Shanghai: China's most international and cosmopolitan city that is home to some 24 million people. It also has a large and active expat community that is very welcoming to new arrivals. As summer approaches and a new influx of expat families prepare to relocate, many will be wondering just what to expect when they arrive. Here, an expat living in the city for over six years offers some advice.
Where to live
With many expat-orientated compounds and apartment complexes dotted throughout the entire city, there is a great selection of residences that can adequately meet the needs and requirements of all families. Given the size of the city and the time it can take to move around, particularly during peak travel times, it is advisable to choose a location that is near both the workplace and the kids' school. The most popular international schools are located in the JinQiao (Pudong) and HongQiao (Puxi) areas of the city. (Shanghai is basically split into two parts - Pudong which is on the eastern side of the river, and Puxi on the western side). Both areas have large and well-integrated expat communities, with numerous shopping malls, restaurants, parks and facilities for children. However, it is worth noting that with such large expat communities, these two areas are also among the most expensive in the city to rent a property.
Like most international cities, Shanghai offers expats a choice of residential properties and in many cases, the two most important factors in determining which type of residence to choose are the monthly accommodation allowance and the preference for a house or apartment. While most will settle for a comfortable three or four-bed apartment in a compound, some expats with a big allowance may be able to afford a villa in the outer suburbs, or a renovated townhouse nearer the city center. Families wishing to have their own private space such as a garden or patio would need to focus their search on the suburbs. To help negotiate and strike a deal with landlords or property companies, hiring an agent with local knowledge is strongly advised.
How to meet people
The diverse range of nationalities in Shanghai has ensured that expat groups and organizations are quite plentiful. Some of these groups are based along business, sporting or national lines, but parents with young children will typically get to meet other parents through some of the extra-curricular activities organized by schools. In addition, and as has already been mentioned, most families will also choose to live in a compound which already has a large number of expat families, hence meeting people and making new friends is not so much of a problem in Shanghai. Most of the seasoned expats who have been here for a number of years will appreciate the difficulties a new family in the city will face, and will be more than willing to help out where they can.
Unfortunately, we have all heard of the rubber eggs, exploding watermelons, recycled cooking oil and other food scandals in China which have tainted the country in recent times, and it can be a difficult place at times to buy food which you can completely trust. Dairy products are one particular area where there seems to be more bad news than good, so most expats will recommend visiting the City Shop supermarket chain for imported goods. City Shop stocks a wide selection of meats, goods and dairy products from Australia, New Zealand, America and Europe. Bread is freshly baked in store each day and some stores also offer a home delivery service.
Without question, living in Shanghai is a big culture shock and there are certain things that will take awhile to get used to, such as the sheer number of people on the streets, not to mention some of the social norms like spitting (gross!). Having said that, the most obvious cultural issue most families will face when they first arrive is the language barrier. English is not widely spoken so not being able to naturally communicate with people during those first days and weeks in the city can be frustrating for both parents and children. Hiring a tutor and starting some basic language classes that the whole family can enjoy will certainly help everyone to settle quicker.
On the whole, Chinese people are traditionally quite reserved, particularly in the company of expats. They may seem reluctant at first to engage in conversation, and this is typically to preserve 'face' or avoid embarrassing themselves publicly. Depending on the situation, a simple smile and polite tone of voice will help to put them at ease.