Julie's Expat Story, Shanghai

Expat Story: Shanghai

Expat Stories, Chino House

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced the Expat Stories Series here at the Chino House! It was so fun to watch as you all responded to Tina’s Expat Story!  It reminded me what FABULOUS readers you are AND it made me look so forward to sharing more of these. So thanks y’all!

Today’s Expat Story is from Julie in Shanghai.  Enjoy!

Julie's Expat Story, Shanghai

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Julie and I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the Midwest of the United States.  I’m an artist, blogger, bodyworker (Shiatsu and Thai massage), and also do some small business consulting and admin work.

I’ve been living in Shanghai for 20 months with my husband and our dog. My husband took a job here, wanting to make use of his advanced Chinese language skills. We’d lived in China previously, for a short time in 2001, so I knew a little of what to expect: slow internet due to government censorship, a different sense of “order,” and common Chinese foods. However, things have changed a lot since then, and Shanghai is a very different place than the rest of China.  It is more international and more cosmopolitan, so this has been a different experience than the first time around. Same street foods and smells, but way more Starbucks and Prada!

What is something about living abroad that is difficult that you did not anticipate?

Being in my position here makes me a candidate for what is sometimes (terribly) termed, “Trailing Spouse, ” and while I don’t really like the term, it does sometimes feel accurate. While I love travel and adventure, moving somewhere you didn’t exactly pick out is an unusual experience. Another unusual title you gain when moving to China with a male spouse is “Tai tai” which means either wife, or housewife, as I understand it, but seems to be applied to foreign wives in general, and sometimes in a slightly negative tone. I haven’t figured out all of its nuances, but the title feels a little odd.

What new tradition or habit do you want to take away from living abroad?

I would say blogging!  I started blogging regularly only after moving to Shanghai, and it’s been really helpful to me in several different ways.  It’s prompted me to learn different online and social media and, to put it technically, “computer-y stuff,” but more importantly it’s been a great practice for exploring what I am doing in my life work during this geographical transition, giving me a weekly habit to reflect and see what themes emerge. I love it when people read my blog, but I also know that its a great thing for me even if no one reads every post.

Also, people in China are so playful with pattern.  I forget the extent to which this is until I visit home again, but it’s totally common to encounter someone wearing a polka dot hair bow, an animal print top, graphic patterned leggings, and two-tone boat shoes.  This type of pattern mixing is so up my alley as an artist, so I try to appreciate it as much as possible.  I’m currently working out a tactful way to ask people if I can photograph their outfits, because people here real pull off some tricky combinations!

If a friend came to visit you in your city abroad for one day, what would you take them to see?

The Bund: an area along the Huangpu River that showcases older, European-style buildings from past occupation on one side of the river, and the famous space-age Shanghai skyscraper skyline on the other. We might take a river boat tour.

Walking around the Former French Concession.  This is the area I live in, and full of tree-lined streets.  There is an amazing density of things/people/hole-in-the-wall shops/alleys/cats/unusual foods/cool patterns to see. I think this is one of the best things to do in Shanghai: wander.

People’s Square.  A good place to experience the chaos and full force of a city with 23 million+ people if you take the subway to get there, and the park itself offers lots to see, including the Shanghai Museum and the Contemporary Art museum, as well as a small amusement park, and sometimes an informal market where parents attempt to match-make for their adult children!

I’d encourage them to come in February or March when the International Literary Festival is happening at the Glamour Bar.  Writers come from all over the world to talk books in a gorgeous setting with a sparkly bar and glasses of wine.  The weather is rainy and damp then–perfect for cozying up for some good discussion.

What advice would you give to someone who is hoping to live abroad one day?

People do it all the time, and if you want to, you can find a way!  While Shanghai is fairly international, and you can get by in English to some extent.  China is still a confusing place with lots of bureaucracy, but I meet people all the time who just decided to come to China and give it a go, out of curiosity or because the job scene back home was terrible.

Bring all your flexibility and be prepared for it to be tested all the time!

Make use of the common Chinese concept of “guanxi.” Guanxi is basically the idea of “it’s who you know,” taken very seriously. I don’t mean the bribery and corruption that can come with this practice, but more the idea that you’ll want people to help you when you arrive (or hopefully before).  If you can find ways to connect with people with common interests in your new place, they will help guide you to a good situation. You’ll be less likely to end up in a sketchy job you unknowingly took via the classifieds, and more likely to get connected to something that’s hopefully trustworthy and reliable. And, of course, you’ll have more people to enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with when the going gets rough.

And lastly, this.

Thanks so much, Julie, for sharing your Expat Story with us!

You can follow Julie’s adventures on her blog.  I especially enjoy her art posts. She is super creative, yo! Also, she does a fun Friday Love Note every week if you need a little positive energy coming your way.

Do you have any questions for Julie?  Leave them in the comments.


  1. Hey Julie! I so much enjoyed reading about your experiences of Shanghai. I recently spent a few months in China, mostly in Beijing for work, but did get the chance to spend a few days in Shanghai whilst I was there. I’m pleased to say I managed to do everything you said you’d take a friend to do were they to visit, as well as a few other things, so I guess I made the most of my time. I actually blogged about it if your at all interested. Oh, I totally agree about the quirky fashion of the Chinese too. I noticed it the most in Shanghai but it’s definitely true of Beijing as well.

    1. Hey Robert! That’s awesome that you got to explore Beijing and Shanghai, and that you happened to visit places on my list! I think you could explore SH for ten years and still just scratch the surface, but sounds like you got a good glimpse into this place. I’ll hop on over and check out your blog. Thanks for commenting!

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