-by Ernie Diaz
You’ll hear the same thing from the old man on the mountain, and the man on Skid Row who’s lost it all: don’t listen to experts. If you’re going to lead any sort of authentic life, best live it by what your heart tells you. Newspapers, though, must pad out current events with copious expert information. China Daily recently surveyed 180,000 expat experts where the best cities in China were for foreigners.
The results are hardly startling, and there’s nothing wrong per se with heeding their advice. Every city ranked: Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Wuhan, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Chongqing, has an expatriate scene developed enough that you can use them as a Middlemarch between China and the place you left. No urgent need to perfect your Mandarin, nor to pine for good sushi and cheese, not necessarily in that order. Comfortable, but what did you come for?
So don’t let anyone talk you out of making the leap from your boring old western redoubt to some third tier Chinese city of just a few million, where you’re lucky if they know what breakfast cereal is, let alone sell it. Otherwise, here’s what you’re in for:
A lot of people like to say Shanghai by no means represents the real China, but on its own terms, the place is realer than any other metropolis you’ll ever experience. Shanghai is a mythical, soul-sucking beast all to itself. It’s a giant coke bowl of an international city, and if you don’t like the buzz you might as well be somewhere else. You want some bonus points for your foreign hide, maybe some expat camaraderie based on the fact that – hey! – we’re in China!? Yeah, definitely somewhere else.
Beijing offers more launching points into what purists might consider workaday Chinese life, but no one’s paying attention. As in Shanghai, everyone’s on the hustle, native and expat alike. There are just too many hot cars on the road, too many international-caliber leisure experiences, not to feel the nag of making enough money to enjoy them all. If you stay for longer than a vacation, you’ll feel the pull to be on the make like everyone else, with correspondingly lower levels of enthusiasm for Beijing’s unique capital culture.
Tianjin both rewards and punishes for its inferiority complex. Third largest city – over 14 million – and where’s the attention? The foreigners left a lot of classic architecture here too, you know! Tianjin sprawls like Beijing, without all the international business opportunities, leaving an atomized expat community skewed to students and combat duty types. Meanwhile, Tianjin is under construction at a pace slightly less frantic than Beijing’s buildup to 2008. Don’t bring your fancy shoes.
Hangzhou, Suzhou, now you’re getting somewhere, somewhere finally a little more Chinese International City than WTO Hub in China. While Beijing and Shanghai’s flavors are no less powerful, Hangzhou and Suzhou’s are more distinct for the lower levels of artificial, international sweetener. Here are cities where an expat can almost still feel like a member of a club, familiar foreign faces in much higher proportion to the many one’s never seen before.
Wuhan? Good call. Moving to China only to hide from it, a wildly popular expat pastime, gets significantly more challenging in Wuhan. Not that you won’t meet plenty of expats giving it their all, try the Toucan Irish Bar.
Xiamen expats are a great bunch. Whereas grumbling about the Chinese fate one has chosen is chronic in previously mentioned cities, Xiamen’s non-natives are far more grateful, statistically, and how would they dare not be? It’s discount San Diego, without the snobs and gangsters! They just can’t understand why everyone isn’t moving on down. As Jack Torrance said, “I wish we could stay here forever… and ever… and ever.” If, however, you’re not sold that heaven is a place on earth, you won’t last two years.
Guangzhou, Shenzhen – must we? No, we’ll forego trying to encapsulate in a few measly words the funky chaos of either place. You’ll never go native in either one, not without Dennis Hopper levels of emotional adaptability. Better to turn off your emotions in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, because you need all your strength to put up with your fellow expats’ interminable stories of outsourcing mishaps and WFOE woes.
They’re calling Chongqing China’s Chicago, but we like to think of it as Dodge City. Law and order go a bit squishy here so close to the Wild West. Oh, believe it, Chongqing is doing a great job of growing and pretending to be like any other Chinese city-state with the population of California. Extra pity if you live here and don’t make like Clint Eastwood, riding off to the endless one-million horse towns off in Chongqing’s lee, where adventure awaits the brave.