Expat Living In Shanghai

By Jane Mountain | December 9, 2013

Sick update: Jane is pretty much better, except for a niggling scratchy cough that will probably linger around until March. But now Stephen is sick! Argh. He went to bed last night with a fever and has spent all day today asleep. Not good.

No photo assignment today as my time was taken up with moving, yet again. This time we are staying for a few days at a friend’s apartment while she’s away on holiday. We have the company of a little kitty named Simba, who acts like a dog most of the time, begging for table scraps and always wanting to play.

Simba in repose, Shangai.

Simba in repose, Shangai.

She’s adorable and we love her already.

How To Be A Shanghai Expat

We are lucky to have met so many people in Shanghai, some friends of friends, some lululemon connections, and some yoga teachers and students. Of all the people we’ve met, hardly any of them grew up in China. They’ve come from all around the world to enjoy the expat lifestyle in Shanghai.

We’ve learned a few rules about how to be an expat in Shanghai from them, and today I’m going to share them with you.

Disclaimer: No, we haven’t done a scientific study and yes we are generalising. If you are the exception to these rules, please tell us how you do it in the comments.

Rule #1: Always Take Taxis

Whenever we arrange to meet someone, they promptly send us the directions.

But directions here aren’t like you would get anywhere else, such as “take the 405 north to the 101 south to the 134 east to the 2 south and then get off at Verdugo…”. Hmm, maybe I lived in LA too long.

In Shanghai, instead of a street address or a set of landmarks and turns, you get the name of the venue in Chinese characters, plus the street it’s on and the nearest cross street. You show this magic set of instructions to the taxi driver, who will under no circumstances speak any English, and he will drop you off nearby.

Tear downs, Shanghai.

Tear downs, Shanghai.

In our experience, it’s not going to cost you more than $5 to get just about anywhere, the taxi drivers are honest, and it only takes a second to flag one down. Why wouldn’t you take them everywhere?

Even so, Stephen and I take the metro almost all the time. It’s only 50 cents a ride, goes everywhere we need to go, and allows us to avoid the crowded, smoggy streets for a while.

Rule #2: Work Too Hard

Our friends, and we assume everyone else here, work a lot. I mean, 9 to 7. Or 8. Or 9. That’s a huge contrast to my last job, where everyone cleared out of the Yahoo Santa Monica office before 6 pm. Work is life here, and the whole concept of work/life balance has yet to make an appearance.

Rule #3: Never Cook

Shanghai is packed with restaurants. Every kind of food you could ever want, Eastern or Western, is here. (Um, except delicious Veggie Grill, for which we are totally jones-ing.) What with the working too hard and the sheer availability of everything, expats just don’t cook.

Typical shared kitchen in a Chinese residence, Shanghai.

Typical shared kitchen in a Chinese residence, Shanghai.

They pick up, they take out, they dine in, but they do not cook.

If you don’t have the energy to go out, you can order almost anything you want online from Sherpa.com, and an hour or so later, a delivery driver on a three-wheeled bicycle will drop your food off at your door.

It might be expensive, but it sure is easy!

Rule #3b: Don’t Eat The Street Food

Most expats are paranoid-slash-sensibly-cautious about what goes into the street food in Shanghai.

Tofu press in a wet market, Shanghai.

Tofu press in a wet market, Shanghai.

After hearing stories of recycled oil taken from sewers and rat meat skewers dyed red to look like beef, this is understandable – and also another great reason to be vegetarian.

Plus, the food from higher-end Chinese restaurants and Western places just tastes better and is healthier too. Since we’ve been in Shanghai, we’ve completely fallen into the habit of eating Western food, and have only had street food a couple of times.

If you love home-cooked food, see Rule #4.

Rule #4: You Need An Ayi

Since you work too much, you will not have any time for cleaning your house, caring for your pets, cooking your meals, or doing your laundry. But that’s no problem because everyone has an Ayi (pronounced eye-ee).

Here’s some hilarious advice I found online.

In general, if you stay in a two- or three-bedroom apartment, a part-time Ayi for two or three hours a day will suffice. However, if you have a villa or large house and have a family, one or two full-time Ayis will be necessary.

I’m not sure this person knows the meaning of the word “necessary”, but since the hourly rate for an Ayi is $2 or $3 per hour, your definition of necessary might change once you get here. Most of our friends have someone come around three times a week for an hour, and consequently, their homes are spotless.

Expat footwear, Shanghai.

Expat footwear, Shanghai.

The few times Ayi has come (yes, you can just call her Ayi) while we’ve been home, I have felt a little weird about sitting and watching TV while she cleans around me. But, it’s good to know all that expat cash is going back into the pocket of a local person who is more than likely very happy to be working – especially if you’re paying her fairly and treating her with respect.

Rule #5: Don’t Drink The Water

All over China, Stephen and I have been drinking boiled tap water, and as far as we could tell, all the locals do the same. When we got to Shanghai, we quickly discovered that expats NEVER drink the tap water.

Turns out, the water supply in Shanghai comes mostly from the Huangpu River, and contains high levels of heavy metals, chlorine, and other nasties you really don’t want to be drinking. After doing a little research, we quickly decided to give up on our tap water ways while in the city, even though I hate the bottled water industry with a passion.

Think expat life in Shanghai sounds good? China rated the best country overall for expat living in HSBC’s 2013 Expat Explorer survey, so get networking, brush up your resume, and head on over.

Just remember to bring your smog mask.  

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  1. Comment by Jane

    Jane August 10, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    Hi Nikita,
    Thanks for the kinds words. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the posts.

    The only place we avoided tap water in China was in Shanghai because some of our friends there warned us about the water there, which I believe comes from the Yangtze – which has countless factories upstream from there.

    In all other parts of China, we drank boiled water just as the residents did. I can’t attest to the wisdom of this – it never made us sick but we tried not to think about what else may be in the water ;)

    In terms of showering etc, we just used what came out of the tap. Again, there might be some small risk associated with this, but I don’t see what choice you have if you’re going to visit China!


  2. Comment by Nikita Tiwari

    Nikita Tiwari August 9, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Jane, Loving your posts on your experience in China… One Q on the water… You mentioned that you avoided tap water in China for drinking since it had heavy metals and chlorine. What did you do for bathing or washing your hair? This kinda water would be harmful for the skin and hair.


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