As inarguably one of the fastest and most sustainably growing economies on the planet it’s not surprising that the number of long-term visitors to China has risen dramatically since the turn of the century.

In the 80s and 90s, foreign visitors to China found themselves in an alien world where European language, culture and food weren’t catered for, and the assumption of wealth and prestige came part-and-parcel with the colour of your skin.

The introduction of green card system in 2004 marked a tangible shift in China’s relationship with expats, opening the door for visitors to become permanent residents. Accompanied by the economic crisis in the West and China’s growing importance on the world stage, China’s expat appeal is easily evidenced: the expat population in Shanghai alone has grown some 6.7% since 2011.

Michael Brinksman, content editor at UK-based online expat resource WhichOffshore has seen a rise in interest in aspiring expats looking for a move to China:

“In the early to mid-2000s we were mostly contacted for advice on moving to the USA, Canada, Australia or the UAE. These four destinations comprised around 80% of our output.

“Around five years ago the levels of interest in China began to creep up, and now, although still not a major rival to the UAE, we’re finding expats asking about China to be a common occurrence rather than a rarity.”

So how has this new generation of expats reacted to this new, more accessible China and its people?

To find out we interviewed four expats:

  • Norwegian national Christine Surlien who lived in China sporadically for a total of six years: as a student at Renmin University in  Beijing from 1995 to 97, in Hong Kong as a Masters student at HK University from 2001-02 and as a diplomat spouse in Beijing from 2008-11.
  • Mitchell Blatt, who first came to China from America in 2011 to study at Nanjing University. While there he travelled during holidays and during the summer. He was so taken with China that, after graduating, he returned to intern at an advertising agency in 2012.
  • Brazilian Katia Steilemann, who followed her husband to Shanghai and has been living there for the past two years.
  • Another Brazilian trailing spouse, Christine Marote, who has lived with her husband in Chang Chun since 2004 and runs a Portuguese language blog about China.

Expats on the Chinese People

Christine:  “I love the fact that most Chinese people are very playful. They love to sing and smile and laugh easily. They don’t take themselves very seriously and that makes me care less about my Chinese not being perfect or having to wear a plastic bag over my head to protect myself from a sudden downpour. It’s very easy to get in contact with Chinese, especially since so many want to practice their English these days and they are naturally very curious about foreigners. They care deeply about their family, children and close friends.”

Mitchell:  “Chinese people are very passionate. They like to make friends and share their culture with foreigners. Chinese emphasize hospitality. When I met some friends at Nanjing University, they invited me to lunch and fought to be the one who got to pay the bill.”

Christine: However, there are some cultural differences that can be difficult to understand fully. Why can’t Chinese people stand in line? Why do they laugh when they are hurt or angry? Most foreigners will ask themselves many questions like this and it’s not always easy to understand the answer.

“What I dislike most is the common lack of compassion among Chinese. Instead of helping, they will often just stand and look, even if it is a serious accident.”

Expats on Chinese Cities

Mitchell: “The biggest thing, looking back at my first week, was how big Chinese cities are. The Chinese phrase “People mountain, People sea,” is correct. In America the population density is much less. I like how there are so many parks with people dancing or singing and so many pedestrian streets. When I first went biking to school in Nanjing, it was kind of scary with so many people on bikes and motorcycles in the bike lane. I looked to each side and thought I will crash into the person next to me. But I got used to it quickly.”

Katia: “Compared to other big cities in the world I was amazed at how safe and clean it is, especially in Shanghai. Once my husband lost his wallet while riding his bike. About 30 minutes later he realised it had fallen out of his pocket. On the way back home he was called by a street cleaning lady who had seen it fall on the floor. She gave it back to him and nothing was missing. Imagine her happy face when she received a generous tip for being so kind.”

Christine M: For a Brazilian it is surprising the organization of so many people, transportation and security system. Everything works well.”

On Chinese Food

Christine: “I love Chinese food! I love to explore the vegetable markets and of course all the restaurants. Somedays we would eat noodles and baozi on the street, other days we would seek out the fancy, international restaurants, the rest of the days: everything in between. Especially Beijing, [which] has such a unique offer[ing] of Chinese and Western food, you’ll never be bored. And Chinese food is more than just “Chinese food”. All the regions have their specialities and spices, it’s a world to discover. My only concern was the frequent food scandals. I really hope the Chinese government takes this issue very seriously now.

Mitchell: “Chinese food is the best. I love the intensity of the flavour. There are so many varieties, many different kinds of food to choose from. My favourite style is Sichuan and Hunan food.”

Christine S: I love Chinese food. Despite is a little difficult when we arrived because we didn’t recognize the ingredients. But after some years we know exactly what we like and how to order a delicious Chinese food.”

What you Took Away From Your Life in China

Christine M: “I never rethink our option to move to China, in fact I really appreciate this country and all that I learned here. I believe that is impossible to live in China and to not ask, to not change anything in your life and to not learn new things!”

Katia: “Doing business in China is just a fascinating experience. Creating networks and new business relations is so much easier than in other countries. Here it seems everything is possible so I made my dream come true: I transformed a creative idea into an actual product – the first baby-proof stylish jewellery made out of eco-friendly corn starch”

“I had a great adventure flying alone to a city in China to meet a manufacturer. They had never done business with a women and only one manager could speak English. They showed great hospitality and generosity. At the end of a long negotiation day they drove me back to the airport and bought me a happy meal at McDonalds because they thought that this is the food that makes Westerners happy!”

Christine: “Mastering a language that first seems impossible gives you a lot of confidence! Yes, it takes a long time to learn, but it’s doable! Learning about a very special and unique culture has thought me so much. I met some fantastic people, from China obviously, but also from other countries. Together we shared our joy and frustrations of living in the world’s most populous country.”

China: A Paradise for Expats?

Although the reports of these expats has been largely positive, so much so that both Mitchell and Christine blog about China even after they’ve departed, to suggest China is a suitable spot for all foreigners would be short-sighted, as Christine sagely points out:

“Remember that there is not only one truth about China! Everybody has their opinion and will come with all sorts of advice and warnings, but you have to find your own truth. China can be overwhelming and might not be suitable for everybody. Think through what is important for you and then see if those goals can be obtained in China. If not, don’t move here.”

With China only growing in economic significance and predicted to be the superpower by 2050, will we see a greater influx of expats looking for opportunities? Or will those opportunities be fewer in number as China becomes a more expensive place to do business? We can’t tell from here, but for the meantime China’s growing expat population seems happy with the unfamiliar culture they’ve found themselves in.