Shanghai, China Report of what it's like to live there - 02/13/09
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. Second time living overseas.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Working for the U.S. Government.
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
14 hours from Washington DC, give or take.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Consulate housing is split between downtown serviced apartments in one of the best buildings in the city, and very nice compound housing out near the schools in Hongqiao. All are top notch, with great service from the building/compound, in good areas with tons to offer, very convenient and comfortable. Just outstanding. The commute from downtown is 5 minutes, from the suburbs it depends on traffic - 30 on a good day, 45 on a bad one. I'm in Hongqiao, which - other than the commute - I love.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Pretty good. There are several good Western grocery chains, including Carrefour and City Shop, where you can get anything you need. US/EUR brands can be quite expensive however, so packing stuff in is a good idea. Local brands are cheap and plentiful in just about anything you can imagine, if you are willing to risk quality/safety issues.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More Western grocery items. Not b/c they aren't available, but to save money. Diapers, which are prohibitively expensive locally. The best air purifiers money could buy.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
KFC is ubiquitous. McDonald's are everywhere, too. Lots of great local and Japanese chains, too. Literally tens of thousands of restaurants of every type imaginable. Within quick walking distance of my house alone probably a hundred or so restaurants with probably 30 different nationalities.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not really any wildlife around, including insects. I think I may have seen a bird once.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The consulate has APO and pouch available, and we use that extensively from the US.FedEx also delivers here (but only packages and not mail). China Post is surprisingly reliable and affordable also.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Readily available, of high quality and cheap. We pay our ayi about $300/month for 55 hours per week of outstanding work, including day care, cooking, cleaning. Its almost criminal the value we get for the money.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes. Decent ones free at the housing compounds, and private ones too if you want to go with a big gym.
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?
ATM machines are everywhere, and most places take credit cards. You need to be careful b/c receipts print with your full card number, though.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes. Finding a jewih, muslim, mormon, protestant or catholic community is fairly easy provided you aren't a local.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Yes. There is an English language Shanghai Daily, the South China Morning Post and other newspapers. They are censored and biased, but not as bad as I feared they'd be. We use AFN for TV, and have a local expat cable package that gets us an extra 10 channels of English language TV. There are also excellent satellite packages available. Cost to us for AFN and the local expat cable package is free.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It is really helpful. Cabbies and shopkeepers cannot be expected to speak much English. College educated Chinese will, and you'll get some from others, but a basic level of Chinese is recommended.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Some, because building codes are not done with the disabled in mind, but overall, lots of elevators and sidewalks would make most places accessible. It's better than most places outside of EUR/US/CAN/AUS.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are well regulated, metered, and cheap. It is a great alternative to a car, and how I get to work most days. Trains are comfortable and very cheap, buses are WAY too crowded to actually use. The subway system is very good, but also crowded during peak times.
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?
A car can be pretty useful for shopping and day trips, as the city is huge, mass transport is crowded and there is quite a bit that is off of a subway line. I'd shy away from big SUVs just because of the traffic and tight spaces. American brands are popular locally, and there are garages that can fix almost anything. The road system is pretty good, but traffic varies from congested to total parking lot. Small car would be best. They drive on the right here.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is shockingly bad for a world-class city. Frankly, it is an embarassment. Between heavy censorship, monitoring of your usage and REALLY low bandwidth for supposed high speed connections, you are basically looking at dialup speeds to U.S. or EUR sites, well those that aren't blocked. We pay about US$50/month for the worst service I've had since I left the dialup world back in the early 90's.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Wait to get one here. They are cheap, and readily available. The Xujiahui area of town has an electronics market that is to die for.
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?
I forget precisely, but when I looked into it before our pet passed, the rules for import were manageable. Several expat families in our neighborhood have dogs or cats that are doing quite well.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
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?
Quite a few, in nearly every field.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
For younger women, short skirts and thigh high stockings seems to be the order of the day. Other than that, seems consistent with other large metropolitan cities, perhaps a bit dressier.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Very unhealthy. Better than Beijing, worse than anywhere in the U.S. or Europe. Expect difficulties with athsma if you've got it, and the Shanghai cough during winter months. Don't even think about swimming in local rivers or lakes - though walking on them might be an option. The impact of pollution on food sources is a constant worry.
2. What immunizations are required each year?
3. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Shanghai is incredibly safe. Video cameras are ever present in all public places, and probably in "private" ones also. We leave our doors unlocked with confidence and our son runs free in the neighborhood without concern.
4. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Many and varied. Food safety is a major issue that is, and should be, a constant worry. Air quality means sore throats and persistant cough. Overcrowding means lots of opportunity for passing of colds and flus. My family spent much of the winter sick, with several hospital visits. Medical care is fair. There are two Western Clinics (Parkay and Shanghai United) that do a good job, but are expensive. For other than routine issues, I'd go to Hong Kong though.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot in summer, nice in fall in spring, cool in winter. Reminds me of Washington DC.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The two main schools are Shanghai American School and Shanghai Community International School. Both offer outstanding facilities, good activities for the kids and good leadership. SAS has a reputation for being slightly more academically rigorous (some would say unhealthily competitive) and SCIS for being a bit more tolerant of kids who move often (some would say coddling). We're in SCIS and find it to be as good as high quality U.S. public schools in curriculum, and better in facilities.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Mixed, but it can be done. Don't expect the same level of care as in the U.S. with the No Child Left Behind Act and the ADA. However, things can get done if you work with the schools long enough.
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?
There are several good preschools available, and have had friends with kids in Rainbow Bridge International School, and loved it. There are several other very good options also. Excellent choices also include hiring a local ayi (nanny). We have one who is outstanding with kids.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Everything. Active Kids Shanghai has some excellent programs, as do the schools. Lots of opportunities, which is a good thing, because there is little green space for unscheduled play.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge. Absolutely gigantic. Probably 50,000 Americans alone, and another 50,000 from EUR/CAN/AUS. Heaven knows how many Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese expats there are.
2. Morale among expats:
Good, just don't talk about pollution, food safety or internet quality and all is rosy. Other than that Shanghai is world-class and expats have a very comfortable life.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
For singles, outstanding. One could spend 10 years here and not run out of things to do. For couples, great schools and tons of interesting cultural opportunities and activities for kids, as well as a safe environment. If not for constant illnesses and fear of what is in the air/food/water, it would be perfect for kids.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
There is, surprisingly, a gay scene here. It is quiet, but Shanghai is a doable place for gay or lesbian expats.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
People from the countryside are looked down upon as uncouth, and some don't like the "lao wai" (westerners/outsiders). But by and large, Shanghai is a pretty cosmopolitan place that is pretty accepting. Religious tolerance is a trickier issue. There are many churches in Shanghai open to Westerners, but there are controls on local practice of religion, and of Western prosthelytization.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
More than you could do in a lifetime. Its a fascinating place, with lots of great places for day trips (Suzhou, Hangzhou), great museums, some of the best shopping in the world, just anything you can want is here.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Tailored clothing, pearls, high quality furniture.
9. Can you save money?
Not really. Too much to buy, too many trips to take. Even if you try to save, cost of Western groceries and supplies will get you.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. It is one of the worlds most amazing cities. If they'd clean up the air and food, free the internet, and get rid of 5 million people or so, it might be the #1. Safety, schooling, housing, restaurants, museums, day trip options, nightlife, shopping, work opportunities, and more are all wonderful.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Sense of privacy, preconceived notions about communist China, love of plants and your healthy lungs.
3. But don't forget your:
High quality home air purifiers, sense of history, chinese phrase book.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Empire of the Sun; Shanghai Kiss.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Empire of the Sun; Shanghai Kiss.
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Lust, Caution, Shanghai Kiss, Kung Fu Hustle,Shanghai Triad, Empire of the Sun, Shanghai Express, Fist of Fury.
7. Do you have any other comments?
It is amazing to compare the China of 30 years ago to the China of today, and the rebuilding of Shanghai during that time is one of the great feats in all of history. The success of Deng Xiaoping's economic policies are seen especially in Shanghai, and the result is a city that is close to an expat's dream. Close only because the downsides of China's development are also so plainly on display:lack of care for the environment being among the most significant.