Shanghai, China Report of what it's like to live there - 08/08/14
Personal Experiences from Shanghai, China
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. Studied in Beijing, lived in rural Yunnan Province.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Northeastern U.S. There are plenty of direct flights out of Beijing and Shanghai, though you can get cheaper flights that connect through Hong Kong, Canada, Dubai, or Seoul. I usually take the direct flight if I have a lot of luggage, and that takes around 13 hours.
3. How long have you lived here?
Been in China for one year (starting July 2013), plan to stay until November 2014.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Most foreigners in Shanghai rent apartments through agencies or classified ads. I'm not totally clear on the big expat neighborhoods, but most seem to live around Xuhui, places around universities, or close to West Nanjing Road. Generally, the closer you are to the city center (People's Square, West Nanjing Road), the more expensive it's going to be, but you can find reasonably priced apartments if you look carefully. I live in a pretty mixed Chinese-expat neighborhood near the city center, and my commute is a very pleasant 20-minute walk.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Cheap, cheap, cheap. If you want to subsist entirely on Western imports, you may find your bank account dwindling pretty quickly, but produce is very inexpensive (especially if you go to specialized produce markets), most products, even import brands, don't cost too much more than in the U.S. (sometimes they're cheaper) and are widely available in most grocery stores and convenience stores.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing, really. Everything's available in Shanghai.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
If you want food at any possible price point, Shanghai is your town. The tiny local places will only set you back 20 RMB at the most, and you can also splurge at fancy steakhouses or cocktail bars if that's your thing. There are plenty of fast food chains from multiple countries (as well as Chinese fast food options), but why would you eat fast food when you can get some of the most delicious Chinese cuisine for less than US$5?
Current events tip: McDonald's has a very limited menu right now due to their meat supplier violating a whole lot of public health codes. Take your business elsewhere if you want a burger.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes can be a nuisance here, though they don't carry diseases, at least in this part of China. You might encounter roaches in some lower-end hotels.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
You can use FedEx in Shanghai and Beijing, but for everywhere else, there's China Post, which is generally very reliable. International shipping takes a couple weeks generally, though smaller things can be shipped overnight.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Hiring an ayi (cleaning lady) is quite common and the going rate is pretty cheap (I don't remember the exact number).
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Lots and lots of gyms, though they can be a bit pricey. I just do yoga and pilates on my own and go jogging. There are running clubs you can join for free (mostly expats), and the ubiquitous dancing grannies in the parks around the city are quite enthusiastic if you join in their line dancing.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
China is still very much a cash economy, so bring lots of cash unless you're only going to large chain restaurants/stores (which take credit cards and UnionPay cards). ATMs attached to banks are generally quite secure (some are even in enclosed stalls with lockable doors); stick to ATMs at large, reputable banks (Bank of China, ICBC, China CITIC, China Construction Bank, Postal Savings Bank) and you should be alright. If you're really worried about security, you can always walk into the bank and ask the teller to help you make a withdrawal.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Not really sure. I know there's a Jewish center with multiple branches, though.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
If you're only in major expat areas, you won't need much, and most younger people have an at least decent command of English (if you are obviously foreign, most people will at least attempt to communicate with you in English), but if you want to interact with local people in any meaningful way, you'll need at least basic Mandarin. Courtesy phrases (hello, goodbye, thank you, numbers, excuse me, how much) are appreciated and received very enthusiastically if you're an obvious foreigner, but people might overestimate your language ability and start speaking to you in rapid-fire Mandarin!
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Shanghai is not great when it comes to accommodations for people with disabilities, though they have been improving. Most bathrooms have handicapped stalls, almost all multi-story buildings have elevators, and the sidewalks, while uneven and littered with construction materials and people on mopeds, have curb cuts. Not sure about accessibility of transportation, but only a few metro stations have elevators.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
All very safe and affordable, though sometimes taxi drivers in rural areas will try to overcharge you or not use their meter, and shared cabs are the norm in the countryside.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Getting a driver's license in China is very, very difficult from what I've heard from expat friends but unless you live in the suburbs or plan to do a lot of road trips, you really don't need a car. Public transportation is very well-developed in China pretty much wherever you go.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, and pretty reasonably priced. My roommates and I each paid 50 RMB per month for generally reliable wi-fi (it occasionally got too slow and we would need to reset the router) that streamed video quite well and allowed for very clear Skype calls.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Some U.S. carriers work in China, but unless you have cash to burn, get a local SIM card. They're quite inexpensive, available everywhere, and many come with data plans.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Lots and lots, though make sure you get the proper visa to avoid bureaucratic or legal troubles.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Plenty. I know of a lot of schools for migrant workers' children and advocacy organizations for migrant workers that take volunteers, and I've heard of an animal welfare organization that also takes volunteers.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Depends on where you work, but generally go for business casual to formal. Watch what your co-workers wear. For public, anything goes, really, though women here tend not to show much cleavage except when they're going out to a nightclub.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Keep your wits about you in crowded places like train stations or tourist areas, since pickpockets are a real threat (my wallet was stolen while I was traveling in Dali, Yunnan Province). Walking alone after dark isn't terribly dangerous as long as you stay in well-populated areas. You might want to keep abreast of current events since terrorist attacks have occurred in places like train stations (cf. the Kunming Train Station attack in March), though these attacks don't seem to target foreigners. Just use common sense and you should be alright.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Air quality can be a concern if you have respiratory issues, and you shouldn't drink water that isn't bottled or boiled. Food poisoning is pretty common due to lax health standards at some restaurants, but drug stores with Western brand medicines (you may need to look up the generic or Chinese name, though) are ubiquitous. There are hospitals and clinics that cater to foreigners and even take insurance, though they can be pricey. Watch out for stray dogs and cats, since rabies is endemic to China. Psychiatric care is very, very limited, so if you do have mental health issues, see if you can Skype with your therapist, and bring enough of any psychiatric drugs you take to last for your time in China (if you're not going home at any point). HIV/AIDS is a growing concern in some parts of China, but you can easily buy condoms at any convenience store (birth control is also very easy to find, though not all Western brands are available).
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Not as bad as Beijing, but if you have respiratory problems, it might bother you. I'm not terribly bothered by it, though.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
HOT. I sometimes bring a spare shirt to work because I sweat so much on my walk to work. Even a light mile jog will have you sweating like you ran a marathon. Bring light clothes and lots of anti-perspirant.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I'm not sure about schools that cater to foreigners but from my experience as a teacher in a rural area and according to some research I did, kids with special needs get little to no accommodation or support. Now that awareness of disability is growing in urban areas, services are expanding and getting better, but it's slow-going, and generally those services can be quite expensive.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge, and very, very high morale.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Hosting parties at your apartment, going out to cafes or restaurants, going to bars or clubs (though this is more of an expat pastime; Chinese tend to go to restaurants or karaoke), checking out cultural events, KTV (karaoke), sporting events (The Color Run is hosting a race in Shanghai this year)...you have to actively try to be bored here.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I think it's pretty good for everyone.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
People are generally quite accepting, though it seems like the LGBT scene is pretty quiet, though it's definitely there. There's been a Shanghai Pride week since 2009, though it's not a parade, and same-sex marriage isn't recognized here. Though there are plenty of gay bars and clubs, from what I've heard.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Shanghai is pretty cosmopolitan and has a lot of foreigners, so people are much more accustomed to seeing people of different races and backgrounds, though if you leave the big city, expect a lot of staring and unsolicited photo-taking if you don't look Asian. I've heard that black people can face job discrimination and sometimes unkind/insensitive comments, but those comments tend to be out of ignorance/curiosity rather than malice. China is a bit more conservative than the West when it comes to gender roles (women are expected to live at home with their parents until marriage), but there are quite a lot of female CEOs and working women, and I've met a lot of Chinese women who proudly identify as feminists, so you shouldn't have too many problems if you're a woman. Though if you go to the countryside, be ready to be asked about your marital status and nosy questions about why you're still single, especially if you're older than 18 or so.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
In China: the food. Chinese cuisine is so diverse with a bit of something for everyone, and getting to try all sorts of foods (I recommend Mapo Tofu) has been a real treat. Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province. Climbing Emei Shan in Sichuan.
In Shanghai: again, the food. Also, just being in such a lively, cosmopolitan city.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
The club/bar scene is very vibrant, and there are always great cultural events going on. Check out the Urban Planning Museum and the house where the Communist Party was formed, as well as the French Concession. Of course, walking along the Bund is great fun, and you'll get a better "slice of life" if you duck into one of the less expat-y neighborhoods. Shopping caters to any price point; you can splurge on Gucci and Louis Vuitton on West Nanjing Road, or hit up the malls in many of the metro stations or the night markets for cheap goods. If you want a bit more "real China", it's very easy to hop on a train to Hangzhou or Suzhou to see more historical sites, and in-China flights to other cities are very cheap.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Shanghai doesn't have too many local handicrafts, but it's easy to go out to places like Hangzhou, which have lots of lovely traditional Chinese handicrafts (you can get some in Shanghai, but they tend not to be very good-quality). If you go out to Yunnan (where I used to live), you'll be in handicraft central. Check out silver made by the Miao and Bai people, and batik cloth.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
If you cook for yourself and don't go out partying too often, you can save a bit of money (though Shanghai is more expensive than other cities in China). The culture is amazing, you can eat some truly awesome food, and it's very easy to get to historic and cultural sites outside of the city (Shanghai doesn't offer much in the way of history/culture in the way that Hangzhou, Suzhou, Beijing, and Chengdu do). Weather isn't great in Shanghai (very hot and humid), but the rain cools things down.
10. Can you save money?
Yes, as long as you don't go partying every weekend and cook for yourself sometimes.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How diverse it really is.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, in a heartbeat. Though I am a little China'd out at the moment.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Assumptions about China.
4. But don't forget your:
Shoes (they'll wear out very quickly and if you're larger than a U.S. size 8 or so you'll have a heck of a time finding a pair here), Mandarin phrasebook, umbrella, bug spray, toilet paper.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Not related to Shanghai specifically (though there are oodles of books about it), but if you want a story about a very big social issue in China right now, read Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
, which is about women from the countryside going to big cities to find work in the huge factories.
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
I haven't seen too many about Shanghai specifically, but if you want some background on modern Chinese history, check out "To Live" and "Farewell My Concubine." If you want a film that touches on the issues that a lot of ordinary Chinese people are facing today, look for "Still Life," which is about migrant workers dealing with the environmental and economic effects of the Three Gorges Dam in Sichuan Province.
7. Do you have any other comments?
Shanghai is awesome!