Expat Diaries – What is life like in China for an expat family?

Moving to China with your whole family may seem like a daunting prospect. In reality, however, many expat families find it a little easier to settle in than those who move here on their own. As a family, you’ll be in an enviable position: not only to have your comfort bubble by your side but will also be spurred (primarily by your children) to be curious, adventurous, and creative in your new home country.

Having said that, do note that life for expat families will vary greatly depending on where, in China, they’ve moved. It is undeniable that in a bustling megacity like Shanghai, expat family life is easier. The sheer array of international schools in Shanghai, recognizable chain stores, and restaurants means the culture-shock isn’t as pronounced as it might be elsewhere. Tier 1 cities in China also boast the largest expat communities in the whole country, so it reasons that with a greater number of foreigners comes a greater chance of making new friends who understand your situation.

Here are some of the interesting aspects of the lives of expat families in China.

Every expat family in China has a solid expat social network to rely on

If you’ve yet to move to China and are wondering when you ought to seek connections with fellow expats in your new city, the answer would be ‘right now’. Making virtual connections prior to the move will help you greatly. Not only in terms of finding temporary accommodation, transport options, schooling and maybe Mandarin classes but also to get a general idea of what life is like for others who share your culture and language.

No matter how well you’ll integrate, you will undoubtedly cherish your expat network and come to rely on your new friends. For many expat families, this is how lifelong friendships are formed.

Although you probably shouldn’t aim to get stuck in some kind of ‘expat bubble’ when moving to China, it is nevertheless comforting to know that the bubble actually exists in larger cities. How much of that you tap into will be entirely up to you.

Integrating children is usually their main priority

Expat families feel that the priority is in helping their kids integrate and make new friends. The awesome benefit of this is that, in turn, this will also help you integrate and make new friends.

If you’re moving here during a school break, the best thing you can do is search for expat social groups for kids of similar age as yours. Yes, many expat families take advantage of the school holidays to fly home for a visit but just as many will stay put because one (or both) parents can’t take time off. In turn, they’ll be proactive in organizing play or study groups (depending on the age), and they’ll always be happy for newcomers to join in. Search for expat forums and Facebook groups in your city.

Kids settle in remarkably well

Most expat parents in China wax lyrical about their children sucking on chicken feet at local restaurants and chowing down duck tongues like they’re sugar-coated candies. All of this from children who were, supposedly, ‘the pickiest of eaters’. But children are more resilient and adaptable than we give them credit for, and at least when it comes to little tykes, they tend to settle in remarkably well.

If you’re moving to China with teenagers, you may experience polar conundrums. Either your teenager will lock themselves up in their room and only want to video chat with friends back home, or they’ll make new friends quickly and want to be out and about in the ‘big city’ on their own.

Both situations will likely give you anxiety as a parent, but the best advice we’ve ever been given is to lead by example. If your child is homesick, try to mask your own homesickness and, instead, be enthusiastic about new experiences. And if your child craves some independence, try not to be overbearing, appreciate the safety of a country like China and keep that anxiety at bay.

Expat families love their new lifestyles in China…

It is quite undeniable that expat families enjoy a superlative lifestyle in China. Job opportunities are exciting, salaries fantastic and cost of living surprisingly low, while the standard is very high. We’re not talking about a champagne and caviar life 24/7, of course, but if you’re coming from the US, Europe, Canada, or Australia, you will relish in the financial comforts.

In China, you can afford for one parent to stay home if she/he wishes and won’t suffer the pits of financial hell as you might back home. On the contrary: you’ll be able to afford a domestic helper (an aunty!) who’ll become part of the family and help you run your household with ease.

…and are constantly amused by the attention they get

Even in a foreigner-packed city like Shanghai, you’d be surprised at how much attention expat families receive. Especially children, who are admired and adored like it’s nobody’s business. Does it ever get annoying? Yes, sure it does, but the attention is usually spurred by good intentions. So posing for yet another selfie with a stranger, or allowing a sweet old lady to cuddle your bewildered bub, is a small price to pay for being a long-term guest in China.

They accept that their children will be ‘third-culture’

An expat family moving to China will eventually accept that their children will be different. Their upbringing will be infinitely enriched, yet the way they identify themselves will be irrevocably changed. If you are an open-minded, avant-garde parent, you will only ever see this as a privileged plus. Third-culture children are insanely aware: culturally, socially, politically, and historically. In China, and especially if they attend a top international school, they’ll mingle with a mind-boggling array of different nationalities and learn to automatically look at an issue, any issue, from various perspectives. It may sound cliché, but expat kids in China really do grow up to be true citizens of the world.

Moving to China with your family isn’t always going to be a walk in the park, but know that countless other expat families have come before you and have successfully navigated their way into a new life. It might not happen overnight, but it will happen. So hang in there and enjoy the wonderful adventure.