The Pros and Cons of Being a Long-Term China Expat

The Pros and Cons of Being a Long-Term China Expat
Sep 27, 2012 By Trey Archer ,

According to data from the Sixth National Census, as of 2010 there were 593,832 foreigners living in Mainland China. And two years later we can expect that this number has continued to grow even higher. While many foreigners come to China and only stay a year or two (for short-term job postings or academic study), there are some who make the transition and opt to live here long-term. If you're a China expatriate considering starting a new life here, there are a few pros and cons that should be taken into consideration first.

The Pros and Cons of Being a Long-Term China Expat

The Pros

1) Get more Bang for your Buck with the RMB
Because you cannot trade the Renminbi on the open market, it's quite difficult for currency traders and investors to get their hands on this much sought after emerging international currency. Simply put, the best way to obtain a lot of RMB is to earn it while living in China. As China allows its legal tender—which is undervalued by roughly 40%—to appreciate and as the RMB becoming stronger against the Dollar and Euro, its likely that your financial savings in RMB will worth a lot more in the future than it is now. A 2011 Time Business report predicted that the Yuan would continue to appreciate against the US Dollar about 5% annually; such gains would theoretically double the money in your RMB savings account in roughly 15 years. To put it in real terms, if you deposited 63,000 RMB (roughly 10,000 USD) in an RMB savings account now, it would be worth about 20,000 USD by 2027…if the financial forecasts regarding the Yuan's appreciation prove valid. Of course any long term financial planning carries with it a bit of risk, but if the experts are correct about the future of China's economy and currency, you have the potential to profit heavily from its development.

2) The Land of Opportunity
With the West in a state of stagnation, China, for the time being, seems to be filling the vacuum. And long-term China expats—who've learned the language and culture during their time here—have their foot firmly in a booming economy on the rise to superpower status. Take, for example, a friend of mine from the UK who has lived in China for the past decade: When he first arrived here, he started off as a humble ESL teacher; today he is an executive at Huawei in Shenzhen. He explained to me that learning Mandarin opened up a "secret door" to the world of Chinese business and that China is a rapidly developing country with "endless employment possibilities."  He firmly believes that he would not have reached this level of success if he had stayed in England. I also remember the conversation I had with a Nigerian businessman on a bus from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. He, like my English friend, told me that after living in China for years and learning the language, his textile business grew into an extremely profitable enterprise—something he also believes would have been impossible for him to do back home. It definitely seems that if you master the language and culture and put in the hard work, accomplishing the "Chinese Dream" can become a reality. And even though recent reports have indicated that China's economy is slowing down—economic growth dropped to 7.8% for the first half of 2012—it's still looking strong and steady when compared to recent developments in the US, Europe and other emerging BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia and India), at least for the time being…

3) Guanxi
Guanxi, the Mandarin word for "relationships", is a fundamental/imperative attribute of contemporary Chinese culture. By knowing the right people and building this special "relationship" with them, life in the Middle Kingdom becomes a lot easier and comfortable (see above). However, the only true way to understand this complex social institution is to live in China for an extended period of time, comprehend the culture and build your personal contact list. In retrospect, it takes years to construct an effective guanxi network, and the more guanxi you have, the easier everything becomes, from landing a new job to "fixing" a traffic ticket—even receiving discounts at a restaurant where you know the owner! So while many foreigners say that expat life is already quite easy—with the high salaries, low cost of living and the frequent Chinese custom of preferential treatment towards foreigners—the lifers who've spent extended years here building guanxi truly know how good it can actually be.

The Cons

1) Reverse Culture Shock
If you spend a long time in China (or any other country) and become accustomed to the unique culture, there's a strong chance that upon returning to your hometown you'll find certain aspects of your past life eccentric and awkward. Personally, I always have a hard time going back to the US and being completely lost in any conversation regarding the latest music, movies and TV shows. At times I struggle with conversation because I forget certain aspects of body language and don't know the latest slang. Many expats also say that they've drifted apart from their loved ones and friends back home, causing them to feel uneasy around them after years spent living in China. If you only get the chance to return home periodically, reverse culture shock can most certainly put a negative twist on your long awaited homecoming. It's an unfortunate price some expats pay when making the decision to live in China or abroad in general.

2) Dual Citizenship Dilemma
One of the most defining aspects of one's nationality is the passport. You can live in a certain region your entire life, speak the language fluently and even look, dress and act like the locals, but if your passport says you're from another place, then you're still technically and legally a citizen of that nation, not the one you're living in. While many countries acknowledge dual citizenship, China (according to Law 3 of the China Nationality Law) does not. This complication can prove to be a major obstacle in the expat's life especially if they marry a Chinese national. If you travel back and forth between your home country and China often, or if your Chinese spouse would like to accompany you, you'll need to endure the hassle of constantly renewing and buying visas. Not only will you and your spouse be forever separated when passing through the customs control line at the airport, but if emergency situations should arise (like some sort of mandatory evacuation issued by your embassy), your differing nationalities will also be problematic. Even more troublesome is choosing the nationality of any children you may have with your Chinese spouse. While few expats out there do eventually succeed in obtaining a dual Chinese citizenship, no matter how you cut it, it's illegal and can create serious complications if the government finds out.

3) Impossibility of Becoming Chinese
Following the recent departure of many prominent expats, the Economist published an article describing the experience of three foreign nationals who tried (in vain) to "become Chinese". The article and others like it state that no matter how well you've mastered the language and culture, Chinese will always regard you as an outsider. Charlie Custer, an American film maker and blogger who's been living in China for years, received so much hate mail and threats after a public feud with Chinese TV personality Yang Rui that he decided to leave China forever. He learned the hard way that the Chinese would almost always take another Chinese person's side during confrontations (although the same could be argued of people in any country to varying degrees). In another example, Mark Kitto, a British businessman who's lived in China for 16 years, explained that he first came to China with the aims of becoming Chinese and settling down here, but has since realized that it's impossible due to the Chinese perception of nationality, ultimately choosing to leave the country that he "once loved". The third person the Economist spoke of was an American male who moved to China in the 1940s, married a Chinese woman and gave up his US citizenship to truly become Chinese. But to his disappointment, decades later, his Beijing hutong neighbors still refer to him as the laowai.

Related links
Lifers: The Motivations of the Long Term Expat
The Point of No Return: How Long in China is Too Long
Does Working in China Help or Hurt Your Career?

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Keywords: Long-term China expat pros and cons of living in China


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Pro: good pay, low cost of living. Con: filthy environment

Apr 06, 2015 09:58 Report Abuse



Every article from this writer is quite poor. The Cons of being a long term expat in China far outweigh the pros. Is China really a land of opportunity? I don't think it is. Expat life here is not easy, usually because of lack of standards, cleanliness, language barrier, horrendous customer service, poor public services (health, education, banking etc). On top of all that, it is very rare that Guanxi is applied to a foreigner.

Sep 27, 2012 22:51 Report Abuse


The Devil

The Cons' of living in China is that you have to put up with the local restuarant employees handling food improperly. It's fucking disgusted. How hard is it to wash ones hands before touching raw meat???

Sep 27, 2012 21:43 Report Abuse



Biggest fear is being like Da Shan. The guy is a knob. I saw a documentary on him once and was shocked at how naive his comments were regarding China and the outside world. He has a strong "Hoser accent" as well. That is a Canadian who isn't smart and works as a labourer or something like that. This guy would literally be no one if it weren't for China. He's not dynamic by any means.. he just happened to learn Chinese before the rest of us.

Sep 27, 2012 11:33 Report Abuse



I couldnt possibly agree more. Im Canadian , i can tell. That dudes a douche. Would be completly socially akward back home. Yes his chinese is great .... but hes still a knob.

Sep 27, 2012 16:47 Report Abuse