Expats in China: What Lessons Do They Take Away?

Feb 17, 2014 By Jamie Waddell Comments (26)     Add your comment Newsletter

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As inarguably one of the fastest and most sustainably growing economies on the planet it’s not surprising that the number of long-term visitors to China has risen dramatically since the turn of the century.

In the 80s and 90s, foreign visitors to China found themselves in an alien world where European language, culture and food weren’t catered for, and the assumption of wealth and prestige came part-and-parcel with the colour of your skin.

The introduction of green card system in 2004 marked a tangible shift in China’s relationship with expatriates, opening the door for visitors to become permanent residents. Accompanied by the economic crisis in the West and China’s growing importance on the world stage, the appeal of China for expatriates is easily evidenced: the expatriate population in Shanghai alone has grown some 6.7% since 2011.

Life in China
Source: ernop

Michael Brinksman, content editor at UK-based online expatriate resource WhichOffshore has seen a rise in interest from aspiring expatriates looking for a move to China,

“In the early to mid-2000s we were mostly contacted for advice on moving to the USA, Canada, Australia or the UAE. These four destinations comprised around 80% of our output.

“Around five years ago the levels of interest in China began to creep up, and now, although still not a major rival to the UAE, we’re finding expatriates asking about China to be a common occurrence rather than a rarity.”

So how has this new generation of expatriate reacted to this new, more accessible China and its people?

To find out we interviewed four of them:

  • Norwegian national Christine Surlien lived in China sporadically for a total of six years: as a student at Renmin University in  Beijing from 1995 to 97, in Hong Kong as a Masters student at HK University from 2001-02 and as a diplomat spouse in Beijing from 2008-11.
  • Mitchell Blatt, who first came to China from America in 2011 to study at Nanjing University. While there he travelled during holidays. He was so taken with China that, after graduating, he returned to intern at an advertising agency in 2012.
  • Brazilian Katia Steilemann, who followed her husband to Shanghai and has been living there for the past two years.
  • Another Brazilian trailing spouse, Christine Marote, who has lived with her husband in Changchun since 2004 and runs a Portuguese language blog about China at http://chinanaminhavida.com.

On the Chinese People

Christine S: “I love the fact that most Chinese people are very playful. They love to sing and smile and laugh easily. They don't take themselves very seriously and that makes me care less about my Chinese not being perfect or having to wear a plastic bag over my head to protect myself from a sudden downpour. It's very easy to get in contact with Chinese, especially since so many want to practice their English these days and they are naturally very curious about foreigners. They care deeply about their family, children and close friends.”

Mitchell: “Chinese people are very passionate. They like to make friends and share their culture with foreigners. Chinese emphasize hospitality. When I met some friends at Nanjing University, they invited me to lunch and fought to be the one who got to pay the bill.”

Christine S: “However, there are some cultural differences that can be difficult to understand fully. Why can't Chinese people stand in line? Why do they laugh when they are hurt or angry? Most foreigners will ask themselves many questions like this and it's not always easy to understand the answer. 

“What I dislike most is the common lack of compassion among Chinese. Instead of helping, they will often just stand and look, even if it is a serious accident.”

On Chinese Cities

Mitchell: “The biggest thing, looking back at my first week, was how big Chinese cities are. The Chinese phrase "People mountain, People sea," is correct. In America the population density is much less. I like how there are so many parks with people dancing or singing and so many pedestrian streets. When I first went biking to school in Nanjing, it was kind of scary with so many people on bikes and motorcycles in the bike lane. I looked to each side and thought I will crash into the person next to me. But I got used to it quickly.”

Katia: “Compared to other big cities in the world I was amazed at how safe and clean it is, especially in Shanghai. Once, my husband lost his wallet while riding his bike. About 30 minutes later he realised it had fallen out of his pocket. On the way back home he was called by a street cleaning lady who had seen it fall on the floor. She gave it back to him and nothing was missing. Imagine her happy face when she received a generous tip for being so kind.”

Christine M: “For a Brazilian it is surprising the organization of so many people, transportation and security system. Everything works well.”

On Chinese Food

Christine S: “I love Chinese food! I love to explore the vegetable markets and of course all the restaurants. Some days we would eat noodles and baozi on the street, other days we would seek out the fancy, international restaurants, the rest of the days: everything in between. Especially Beijing, [which] has such a unique offer[ing] of Chinese and Western food, you'll never be bored. And Chinese food is more than just "Chinese food". All the regions have their specialities and spices; it's a world to discover. My only concern was the frequent food scandals. I really hope the Chinese government takes this issue very seriously now.”

Mitchell: “Chinese food is the best. I love the intensity of the flavour. There are so many varieties, many different kinds of food to choose from. My favourite style is Sichuan and Hunan food.”

Christine S: “I love Chinese food. [It was] a little difficult when we arrived because we didn’t recognize the ingredients, but after some years we know exactly what we like and how to order a delicious Chinese food.”

What they took away from a life in China

Christine M: “I never rethink our option to move to China, in fact I really appreciate this country and all that I learned here. I believe that is impossible to live in China and to not ask, to not change anything in your life and to not learn new things!”

Katia: “Doing business in China is just a fascinating experience. Creating networks and new business relations is so much easier than in other countries. Here it seems everything is possible so I made my dream come true: I transformed a creative idea into an actual product - the first baby-proof stylish jewellery made out of eco-friendly corn starch”

“I had a great adventure flying alone to a city in China to meet a manufacturer. They had never done business with a women and only one manager could speak English. They showed great hospitality and generosity. At the end of a long negotiation day they drove me back to the airport and bought me a happy meal at McDonalds because they thought that this is the food that makes Westerners happy!”

Christine S: “Mastering a language that first seems impossible gives you a lot of confidence! Yes, it takes a long time to learn, but it's doable! Learning about a very special and unique culture has taught me so much. I met some fantastic people, from China obviously, but also from other countries. Together we shared our joy and frustrations of living in the world's most populous country.”

China: A Paradise for Expatriates?

Although the reports of these expats has been largely positive, so much so that both Mitchell and Christine blog about China even after they’ve departed, to suggest China is a suitable spot for all foreigners would be short-sighted, as Christine sagely points out:

“Remember that there is not only one truth about China! Everybody has their opinion and will come with all sorts of advice and warnings, but you have to find your own truth. China can be overwhelming and might not be suitable for everybody. Think through what is important for you and then see if those goals can be obtained in China. If not, don't move here.”

With China only growing in economic significance and predicted to be the superpower by 2050, will we see a greater influx of expatriates looking for opportunities? Or will those opportunities be fewer in number as China becomes a more expensive place to do business? We can’t tell from here, but for the meantime China’s growing expatriate population seems happy with the unfamiliar culture they’ve found themselves in.

Jamie Waddell is an online journalist who writes for Whichoffshore, a blog that provides information to UK citizens planning to emigrate.

Keywords: expatriate in China; China’s relationship with expatriates; foreign visitors to China Expats in China

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26 Comments ( Add your comment )

1
ambivalentmace
comment|43878|93487

i dont think the writer has ever lived in china and he definitely wrote a very one sided biased article. when my friends in america ask me about a china, i simply reply, my mother said if you dont have something nice to say dont say anything so i never talk about china to anyone in america, i have nothing nice to say, absolutely nothing. china is my own the job training for my afterlife in hell, it cant get much worse.

Feb 17, 2014 01:52
2
sharkies
comment|43879|38436

I tend to agree with you. These expats who blow in and out of China over a brief period of time don't see the ugly side becuse they have their heads in the clouds. Doing business with the Chinese is an absolute nightmare. Everything is for short term gain and they do not have a clue about customer service. I am solely here for making money and business opportunities. Once I do what i need to, I'll be gone and never return. Living in China with no goal or purpose is a waste of life. I realsied this last time I returned to Australia where people are civilised and can actually have an intelligent conversation.

Feb 17, 2014 12:02
3
Guest2523836
comment|43885|280426

Yeah, I agree. This is a ridiculous article and barley shows one side of the story. I have never been to a country with more self-centered and self-entitled culture than China. Originally I planned to stay in China betwene 5 and 7 years, but after 1,5 years of experiencing the culture and the people this has now changed to "as short as possible". As for my lesson from China? Not only will Chinese people bully you, but they will make you out to be bad guy if you don't let them bully you.

Feb 17, 2014 14:16
4
GuestBob
comment|43881|70664

If this is a sample of "Whichoffshore's" expert advice then I certainly wouldn't pay for it.

Feb 17, 2014 12:17
5
coineineagh
comment|43882|112751

"Expats in China: What Lessons Do WE WANT THEM TO Take Away?" Only a few of the negatives put in to give the illusion of a balanced story. Who knows how many negative comments were discarded to create this rosy picture?

Feb 17, 2014 12:57
6
Samsara
comment|43890|239770

Spot on, Coineineagh. This whole article comes off as government-sponsored China-prop about the country's “passionate” and “caring” people, “delicious” food, “interesting” culture and indomitable economy, with a few barely-articulated criticisms thrown in to give the appearance of impartiality.

Feb 17, 2014 15:54
7
WCG
comment|44118|66925

It's more likely that the author is writing an advertisement in order to generate more business for her employer, probably a travel agency. It sounds like a travel brochure to me. Delightfully dull.

Feb 22, 2014 23:30
8
Robk
comment|43887|27601

I agree. This article is very one-sided. Yes, China has pretty awesome food and yes people are playful and happy (but "immature" would probably be a better word). People can be friendly but people can also stare at you like an alien or whisper about you and think you can't understand. Most people only stay here for three reasons to be honest: 1) Because of family (wife, husband, etc.) 2) Because they make lots of money (perhaps other goals). 3) Because they don't know what else to do. I don't hear a lot of foreigners staying here just because they enjoy being here. There are awesome experiences, like BBQ and beers in a back alley sitting on a kiddy chair. If there is ONE huge lesson I took away from being in China ll these years... it is this... "Be patient and manipulate."

Feb 17, 2014 14:44
9
Samsara
comment|43891|239770

OK, let’s address a few of these statements: “China has inarguably one of the fastest and most sustainably growing economies on the planet.” Inarguably? There are plenty of reports arguing that China’s economic growth cannot be sustained, and/or has already slowed significantly. I don’t think “inarguably” means what you think it means. --- “I love the fact that most Chinese people are very playful.” Compared to North Koreans? I’ve never been to a country with a less exuberant atmosphere or fewer free-spirited people than China. --- “They don't take themselves very seriously.” Are you just picking random quotes attributed to other countries (in this case Australia perhaps) and applying them to China? If you make a joke about Australians, or criticise their leaders, Aussies will be like “Good on ya mate!” or “Too bloody right!” If you poke fun at China (or god-forbid criticise its benevolent leader), the response is an instant retreat into nationalism and denial. “How dare you criticise China? You are obviously biased. You don’t know about our history. Everyone is always picking on China.” Some Americans take criticism of their nation a bit personally too, but China takes it to a whole new level. --- “They care deeply about their family, children and close friends.” And they show it by cutting off their nephews’ ears or gouging out their eyes, flushing female babies down toilets, selling their children in exchange for iPhones, forcing their daughters to marry for the parents’ financial benefit, beating their wives and habitually cheating. That’s LOVE! --- “Chinese people are very passionate.” Once again, wrong country. You’re probably thinking of Spanish people. Most Chinese people are dead inside because their life has been reduced to economic slavery. Chinese people get worked up when arguing about money, and tend to shout instead of talking because they don’t care about other people. Neither is the result of passion. --- “A street cleaning lady returned my husband’s wallet.” A street cleaning lady also picked up that two-year-old girl (a couple of years ago) who got run over twice while 17 other Chinese people walked past and did nothing. There is A LOT to be said for Chinese street cleaning ladies. I seriously hope, however, that your observation wasn’t meant to reflect on the honesty or moral fortitude of normal Chinese people. --- “It is surprising the organization of so many people, transportation and security system. Everything works well.” So I guess you haven’t been to China. The organisation, transportation, etc., works well compared to India, but not compared to any other country on Earth. Hong Kong has much higher population density than mainland China, and everything ACTUALLY works well. This is because Hong Kong people obey the law and respect each other. And because public funds are spent on infrastructure and public services instead of government officials visiting the sauna. --- “Chinese food is the best. I love the intensity of the flavour.” Wait, what… Intensity of flavour? This person must be in India. Or perhaps he was on a strict regimen of soggy cardboard for several years before coming to China. I like a lot of Chinese food (especially zongzi and tanghulu), but unless you grew up on corn chips it is not intense in flavour. --- There are a lot of things I like about living in China. My job is great, I have a lot of time for reading, writing, travelling, etc., and I’ve had some amazing experiences. But this whole article glosses over the fact that China has the most horrendous social problems. It isn’t in the least bit honest about the corruption, greed, dishonesty, inequality, ignorance and xenophobia that underlie all social phenomena in China. Its half-hearted attempts to maintain a sense of culture and mystery are just preposterous.

Feb 17, 2014 16:03
10
sharkies
comment|43927|38436

A brilliant reply and absolutely spot-on!

Feb 18, 2014 13:13
11
Guest799004
comment|43895|88778

Agree with the commenters. There are just way too many rude, ignorant, uneducated, inconsiderate, and just flat out uncivilized people for this to be a nice, rosey place like the way they make it sound in the article. As I write this, there is someone across the cafe chomping, slurpring, grunting, burping and making every possible noise under the sun while eating a simple bowl of noodles...not everything can be attributed to "cultural differences".

Feb 17, 2014 17:06
12
bill8899
comment|43900|81937

So all those guys are following the girl down the street? Forgive me. It is not possible to match the eloquence and insight of those before me.

Feb 17, 2014 19:07
13
samisbah
comment|43909|267280

so much lesson

Feb 18, 2014 03:50
14
Guest2506504
comment|44579|278500

I completely agree with all of this, I stayed almost 3 years, in different parts of the country, and I am going to leave definitely without any intention to ever come back. I came to China with no bias toward Chinese people, I have been trying to be as friendly as possible only to find out that the locals want my money and want me out, I learned Mandarin as hard as possible only to find out that the locals have a switch button that turn off and make them repeat "tingbudong" when their interlocutor is not a Chinese ethnic (the kids here or overseas Chinese have no problems to understand me), I tried to see the constant spitting / lack of hygienics / "hellowwwww" screaming and so on as cultural differences but I can't anymore. Two weeks ago I had my first outburst of rage and fighted with a local in a convenient store after he was talking bad about me (probably thinking that I did not undertand) and shouted at me "you laowai don't understand our culture, go back to you country!" after I politely asked him to stop, I punched him so hard that his head was bleeding then I paid for my groceries and left as if nothing happened, never heard of him after that, I have been to the store and nobody told me anything. I am really sorry for this guy after all, but that was going to happen after 3 years of dealing with racism and hate of the foreigners on a daily basis (and now I can say that I understand what some ethnic minorities are feeling in Western countries when some racist pricks talk bad about them, and will never see them as I did before coming to China). I can't stand this country and its people anymore and thanks god I am leaving soon because I would likely do something terribly bad on random people if I stay here for one more year. These people are a nightmare to live with, they do not respect anything nor anyone, of course I have met very few nice people in China, these people now left the country because even the few remaining nice and smart Han people can't stand modern China. Farewell China, and please Chinese people stay here because you can't and don't want to adapt to the countries where you emigrate, and nobody sane in this world like you or your "values".

Mar 12, 2014 14:34
15
royceH
comment|43923|27883

I'm 4 years coming up and if the hat fits, it fits. Although, in an effort to appear slightly less sociopathic, I would like to mention I have been back to my country 4 times since arriving here in early '10. And, although relatively small, my city is cleaner than any other city I've visited, and my job is pretty good. The antisocial behaviour of Chinese people still appalls me, as does the incompetence and lack of any vision whatsoever. But, that said, I do love my wife and we have some sound logic for hanging in here for another couple of years, visa approval notwithstanding. And one more thing, Chinese food is nothing better than generic slop. I really mean that. Slop. For a decent Chinese feed I'd much rather be in the stir fry joint in Jindalee, Queensland...oh, I can just imagine it now...giggling at the glug, glug sound of the quality $12 bottle of semillon as it runs out through the neck of the bottle while I pour it straight down my throat... Whoops!..better use a glass... after all, my fantasy isn't taking place in China. And, funnily enough, they never do!

Feb 18, 2014 10:59
16
laree.lucai82
comment|43933|59072

No free pussy in china....gotta marry or pay a prostitute...sucks big time

Feb 18, 2014 14:01
17
Guest2368048
comment|43977|263116

<Norwegian national Christine Surlien lived ....... as a diplomat spouse in Beijing from 2008-11.....: “I love the fact that most Chinese people are very playful. They love to sing and smile and laugh easily. ....I love Chinese food! I love to explore the vegetable markets and of course all the restaurants."....> Don't know about the others but this one looks like a born diplomat; or she learnt a lot from her diplomat husband.

Feb 19, 2014 14:43
18
Guest2313370
comment|44001|257041

This interview is definitely fake! All their answers are so typically chinese!

Feb 19, 2014 23:01
19
keiranjones
comment|44108|112713

One of the lessons I've taken away from being in China is that I'm foreign. Whilst at home in my native England I was astonished to still be called a 'foreigner' by Chinese people on more than one accasion. But how could I be so dumb, this is what I was being taught the whole time I was in China, the world has two countries. China and Foreign. Interesting article on the BBC a while back. It said that the Chinese in New York were moaning about 'young foreigners' moving into China town and watering it down, bemoaning the opening of 'foreign' restaurants in the area. Who were these 'young foreigners?' Oh ... they were Americans.

Feb 22, 2014 13:48
20
xinyuren
comment|44133|55700

I definitely don't know the China that is being spoken of in this article. I wish it were true, but the author's "truth" resides only in the propaganda. None of it is real.

Feb 23, 2014 21:13
21
GeneGeorge
comment|45981|285969

There is so much hate in this comment sections its awesome! Do many of you have any Chinese friends to share the sorrows with?

May 05, 2014 12:10
22
GeneGeorge
comment|45982|285969

Also, to laree.lucai82, the guy who's main grievance is the lack of free pussy: not only are you wrong but I am glad you are having a miserable time.

May 05, 2014 12:14
23
Hotwater
comment|51680|275636

Definitely an article of glowing stereotypes but what has the bulk of the article to do with the mentions of the fabled green card in the first paragraph? Definitely a biased propaganda piece.

Oct 12, 2014 18:42

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