According to HSBC’s Expat Explorer Survey 2013 (most recent), China was ranked #1 overall among 37 countries as the best place to be an expatriate thanks to high quality of life and increasing work opportunities.
To see what it’s like for a Westerner to live in China, we interviewed a young professional Rorie Noonan who came to Shanghai more than 2 years ago. Read on for his interesting insights on life in Shanghai and valuable tips that may be helpful to those looking to relocate to this city.
1Rorie, please tell where originally are you from and how did it happen that you decided to take the big leap and move to Shanghai?
Hi, well originally from Liverpool, Great Britain, I had an interesting childhood moving with my parents and siblings from England to Germany in 1993, and eventually growing up in southwest France from 1999 to 2012. My education was split between different countries hence exposing me to different cultures and languages; I suppose this is what encourages my curiosity of the world.
As a child, I was very fond of documentaries and history leading me to follow an education with the opportunity to travel and work abroad. Later in my studies I became fascinated with brands and their communication methods to attract new customer and retain their attention. My passion for marketing was born.
These two passions lead me to follow international planning and marketing studies in Bordeaux, France where I engaged in a course providing me with the opportunity to travel and study in Shanghai, China for 4 Months. China had always been a big source of interest to me; its culture, history and inventions had always fascinated me as a child, so this was kind of like a dream come true.
One thing lead to another and before I knew it, I had finished my studies, engaged in an internship and been offered a full time position as business developer and marketing specialist. Now in 2014 it’s been more than 2 and a half years for me in China and the city still blows my mind every time.
So for me it was not so much a big leap but rather a welcomed challenge that I plan on taking full advantage of.
2Due to the immense differences in cultural behaviors, relocating to China can be a huge challenge for a Westerner. At the same time, the city of Shanghai is known as a cosmopolitan metropolis and it topped the list as foreigners’ favorite city in the Chinese mainland in 2013. What was your very first impression of Shanghai when you landed here? Did you have a so-called culture shock? Could you give an example or two of Shanghainese customs or day-to-day activities which appeared weird or confusing to you?
Indeed, it can be huge challenge living abroad, especially when you don’t speak the language or have trouble assimilating the culture. Many people decide to return to their home country however the ones who stay do get to experience Shanghai in its entire splendor.
But of course there are some confusing customs that still give me a headache today such as:
– The People not queuing in line to let other people exit the metro before they enter it!
– The lack of fun, if no money is involved in games then Chinese don’t see the point in playing.
– The “Face” factor in China, it evolves around making people look good in front of others, this tends to slow down work progress since people don’t say what is good or bad or can be better but simply agree with what is said by their superior.
These are I think the three that have marked me the most.
3What advice can you give to Western expats to help them adjust to new environment in Shanghai? Do you think it will be beneficial to take cross cultural training?
I think its all a question of state of mind. In China, customs are very different and can be challenging to accept, cross-cultural training can help to a certain extent but, on site experience is valuable. I think the best advice to a new person arriving is “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. New expats need to understand that things are very different in China and need to be able to adjust to the work environment, which can at times be very challenging. Good previous travel experience, a strong will, openness and acceptance to other cultures is very important to successfully work in China.
4What is the locals’ attitude toward foreigners in Shanghai? Do you feel welcome and comfortable here?
Well, there are indeed moments where you feel a little un-welcome, however that is rare. Small gestures go far, a simple “hello” in Chinese or the occasional “how are you” can go a long way, and show locals that you are trying.
The local Chinese are very curious about where foreigners come from, they tend to assume most are from America or France, in the same way that we assume that all Asians tourists are from China.
5One of the most challenging things when moving to a foreign city is building a new circle of friends from scratch. Do you have your own socialising tricks that help acquire new connections in Shanghai? Maybe there are any expat networking events or online communities worth participating in?
This was most likely the biggest challenge. Over the first year most of friends left Shanghai, most of which were either students or interns. It’s a sad experience and can be depressing. Those fun Wednesday night burger evenings and Saturday night parties are all of a sudden gone…
However it does broaden your circle of friends from around the world. Now I have a solid circle of friends all working here, I tend to be more interested in conversing and hanging out with people I know will be here in 6 months to come.
I think there is no particular trick in meeting people, it happens naturally, more often than not you are introduced by friends and quickly meet people from all over the world, living and working in China, age seems to be much less relevant.
6How good is public transport in Shanghai? Is it necessary to have a car to get around the city?
Public transport in Shanghai is great, no question about it. Chinese men are required to have a car before marriage however; it’s really not necessary to have a car here.
Many residents, Chinese and foreign use electric scooters, including myself, it offers great freedom. I do however highly recommend a helmet for any adventurer who buys a scooter or bike in Shanghai. Other transportation alternatives include taxies, the very effective metro and the Bus system which hardly any expat uses. We have about 12 metro lines so far and from what I hear up to 22 Lines are planned.
7Can you recommend any apps, blogs or books which you find to be useful and which can help newly arrived expats to explore Shanghai?
Oh yes, there are great sites and apps to take note of when coming to Shanghai.
My favorite Internet site is Smart Shanghai; the site provides a broad list of activities, dining places, bars, nightclubs, housing listings and more. I think pretty much all the expats use it. Other sites depending on your origin are also Bonjour China (for the French speaker), which has similar things to Smart Shanghai, but in a very simplistic way primarily targeted at the French community.
Apps for new arriving people can be a lifesaver. I personally have the following on my phone and use them all the time:
Pleco: a great app for translating to and from mandarin.
Explore Shanghai: Convenient for finding you way around the city and knowing which metro exit to take.
Wechat: the ultimate social app for keeping in touch with friends and organizing parties, its kind of similar to WhatsApp but more advanced.
Cam dictionary: translated in real time what you see from mandarin to English.
Baidu maps: same as Google maps but the Chinese version, useful since Google is not too reliable in China.
Fqrouter2: great free VPN so you can do all you normal things without being censored in China, great for following censured news, using Google maps as well as Facebook, twitter, you tube and other things we tend to use on a daily basis.
8What are the best Shanghai neighborhoods for foreign expats to rent accommodation?
Well this is a tricky question, the best neighborhood depends on where your job or university is located, Shanghai is big so commuting from one side of the city to the other on a busy Monday morning can get you off to a bad week. That said some of the best areas in my opinion are:
Jing an: which is perfectly centered and has metro line and 2 and 7, which is ideal for getting around the city. The are plenty of shops and malls too, so great shopping opportunities as well as some historically interesting buildings, such as the re-construction of an ancient temple right in the middle of the city.
Xujiahui: is a little further away but provides great modern flats, big convenient stores and metro stations leading everywhere. It’s where I currently live, it offers great modern malls and local restaurants from all over Asia. It’s also less hectic than the city center but still close enough to get to all the city nightlife.
9Do you enjoy the Shanghai’s nightlife? Is there a good choice of nice places to go out? Can you share some cool restaurants or bars that are worth visiting?
The list for good restaurants, bars and places to see is endless; however my favorites ones are:
The flying elephant: a Russian restaurant in a high-rise hotel offering authentic Russian food.
Mr pancake: best pancakes in town, guaranteed you wont eat all day after that.
Haidilao: a Chinese restaurant offering a great show with its Kong Fu noodles, it’s a must see for any tourist or local who hasn’t been yet.
Bull noodle: unfortunately this place has now closed down but I heard rumors that it might re-open elsewhere in Shanghai. They offer great noodles soup in a very warehouse like design building.
2nd Floor: A small place I came across, which offers great fresh juices and small meals, great for some alone time or chill time with a friend or two.
The Roof: my favorite bar for drinks with friends, its cocktails are first class and the services amazing, they have on several occasions made cocktails for us that are not on their list.
El Coctel: a dark lounge with a nice atmosphere, nice to take a date.
The Woodenbox: most likely my favorite place to listen to live music whilst sipping a beer.
10Shanghai is the 10 most expensive city in the world for expats (according to Mercer’s Cost of Living Survey 2014). What is your outlook on this? Do you find Shanghai to be very expensive?
People tend to think Shanghai is cheap because its China but reality is that it is indeed an expensive place to live in. The housing alone doesn’t cease to increase and salaries are still relatively low in comparison to the cost of living. Basic imported products are on average 45% to 400% more expensive such as milk, some breads, wine, cheese, cereals, biscuits, meat etc.
This means adjusting your way of living and using Chinese ingredients and substitutes for cooking which is not always easy due to the absence of certain ingredients and the difference in our palate.
11What are the English speaking abilities of the locals? Did you have any communication problems when taking a taxi or visiting a doctor? Did you ever have to use an interpreter’s services? And do you think learning Mandarin Chinese is essential if one wants to enjoy life and fit in culturally in Shanghai?
The average Chinese local doesn’t speak English, but most of the younger generations do. Communication problems happen all the time, but it’s all just a case of learning the basics and being prepared.
If taking a taxi, having the Chinese address on your phone is useful incase the driver doesn’t understand what you say.
At times where you are unsure it’s always good to have a friend you can call who speaks Chinese. For my part I have several times had to call friends to help me out, I simply return the favor when I can.
I don’t think learning Mandarin is essential for life in Shanghai however the basics should be learnt otherwise it could quickly be annoying. When one does speak the language or has a certain level new doors open from themselves, so it’s worth investing some time and effort in learning mandarin to be able to enjoy Shanghai to its full extent.
12What are the 5 things you like most and 5 things you dislike about living in Shanghai?
1. Dumplings: my most loved food in China, make everything better.
2. The independence: a sense of freedom and challenge you have knowing that everything you do will affect and shape your future.
3. The vast choice: there is always something to do in Shanghai, events, concerts, new bars, restaurants, trade shows, exhibitions, sales and more, you cant get bored.
4. Friends: some of the best people I have ever met are from Shanghai. The cultural melting pot is great, meeting people from all industries from all over the world.
5. Convenience: everything can be obtained in Shanghai, it can sometimes be costly but everything is available.
1. Pollution: the biggest of all downfalls of China.
2. Visa renewals: They are long, time consuming and mostly involve unnecessary complications due to the constant regulation changes.
3. Medical checks: Organised like cattle slaughtering, you feel like a piece of meat going from one room to the next carrying out various checks dressed in a white robe.
4. Propaganda: The constant anti Japanese propaganda on TV, stories, newspapers, cigarette lighters and games, it’s just over the top.
5. Absence of patience: The average Chinese has no patience for lining up and letting people out before getting on buses, the metro or even the lift, they push until they are in.
6. Censure: The great firewall increasingly makes it difficulty to get outside information hence making communication, collecting news and even browsing Google accessible only via a VPN.
13Can you share some interesting “things I didn’t know about Shanghai before I moved here”?
Well the list is pretty long but here are a few:
– The Chinese have very interesting and creative ways about solving issues on a short term but don’t give too much thought about the long term. It’s quite the contrary to western behavior.
– Another is the brand awareness; in China foreign brands are very praised, due to higher standards contrary to Chinese brands, which are not considered trustworthy by the Chinese.
– Tap water is not drinkable, but bottled water is cheap, widely available and can be delivered directly to your home.
– Everything is negotiable in China; the price is always set higher, and should be bargained down until you are happy with the price. On average, Chinese consider a product value equal to what you are willing to pay for it.
– The louder the restaurant the better the food. It is not rare to see a restaurant putting chairs outside so people can wait until a table is free. Customers prefer to wait rather than go to a restaurant that is empty. An empty restaurant is synonym for bad food, why else is it empty!
14Do you enjoy living in Shanghai and can you see yourself staying here for a long period? Or do you want to return to your home country or move somewhere else?
I love living in Shanghai, however the pollution is a factor that must be seriously taking into account for long term stays. For now I can see myself staying in China for another 3 years however I would like to work and travel in other countries such as Australia followed by the USA. The world is a small place, there are yet so many things to discover and learn so I think its well worth shooting for the stars and exploring further.
Thank You, Rorie!