How would you describe an expat’s life in China? In this article, I share my experiences of living and working in China.
In this article, I’m not going to cover the beautiful Chinese landscape and the tasty Chinese food, but instead, focus on life in China from a business and relationship aspect.
My reason for moving to China was threefold: Firstly, before relocating to China, I had a well-paid job at 3 recognized universities in Saigon, Vietnam. At the end of the contracts, I was offered a director position at Concordia international school in China/Hong Kong with a newly started entity in Xiamen, and I was offered a higher salary (24,000 RMB). The city of Xiamen offered a convenient lifestyle and it is a really beautiful place to live in, and worth spending your time, if you get it right concerning your career ambitions.
Secondly, the GDP growth in south-east Asia including China beats Europe and the USA with at least 400% which implies a growing job market and more opportunities to do something interesting from an expat and westerners’ point of view. Being stuck in Europe in the second decade of the 21st century, too often implies daily talks about continuous downsizing, outsourcing and redundancy. The opposite was true for China and Vietnam when I arrived in 2018 and 2017 respectively.
Last but not least, China is a perfect destination if you aim at shipping products to western markets leading to high-profit margins for all parties involved. If you are good at connecting with procurement managers in your homeland, finding suppliers in China is not that hard. Chinese love to deal with European and American markets and you may end up as the business bridge between China and your homeland.
Overall, I enjoy my stay in China, but the excitement depends on where you live, and what job you have, and your experience is highly impacted by how professional your employer is concerning the treatment of foreign staff, besides the remuneration package.
Positive experiences in China include (1) genuine Chinese hospitality (2) above-average returns (3) a comfortable climate (4) social safety (5) interpersonal growth.
(1) The hospitality reminds me of traditional Greek hospitality: to take care of guests with the saying that ‘the guest is the king’ in your house. I’m sometimes invited for lunch at students’ and friends’ accommodation and I get spoiled with Chinese homemade foods and cakes.
In situations requiring immediate help, I ask my students or Chinese friends and they usually assist quickly. It makes you feel appreciated and important. Many parts of the western world have a lot to learn concerning hospitality and genuine care.
Another example is Vietnam; I was offered 3 weeks stay over in someone’s flat. I never met him before, but I briefly knew his former student who introduced us. I was surprised to experience such kindness and genuine hospitality. His hospitality was an absolute soul-lifting experience and we are in touch today. I usually offer him luxury dining out experiences whenever I return to Saigon; it’s hard to find such warm-hearted souls in the world we live in 2020.
(2) As a foreigner with a master’s degree and several years of business experiences, it is possible to find high paying jobs, especially in the IT, engineering and education business.
A university teacher in a tier 2 city in China earns around 10,000-20,000 CNY per month, depending on negotiations, age, education, knowledge and skills, and if you become a teacher trainer you can earn some 25-35,000 CNY per month which is a very good salary in China. A chief secretary and a bank clerk earn 5,000-10,000 per month in tier 2 cities.
Running a training practice yields 16,000-30,000 CNY for 20 sessions with max 5 students in a class. Moreover, I was offered a telecom coordination job with an earning potential of up to 1.5Mn HKD per year, in Hong Kong nut I declined it. My passion for knowledge and teaching got the first hand. I also know teachers with very little relevant experience, and they teach kids and earn 17,000 CNY per month in tier 2 cities.
(3) I’m a fan of warmer climates, and south-east China offers a convenient climate. Places like Xiamen are beautifully decorated with green trees, bushes and colorful flowers and the warm climate allows for plenty of outdoor activities.
(4) With GDP annual rates hitting 6% (according to unconfirmed sources), the market is moving and evolving which implies new jobs and growth opportunities. I love the fact I am given the flexibility to decide what I want to teach my students, and how I want to do it and I can work in industries I never thought of a couple of years ago.
With a Kindle app, I keep myself updated with ideas and knowledge, and by teaching at the university, I get extra time to write on my books, and to run corporate training. I work at the university for 4 days per week.
(5) Safety in China is outstanding. With cameras and cops in almost every corner of the country, together with a tough legal system, few want to get in trouble with the police. The court is not on your side as soon as you enter the hall of ‘justice’, and the likelihood of losing a case is overwhelming – esåecially if you are a foreigner. I often walk home late at night in Xiamen with a wallet and a laptop in my bag, and I never feel insecure.
Negative experiences of living in China include: (a) broken commitments (b) a naive and sometimes arrogant way of dealing with foreigners (c) language barriers (d) food quality (e) hygiene (f) odd public manners.
(a) Oral and written agreements have e tendency to change without notification and without mutual approval – especially when working for ‘bricks and mortar’ learning centers. This is frustrating and very disrespectful. A friend of mine was told to sign an extra contract, stating he would be fired if he was ill certain number of days. He threw the paper in the bin as that was an illegal act. You may find locals trying to add more information to existing contracts, while others may not follow agreements concerning the sharing of revenues and costs when running a business together.
(b) Common sense is a scarce resource in far-east Asia. When working in an international institute, you are given a computer with Chinese settings and expected to be able to navigate the menus and find information to do a proper job. Or, you are not given all information that is needed to do your job, just to be blamed when things go wrong.
It seems that Chinese institutes love to blame employees, instead of being proactive and making sure workers are informed with the right information to avoid mistakes, and to avoid growing frustrations and sudden contract cancellations by foreigners.
Let’s say that you need to upload exam results in a system with Chinese settings. You ask how to do it, and the locals throw vague and quick instructions at you with no further support. After threats of talking with the chairman, you finally get needed support.
Valuable ideas that would improve stakeholder satisfaction, can easily be ignored, unless it comes from the right person in the ‘guanxi’ network; a network of local friends and people who have close relations with decision makers. Getting close relations with decision makers require party membership, under the table profit sharing, or a big financial stake in a business.
(c) Tier 2 cities and less populated cities suffer from low English level skills. Taxi drivers, shop clerks, hospital staff, and public transportation officers lack adequate language skills. It makes it hard to get around, and it makes it hard to connect when applying for jobs.
Saigon in Vietnam was a much better experience. I used to knock doors and speak with deans and c-level executives, without notification and we got along.
China is more complicated, and you would have to go formal ways and book appointments and you have to push much harder to get an appointment with decision makers.
(d) Food quality is a cause of concern. It is hard to trust restaurants; everyone is hunting for profits and Mr business goofy does everything possible to supply cheap and dubious ingredients. The food at restaurants and open markets are being reused and handled wrongly, leading to bacteria growth and in worse case, viruses.
I gained weight when moving to China from Vietnam; Chinese food comes with excess sugar, and a lot of unhealthy oil. A lot of food tastes well, but it’s not healthy. Get used to stomach riots, weight gain and frequent toilet visits at the beginning of your stay.
(e) Vietnam and China suffer from tremendous hygiene problems. A lot of institutes including schools and hospitals lack germ-killing cleaning facilities and proper hand soap. People don’t wash their hands with hand soap after toilet visits. It’s no wonder viruses and bacteria spread marathon fast in this part of the world.
Although you tell decision makers to approve classroom sessions that would teach employees and students how to avoid diseases, little is done to put ideas into practice. Arrogance and naivety kicks-in and nothing happens. Good ideas that would keep an institute healthy and popular too often vanish like the sun in a cloudy sky.
(f) Bad public manners are creepy. I’ve never seen so much spitting as what is happening in China. Yellow shit is flying out of dirty mouths to fill the streets with viruses and bacteria. A lot of older men and women spit and pee openly on the streets in smaller towns.
I heard that the local political ideology once taught inhabitants not to behave according to upper-class manners and spitting and shouting became part and parcel of the social fabric. The generation born in 1940-1960 is worse concerning public manners.
Besides spitting comes speaking loud in public and elbow fighting to get a seat on the bus. People just can’t wait until passengers get off the bus. They have to enter the bus at the same time as people get off and you get squeezed. No common sense at all. It’s annoying and frustrating.
I want to reinforce the message that I met good and bad people in many countries around the world, and I made some genuine lifelong friends in Vietnam and China. No country is perfect, and no human is perfect, but I believe that people, and decision makers need to listen to good ideas and to respect each other.
I hope I managed to shed some light on an expat’s life in China and I look forward to hearing your experiences.
Published 5 Feb 2020 by:
Anthony Eric (Antonios Papadimitriou)
MBA International Business
University Lecturer, Corporate Trainer & Author