From Shanghai to Changchun: cities in China that most appeal to foreigners

West Lake, Hangzhou

In these Brexit times, China is a land of opportunity, but where to even begin? It’s not all Shenzhen and Shanghai (former British PM David Cameron visited Southwest China with his business delegation).

A cursory look at a map of East Asia will reveal a territory of mindboggling size. I once took a flight from Shanghai on the east coast to Chengdu – not even in China’s geographic centre – and landed in Sichuan 3.5 hours later. That’s like going from London to Kiev. A flight from Shanghai to Urumqi will meanwhile take 5.5 hours – the same as going from London to Amman in the Middle East.

A former colleague once asserted that China was more a continent than a country – and I could see his point. Twice the size of the EU (yes, including Britain) and surprisingly diverse, China is also the world’s most populous nation.

Each of China’s provinces could be considered a country in its own right. Take Shanghai – a city whose population exceeds Australia’s – a sprawling society with a thriving economy, its own identity and a language (Shanghainese) spoken by 14 million people (more than the number of native Czech speakers). Shanghai is a virtual country.

And it’s Shanghai where most foreigners gravitate to, according to a new survey. A report released by “China Society for Research on International Professional Personnel Exchange and Development” reveals the cities with most appeal to foreigners living and working in China, based on criteria such as living environment and local culture. The top 10 is as follows:

  1. Shanghai
  2. Beijing
  3. Hangzhou
  4. Qingdao
  5. Tianjin
  6. Shenzhen
  7. Suzhou
  8. Guangzhou
  9. Nanjing
  10. Changchun

If anyone is wondering, like I was, about tenth-placed Changchun, I can tell you that it’s the capital of Jilin province, bordering Russian and North Korea. Changchun is home to some 7.6 million, making it slightly bigger than Hong Kong. It’s also an important industrial base, known in China as the “City of Automobiles”.

It would be no surprise to see more cities appeal in the years to come, as foreigners explore more of the country. Some China urban areas are seemingly sprouting from nowhere, like volcanic islands rising from the sea, while other cities, from Beihai to Dezhou, are busy putting themselves on the international map.

And finally, while I’m not resident in China, of the 10 cities listed above my vote would go to Qingdao. Beaches, seafood and fresh Tsingtao beer served straight from the keg in takeaway bags.

More expat assignments leading to failure, reveals ECA

Work stress

More and more expat assignments aren’t working out for either party, a new report reveals.

Global mobility company ECA International’s latest Managing Mobility Survey showed that the number of assignments terminated early in 2016 was 7.2%, up from 4.9% in 2012 – a difference of around 50%. The failure rate was highest in big companies (more than 10,000 staff).

Unsurprisingly, the cause of these early terminations was “a mismatch between expectations and reality”. Nearly three in five employers reported that assignments ended early because of assignees underperforming in their new role. The second most common reason given was the international assignee quitting early over dissatisfaction with their new role.

Partly this is down to not fitting in: assignments are failing because of families not adapting to cultural differences. According to the report, only 18% of employers offer cultural training for the family (which is quite astonishing, as getting it right culturally is critically important, as evident here and here.)

While the report doesn’t appear to explain why the failure rate has gone up, the following solution is offered:

The key to improving an employee’s ability to adapt to assignment and, later, post-assignment life is making sure they are well prepared for what is to come.

It’s common sense: preparation is everything. But rather than consult guides and websites, try before you buy. Get out to the overseas destination in question, interact with your new colleagues in person rather than through email, and get a feel for the culture.

And if everything goes very terribly wrong, at least you’ll have something to talk about down the pub, or at your local Fuckup Night if you’re more entrepreneurially minded.  And let’s face it, you can’t be any worse than this guy, right?:

How do you succeed abroad? A GSOH helps, says cut-e

Emotional man

Working overseas isn’t always a bed of roses. A bad day can be pretty rough (and you won’t necessarily have Marmite and Eastenders to look forward to at the end of it). A stoic mindset and not taking things too seriously can help make life a lot easier. You’ve made it further than most (literally), so cut yourself a bit of slack.

A recent report into expat behaviour by cut-e confirmed that a sense of humour, among other factors, can make the difference between sinking and swimming.

The study of 35 returning expats, as well as their managers, peers and subordinates, looked to see if personal characteristics could predict success abroad. Feedback was collected on each expat’s performance, their personal success, their communication ability and how well they integrated into the local culture.

And the results showed the following character traits:

  • emotional stability
  • openness to change
  • cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity
  • an ability to adjust to different customs
  • perspectives and business practices
  • strong interpersonal skills
  • flexibility
  • resilience
  • respect for diverse viewpoints
  • a high level of autonomy and
  • a sense of humour.

Based on experience and observations, I’d say that cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity are critically important. Get these wrong and the repercussions can be far-reaching, as evident here and here. While a new culture can be a bit of a minefield, publicly slagging off your hosts is an obviously bad idea.

Some digital nomads, who naturally choose their location, are acutely aware of this and make efforts to connect meaningfully with the local community. Steve Munroe of Hubud in Bali described this as “co-giving“.  Similarly, entrepreneur Stuart Jones revealed how Coworkation was working with Bali Children’s Project to provide tangible assistance to those needing it most.

But not all foreign workers are digital nomads, and cut-e recommends that international assignees at least take a personality questionnaire covering values, motives and interests in advance.

Better still, in my opinion, would be to get out to the destination in question and take a few weeks to interact with the culture – you will have an inkling soon enough if it’s right for you (trust your gut), and perhaps avoid this fate:

7 things I’ve learned living in 4 countries over 7 years

Fuji, Japan

In August, I celebrated two anniversaries, one more important than the other. My birthday came first. 10 days later came an even more meaningful date: my expat anniversary. I’d originally planned to be away from home for 6 months. The 7 years since have been the most transformative of my adult life, in ways good and bad (there is seldom a middle ground, as I will explain). At the risk of appearing self-absorbed, here are 7 observations:

  1. I have changed. A lot. It’s an interesting one, this. I began perceiving myself and the world around me differently as the years passed. Exotic backpacker destinations, dripping with mystique, became work and weekend destinations (while still wonderful). Wide-eyed astonishment became a mere curling of the lips. Jakarta? Cool, where’s next? In some cases, marvel turned to indifference, and even cynicism (what’s behind the facade)? My personality, perhaps unavoidably, has also evolved throughout the years. And yet, deep inside, persistent as always, there remains a boy with childlike curiosity.
  2. But this also meant that perceptions back home remained largely unchanged. No matter what you’ve seen or done, or where you’ve been, many people in your home country simply can’t relate to any of it. China will always be egg fried rice and Jackie Chan, and that’s it, and they do business our way, the right way. “Singapore is Malaysia’s capital, isn’t it?” “You spoke at a conference in [exotic city]? That’s nice. What do you think of Brexit?” Employers can’t relate to it either, so it won’t necessarily improve career prospects. They’re not going to salivate over your experience managing a marketing team in Taipei (though you might want to mention that you can speak Chinese, and explain which Chinese).
  3. While Asia’s capitals are looking more and more alike from my perspective – shiny skyscrapers with rooftop bars, gleaming megamalls, identikit airports, acronymed underground systems – the region’s cultures remain uniquely fascinating. Asia’s juggernauts Hong Kong and Shanghai are very different (and yes, I was surprised by this) in ways that include working hours, pace of life and attitude, shaped by all sorts of factors. And although they are often mentioned in the same sentence, world cities like London, Hong Kong and Singapore are bubbles unto themselves. I asked a former colleague in Singapore whether she had visited Kuala Lumpur, literally just up the road, and she answered with, “No. Why would I go there?”.
  4. Their uniqueness does make relocation a challenge. Having to adapt and do things differently from before gets harder every time. Adaptation requires not just changing work behaviours (in itself hard), but also making friends. Integrating with locals and even the expat community can be challenging. Expats, in my experience, are very different from the people you usually encounter back home. They’re typically driven, ambitious, go-getters (I’ve seen a fair few unhinged Patrick Bateman types). They do things to excess. Integrating with the local community means surmounting cultural barriers. Is there a middle way? Perhaps, if you have family; it can be a lonely path otherwise.
  5. Expat life is generally a bipolar one – phenomenal, tough, sober, wickedly drunk, hard work, laid-back work. There is no middle ground. “Normal” living is suspended. Life overseas has its glorious moments, but it also has its uncomfortable elements, and a dark side is never far away. However, crummy you might feel back home, the same sentiment will be magnified a hundred times away from home. Loneliness, a rough day at work, frustration can all feel heightened. There are many foreigners who drink as if the world is about to end tomorrow, from Sanlitun to Soho (I’d say many are borderline alcoholics). Would they booze so much back home? I doubt it.
  6. Perhaps foreigners party a lot because they know their time is up – it’s just a question of when. When I was in Shanghai, I heard it was a transient city. Now in Hong Kong, I hear it’s a transient city. Most foreigners I knew in KL have moved on. There is almost always an end point, especially these days, now that short-term contracts are the norm and expat packages are on their way out. Nothing lasts forever in expat land. Maybe marriage is the answer; I wouldn’t know. Make the most of your time before the plug is pulled.
  7. But life goes on. The expat is dead, long live the expat! I have been fortunate enough to keep going – it really has been down to luck, opportunism and fortitude more than anything. I won’t pretend otherwise. I didn’t plan for a life overseas originally, and I have no idea what the future has in store. But like a lean startup, I will continue to make adjustments here and there, and keep the show on the road.