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Expat Outlook: In a Quest for Chinese Dragons

Expat Outlook: In a Quest for Chinese Dragons

I admit. I’m utterly addicted to other people’s storytelling. Listening to where life (and sometimes love) has taken them, the various corners of the world they’ve travelled to, explored, worked or studied in, is one of the most exciting things for me. I may be a long-time expat myself, but I could never get bored learning from their perspective about the places where they expanded their professional prospects and broadened their personal horizons.

Today’s ‘Expat Outlook’ interview covers such a story. Our guest, Simona Lungu, is a young marketing pro, hailing from the city of Craiova, Romania. Simona has already a vast experience living and working in Belgium, Germany and, as she graciously accepted to respond to my questions – Shanghai.

Joining the city’s large expat community, Simona approached the move to China being aware that flexibility and a good sense of humour are essential when switching to Chinese culture, and embraced the completely opposite cultural differences while stepping out of her comfort zone and getting involved in the local community as well.

* * *

What made you move to Shanghai and what are you doing there?

I moved to Shanghai to follow my partner who was offered to relocate here with his current employer. We thought this would be a great opportunity for us to experience life in a different culture together, and so we decided to pack everything and head to Shanghai.

Once arrived in Shanghai, my main goal was finding a job. I was lucky enough to land a job within one month and I am currently working in Program Management for one of the world’s leading wind turbine manufacturers, in the Renewable Energy Industry.

What challenges did you have to overcome when you moved there?

Hmm… where do I start? In the first few weeks here, everything that used to be routine back home was challenging to a certain extent, the reason for that being of course, the language, but also a different understanding of concepts. Suddenly distance or time had different meaning, as we were moving from a relatively small town with just above 300,000 inhabitants to Shanghai, a megalopolis with a population of about 23 million.

There were definitely many things to deal with when moving to Shanghai and there were many situations where probably things took longer to get done than back home, but we came prepared that not everything will work according to plan. I guess the biggest challenges however, were related to finding an apartment and the logistics of settling into our new home.

Are you learning the language, the dialect? Do you need it or are you fine by speaking English in your daily routines?

If you are serious about learning Mandarin, it takes considerable effort, due to the fact that you must also learn to read and write the Chinese characters. Then there are four different tones in Mandarin, and depending on how you pronounce a word, it can have several meanings. If you simply want to ‘speak’, then it is sufficient to learn ‘pinyin’ which is the official system used to transcribe Chinese characters into Latin script and do your best to pronounce the words using the right tone.

I did take a few Mandarin classes, because I think having a basic knowledge of the language is a must whenever you live a foreign country. My main objective was to learn enough to be able to manage basic things in everyday life (i.e. giving directions to cab drivers, making appointments, supermarket, etc.). I am very interested in being able to interact with locals, and without speaking Mandarin this can be very difficult, as English is not widely spoken in Shanghai.

I think being able to speak the local language definitely makes life much easier here, and everywhere else for that matter, as it enables you to manage day-to-day life independently. Although English is not widely spread in Shanghai, you will find one person able to speak it in (almost) any situation. What is interesting about Shanghai is that if you really want to integrate yourself here, you would not only need to speak Mandarin, the official language in China, but also ‘Shanghainese,’ the local dialect, which is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin.

How big is the expat community there and how actively are you involved in it?

There is a big expat community in Shanghai. The numbers I’ve read over the past year range from over 100,000 to 400,000, but it is difficult to know the official number, due to the fact that not all expats are officially registered. However, it is obvious that the expat community is big, judging by the many events organized by and for expats and by the number of restaurants, shops and relocation agencies with offers geared towards expats.

I sometimes attend expats events, but a busy schedule does not allow me to become a regular at these events. Another reason is that, I am really interested in getting to know the local culture, so I try to get involved with NGO organizations and volunteer in activities to support the local community.

How long have you been living now in Shanghai and how much time did you need to adjust to your life there?

I’ve been living in Shanghai a little longer than one year and I am still adjusting to my life here. I am absolutely happy that this process is taking a bit longer because it is part of the beauty of living abroad: while adjusting, you are continuously surprised by the new way of life in your new ‘home’ and every day has adventure potential. Once you’ve settled into it, that sense of wonder is replaced with the comfort of knowing what to expect and some of the fun disappears.

You’ve worked before in Belgium and Germany. What can you tell us about the cultural differences that struck you when you first moved to China?

Well, living and working in Shanghai makes the cultural differences between Romania, Belgium and Germany seem very small. Anyone who has experienced the cultures of Belgium or Germany and China would agree that they are very contrasting. German people would discuss general topics, but would never go into details about family and financial status when meeting someone for the first time. Well, I’ve had people in China asking me straight away if I am married.

There are also significant differences in terms of work-life balance. When I first moved to Belgium and then Germany, I was surprised to see how much people respect their private life and that they actually apply the ‘work-life balance’ concept. Moving to Shanghai, I found that, although family is at the centre of the society, there is little time left for people working to spend with their family, and employees are encouraged not to use all their vacation days.

One very important concept in the Chinese culture is ‘face’, which is basically one’s social status, dignity, pride or honour in the Chinese society. It is amazing the extent to which people would go in order not to ‘lose face,’ up to the point where they would not admit that they did something wrong, rather than losing face.

Customs and habits, which make perfect sense back home, may have no meaning here. Cultural differences can be perplexing at times, so much that it becomes amusing and you have no clue what is actually going on, like the first time I saw a couple wearing pyjamas at the supermarket. I learned afterwards that wearing pyjamas in public has been one of Shanghai’s most distinctive customs for decades, although local authorities started a campaign to suppress it before the 2010 World Expo.

Another cultural shock was due to traffic. Not because of the traffic-jams, that is to be expected in such a big city, but because of the reckless way people drive here. Shanghai is quite a safe city, but crossing the street might get you killed.

What did you learn from your experiences abroad so far in terms of people, work, culture?

I guess the most important thing about living abroad is that it makes you question the status quo. All those rules you thought written in stone back home might not apply at all in your new home. You learn there’s (almost) nothing you’ve learned that is undeniable, and perhaps what you’ve known as good manners might be considered rude in a different culture. For example, burping in a restaurant is a ‘no-go’ in Europe, but here is a sign of appreciation for a good meal. When waving at a waiter in Shanghai, you have pretty good chances that he will wave back smiling at you, thinking you are just saying ‘Hello,’ but he might not come to take your order. In Europe, people normally whisper in restaurants, while here a quiet restaurant is considered to be unsuccessful.

Another very important aspect of living abroad is that it ‘forces’ you to be more creative in solving problems. You are away from everything and everyone you used to know so you have to find new solutions on your own and being out of your comfort zone, you’re forced to re-think situations you would otherwise take for granted.

Lastly, but not the least, over the past year I’ve learned that almost any situation will probably be much easier to handle with a positive mindset and bit of humour.

What do you miss the most from back home other than family and friends?

My mother’s food and speaking Romanian.

How much does it affect you that certain websites like Facebook and Twitter are banned in China? How do you stay in touch with your friends and family?

With so many other social media available out there, I don’t miss Facebook and Twitter too much (I am not a Twitter user). I can occasionally access Facebook and I manage to stay in touch with my friends and family through regular video-chats. I also try to go home once in a while.

What I do find challenging is that certain websites have a reduced functionality here due to the fact that they are censored (i.e. Google).

What do you like the most and the least about living in Shanghai?

Shanghai is such a diverse, vibrant city with plenty to offer for even the most demanding of us. There is always something going on and you can never get bored here, regardless if you are more the party-type or the wining-dining-type. I am grateful for the fact that there are good restaurants offering pretty much every cuisine, from Indian to German, although I haven’t discovered a Romanian restaurant yet.

Another aspect, which is pretty amazing about Shanghai, is the combination of old and new. While walking on a street with newly build sky-scrapers you’ll suddenly end-up facing hundred-year-old buildings about to be demolished.

I dislike some of the things that come along with living in a big city: the longer distances and the pollution. Oh, and also the fact that some of the products which are relatively cheap back home, are insanely expensive here (i.e. wine, cheese).

You travelled quite a bit in Europe and Asia.  Any particular place you’re really fond of and why?

I have a love-hate relationship with India. It is one of my favourite spots in Asia for the food, the amazing colours and the smiles of people everywhere you go. I also love their sense of humour and creativity when trying to sell you something. As a tourist though, you can’t help feeling that you’re being ripped off as there is no fixed price for anything, negotiation is a must-skill when travelling to India, and this is where the ‘hate’ part comes from.

However, Asia is big and there are still many places I haven’t travelled to. We have a couple of travels lined up over the coming months, and I am looking forward to discovering new places. Let’s talk again next year and see what’s been added to the list!  

What advice would you give to anyone who would like to move China or anywhere else for that matter?

Come with an open mind and with a strong sense of humour. It will make your life much easier, if you are able to take yourself and the situations you’re in a little less seriously.

Shanghai Photos: Courtesy of Simona Lungu

Are you an expat in China? What is your experience about living there?

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