Shanghai, China Report of what it's like to live there - 11/22/20
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. I've also lived in Africa and Europe.
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?
Chicago. It's about 24 hours door to door if the connections are working. Before coronavirus, there were non-stop flights from Shanghai to SFO, LAX, Chicago, and NYC. These are almost always overnight. With the virus, airports and airlines stopped coming through except during certain days of the week. Maybe the time this posts, things will be more normal.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. 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?
Housing was a high rise apartment in the most elite part of town. Apartments will be small by most standards but that is the result of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. There are other apartments scattered about the city and housing compounds in the western suburbs. Childless couples and singles lived downtown; people with school-aged kids lived in the suburbs. While there are always complainers, people seemed generally happy with where they lived. Living in the swanky apartment could be a 2 minute elevator ride to work, or a 10 minute walk to the Consular section. Otherwise it's 20-30 minutes on the metro which is fast, safe, and convenient. Personally, I don't think the super deluxe high rise apartment was the best housing but I may be in the minority.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
If you only shop at the expat places you'll spend a lot of money. Better to find those local or quasi local markets where the locals shop. The Chinese are very picky about their fruits and vegetables. They need to be cleaned well but my family ate them for three years and we were fine. Everything is available.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
You can find anything you need there. If you like higher end alcohol you might want to ship that as it's pretty easy to buy fake stuff.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Food delivery options are amazing. Sherpa and Elema (are you hungry?) are two very popular options. You can get stuff delivered for literally pennies on top of the price of the food itself. If you want to hit up a Brazilian steakhouse, ramen bar, beer hall, or Vietnamese place, you can probably find all of those things in a single mall. One odd thing is most meat is generally very bony, if there's any meat at all. Meat is more of a flavoring in China. And surprisingly for a city literally named "City on the Water" the fish choices are really poor.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes can be really bad in the summer. Not much trouble in the house, though.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and pouch. It takes 3-6 weeks to get anything from the U.S. and about the same going out. People have used the local mail but you'll pay customs fees and it's guaranteed to be opened and inspected.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help (ayis) are inexpensive and okay quality. Hire one who's familiar with the diplomatic family and you'll be better off. Some speak English but most don't so at least one of person of the couple should have reasonable Chinese. Prices are about US $3.00 - $5.00 an hour.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are expensive but available. Orange theory is popular. I just used the gym at the apartment which was, by all intents, amazing. Plus there was an indoor-outdoor pool available.
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?
Credit cards are accepted and safe to use, but you'll want to breakdown and get WeChat. Everything can be paid for using WeChat. Think of WeChat as a combination Facebook, Messenger, Facetime, Paypal, Twitter and Instagram all rolled into one.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Most denominations are available but you'll have to look for them. There was a crackdown on some Christian churches.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You should have some Chinese to really enjoy China. You might be able to get around OK with it but you won't be able to leave Shanghai and you'll be frustrated. While many Shanghaiese speak English, they won't speak it very well. Taxi drivers and masseuses rarely speak English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Better all the time but still difficulty. Breathing problems would be a hindrance, as well as anyone who doesn't like sweltering heat.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Extremely safe, affordable, and convenient. Shanghai has an amazing transportation system.
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?
You don't need a car. It's nice to have for large grocery runs but really you can hire out a Didi. Carjacking I'm sure exists but I've never heard of it. Shanghai is the safest large city I've ever been and I've been to a lot. If you bring a car a simple sedan is good enough. People drive a bit crazy and you will get bumped and dinged.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is surprisingly slow, relative to how built up the rest of the country is. This is probably because, you know, China. Be sure you install your VPNs before leaving. You'll want at least three to rotate through when one goes down, and it will. Facebook, all Google apps, WhatsApp all don't work there unless you have a VPN. The best ones are Astrill, Express, and PrivateVPN.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Get an unlocked phone from the U.S. or Singapore or Malaysia. If you buy a phone in China, you'll have to hack it to unlock the Google Play store, etc. I was surprised how much my life depended on Google until I got to China. Set up a phone service where you can get texts, like Google Voice (it'll work with a VPN). This is to help with all the multifactor authentication you'll need.
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?
Some good vets are available. PAWS is around the city and have New Zealand-trained vets. There are others. We shipped dog food from the states.
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?
There is no bilateral work agreement so any spouse needs to work at the Mission or have something set up at home. Spousal jobs range from decent to mind-numbing.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Orphanages, teaching English, and some religious volunteering is available but few and far between.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
You'll find people rolling out in head to toe Versace standing next to someone in full-fleece pajamas. Chinese people like to dress up but their idea of dressing up isn't exactly what an American would think. Dressing up is basically long, black baggy clothes for men and really short shorts for women. Formal dress is good to have, along with a couple good suits for men and evening wear for women.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Just the usual China stuff while you'll hear about before you go. Outside of that, Shanghai is flat out the safest big city I've ever been. Small pickpocket problems and maybe the occasional tough Chinese guy at a club but outside of that no issues. The only time I've heard of outright theft was at an expat function where there were no Chinese people.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
It's really hot and humid during the summer. Pollution is better but can still hit 250-300 AQI some days. Health care is awesome -- cheap and on par with Western medicine. My doctor was an NYU Med School grad. Only the really tough stuff will get you a ticket out. Otherwise you'll get your treatment in Shanghai.
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?
Moderate to bad most days with the occasional miracle great day. You'll get a few air purifiers with regular filter changes.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Nearly every food has pork and/or nuts. So if you're sensitive to that you might have more issues than some. It's possible to avoid either but you have to really work at it.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
The inability to reach home can be difficult when you can't get through the firewall. Life in Shanghai can be exhausting. It's good to find time to relax.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
You'll see four season weather for sure. It's rainy in the spring, hot and muggy in summer, cool and fabulous in the fall, wet and cold in the winter, and then nice again in the spring. I was surprised to see it snow.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The schools are good and parents are generally happy. Note that diplomats get free schooling for their kids, and these schools are very expensive. That means the people actually paying are very, very wealthy. Think flying an entire class to Thailand for a graduation party, or hosting an event at one of the kid's parent's hotel on the Bund. It's not easy to keep up with that so we didn't try.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
There are some schools which cater to special needs kids but they tend to be farther out from the other schools, resulting in longer commute times.
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?
Yes, and expensive if you want expat ones. If you get a full time nanny you won't need much after school care.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, many. Soccer is the big one but just about every sport is available to kids.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge expat community but getting smaller. I think businesses have realized it may not be worth working with China so they are pulling out. Overall though the expat community is strong with good 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?
If you like alcohol you'll do fine in China. Many social activities revolve around beer and wine. There's a club for anything as long as the club size is small.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Many single men enjoy their time in China but there's a real cultural divide and you have to be careful. Single women don't fare as well. Couples do OK and families find other families. It's a good place to socialize and find things to do.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Yes, it's easy to make friends but they might not be friends you want to make. Chinese people generally like white Americans (they just don't like Trump) so if you hang out with them you'll get an earful about our government. In my opinion, they are wary of black people and can be quite racist to other Asian people.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Chinese are more and more tolerant of LGBT, but it's still a bit underground. That said, my LGBT friends were okay there.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Nothing overt, just this undercurrent that's always there. Men and women get along OK. The women are way more together than the men who seem to spend every waking moment playing video games.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Cheap food, easy transportation, quality massages. Trips to Beijing, Xian (Terracotta warriors), Chengdu (Pandas), Avatar Mountains (Zhangjiajie), and easy flights to Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Sydney, and Los Angeles. The expat community is really fun.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Exploring the city with friends is a highlight. Hot pot, skyscrapers, cultural events (international and Chinese), karaoke, and work functions all made Shanghai a great place to be.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes, via taobao. China is the world's factory so you can get pretty much anything you want for cheap. Think of Taobao like Amazon at 1/10 the price.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Transportation and food options are amazing.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That it gets pretty cold in the winter. The Great Firewall is real.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Street of Eternal Happiness.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Shanghai is an amazing city with everything you would ever want. If you can get past the constant Big Brother-ness of it you'll enjoy your time there.