What Living as an Expat in Shanghai is Really Like


Hey guys! Welcome to American Expats, a new series that shows you what expat life is like in cities around the world. Next up: Samantha, a teacher who has been living in Shanghai for four years. Here, she talks about soup dumplings, personal safety, and the importance of a good VPN.

What living in Shanghai as an expat is really like

Samatha’s background:

My name is Samantha and I grew up in Northern Virginia. I moved to Shanghai alone but now have an amazing network of friends and coworkers!

In Shanghai, I work as a teacher at an international school. Because I am a certified teacher from a native English speaking country, finding a teaching job here was fairly easy. I used a company called Search Associates to help find me a teaching job abroad and Shanghai, China, seemed like the best choice for me. Four years later, with no plans to leave, I’d say I made the right choice!

What living in Shanghai as an expat is really like

On first impressions of Shanghai: Shanghai is definitely different from anywhere I had ever been, even in Asia. It is very modern, crowded, and full of life. I didn’t expect to see as many expat faces on the street or as many Western shops and restaurants. There is a Starbucks on every corner here and a TGI Friday’s down the street from my school. I wasn’t expecting any of that!

On culture shock: It is very common in Shanghai to “clear your qi” whenever you need. This means spitting, burping, etc. whenever you feel the urge, even if you are on a crowded metro. I’m still not really used to this.

What living in Shanghai as an expat is really like

On making friends: Since I work as a teacher at an international school, I was able to meet lots of other expats and local people right away. I also joined a lot of expat groups  (like Shanghai Expats or EXPATS in Shanghai) on Facebook and put myself out there as much as possible. I found a photography group, joined a gym, and starting going on day trips with some local companies. I’m lucky that a lot of my friends are still in Shanghai.

On transportation: Shanghai has an amazing public transportation system. I use the metro a lot because it is convenient and very cheap. We also have a great bike-sharing system here.

When the weather is nice, walking is my favorite ways to get around. There are always new stores popping up or galleries to explore, and it’s much easier to notice these new spots when you’re on foot.

What living in Shanghai as an expat is really like

On Chinese food: Real Chinese food is amazing. It is so different from the General Tso’s chicken you’d get in the States. Foods from Sichuan and Yunan province are out of this world. Unfortunately, I don’t love Shanghainese food, with one major exception: Xiaolongbao. These are soup-filled pork dumplings that are AMAZING.

On international food options: We have chains like TGI Friday’s and Hooters (yes, Hooters), but we’ve also got many international restaurants. There are Japanese restaurants, Korean, Italian, Lebanese… the list goes on. One of my favorite restaurants here is owned by a French couple. They have the most amazing wine and cheese!

On personal safety: Living in Shanghai feels super safe; it’s the safest places I’ve ever lived. I lock my doors and am vigilant when I’m on a crowded metro, but crime here is rare. I once dropped my cell phone walking home from a night out and someone turned it into the police state for me and I was able to get it back!

What living in Shanghai as an expat is really like

On the cost of living in Shanghai: Shanghai is great because it can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Rent in a good neighborhood can be expensive, but it is cheaper than a place in New York, for example.

On learning Mandarin: I took Mandarin lessons during my first year in Shanghai, but i is not an easy language to learn. However, you really need the basics in order to get around Shanghai; most locals do not speak English, but it is possible to survive without it.

Most of the western bars and restaurants have English-speaking staff and all of the streets signs and the metro is in English as well. You won’t have many authentic interactions with locals without a few words in Mandarin, though. A simple “xie xie” [thank you] goes a long way!

On great neighborhoods for expats: I live in the Former French Concession. It is a great neighborhood for young, single people, or even families. There are loads of shops, bars, restaurants, and activities around. I love it because there are also lots of little neighborhood parks and all of our streets are lined with trees, something you don’t get in other parts of the city.

Jing’an district is also really fun and similar to the Former French Concession. Pudong, or the New Area, is another great neighborhood. It’s newer and has more modern and spacious apartments, and is especially popular with families. 

What living in Shanghai as an expat is really like

On travel opportunities: There are always cheap flights out of Shanghai; I have been all over China, as well as Hong Kong, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. My favorite places in China are Zhangjiajie (the “Avatar” mountains) and Guilin [a city in Southern China with dramatic limestone karsts]. 

On the best part of living in Shanghai: I love that Shanghai is always changing. There is always a new neighborhood to explore, an exciting event on in the city, or bars and restaurants opening up. It is pretty hard to get bored living in Shanghai.

On advice for new expats in Shanghai: Embrace the experience. You’ll be able to see and do so much in the city, so just go with it. Also, get a good VPN [Virtual Private Network]. You’ll want to be able to access blocked sites like Netflix, Instagram, and Facebook.

Thank you so much, Samantha!

P.S. The Real Truth About Dating as an Expat and What Living as an Expat in Singapore is Really Like.

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