Shanghai's expat community is a lot like university welcome week. Each class brings something special to the campus--which class are you in?
Shanghai’s waiguoren are a diverse bunch, but if you’ve been here for any length of time, you can start to observe patterns. The motivations for becoming an expat are varied and that is entirely another column, but suffice it to say, the community of foreigners in Shanghai is reminiscent of welcome week of a US university.
This is a time when students arrive on campus and there is a certain excitement and energy that comes with the start of the school year. In many ways, Shanghai is constantly in a state of welcome week with people arriving from and departing for various parts of the world.
New arrivals to Shanghai are fresh faced and enthusiastic. Freshman can be spotted on Yongkang marveling at the wonder of a street that turns into a bar, taking photos entire families on scooters and adults in pajamas.
Absorb some wisdom from the upper classman. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel and it’s okay to ask for recommendations.
The way you look at Shanghai through new eyes can remind the upperclassmen that there are really wonderful things about living in Shanghai and that the contrast between extremes is truly amazing.
These folks are starting to get it. You have your people—your fruit guy, your baozi lady, your shirt woman at the fabric market. You know about the Avocado Lady, but you also know about the amazing tomatoes at the hole-in-the-wall across from your office.
Things are easier now and you understand the rhythm of life in Shanghai and have hit a groove. You also understand what mei ban fa means and have felt its pain.
You are close enough to freshman year to remember that it can be hard to settle in here and can be a great resource for new people as the things you did to make Shanghai feel like home are fresh in your mind. Offer your friendship and introductions to the new kids until they find their way around campus.
You’re a little cynical, you’re the one asking freshman how they like it here and when they respond that they looooovvveee it, you say, “yea, give it a year.” You’ve moved apartments a few times and understand negotiating in China. You’ve made a visa run to Hong Kong and have experienced the joy of having a week off in October.
You are here until the end of another multi-year contract. Shanghai is your home, but you know you’ll leave eventually. You run the fraternities and sororities-those established groups of people that you see out and about and invite others to join, because you know people will leave and the more the merrier.
You understand life here in a way that new kids do not, in part because you have seen the changes that have taken place in Shanghai and the way living here has changed you. You’ve been successful because you are adaptable and can share your perspective wisdom. You are less excitable than underclassmen because you know that things happen here in cycles and can be a calming force.
This group is actually subdivided between two groups; seniors and second semester seniors.
Seniors are loving life. You’ve made it and have real people and guangxi. People know you and you have a pulse on what is happening in the city. You have more contacts than anyone because you’ve been here long enough to remember life before WeChat.
Second semester seniors have, to put it bluntly, checked out. You know graduation is approaching and have an exit plan. Something strange can happen when you know that you are leaving Shanghai. The Bucket List goes into effect and you begin to list the things you haven’t done and things you must do for the last time.
Sometimes, the knowledge of leaving creates a hypersensitivity to the things that now annoy you beyond belief. As first semester seniors, you get coughed on and you chalk it up to one of the things you have to deal with in exchange for other conveniences. As a second semester senior, you curse the sneezer, his mother and her womb.
You are both able to offer guidance in almost any scenario, because you’ve lived through it. From Chinese hospital emergency room visits, enrolling kids in local schools, to following tax laws in multiple countries, you have been through it and lived to tell.
Both groups of seniors can act as mentors and pass on lessons learned. There is something exciting to hanging out with people that have newly arrived and are full of energy. The mix of the upperclassmen and the freshman you take under your wing makes Shanghai such a unique place. The mixing of groups and communities keeps the dynamic energy at such a peak.
This class has been here and done it. You liked it so much that you’ve stayed. Half-pats, career expats or those who have started businesses, the reasons are numerous, but you’ve been here longer than 10 years, with no end in sight. You possess skills that are ideal for not only surviving, but also thriving in Shanghai.
Underclassmen marvel at your longevity and can’t imagine staying here for a decade and certainly not what Shanghai was like when you first arrived and Pudong didn’t exist and there was no Diet Coke for sale.
You know what it was like when Shanghai was actually like other cities in China and not the remarkably comfortable city for foreigners that it is today. You knew it and you stayed, but you don’t hold that over everyone, because you love this place and you still have excitement about being here. You don’t see things through rose-colored glasses, but you do share that contagious zest with others.
It isn’t easy to stay here and not get jaded, but the way that underclassmen and upperclassmen mix here gives all of us a unique opportunity to see the city and life here through fresh eyes. It also means that newbies have a wealth of resources that make settling in here more manageable.