Now that I’ve moved in Japan and have a bit of hindsight and perspective I thought I’d share my thoughts for those of you considering making the big move to Shanghai, or perhaps elsewhere in China. I moved to China for a teaching position at an international school at very short notice and had an amazing and eventful two years. On balance, I would highly recommend expat life there, but it’s not for everyone and you will find opinion is always divided. It’s a crazy and extreme place, which for me grew to be intoxicating and exciting, but there are massive downsides too. You’ll notice that my pros and cons list features some of the same things in both – that’s because a lot of things are real double edged swords! Like I said, this is highly subjective and I know people who would disagree, but I hope this helps your decision making!
- Shanghai is a modern cosmopolitan city which has everything other major world capitals have in abundance and more besides: gigs, international theatre shows, Disneyland, gigantic malls, rooftop cocktail bars, parks, art galleries, sports facilities, Uber taxis (well…its equivalent, Didi), festivals, Costa coffee etc. etc.
- Architecture – forget Manhattan. Shanghai has space age skyscrapers and urban architecture straight out of a Marvel comic. I used to love riding in a taxi or bus along the towering spirals of elevated roads at night looking out at the glowing neon skyline. The Bund is probably the most stunning urban waterfront I have ever seen.
- The Former French Concession – this made Shanghai for me. I love the mixture of traditional French architecture fused together with local Chinese culture in this area. It feels like a green Mediterranean oasis and actually looks like one from above, surrounded on all sides by the towering skyscrapers. The area is huge and generally well preserved by the local government, full of cool boutique shops, cafés and bars. Fast forward 10 years and the Shoreditch hipsters may have arrived
- It is safe – I never felt physically threatened by the people in Shanghai in any way and crime is very low. No one ever approached me in the street or hassled me apart from outside one or two isolated tourist hotspots. I also never heard of women being hassled at night for example (though I’m not a woman and I imagine, like everywhere, it is bound to happen from time to time).
- It is great value for money – Food, drink, transport, electronics and services can be dirt cheap. True, you may have to adapt your tastes and do as the locals do, but there is always an option for every budget. Even the overpriced fancy Western restaurants and bars in my view have prices favourably comparable to other world cities such as London, Tokyo, Paris etc (though much more expensive than provincial Chinese cities). Services like moving house, repairs or locksmiths and gas and electricity bills are very affordable. For a small fee, you can even hire an ‘ayi’ to clean your house, do your ironing, cook your dinner etc.
- The transport system is amazing – Taxis cost buttons and you can easily pick up a Mobike or Ofo at your door and cycle it to the door of your next destination for close to nothing. The metro system and trains are clean, safe and crazily cheap. Compared to other cities it is pretty quick to get across the town.
- Taobao – a cross between Amazon and eBay, Taobao (or Tmall) sells everything and the prices are incredible
- E le me – you can order any food or drink imaginable on here and it is fast and cheap. The record was 4 and a half minutes for bottles of chilled Erdinger to arrive at my door
- You don’t have to tip – it really just isn’t part of the culture
- Water is readily available – airports, banks, public places and train stations routinely offer free water taps and restaurants usually put water or tea in front of you when you arrive. No large bills for overpriced mineral water to worry about
- Tailormade goods – sometimes rather hit and miss to be fair – but you can have any item of clothing made on a budget. My prize possession is a beautiful black leather jacket made at the South Bund Fabric market. Don’t forget to haggle
- Eating and drinking out – There is an amazing variety of restaurants, some of the most stunning rootop cocktail bars in the world and lots of craft beer pubs. You can buy most Western food (contrary to popular belief) and German beer is surprisingly cheap and abundant!
- Weekend trips and holidays – Shanghai is an amazing transport hub with flights available to all over Asia in a short hop. Locally there are an excellent range of options for weekend trips, e.g. Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, Chongming island etc
- Healthcare – with an international health insurance you can access luxury five star health clinics in Shanghai
- English is widely spoken – Street signs are in English and it is rarely a problem for people to get by without Mandarin
- The international community – it’s so large in Shanghai that you can join English speaking clubs, network and more or less replicate a Western lifestyle if you want to
- General craziness – there is always something exciting and utterly crazy happening. It is a photographers dream – stand anywhere in Shanghai and just you wait for something to happen. It is highly infectious
- Accommodation – it can be pricey if you want to live in a nice area. The quality of workmanship and safety can be shoddy. So much so that despite reporting our constantly leaking roof leaked, it eventually collapsed and we had to move out for ten days (avoid top floor apartments!). Landlords can be untrustworthy. You can save money by living outside of the French Concession and Jing’an areas however, and if you’re willing to commute great deals in more modern buildings can be found
- Road safety is terrifying: it is improving, but crossing the road can be a life changing event and people really don’t know how to cycle, casually flying out of blind entrances across pavements etc. I had a few near misses – and don’t expect an apology if someone cycles into you, it will be your fault
- People don’t know how to queue (but are experts at queue jumping). Chinese people are incredibly impatient at times and will always look for a way to slip past you
- Chinese people often love to break the rules. If you see a sign saying ‘don’t fish in the lake’ or ‘Danger: don’t climb on this rock to take photos’, you can guarantee that someone will try it
- Air pollution – well, actually the AQI is not usually too bad. Despite the reputation, it is sometimes only on a par with Tokyo and other large world cities and has greatly improved. It is certainly vastly superior to most other Chinese cities including Beijing. It still isn’t at a healthy level in the long term though and true blue sky days are rare. On a bad day there’s no denying that it can be scary and unpleasant and you’re advised not to do sport outside.
- Spitting – although common across Asia, if is especially bad in China. I never got used to this and the loud throat clearing noise that accompanies this used to literally keep me awake at night
- Noise – it’s a crazy loud place. Construction can happen at any time
- Manners – expect a lot of Shanghainese people can be outwardly rude or cold at best (as a sweeping stereotype). Once you get to know people though, you will have made a friend for life and will be taken aback by their generosity
- Mandarin can be hard to practice – Even if you can speak a good level of Mandarin, as a Westerner you will often get responded to in English or people will sometimes more or less refuse to converse. I felt like many local people didn’t really want us to speak Chinese, which was frustrating. To immerse yourself in Mandarin I would recommend you go to a more provincial city.
- General craziness – like I said, this is a double edged sword. The gym you joined might suddenly close down, the restaurant you booked for a party might move premises. You might see someone selling live baby turtles in key rings in the park or someone defecating in the middle of the street. Not all forms of crazy are good
- Clothes – we found a lot didn’t fit us, though there is at least Gap, H&M etc. and you could opt for tailormade. Some items like shoes are crazy expensive, e.g. Clark’s. The chances are you will want to go to your home country to stock up now and again
- Western goods can be expensive – I am contradicting myself here because not ALL western goods are and I was pleasantly impressed by the price and range of German and Belgium beer in the expat shops, for example! However, if you truly want to eat exactly the same things you eat at home without any adaptation it might get pricey (but nowhere near as much as in Japan!).
- Customer service – rarely exists. If you are unhappy with something a refund is highly unlikely. If you send your meal back, you will still have to pay
- Casual racism – a lot of people think nothing of being casually discriminatory or making derogatory comments to a foreigner. Expect children to point and shout ‘waiguo ren’ (‘foreigner’) as you walk past to make you feel welcome (and parents to not correct them). If you are first in a queue, you might not get served first
- It is not a place to settle long term – I don’t know of any foreigners who have settled into retirement in China and most of the people who had lived there for a long time were there mainly for the money and intended to leave in the future
So lots of pros and cons, but I will say to conclude that I love Shanghai and miss it a lot, even though I also enjoy living in the Tokyo area.
What do you think of life as an expat in Shanghai? Does this sound familiar? Or has this helped you prepare for the big move?
If you are considering moving to China, these blog posts might be of interest to you: