The 5 Stages of Expat Life in China

The 5 Stages of Expat Life in China
Aug 10, 2015 By Dana Westfield ,

In China, you meet other expats from all walks of life and stages of their China experience. We've mapped out five of the key stages of expat life in China:

1) The Study Abroad Student:

Bright-eyed 18-year-olds who come to China for the first time, these China dwellers are too temporary to really be considered expats who are usually temporary themselves. However, they dive in deeply, and change their Facebook locations to their new Chinese home city promptly upon arrival, even if they'll only be there for three months. They don't have much money- or they're Saudi princes; there isn't much of an in-between- and what they do have they spend on overweight baggage fees after cramming shampoo and first aid kits into their duffel bags because who knows what China will have. They make best friends with their Chinese tutors (or date them, and it's a big scandal) and live two to a room in a shabby university dorm where everyone smokes in the hallways.

This stage in an expat's time in China is characterized by eating the exact same thing every day, being shepherded by university staff to events like dumpling making classes at 8 am on Sunday after a night of sweaty Chinese clubbing, thinking sweaty Chinese clubbing is the pinnacle of nightlife, and never actually getting over jet lag. It's a time of partying, of wonder, of feeling homesick and hours and hours of Chinese study.

2) The Young Teacher:

With fresh degrees in their hands, these twenty-somethings roll into China with teaching jobs lined up. The unlucky ones end up getting duped by a tutoring center to work too many hours for too little pay. The wiser ones find a sweet gig that pays them to roll into class a few times a week, yawn, sing a song, and return to bed (and then they stay at the job forever because who wouldn't?). These expats have evolved from university dorm life to … teacher dorm life. And their school won't fix their wifi, or leaky pipe, or hole in their ceiling, but that's OK because they get to work with awesome/terrible children every day.

This time in an expat's life is characterized by trips to Boracay, sleeping in past their alarm and running into class in their pajamas, starting to get sick of Chinese food, realizing they can't drink fake alcohol like they used to, and strange origami gifts from their students. It's a time of experimenting with adulthood while staying in touch with your inner child.

3) The Young Professional:

Mid-twenties, early thirties young adults working for magazines, international schools, start-ups, what have you. These expats can usually be found in first-tier cities as they can't go a week without a cheeseburger at this point in their China career. They can often be found riding expensive fixed-gear bikes when you can get a junk one on the corner for next to nothing, job hopping at alarming speeds, and opening weird businesses like video game bars and grilled cheese shops (this is real).

This time in an expat's life is characterized by spending too much money on alcohol and cheese, traveling to obscure parts of the country to “discover real China,” planning on moving to Dali, and being ignored by their Chinese landlords. It's a time of real independence and being kind of a douche.

4) The Professional Professional:

This is an expat who wears a suit. They're actually pretty hard to find these days, and often spend half the year in China, and half the year in a country where they can actually breathe. These are the actual  “expats,” in the traditional sense of the word. The men and women with Western salaries. The ones that China is so desperately trying to attract more of. Honestly they seem like a dying breed nowadays, and soon may even be extinct … kind of like the unicorn.

This time in an expat's life is characterized by purchasing billion dollar air purifiers for their minimalist downtown apartment, buying Starbucks every day because they can, eating really fancy salads, having a driver who hangs out with them all day and becomes their best friend (sitcom idea?), being torn between leaving China and the small fortune they rake in every year, and marrying a Chinese local. It's a time of career growth and developing country-induced stress headaches.

5) The Family Expat:

The professional professional with a family in tow. In most cases, their company sets them up real nicely in a villa in a compound that looks like a creepy fake version of California. They send their kids to international schools and feel guilty on every polluted day. Their bored spouses wander around the city aimlessly with no work visa and no Chinese language skills. Their teenager gets into trouble because the drinking age in China is about four years old.

This time in an expat's life is characterized by buying billion dollar air purifiers for their minimalist suburban villa, stocking their kitchens with Cheerios and goat cheese, fighting over the family driver, and letting ayis raise their young children. It's a time of both extreme comfort and extreme anxiety.

Warning:The use of any news and articles published on without written permission from constitutes copyright infringement, and legal action can be taken.

Keywords: Expat life in China Stages of expat life in China


All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.



While the author does generalize and exaggerate, I can't ignore the fact that I've met every single one of these expat 'types' several times over. The short and tall of it is that, because of China's job opportunities for Westerners, there just isn't the kind of diversity in the expat population here that you'd find in a Western country. As someone was telling me at dinner recently, there aren't expat anthropologists or filmmakers, they're all teachers, entrepreneurs or designers etc. While I've met Chinese artists, medical students, wheeler dealers, academics, waiters and taxi drivers, the expat population is small and very specific, and perhaps some people need to accept that we're a speck of insignificance in this country compared to the Chinese population. I'd say close to the majority of young professionals I know in Shanghai can be lumped into 'The Young Professional' type detailed here.

Aug 26, 2015 13:37 Report Abuse



This is playing on stereotypes, but so true!

Aug 17, 2015 02:09 Report Abuse



Dear Swifty: I genuinely think you have a reasonably good thing going. But a passport in many cultures is marrying a native. But the thing is unless the entire environment is not accepting this revolving door would keep. . . .

Aug 16, 2015 21:55 Report Abuse



The writers on this site is ridiculously dumb, wrong, offensive, and just crappy to the max. The articles are stereotypical in the sense that they don't even make sense... and these are not "Stages", they are "Types", do these writers even understand English?...

Aug 11, 2015 09:41 Report Abuse



What's the point of this article, divide and conquer? Why construct these additional layers into expat society and give more reason for insecure people to look down on others mate?

Aug 11, 2015 08:58 Report Abuse



I would expect the writers on this site to know the difference between 'type' and 'stage'

Aug 11, 2015 08:04 Report Abuse



i found this to be somewhat satirical, not offensive.

Aug 10, 2015 17:42 Report Abuse



Expats usually show dwindling levels of understanding of China over time: the general rule is after a month in China, most foreigners could write a whole book about the place; after a year, this narrows downs to being able to write a mere essay; . However, after five years, any foreigner will realise the place is so unexplainable, they would struggle to string a few sentences together.

Aug 10, 2015 17:02 Report Abuse



My favourite comment of the lot, I've found that to be very true.

Aug 26, 2015 13:42 Report Abuse



i can picture some bored old Chinese guy, unable to discuss socially relevant topics, reminiscing on all those decades of staring down total strangers because they are different, and all the assumptions he and his friends made about foreigners. They invested their brainpower making sweeping generalizations that are intended to belittle foreigners. They get an agreeable yes-man to translate their 'insights' into English and publish it on an expat site. We expats are supposedto be impressed by the profundity of though that categorizes our "life stages" so well. "this stage of an expat's life is characterized by buying BILLION dollar air purifiers" - wow, so accurate and totally not based on assumptions and exaggerations.

Aug 10, 2015 14:46 Report Abuse



Wish I could say this was a crappy article about stereotypes, but #3 nailed me. I love my fixie and I go to a burger night every week. Guess I'm kind of a douche

Aug 10, 2015 11:37 Report Abuse



What category do university teachers fit in?

Aug 10, 2015 10:17 Report Abuse



stereotyping to the max

Aug 10, 2015 09:58 Report Abuse



The 5 stages are: 1. Honeymoon phase (Everything is new and great) 2. Wake-up (Little things start to get itchy) 3.Trying to fit in (Learning the language, culture, ...) 4. Rejection (Locals remind you that you are an outsider, all the time) 5. Bubble (Stick to other expats, don't even talk with local people anymore)

Aug 10, 2015 09:49 Report Abuse



You could make an article like the one above elaborating on your points a bit more.

Aug 10, 2015 10:16 Report Abuse



This is pretty true. Most expats leave somewhere around step 4.

Aug 10, 2015 11:45 Report Abuse



That's pretty accurate for lots of people I'd say

Aug 10, 2015 22:21 Report Abuse



Stages 1 through 4? Yes, yes, yes, and GLORY yes! Stage 5, though? I think it's different for everyone. My stage 5 was a rebellious stage. I was the character in the local restaurants calling the waiters out for ignoring me, or ragging on the cashiers for flashing a calculator at me instead of just telling me how much something cost, or grabbing people by the scruff of the neck and reeling them in when they try to run away from me whenever I need help or directions. "Please, do NOT refuse me; I've spent WAY too much time learning this place, these people, this language - you WILL help me!" was my attitude. I was also the one giving the side-eye to laowai with terrible/non-existent Chinese. (>_>)'

Aug 11, 2015 10:43 Report Abuse



I have lived in Dubai 1 year and for 25 years as an expat in US, Chicago (go bulls), I must say even there never felt like an outsider BUT we all know US has been an immigrant country while China and Japan were closed for many centuries. So it may take a long time few million English teachers and business execs to bring a change in a country of over half bil. . .good luck to you all. IN ME, with brown skin and Pakistani nationality, I never felt so welcomed. but most of my "White" (sorry) friends were welcomed. . .

Aug 16, 2015 21:42 Report Abuse



If you can't handle it, there are many planes leaving every day to take you wherever you like. An acute lack of people skills is something that quickly translates into any language. My Mandarin is weak but I have little trouble finding people to help me. I also do my homework and search for places I'm going on internet maps so asking strangers on the street for help isn't often necessary. Of course, each city has a character of it's own so my experiences reflect my city. And, for gosh sake, when cashiers flash a calculator at you, they're trying to be helpful and trying to keep the check-out line moving.

Aug 21, 2015 11:06 Report Abuse



Couple points: 1.) It was a stage that came and went. (Everything in that comment was in PAST TENSE... because it was in the past.) I had grown much since then - it wasn't like I was currently going through that stage at the time the comment was posted. If that were the case, I certainly would not have been posting about it. (You could actually stop reading here.) 2.) I'm fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese and was at the time. I had no trouble asking for help or getting help or getting around or paying for things. It was just those small, rare instances when people would take one look and gun it before I could even open my mouth. Simply put, at the time, I felt like an escaped pokemon, and it ticked me off. I still don't have problems with it, but I don't react the same way anymore, nor did I at the time the comment was posted. 3.) Yes, every city has a character of its own and I overestimated the city I was in - expecting way too much from a corner or China that just didn't "have it" square km per square km at the time. 4.) I'm glad I didn't find this post while I was actually going through that expat stage, or this comment (now nearly a year ago) would have been much more colorful.

Jun 02, 2016 18:57 Report Abuse



Looking back, of course. I could say at that time was more like an extended version of Stage 4, but yeah, wasn't the best way to respond to the environment.

Jun 02, 2016 19:00 Report Abuse



my family and I live in a 3000rmb apartment and its old,we dont have an aunty to take care of our wife looks after our boy as she does not work.we live off my salary which has to pay the rent,bills,food,some spending money and off a teachers salary is bloody difficult but we make it work. we are not rich by any means.

Aug 10, 2015 09:44 Report Abuse



Same here, have a nice day.

Aug 10, 2015 16:50 Report Abuse



These articles full of generalizations and presumptions are getting old.

Aug 10, 2015 09:19 Report Abuse