Thinking about moving? Start here with the first 10 things you need to know!
China is one of the world’s most rapidly evolving super powers, and Shanghai is its largest and wealthiest hub. It’s a city that’s rich with culture and ripe with opportunity, and navigating through daily life here can sometimes conjure up reminiscent notions of the American dream.
But before jumping in head first, it’s important to understand that this great metropolis of the East is likely far different than any city you’ve called home in the West. The culture, food, politics and daily happenings may come as quite a surprise if you’re not prepared. So, to ease you in and help you avoid a bad case of ‘culture shock,’ here is a list of 10 things you should know before making the leap to Shanghai, China:
1. Shanghai is HUGE.
With a land mass of over 6,000 km2 and a population of about 24 million inhabitants, Shanghai is more than double the size of other major cities like London or New York. It’s one of the largest urban centers in the world, meaning, at times, it can feel like a never-ending realm of concrete and crowds. Weekend trips out of Shanghai can take longer than expected and the city’s prime areas, like the Bund or Pudong, are often jam-packed with eager tourists.
However, if one thing is certain, it’s that you will never be bored here. And if you’re the type of person that thrives in the hustle and bustle of big cities, then this is the place for you. Due to Shanghai’s enormity, it’s recommended to know your neighborhoods and discover which one is best suited for you.
2. The French Concession is a beautiful bubble.
Perhaps the most popular neighborhood among Western expats is the Former French Concession, known as Xuhui by locals. This area is considered somewhat of a cushion for those moving to China for the first time. Sitting just west of the Bund, it boasts some of the city’s architectural and historical gems dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Nestled in the sycamore-lined streets, you can also find some of Shanghai’s modern-day treasures as well, such as the ever popular shop owner, known as The Avocado Lady, who sells Western groceries at affordable prices, and Tianzifang, a network of alleyways embedded with artsy cafes, stores and galleries. The FFC is a great place to set up a home base, but if you really want to immerse yourself in Chinese culture, be sure to burst the bubble and explore beyond these comfortable avenues.
3. Stock up on your essentials before you come.
Most Western comforts are fairly easy to find via mobile apps or foreign shops throughout the city. However, being met with high import taxes at the border means these products can get quite pricey, so you’re better off bringing some items from home. If there’s a food, beauty or personal hygiene product that you simply cannot live without, stock up before you arrive, especially if you’re a sucker for good wine or chocolate.
If, like many expats, you plan to purchase your groceries online, expect to hit a wall when adding vitamins or other medicinal supplements to your shopping cart. Unfortunately, purchasing such products online is only permitted for Chinese nationals. So, for ease and peace of mind, you should save room in your luggage for those health essentials.
4. Your phone will be your best friend.
While much of what we know as the Internet is blocked in China, they have an alternative for just about every mobile app you can think of. You’ll want to get familiar with these, but by far the most important one to download is WeChat. The entire country’s social media activity, online messaging and personal transactions are handled through this platform. It holds your contact list, conversations, files, wallet and even your favorite apps within the app. It truly is the Swiss army knife of mobile applications.
Outside of WeChat, there are apps for just about anything you can think of, from bicycle shares to grocery delivery. Shanghai takes smartphones to the next level. Here, your mobile is much more than a piece of technology, it’s your life—all the more reason to buy a decent case for your iPhone and be sure to never leave it at a bar!
5. Set up a VPN before you arrive.
To conquer the beast that is China’s Great Firewall, setting up a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is absolutely essential. Without one, the worldwide web will be whittled down to what exists within China’s controlled cyberspace. A VPN encrypts your web traffic so that your browser will believe your location to be outside of China, thus giving you access to otherwise blocked websites, such as Facebook or Netflix.
Technically, the use of a VPN is illegal in China, but many locals, expats and even businesses use one, as it’s near impossible to stay connected to the outside world without it. But, because it is illegal, you can’t install a VPN in China without a VPN, so make sure to choose a reliable provider and set up your devices before landing in Shanghai.
6. Forget about Google.
Well…not entirely. Although this search engine does work behind a VPN, Google-made devices, like the Chromebook or the Google Pixel, are near useless in this part of the world. If you own one of these, it’s recommended to sell them where they may have more value in your home country.
If you’re still keen on having access to the sheer power of Google’s search engine, you can, but be aware that it requires a wealth of patience when your VPN (or the Chinese government) decides to slow things down. It’s helpful to know the basics of Baidu, China’s equivalent website, as it will come in handy when you’re experiencing the inevitable VPN hiccups.
7. It gets really hot…..and really cold.
Shanghai’s climate tells a tale of two extremes. In the summer months, things get hot and humid in this sprawling city. The air becomes seemingly trapped between the concrete buildings, paved roads and tall sycamores, making that little breeze of relief hard to come by. Expect to be constantly covered in a thin layer of sweat, especially if you’re used to a colder climate.
And if you are used to a colder climate, think again. While temperatures rarely dip below 0 ◦C, many of the cities buildings aren’t equipped with proper insulation for keeping heat indoors. This is something to keep in mind when searching for an apartment (i.e. ask about heating source and type of windows), and also when you’re headed out to a restaurant or cafe during the winter months. Always bring a few extra layers!
8. Healthcare should be viewed as a spectrum.
There’s really good, there’s good, there’s mediocre, and there’s bad. In Shanghai, the quality of healthcare you receive is entirely dependent on how much you’re willing to pay.
There are typically three options most expats seek out: a public state-owned hospital, the VIP section of public hospitals, or an international hospital. While all options will likely achieve the same goal, many expats prefer to visit the VIP sections or international hospitals for their English-speaking staff, shorter wait times and higher-end facilities. Although, expect to foot a larger bill than you would at public hospitals.
Be sure to ask your employer about the healthcare benefits included in your offer package, and if an emergency does arise while you’re in Shanghai, make note of the city’s emergency number, 1-2-0.
9. Manners are…different in this part of the world.
Most Westerners would agree that there are some things you just don’t do in public—picking your nose, unleashing a loud belch, letting your child go #2 on a busy sidewalk, or spitting up the contents of your sinuses on the road. Well, in China, things are a little different.
Expect to see some, if not all, of the aforementioned actions happening throughout the streets of Shanghai. Don’t be surprised if you’re budded in queues, pushed out of the way on public transportation or nearly run over by drivers who don’t believe in the meaning of crosswalks. Don’t take it personally.
That’s not to say that manners don’t exist here. There is definitely a standard of customs and etiquette that’s expected in Chinese society, such as politely denying compliments, refraining from strong acts of public affection or properly handling your chopsticks at the dinner table.
10. Knowing a little Chinese can go a long way.
There are parts of Shanghai where you could live comfortably without knowing a lick of Mandarin, like the expat haven of the Former French Concession or the tourist-dwelling Bund, but if you want to make your life a little easier and gain respect from some of the city’s locals, you should definitely practice the basics of the Chinese language.
If you’re only willing to learn a few phrases, focus on transportation, food and greetings. Taxi drivers, for the most part, don’t know any English, and because Mandarin is a tonal language, reciting your street name in the wrong tone will often cause confusion and frustration. Many shop owners and restaurant workers outside of the Western-centric neighborhoods also know very minimal English, so unless you want to rely on the blurry photographs embedded in the menu, it’s good to know which ingredients you love or hate.
One Extra: The (Eastern) world is your oyster.
One of the many luxuries of living in Shanghai is that destinations throughout Asia and the Pacific are so attainable. Flights that would cost upwards of $1,000 USD departing from the Americas or Western Europe cost a sliver of that price departing from Shanghai. Dream destinations, such as Bali, Tokyo, or Bangkok are affordable and close enough for a comfortable flight.
Plus, there are two week-long public holidays in China, which makes it easier to coordinate travel for couples with differing work schedules or families with children in school.