What does an ex-pat need to be successful in Shanghai?

As I was once told by another ex-pat, people who take on this lifestyle are generally of a similar mindset. Most of us living abroad are naturally open to adventure, meeting new people, seeing new places, and challenging ourselves to adjust our ways of thinking. But even the most adventurous folks could use a roadmap to successful ex-pat life in Shanghai. With that in mind, I asked ex-pats I know here to give me their top “must haves” to enjoy life in Shanghai. The answers fell into four general categories.

The obvious first category is apps: If you live in Shanghai you are immediately downloading WeChat (and hooking up your bank account so you can use WeChat wallet), AliPay, Didi, TaoBao, Sherpa’s, Pleco, Chope, ExpressV**, and Bottles XO.

Then there are the people that make life easier here: a good driver, a great ayi (especially if you have children), and friends that “get” you. Drivers and ayis can be found through an agency, a recommendation from a friend, or a WeChat group set up to find drivers and ayis. Friends of course take a little longer to find, but that leads me to category three.

The third category focuses on things to do to help make your time here easier: the first and semi-obvious tip is to learn Chinese. I know ex-pats who dive right into Mandarin and are at HSK level 4, and then I’ve met some folks who live here for over a decade without knowing more than a couple of phrases. But if you have an ayi in your home even basic Mandarin can be invaluable. It also makes those Didi rides around town much easier. Plus, it’s fun to challenge yourself to learn one of the hardest languages in the world!

The next thing to do is research support networks, which you can do even before you arrive. Finding other people in a similar life spot as you, whether it’s others from your same country, or new moms, or people who like the same sports as you, eases the tension of settling here. And again, having WeChat will allow you to easily connect with these like-minded folks. There is a WeChat group for everything! These support networks will help you be “you” here in Shanghai, likely leading you to find the gym classes, charity organization, or hobby group you participated in back home (or always wanted to participate in but never had the time!). For me, that meant volunteering with Heart2Heart, joining the Shanghai Expat Association (SEA), and singing in a choir. I do best here when I am surrounded by other outgoing people excited to be in Shanghai.

Once you make these friends, reach out to them for help when you need it. Friends here become your surrogate family, especially during holidays or birthdays when you are usually with family members.

In a similar vein, it’s important to have honest conversations with your spouse about the expectations you both have for your time here. No matter what, your life will be different here than it was at home. For many women, arriving in Shanghai means giving up their job, hiring staff that you didn’t need before, and navigating a country that doesn’t speak your language. The balance of work inside and outside the home can shift immensely when you arrive, and that shift takes getting used to. Continually check in with your partner and your children to make sure everyone is OK with their new roles.

Finally, there are certain personality traits that make for a good ex-pat. You can’t hit the mark every day, but to be successful it’s best if most days you can do the following:

  • Be patient and have a positive attitude. Keeping an open mind and a sense of humor here is key to not getting frustrated (for too long, anyway!).
  • Be independent and open to trying new things or taking trips alone. You never know what friends you will meet along the way!
  • Be resilient. This life can throw you a lot of curve balls but remember to get up the next day and try again.
  • Be open to meet new people from all over the world. Don’t just stick with the people who are from your home country.
  • Remember the bigger picture. Keep telling yourself it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This journey is not forever, and you can always go home if it isn’t working out.

So that’s my list! It seems quite long but don’t let it overwhelm you. These tips can be done over time and some of it may just not be useful to you. What have I left off? Do you disagree with any of the tips I’ve given? Let me know in the comments!

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