night and made it through then all your sins would be forgiven. While that sounds very promising, I never gave it a try.
You will be stunned by the natural beauty in both regions. Latin America has many more tropical regions and more beach culture along the coasts. The closest China comes to tropical is Hainan and the southern strip of Yunnan. How much to enjoy it all? I got a hotel room by Erhai Lake in Dali for about 10 USD; in South America I got a little room with a bed for 6 USD, about fifty feet from the Pacific Ocean.
Far easier in Latin America. It's fairly impossible to end up isolated or lonely, and extremely difficult to be bored. The warmth of the people is a tangible part of the culture. In just a few weeks in Mexico, I got invited out by the crew at the local bakery. On weekend afternoons, kids cruise the main drag in their pickups with all their friends in the back and you'd often be invited to jump in too.
This often seems more awkward in China. You frequently feel you're getting a presentation, rather than having a real back and forth. You hear virtually the same questions and comments from countless people. Even sitting down and having a drink with someone, the connection feels formal. Chinese can be wonderfully helpful and sweet, but it takes much time to feel any inner connection.
Expats have serious health complaints in both China and Latin America. The foremost issue in China is the air. Food complaints are common to both as well, although in Latin America the prevalence of amoebas in water and produce may be more severe. The safest rule is not to eat anything which hasn't been cooked or peeled. If you want to ignore this rule in Latin America, you will pay for it quickly. Treated immediately, they won't become permanent, but they can make you absolutely miserable for weeks. Ignored them too long and they'll live in your system indefinitely.
From experience, China is less risky for food, but it's still best to be careful what you eat. Some go years without ever getting sick, others step off the plane, have lunch, and are suddenly struck ill. Most of these illnesses are not serious, but if you do end up with something serious, many foreigners take the opportunity to get it treated at home. While there are a few excellent hospitals in China, many are extremely limited in what they offer. I once walked into the doctor's office of a neighborhood hospital, and the doctor, leaning back in the chair and smoking a cigarette, quickly snuffed it out on the floor and asked, “So, what medicine do you want me to give you?” Going home for treatment is safest; Hong Kong is also a respectable choice.
We all have different ideas of fun. However, if we're talking about the social kind, where groups of people gather in one place with food, drink, music and so forth, Latin America is where the life is. Music and dance are ingrained here, as is the self-expression which comes with it. While in much of the world, dance is a late-night thing and carries overtones of intoxication and sex, dance is as natural as walking for millions in Latin America. You can find it in the most wholesome of places as well as the seediest. As soon as children are old enough to walk, they’re put in front of the latest Latin dance video to bop along to the music.
Art and architecture
China has some amazing examples of traditional art and architecture. However, much of it has been destroyed over the years and it can take some real searching to find it today. In Latin America, as in Europe, a multitude of cities have kept their sizable old towns, full of narrow streets and gorgeous colonial architecture. Even heavily developed cities typically have an old town full of stone buildings, balconies lined with flowers and hauntingly beautiful old churches. These fantastic historical surroundings are part of the joy of visiting the region, whereas in China we often look around and wonder, where'd it all go?
Just getting along
Some of the day-to-day aspects of getting by are shared between expat life in China and in Latin America. Purchasing is going to mean haggling outside of the major stores. Once you get known in a neighborhood, you'll usually be offered the regular price on items, but your first time in a place they might bump the price up a little. What you really want to avoid is simply getting ripped off; which a little research and common sense can help you avoid. In Latin America, it's not uncommon for your regular small shop owner or veggie lady to start throwing in freebies once you guys are tight.
Of course a relationship is a relationship, and the local people will notice when you have been gone. My roommate in Ecuador once went back to her regular shop lady after an absence of a few weeks, and the lady was very inquisitive, quizzing her about where she’d been getting her avocados lately; you don't want them to think you've been two-timing them. Both regions really have that neighborhood life. Your shops are going to know you after a short while, including what you always buy, if you're seeing someone, where you live, what kind of a day you're having etc...These are not people paid to be perky, but they do help the town grow on you.
Life in both regions, though sometimes frustrating, can be a tremendous experience. When visa, job or other issues pile up, it’s important to remember that things can be annoying, bureaucratic or confusing no matter where you are in the world and that those of us fortunate enough to travel and live abroad have a lot to be grateful for.