Half a World Away: Americans Connect in Shanghai

Story by Justin Parsons  |  Video by Margaret Thompson

Weaving between traffic and bikers on one of Shanghai’s congested streets, it’s easy to lose sense of where on earth this city is.

With a Starbucks on one corner and a Pizza Hut on the next, this could be Chicago, New York or Los Angeles.  Sometimes the only reminder that this is China is the indistinguishable set of Chinese characters on the side of the next building.

Finding a Sense of Belonging Halfway Across the World

Take a look at the lives of four Americans living in Shanghai as they share their journey, including when knew they were where they belonged.

Step out of the car and it’s a different story.

Just navigating the world’s largest city with a phrase book and a pocket dictionary is, well, intimidating. Finding a taxi driver who understands English? Damn near impossible. With skyscrapers and high rise apartments stretching endlessly into the horizon, the enormity of this city gives new meaning to the phrase concrete jungle.

Getting lost in Shanghai is the easy part. For thousands of Americans living and working here, expatriates as they’re sometimes called, the challenge is carving a niche in one of the world’s most international cities.

According to the U.S. Commercial Service, nearly 11,000 Americans are long-term residents of Shanghai. More still are short-term residents, studying or working on short-term visas. Yet, with the ebb and flow of Americans here, the exact number proves elusive.

“If you find out, let me know,” said David Turchetti, Vice President of Programs at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

Shanghai calls

This isn’t the same Shanghai Justin Berger left a decade ago.

“It’s grown, it’s exploded, there is so much happening now,” Berger, a freelance journalist, says. “Ten years ago it was kind of just still a dream in a lot of ways.”

That dream seems to have arrived as he speaks over the chatter of employees at a Subway restaurant on Shanghai’s famed Nanjing Road. The Starbucks next door was too busy.

Berger lived here ten years ago after coming to China to teach English. He started out in a city two hours west of Shanghai, but after four months on the job, decided to try to make it on his own with an English-language magazine in Shanghai.

“I came not knowing how long it would be,” Berger explains. “I thought it may be six months, but I ended up staying two and a half years.”

He set a goal when he returned to the United States to work for the Associated Press — return to Shanghai as a “real” writer who could make a living writing about real issues and experience the culture in a different way.

Because the culture is open and the Chinese people want everyone to be as comfortable as you possibly can be, there hasn’t been a time where he felt in danger or that he didn’t know what he was doing.

That friendliness only gets you so far, Berger said. His biggest takeaway from his time in Shanghai is the ability to adapt to situations and just navigate in a country where signage is usually in Chinese.

But that’s OK with him.

“Learning how to survive and thrive in a foreign city is one of the things I find endlessly exciting about being an expat,” Berger says, with a sly grin on his face.

Adjusting and connecting

Before an expat can thrive in a city as enormous in Shanghai and a culture vastly different than the US, they have to adjust.

Jessica Wang gazes out her Shanghai office window as she reflects on her time in China's largest city.

On a dreary Thursday afternoon Jessica Wang disregards the weather outside her office window. Seasonal adjustment challenged her when she first moved to China from her sunny Southern California home six years.

Winter blues weren’t enough to keep her from her next big adventure. Nor was the bigger obstacle she faced after moving to Shanghai.

“The biggest thing I had to adjust to is how aggressive life in this city can be,” she explains. “In Shanghai the mentality is you just have to fight, you can still get what you want, but you have to really push.”

Shanghai wasn’t her first stop in China. She began a short stint as an English teacher, before spending two and a half years in Ningbo, a seaside town south of Shanghai. Working for an industrial goods trading company wasn’t her cup of tea, so Wang decided it was time to move to Shanghai.

Wang says constantly pushing and being pushed is exhausting. Connecting with other expats, through social gatherings, sports leagues, nightlife, or community service, is one way to thrive.

“It’s important to connect with other expats because you feel so displaced when you first get here,” Wang says. “To anchor yourself in a place you have to anchor yourself in people first.”

Connecting is easier than ever with websites and online forums devoted to the expatriate community.

Michael Connolly recalls building his blog into one of Shanghai's largest English-language websites.

Michael Connolly recalls building his blog into one of Shanghai's largest English-language websites.

Michael Connolly started Shanghaiexpats.com after moving from Seattle to Shanghai in 1999. What began as a way to share information and pictures about living in China with people back home, snowballed into one of the largest English-language sites in Shanghai with about 5 million page views per month.

Connolly says the “canned” definition of an expatriate — somebody living and working in a country other than their original country — doesn’t encapsulate the diversity of expatriates in Shanghai.

“There are students here studying Chinese, senior managers who’ve been with multinational (corporations) for 30 years, people just out of college that come here to teach English or get their feet wet in international markets,” Connolly says.

China’s time

Those connections are often what determines whether they call Shanghai “home” or just a temporary stop in their lives.

Robert Benedetti smiles as he talks about raising his daughter in Shanghai.

“We’ve gone out of our way to connect with American parents because we think they share the same values as we do,” says Robert Benedetti, Vice President of an engineering and construction management firm in Shanghai. “That is, making sure they have a good balance between work, school, and fun.”

Raising their daughter with a a mix of Chinese and American culture was an important consideration for whether or not Benedetti and his wife would stay in Shanghai long-term. Benedetti says that’s not always easy when life for a Chinese child is often business-like, without much fun.

He moved to Shanghai in March 2006 when construction in California was lagging and his career seemed to be at a plateau.

His Chinese wife helped make the transition easier, particularly during the first two years of his time in Shanghai. Now five years and one daughter later, he considers China home.

“The first two years I felt like I took a pay cut to come to a big rat race,” Benedetti says. “The last few years after the recession I’ve said thank God I came to China.”

He is quick to point out that’s not a slam on America.

“The reality is China is no better and no worse than the United States,” Benedetti explains. “It’s just China’s time.”

The expat life isn’t for everyone.

A 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed 57 percent of Americans have never lived outside the town or state where they were born. Even those who move away typically have five or fewer extended-family members living within an hours drive from them.

Adapted from Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends Report, American Mobility: Who moves? Who stays put? Where's home?

Adapted from Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends Report, American Mobility: Who moves? Who stays put? Where's home?

But here in Shanghai, where Chinese and Western cultures coalesce to create one of Asia’s financial and cultural hubs, thousands of Americans are seeking opportunity and adventure, happiness and a slice of the 21st century. Shanghai may be the apex of their careers or a stepping stone to a life they’re still trying to define.

Jessica Wang’s eyes dim, for a moment, as she reflects on her friends back in California and her parents in Taiwan. She isn’t sure what the next year will bring. But for now — as much as any place can feel like home — this is it.

“Every three-to-six months I think, OK, why am I still here,” Wang says, reflecting on her time in Shanghai. “But I’m reminded that this place, in this time, is where I’m supposed to be.”

More about Justin Parsons and Margaret Thompson  |  More Stories

Category: World of Work