The pros and cons of expat life in Shanghai

19 June 2018

As the gateway to China’s economy, and the country’s most cosmopolitan city, Shanghai is unsurprisingly popular with expats and has been hosting overseas workers for over 150 years.

While some see it as the “Paris of the East”, some expats are unimpressed with other aspects of life: we take a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of this colourful city.

Pro: prepare to be pampered

As an assignee in China, you are one of an army of 600,000 expats. If you’re thinking strength in numbers, think again. There are 1.3 billion Chinese, which makes you part of a humble 0.0005% of the population. It is no wonder, that you may be considered a novelty. Move away from the big cities and the feeling is amplified – and don’t be surprised to have your picture taken by curious locals.

Life can get pretty pampered for this curious minority. They often have their own driver available and most families enjoy the services of an ayi, a maid/cook, who helps with domestic chores. After all, expat salaries are high.

According to the 2018 HSBC Expat Explorer survey, the average expat wage is $202,000. This is more than double the global average, and places Shanghai above all other Chinese cities – indeed only Zurich, Mumbai and San Francisco offer a higher average.

Con: traffic and pollution

Having a local driver is probably a good thing. While few expats need to own a car, even fewer would dare to drive. Shanghai’s streets are notoriously busy. And when traffic flows, it seems to the untutored eye to be flowing in all directions at once. Some expats choose a scooter, which at least gives them a chance of evading the daily gridlock, but they do so at significant personal risk…

A consequence of Shanghai traffic – exacerbated by less-than-stringent pollution control – is the Shanghai smog. Air pollution is a big problem and the city issues regular ‘blue’ alerts when pollution levels become hazardous.

Expect expat accommodation to include a sophisticated array of air filters, pollution meters and further back-up filters to ensure a breathable environment. It is also worth noting that Shanghai now outranks Beijing as China’s most polluted city.

Pro: foodie paradise

In terms of food, Shanghai has it all. Three-star Michelin standard dining is available for the expats who can afford it, while inexpensive but delicious street food is there for the more adventurous. Try the traditional dumplings xiao long bao or sheng jian bao, available on most street corners, or one of a million ways of cooking noodles.

If you want a visual experience to go with your meal, try on of the many restaurants on the Bund, the waterfront area that provides stunning views of the Pudong skyline. Just make sure you book a table near the window.

Dining – or at least getting food – is also easier here than anywhere in the world. Whatever you want, at whatever time of day, there is usually an app that enables you to get food (or indeed groceries) delivered to you within the hour.

Con: international school prices

If you are taking the family with you, be prepared to pay a lot for education. There are excellent international schools, which offer curriculums that integrate with those back home in order to offer some continuity of schooling, but fees start around $1,500/month (with some schools charging three times as much). 

Of course, with a quarter of expats earning over $300,000 a year, this is (almost) reasonable. But there has been a trend in recent years to send younger children to local schools, with the obvious benefit of equipping them with a second language.

Pro: safe city

As with all major cities, expats are advised to keep to well-lit areas of town at night, but overall, Shanghai is remarkably free of serious crime. A robust and highly visible police presence in key parts of the city mean that expats can live their lives in relative safety.

However, petty crime is a problem, and non-locals are obvious targets for pickpockets, which is a common occurrence. Keep your bags zipped, your wallet hidden and your eyes peeled.

Con: The Great Firewall

One of the reasons behind the global mobility boom is the ease with which expats can communicate digitally while abroad. You can collaborate effortlessly with colleagues online, and stay in touch with friends via social media. But, for many people, the Internet doesn’t work quite as well in China. Dubbed ‘the Great Firewall’ there is a government-driven block that aims to prevent the likes of Google and Facebook taking control of Chinese digital airspace. Go to Google.com, you get an error message.

The way around it is to install a VPN (ideally before you go) so your device appears to be coming from the US or Japan. Problem (usually) solved. However, don’t fool yourself that China’s digital infrastructure is underdeveloped. You will find that local social media is dominated by WeChat – a kind of Facebook/WhatsApp hybrid – that is preferred by a staggering 900m Chinese users, and which enables not just messaging between friends, but sophisticated marketing and e-commerce.

Summary

China’s still booming economy makes Shanghai attractive from an economic and professional perspective. Most expat accounts suggest that expat life here is both enjoyable and safe, and locals will be respectful (if not effusive) in their welcome.

But be prepared for a culture shock. The traffic, the food, the pollution and the language can be overwhelming, so make sure your preparations are adequate and your time spent in Shanghai will be memorable and rewarding.

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