IT had never occurred to Christopher Pitts, an American working and living in Shanghai, that he would feel homesick not for his home state of Tennessee, but for Shanghai.
As of December, the 29-year-old chef at Table No. 1, a trendy restaurant serving contemporary European cuisine, will have lived in the city for five years.
“I’ve become so accustomed to living in Shanghai that now it feels like home. It’s already hard to go back to the States, and after about two weeks I always want to come back to my life here,” he tells Shanghai Daily.
Pitts came to Shanghai to help open Sir Elly’s restaurant in The Peninsula Shanghai. It was his first time in China; before that he never lived outside the southern part of the United States. He now has a satisfying job, some great friends and also found his life partner in this journey to China.
An increasing number of foreigners like Pitts are choosing China as the destination to work and live abroad.
Last month, HSBC offered new research about the countries and regions that suit expatriates best. In its latest Expat Explorer Survey, HSBC interviewed 9,288 expats via an online questionnaire, with respondents in over 100 countries and regions taking part. Switzerland, Singapore and China’s mainland came out on top as the leading destinations for a balanced expat lifestyle in 2014.
The survey participants were almost evenly split by gender, and nearly half (46 percent) were aged 35-54. The interviewees were primarily working in the banking, construction and education sectors.
The survey ranked 34 countries and regions on the basis of expat economics, lifestyle experience and children raising.
In terms of economics, China’s mainland ranks at the top. This area covers a range of factors including income, wealth and disposable income. A separate section deals with expenses.
The report also indicates that 60 percent (compared with the 32 percent global average) of expat respondents living on China’s mainland agreed that the country is getting better as a place to live and work due to its rapid economic growth.
“The city is great,” says Pitts. “There is so much potential, which of course everyone says. The difference for me is the ability to unlock that potential. The city is limitless if you possess the skill sets to excel.”
Peter Wang, 36, has worked in a Chinese-German engineering joint venture for nearly seven years. Dr Wang of RWTH Aachen University says one German colleague (a technical department manager), who has the same degree as him, has an amazing compensation package — 3 million yuan (US$488,000) a year, a subsistence allowance for each child, rental and children’s tuition.
Few expats came in the past
“Of course a German staffer has his own advantage. But is he really that good?” Wang asks with a slightly disappointed shrug. “The man doesn’t participate in a real technical working process and merely gives advice. He is here because he was assigned by the German side and it’s the company rule.”
In the past, not many foreign elites were willing to come to China’s mainland, according to Wang. They were worried about the working and living environment being below the standard they were used to.
“So normally the company will offer a promotion when their term of office is over. Surely this doesn’t happen anymore,” he says.
“A French friend of mine working in Peugeot several years ago bought a house right away when he went back to Paris,” Wang says, adding that such high salaries are how foreigners see opportunity in China.
He calls them “foreign emperors.”
“Now it is not rare for Japanese staff leaving China after three years, when their term is over, to weep away, especially the high-level leaders (with the biggest compensation packages),” says Lisa Xu, HR manager of a Japanese car company.
The HSBC report shows that China is by far the leading destination for these high-flyers. The survey found that nearly a third of expats (29 percent) here earn over US$250,000 annually.
China’s mainland also performs well in the area of expat expenses, ranking fourth-lowest out of 34 countries. The high income levels combined with relatively cheaper expenditures mean that 76 percent of expats here are finding themselves with more disposable income than they did back home and are enjoying a better social life.
Part of that is due to the Chinese propensity, particularly in Shanghai, to openly embrace foreigners.
“But personally I find Chinese people somehow treat foreigners too nicely, and we are not reciprocated with the same kindness when we are in foreign countries,” says sociologist Zhang Haidong from Shanghai University.
Indeed, 43 percent of the expats in China said they have a more active social life since moving (compared with the global average of 28 percent).
Many of them, however, tend to hang out with other expats.
“Most of my friends here are in fact expats. I have Chinese friends as well but aside from a language barrier you need to consider culture,” admits Pitts. “When a Chinese national tells me something like, ‘You can’t wear bead bracelets that someone has given you until you’ve soaked them in water for three days,’ I have no reason to argue with them; that’s their belief and had I been raised in China I would probably think that as well.
“It’s just not the same mentality. Most of my Chinese friends have spent time overseas and have more Western mentalities as it helps us relate more,” he adds.
China’s mainland ranks 26th in expat experience criteria. Many expats need some effort to get acclimated to their new surroundings and many complain about the life quality.
“The only bad point is pollution and a big lack of food quality control. In China there is an expression, which is so true: If you don’t eat you will die of hunger, but if you eat you will die of poisoning,” says 23-year-old Aurelie Villers, who works in a French governmental agency in Shanghai.
With all kinds of pubs, restaurants and coffee shops, and the rising popularity of dating websites, almost half (49 percent) of expats in China say they have found a life partner since relocating. That number is well above the global average of 36 percent.
“I have many local friends as well as expat friends,” says Suhail Nasir, 38, an engineer and stand-up comedian. “Language is not a big problem in Shanghai as many locals can speak English. Many of my friends have found their life partners here. Indeed Shanghai is a great place for socializing.”
Pitts found his partner early on after he arrived in China. She was born in China and raised in England. Without her, Pitts says he never would have made it so far because she helped him bridge the gap from Western to Chinese culture.
“Being an expat you find that when you go home your mentality has changed,” he says, adding that he was looking for someone who tended to share the same experiences.
“I call her my future, because now that I have her I know I couldn’t continue to grow the way I’ve been growing without her,” says Pitts. “This is because we’re both very driven, and China helped to bring together two people from different sides of the world with like minds. Lucky me!”