Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Expat Lifestyle

Enjoying those expat amenities at Shanghai Brewery

We’ve come across the expat lifestyle a lot more here in Shanghai than we did in Hong Kong. Part of that is geography. In Hong Kong, we were an hour from the major expat area, while here we can get there in 20 minutes. And, also, here there are expat areas—plural. Three metro stops away is the old French Concession, with its charming architecture, boutique shops and fine food and beverages (including some excellent locally-brewed beer). But, a few more stops away is the Hongqiao/Hongmei area, near the kids’ school, which centers around a great pedestrian street with a bunch of food options. And a bit further afield, across the river, are the sprawling and swank Pudong expat areas (where I went today for that perfectly expat activity—an 8K running race).

But, also, for whatever reason I think there seems to be much more of a unique way of living here among expats. In Hong Kong, I saw a lot of young expats, working and playing hard, living in the high rises in the mid-levels above Central Hong Kong. They could be living in any city. But, in Shanghai, there seem to be a lot more families, and that entails a lot more lifestyle.

The private schools here are amazing. The campus where Berkely plays soccer—Shanghai American School—is enormous and very, very nice. I’ve seen pictures of the fancy theatres and other amenities in the other schools in town. You pay for it—most of the best run just under $30,000/year.

But, that’s the thing about the expat lifestyle. You don’t pay for it. Your company does. Along with a spacious and well-appointed home, a cook, nanny, driver, etc. Expats get to live large in Shanghai—and China, more generally. The standard of living for expats is very high—much higher than almost all would enjoy back in the US, or whatever country they’re from.

Bumping up against this all the time, one is certain to wonder on occasion: could I live the expat lifestyle in Shanghai?

Now, this is purely hypothetical for us, since our employers have no work for us to do for them here and, if they did, being taxpayer-funded, public universities, I’m not sure they’d really provide all the perks (so, stop freaking out, family and friends; we’re coming home, don’t worry). But, it’s still interesting to consider.

On the one hand, it would be nice. Shanghai has all the amenities of a major international city, and enjoying it with an entire household staff, a palatial manse and some of the best educational institutions for our kids would be awfully attractive.

But, I think I would not want to, even if the opportunity arose. There are several reasons why. First, I like where I live. Dartmouth is the perfect place to have a home and raise a family. And I wouldn’t want to be so far from family and friends on a permanent basis.

But, even if that weren’t a consideration, I’m not sure I’d do it. For one, I don’t think I could live in Shanghai. I’m not sure I could get over the basic lack of courtesy and politeness one encounters on a daily basis here. Many times a day my internal indignation meters goes off (this afternoon, a father and his son go up from their seats on a crowded metro train and left their two cups of yogurt and assorted papers on the seat behind them, leaving them unusable; this kind of behavior happens all the time). I prefer my daily experience of other people to be a bit more refined and civil. Shanghai grates on my nerves.

Another issue for me is the identity of my children. What I would worry about is the creation of third-culture children—kids who embrace neither their home culture nor the culture in which they reside. Apparently, this is an issue that arises a lot among expats who live abroad for extended periods. While I definitely want my kids to appreciate and sympathize with other cultures, I also want them to be Americans. They are Americans. Heck, it’s too late for them to be anything else, even if we wanted them to be. And I believe it’s important for them to have and maintain that identity (and, when they grow up, shape what that identity means for the entire society, if only in some small way—though I have high expectations, of course).

The other day, Quin said to me, “you know, Dad, we’ve been here so long, I feel like I’m Chinese as much as I’m American!” Now, he was joking, but his comments made me consider how quickly kids pick up the cultural cues around them. From the ability to use chopsticks to the use of Cantonese slang, the boys have absorbed a lot while they’ve been here (though, unfortunately, not the famous Chinese deference to authority). In three years, the length of the standard expat contract, what would they be like? They would have spent one-quarter or more of their lives in China. They would be, in some sense, Chinese, right?

I have to conclude that a year is about the maximum one can be out of the country before the kids start to slide toward that third culture. So, despite the undeniable allures of the expat lifestyle, I’d be ready to go home now, even if we could stay.

1 comment:

  1. Good thought process. Good situational analysis.

    Very good conclusion.