Expats in Shanghai are China’s real spoiled children

By Yang Lan Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-1 19:23:01

Shanghai has been at the top of the "most attractive Chinese cities for foreign professionals" list for two consecutive years. Even though it also ranks highest on "Asia's most expensive cities for expats" list, 174,000 foreigners currently live and work here. If you are curious why, the reason is simple: Shanghai spoils expats.

When foreigners first settled in our city following the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) by the British in the First Opium War, they built settlements called "concessions" because colonists considered it making a concession to have to live in our lands. But over the past century, foreigners eventually came to realize just how esteemed they were in our ancestors' eyes. Those big noses and hairy bodies meant wealth, status and success, and we Chinese strived to copy them like everything else.

Even today, it is our honor to serve laowai (outsiders). A peek into any expat enclave in Jinqiao or Hongqiao areas, where rich foreigners today prefer to hide out because of their distance from anything resembling China, reveals a pampered class of Westerners. These "expense account expats" are so removed from reality that their gated compounds have come to resemble nursery schools full of whining children.

I actually have some foreign friends, but even I am not exempt from their whims. The other day a Westerner I know asked me to be an interpreter so she could give instructions to her ayi (domestic servant). After several rounds, instead of trying to understand the elderly local woman whose country this foreigner lived in, she had a tantrum and said "I will just fire this ayi and find one that speaks English!" I decided not to tell her that any ayi who can speak English will not be cleaning her toilet for only 30 yuan ($4.84) an hour.

Lest I come across as unsympathetic to foreigners overseas, it's because I also used to be an expat. If you want to experience hardship, try being a Chinese abroad. There is no welcome mat rolled out for us. I lived in Spain, Germany and Singapore over the course of four years, and acclimated to their cultures. And unlike Westerners who always arrive in a new country demanding locals speak their language, I forced myself to learn their native tongues or else I wasn't eating.

Speaking of food, when expats in Shanghai want to feast on cuisine other than what their army of ayi cook for them, they either "slum it" by eating dirt-cheap street food or dress up for a fancy meal at all those trendy intercontinental restaurants in the former French concession and the Bund.

But even that is not enough for them. The other day I read about two Americans in Shanghai who, complaining about authentic Chinese cuisine, decided to open a restaurant serving "American-style" Chinese food. Westerners have a long history of telling the Chinese how to do things "properly" and "civilized," but telling us also how to cook our food is where I draw the line on their hegemony. Maybe I should expatriate to the US and open a "Chinese-style" fast-food restaurant serving mutated eight-winged chickens.

Recently I became aware of something called a "hardship package" for expat professionals who are sent by their companies to live in China. Westerners still think of Shanghai as some kind of 1800s settlement, so they feel entitled to an extra hundred thousands dollars from their corporations to compensate them for how "hard" life is here.

Forgetting for a moment that Shanghai is one of Asia's wealthiest cities, with a GDP of 2.36 trillion yuan, and one of the fastest-growing cities in the world with 53.48 billion yuan in 2014 in infrastructure spending, our city also allocated 10 million yuan to fund 160 initiatives just to lure foreign professionals to Shanghai. In expat enclaves like Lianyang, foreign affairs "service stations" offer a wide range of expat assistance more akin to babysitting and hand-holding. Yes, living in Shanghai sure is a hardship.

Rare things are precious. Expats in Shanghai are not rare, but they certainly act precious. Foreigners like to make fun of the Chinese for spoiling our only children and giving them "little emperor" complexes, yet the expats who move to Shanghai seem to take on these same characteristics.

Posted in: TwoCents, Metro Shanghai

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