Bicultural couples leave their motherlands to experience life and culture in China

By Zhang Yihua Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/30 5:03:40

Many bicultural expat couples are choosing China as their new home because of its opportunity-filled professional platform and inclusive culture. Photo: IC

Many bicultural expat couples are choosing China as their new home because of its opportunity-filled professional platform and inclusive culture. Photo: IC

"Sometimes rolling the dice gets you nowhere, but sometimes it brings you pleasant surprises you never expected," said Andreas Wagner, a 39-year-old German, when talking about the decision he and his Swiss wife made three years ago to come to Beijing.

He and his wife got married in Berlin, Germany in 2010, and lived there until 2013.

He said the main reason they left Berlin was that his wife had a hard time fitting in. She attributed the difficulty to Germany being a homogeneous society where the population overwhelmingly shares common traits and views, which makes it harder for expats to have a sense of belonging.

In addition, Switzerland was not an option because his wife did not want to live in the same place she was born and raised, said Wagner.

While they were trying to decide which city or country would be the best place for them to live, Beijing popped into their minds. "We traveled to Beijing several years ago and we liked the city a lot," he said. "So we thought, why not move to Beijing to give it a try?"

He admitted that when the idea first came up, both he and his wife felt it was a little crazy. "After all, China is so far away and neither of us knew the language. We rolled the dice, and it turned out that we made a wonderful choice."

According to an article in August from Wall Street Journal, many expat couples are choosing to live in a country that is neither partner's home country. Although lacking a social support network is a problem, couples willing to live outside their own countries generally have a more cosmopolitan outlook than couples with one local partner, which makes it easier for them to adapt to changing circumstances. 

China is a good choice for many bicultural couples like Wagner and his wife. Challenges still exist, such as language difficulties, distance from family and friends and bureaucratic complications. However, many couples enjoy the experience of living in China because of the opportunity-filled professional platform it offers and the inclusiveness of its society and culture.   

With China's strict requirements for foreigners, expats are advised to learn Chinese, develop a basic understanding of the business culture and make efforts to become an expert in a specific area.  Photos: IC

With China's strict requirements for foreigners, expats are advised to learn Chinese, develop a basic understanding of the business culture and make efforts to become an expert in a specific area. Photos: IC

Professional platform options

One of the major advantages of moving to China for Wagner and his wife is the abundance of job opportunities.

According to him, his wife had worked as a financial consultant in Berlin for around three years. While his wife watched her German colleagues' careers soar, she remained at the grassroots level. This made her conclude that she would never have the same job opportunities because she is a non-German woman.

His wife rejoiced when she arrived in Beijing. She realized that there is a high demand for experienced accountants and financial analysts, both of which she is qualified for.

After working as a financial analyst in a company for around one year, she was promoted to manager. "She would have never had this opportunity in Berlin," said Wagner.

Besides great job opportunities, a decent salary is also a big plus for many, like Poppy Smith, a 40-year-old Belgian.

She and her French husband met in Dubai in 2007, and they lived there for three years before moving to Boston and then to Xiamen, Fujian Province in 2014.

When they were in Dubai and Boston, they could barely earn more than the average salary for that area."Things that were not expensive for locals were expensive for us," she said. "So we were always on a tight budget."

When they arrived in Xiamen, they both worked as language teachers and were offered much higher salaries than the average income for that area, which assured them a high living standard.

Earning a higher income also helped them when they had their second baby in 2013 and were in urgent need of a nanny. "We barely had time to take care of two kids, and we could not afford a nanny in Boston. That was also a major reason why we left," she said. "Luckily, we can afford a live-in nanny in Xiamen, which balances out the disadvantage of not having our families around to help."

A more inclusive culture

Cultural and religious inclusiveness also attracted Smith and her husband to China.

She complained that although Dubai is a good choice for many expat couples, the Islamic culture is predominant. "Since we are Catholic, we felt like outsiders from the mainstream culture," she said.

When she and her husband arrived in Xiamen, the feeling of being an outsider was gone. "I think it's safe to say that China is not a religious country, so whichever one's religious belief is, it is highly unlikely that he or she will be isolated because of religious reasons," she said.

She added that there are many groups in the city for expats from different countries to meet up, which means they have a great chance of meeting like-minded people. "Some locals are also active participants, making the process of fitting in faster and easier for me and my husband."

Although there were similar groups in Dubai, she said there were not as many expats there and few locals took part in those activities. This made it harder for them to make friends and fit in.

Even though she admits that China may not be for everyone, there is a good combination of advantages. "It offered us great professional opportunities, higher salaries and an inclusive culture all at the same time."

Overcoming challenges

Wagner noted the major challenge for him and his wife was dealing with government bureaucracy, which usually requires a national identification card that neither of them holds. Although they have their passports and visas, acquiring proper visas is particularly tricky.

He explained that even though it is not difficult to get a visa, acquiring a legal work visa is much harder. "Not many companies qualify for providing a work visa. In addition, the company I used to work for did not tell me that my visa was not the legal work visa until after I arrived," he said.

Wagner added that things were made harder because neither he nor his wife could understand or speak Chinese. This proved especially challenging when they were renting an apartment in the city and needed to sign a contract.

He said that although the contract had both an English and a Chinese version, in the event of a dispute, the Chinese version would take precedence. Therefore, he had to find a trustworthy Chinese translator to get the contract checked before he signed it.

For Isla White, a 33-year-old South African, living in China brought on many challenges for her and her husband.

She met and married her Dutch husband five years ago in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, and they have been living there ever since.

One of the major challenges for her and her husband is the local food. They had trouble with the oily vegetables, meat with tiny bones and food safety.

However, they became less worried when neighbors informed them of some trustworthy meat and vegetable sellers in the neighborhood. "We just need to be more careful," she said.

Air quality is also a challenge. She said the first two years were the hardest. She often felt choked from the pollution in winter. She became even more alarmed when she read a report that said 40 percent of the 7 million deaths that occur worldwide each year attributed to air pollution happen around Asia.

However, she happily noticed that the air quality has been improving in recent years, and she has felt less difficulty breathing.

Be prepared

Ye Hong, a Beijing-based career consultant, noted that China is implementing stricter requirements for expats. Therefore, bicultural couples who are considering China as a new home need to be prepared.

According to him, the outcry for Western expertise seen in previous years has started to fade. China is now turning their support towards returning nationals who have been educated in foreign countries, because they have a better understanding of China's culture.

China is now paying more attention to the quality, rather than the quantity of foreigners. This can be concluded from the recent policy requiring foreign workers to be classified into three categories. Only those who place into the top level of talent will be welcomed.

With stronger competition from returning nationals and higher requirements for foreigners, he advises expats to learn Chinese, develop a basic understanding of the business culture and make an effort to become an expert in a specific area. "Foreigners who major in banking, accounting and finance are at an advantage because these areas are in high demand," he said.

Wagner and his wife often look back on the days when they first arrived in Beijing.

"The past three years have turned out to be a very important stage for both of us. We do not feel like outsiders, and we feel good about the changes China has brought us, mentally and physically," he said.

"We do not have a clear plan as to how many years we will continue to live here, but we do know it is going to be a long time."


Newspaper headline: A new home


Posted in: METRO BEIJING

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