Expats in China: What Lessons Do They Take Away?

Feb 17, 2014 By Jamie Waddell Comments (23)     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