Shanghai and Beijing are without question the two most popular expat destinations in Mainland China. On one hand, you have a modern international business mecca with a glistening skyline, while on the other you have an ancient political capital that’s leading the rise of an emerging superpower. The differences between the two are night and day, and the same can be said about the expats residing in them. Having lived in both the Pearl of the Orient and the Big Cabbage, I’ve personally been a part of both expat communities. Here are my observations based off the stereotypes I encountered.
1) Internationalism vs Traditionalism
Shanghai expats have flair. They’re more metropolitan and are looking to live in an international first-tier city that has all the fruits and comforts of the West. Shanghailanders (the old colonial term for Shanghai expats) are on top of the latest fashions, global trends, and newest iPhones, and tend to understand other Western cultures more than Chinese culture.
Beijinger expats, conversely, are looking for the “true China experience.” They’re more interested in Chinese language, history and culture, and often isolate themselves from having too much exposure to Western culture. In other words, while Shanghailanders are up to date on the latest trends, their Beijing counterparts are more concerned with what was hip during the Qing Dynasty.
Beijing expats generally have better Mandarin than Shanghai expats. In fact, I feel that my Mandarin has gotten worse after moving to Shanghai from Beijing! (Though, reflecting on the internationalism of the city, my Spanish is getting better). This undoubtedly reflects on the two conflicting attitudes of the cities: Shanghailanders see themselves in a globally connected city that’s not “real China,” while Beijingers see themselves in the heart of the Middle Kingdom where Mandarin is not only useful but part of the “real China” experience.
3) Bonjour or Priviet?
The French are the most popular Western expat community in Shanghai. Actually, in some parts of the city you’ll even feel like you’re in France, especially when strolling the promenades of the old French Concession. French bistros and cafes are popping up everywhere to cater to the new-found expat community, and some Chinese are making fortunes by selling “Fabrique en France” goods at 10 times the retail price.
In the great white north, you have the Russians. For some reason there’s a large expat community in the Chinese capital: maybe it’s the geographic proximity or closer political ties between Moscow and Beijing? No one is quite sure why the numbers are so high, but if you walk around the east side of Ritan Park along Yabao Lu (which is also where the world’s largest Russian embassy covers 16 hectares) you’ll feel like you’re in Mockba.
Shanghai expats tend to be more clubby. Decking down in slick clothes with a few dashes of cologne/perfume, rocking out in neon-lit discos, and downing cocktails freshly made by a world renowned mixologist is the norm here. And just like any other finance city, from New York to Hong Kong, everybody is working for the weekend and spending their hard earned cash in style.
Beijing expats, however, are more hip and enjoy alternative tunes. They can be found in a cozy hole-in-the-wall bar in the hutongs drinking craft brews, jamming out to a live punk band, or on a roof-top terrace during the warmer months soaking up some Vitamin D. There are a few clubs in Beijing, especially around Workers Stadium, and the average Beijing expat does go to them, but they treat the experience more as a social observation to check out how China’s new youth is passing their time.
5) Daily Life
A common site in Shanghai is an expat dressed in a suit and tie riding around town on an electric scooter trying to get to his or her next meeting. In this town, it’s a rat race through the concrete jungle, rubbing shoulders with other expats and locals aspiring to live the Chinese Dream. On the weekend, a nice champagne brunch will do the trick, and there might even be a meeting with work colleagues between brunch, lunch and dinner to discuss work related events.
In Beijing, you’re more likely to spot a hipster on a fixie rushing to his or her next Chinese lesson. While much of the hip Beijing crowd has non-traditional work schedules due to their jobs teaching English, freelancing, or full time studying, during the weekends and weekdays alike you can find them at a newly-opened art exhibition, touring the millennium-year-old monuments, or relaxing outdoors in a park surrounded by nature.
As mentioned, these are obviously vast stereotypes, and the most fun thing about stereotypes is to have a good laugh. So whether you’re a yuppie climbing the corporate ladder or a hipster enriching your soul with culture, your preference between Shanghai and Beijing ultimately comes down to you. In the end, there’s something for everyone in both cities.
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Keywords: Beijing Shanghai expats differences Expats in Beijing Shanghai
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No one is forcing you to come to this website or read it's articles. Its certainly a far from perfect website. If you don't like it, don't come here. Your choice. And captchas do work, but only after 1 refresh. An annoying glitch, but hardly worth spilling your coffee over... :-p
Mar 30, 2015 08:03 Report Abuse
I read an interesting article a few weeks ago about how Expat is used refer to people from certain countries while immigrant is used to refer to others. This article is actually a clear example. The biggest expat community (Koreans) is completely ignored. But, how can English speakers get a sense of other expats here? They are typically very tight nit, typically associating only with each other.
Mar 30, 2015 08:43 Report Abuse
I dont mind the Koreans, or the Japanese and since they are actually the largest expat community, they deserve a voice in their own right. Unfortunately for them and fortunetely for us, if they dont want to associate with us English speakers thats fine. Stil, when it comes to expats, id rather ask for directions in my broken Mandarin than a Frog speaking frog from the frog land (i cant stand westeners who can't speak English properly. It's embarrassing.
Apr 01, 2015 09:02 Report Abuse
how about 5 important differences between mature adults and peninsular infants? 1. adults understand humor 2. adults don't get their panties in a bunch over trifles 3. adults acknowledge reality 4. adults cope 5. adults understand it's with an apostrophe is a contraction and not possessive
Mar 30, 2015 10:50 Report Abuse
Sure, it is a bunch of stereotypes and blanket statements but it is pretty much true. A lot of the hipster foreigners I know head to Beijing and the ones trying to get ahead in their career somehow head to Shanghai. Personally, I prefer neither.
Mar 30, 2015 16:31 Report Abuse
That's why all the Chinese girls with tattoos I've met are from Beijing! Makes sense now. Shanghai does have an amazing nightlife, but I'll take a pretty Chinese Alt girl over the high-maintenance club-life girls of Shanghai any day. Now if only there was any kind of worthy nightlife here in Chengdu. :-/
Apr 04, 2015 17:38 Report Abuse
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