Courtesy of Jannes Glas./
China / Expats

China Through the Lens of Expats in Shanghai

Expats in Shanghai, China’s biggest city and commercial hub, form a diverse group in this country.

Allen Chng is a Singaporean college student doing a long-term internship in Shanghai. When asked what’s the most Chinese thing he’s ever done as an expat, Allen’s answer was quick and easy:

“Pushing and squeezing my way during the morning rush hour crowd.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle when hearing his answer, because I understand, from my experience, you just cannot be excessively polite when getting around on Chinese streets. Manners matter, but not as much at any particular Shanghai Subway station.

This past summer, I did an internship at an American-owned company in one of the most cosmopolitan areas in the city. I was immersed in the Shanghai expat community, and, more vividly than ever, I could see the constantly evolving Shanghai.

When asked what the biggest cultural shock was when he first came to Shanghai, Allen said, “In Singapore, people generally abide more closely to rules and common western social etiquette, while in Shanghai… there is a lot more pushing involved.” This was unsurprising to me as I have always had a bit of a reverse culture shock when I go home. When I go back to China, people are utterly uncomfortable with my over-politeness and excessive “thank-yous” and “sorrys.” People in China today seem to care less about topical etiquette.

Tanya, who is pursuing her masters degree in International Trade at Shanghai University, thought she acts the most Chinese while drinking:

“While I was interning at a startup company, we had this big dinner with the CEO, and we just drank a lot of bai jiu… I just got so incredibly drunk, I had to leave the table and literally chug a liter of water to be able to stand again… I thought that was very Chinese of me, to drink that amount of bai jiu under work pressure.”

Allen echos Tanya’s answer, “there is a lot of networking and meeting new people over drinks, something which I do way less in Singapore.”

I had multiple aha moments during my interviews, and Tanya’s and Allen’s remarks on drinking was definitely some of the ones that left me some afterthoughts. Drinking culture in China differs between business and leisure drinking. You will definitely find higher levels of intoxication and drunkenness at business events than at holiday family gatherings. In the business world, one’s tolerance level is indicative of one’s professional ability.

As a metropolitan, economically booming city with growing global opportunities, Shanghai attracts expats for an endless list of reasons. It especially attracts foreign youngsters with its robust social life. Allen’s favorite thing about Shanghai is “all the buzz… There are always lots of activities happening every week.”

For Tanya, social life in Shanghai is “hectic and ever-changing… I go out a lot, and living in Shanghai… basically I drink a lot.” Tanya chats about her social life with a big smile on her face. She is especially excited when talking about meeting new people.

Constantly meeting new people seems to be a staple of the expat experience. Kassidy, a post-undergraduate student from the United States, claims “things move super quickly here, which is exciting, but overwhelming sometimes.”

Though rapid pace of life almost defines cities like Shanghai, there is an extra layer to the on-the-toe urban life for expats.

“People here are all aware of the ever-changing cycle of friendship… You want to make new friends because you realize that people will eventually leave… You try to not be bitter about it… Life in Shanghai, life in China as an expat, is basically being to able deal with stuff like that and realizing how lucky you are to be able to be bitter about it… because all of us made our choice to come here.”

While it sounds that expats have great social life and friendships in Shanghai, a “Chinese” component seems to be absent from the expat experience of Shanghai. Allen told me, “There is a large expat community and lots of international brands and products over here. You can easily get a lot of comfort things you are used to back home.”

This sense of home may have extended into expats’ social life at Shanghai as well. From my interviewees and observations, expats’ day-to-day lives overall did not sound very “Chinese” to me. As Tanya claims, “Interactions to Chinese people is very limited for me. I don’t really have many Chinese friends, which I think is sad.”

“It’s rather easy to live a ‘Western’ lifestyle in Shanghai,” echos Kassidy.

I personally can attest to this Western, “Chineseless” expat living as well. All of the expats I interviewed and encountered in Shanghai expressed a sense of strong Western feeling in their lives in Shanghai, a feeling so strong that extends to a disconnectedness. When working with expats at my internship, even as a Chinese, there was a limited need to speak Chinese. Often times, I would go about a day without speaking a single word of Chinese except to the Waimai delivery guy.

In a way, there might be a boundary with regards to expats’ social life in Shanghai–a boundary that goes as far as expats community goes. There are even Shanghai Expat Meetups for people to socialize. Most of the time, expats gather at places where you will find fewer Chinese people.

Of course, it is natural that expats tend to form exclusive groups, as they explore and learn about Shanghai, about China. Tanya’s favorite thing about Shanghai is the diversity: “There’s people from all walks of life who gather here for the same reasons. In general, expats are adventurous and outgoing. Something that all expats in Shanghai have in common is being in a culture where you don’t really understand a lot of things, and having a limited population of expats like that makes it easier to makes friends here.”

Another attraction of Shanghai is China’s technological innovations. One of Allen’s favorite things about Shanghai is its “convenience.” “With Alipay, Wechat, and all the mobile apps, it is so convenient living in Shanghai. You can go cashless and get access to many services easily.”

It has only been a few years since most people switched to e-payment, but it certainly felt like I never even used cash or credit cards in China. I am used to carrying a portable charger when going around, which is always more useful than a cumbersome wallet. Oddly, this feels fulfilling, like home.

Tanya also likes the “technology in China, I’m from Belgium, and as far as e-payments go, [and] delivery… Everything is better in China compared to Europe; I know that has to do with labor laws, but I really appreciate the convenience of everything.”

Shanghai’s commercial world is very dominated by Wechat, an app that the average convenience store owner uses, as well as your friends, your parents and your grandparents. It is also what many firms use to do business, including the American venture capitalist firm where I interned. It has been just a few years since I left China, and though I hardly remember how I used to get around in the city, I do remember not having to look at my phone every other second for directions or restaurant suggestions. Nor do I remember ordering meals or paying my bills at the end of the meal by scanning the QR code on the table, with no interaction with the waiter involved. China is changing rapidly not only for the expats, but also for me, who was born and raised there.

More often than not, when I get the chance to ask bigger questions regarding Shanghai or China, I feel a sense of pride. I am always curious about how China will be in ten years, so I posed this question to my interviewees, and I received positive predictions from all of my interviewees.

Allen says, “China never ceases to amaze or surprise me. Despite the ‘copy and paste’ stereotype which many countries have of China, many future innovations, both technological and cultural, will come from China… Despite all the rules and regulations like The Great Firewall, the opportunities… [and] just the scale at which things happen here means there is going to be a lot of cross border exchanges for businesses and will become a place where many more people come to advance their careers and businesses.”

“I think China is moving forward in a lot of things… Culturally, they are also changing at a rapid pace. The Internet has changed… everything for China. It’s kind of hard to predict the future, but I’m excited to see what’s to come,” claims Tanya.

Before getting to know these expats in Shanghai, I rarely thought about China in the way that these expats do. I of course am bothered by pollution, censorship, and various other criticisms of China. But from most of my experience with these expats, I have definitely become optimistic for the future of China. The expats’ perspectives on Shanghai, to some degree, are indicative of the wider international view of China. Like Allen said, despite certain restrictions, China is becoming a hotspot that attracts foreigners for cultural, social, and professional reasons. The prospect of an evolving China meeting young, aspiring, international people creates palpable excitement for me. Maybe my interviews and interactions with expats are skewed and centered on a rather young generation, but it is exactly this generational bias that makes me optimistic. If the next few decades await the younger generation, the already-glamorous Shanghai certainly shows exhilarating potential.