Differences Between Beijing and Shanghai Expats

Shanghai and Beijing are China's top expat destinations. A contemporary worldwide corporate hub with a dazzling cityscape and a historic political capital spearheading the emergence of a new superpower. Both cities and their expats are quite different. I've been part of both expat communities in the Pearl of the Orient and the Big Cabbage. Here are my stereotype-related observations.

Traditionalism vs. internationalism

Shanghai expats are fashionable. They're urbanites who want to reside in a first-tier international metropolis with Western luxuries. Shanghailanders (the old colonial word for Shanghai expatriates) know the latest clothes, worldwide trends, and iPhones and comprehend Western society better than Chinese.

Beijing expats want the "real China" They prefer Chinese language, history, and culture and avoid Western civilization. Shanghainese are up-to-date on the newest trends, whereas Beijingers prefer Qing Dynasty fashion.


Beijing expats speak Mandarin better than Shanghai ones. Moving from Beijing to Shanghai has made my Mandarin worse. (My Spanish is improving because to the city's internationalism.) Shanghailanders view themselves in a globally linked metropolis that's not "genuine China," while Beijingers consider themselves in the heart of the Middle Kingdom where Mandarin is useful and part of the "true China" experience.

Bonjour, oui?

French expats are Shanghai's most numerous. In certain sections of the city, notably the ancient French Concession, you'll feel like you're in France. Some Chinese are earning millions by selling "Fabrique en France" items at 10 times the normal price.

Russians inhabit the vast white north. Moscow and Beijing are near geographically and politically, which may explain the substantial expat population in Beijing. No one knows why, but if you go around Ritan Park's east side along Yabao Lu (where the world's biggest Russian embassy occupies 16 hectares), you'll feel like you're in Mockba.


Clubby Shanghai expats. Here, wearing sleek clothing with cologne/perfume, dancing out in neon-lit discos, and drinking cocktails created by a world-famous mixologist are the standard. From New York to Hong Kong, everyone is laboring for the weekend and spending their money lavishly.

Beijing expats like alternative music. They may be found at a hutong bar sipping artisan beers, listening to a live punk band, or on a roof-top terrace soaking up Vitamin D. The ordinary Beijing expat does go to clubs, particularly near Workers Stadium, but they do so to see how China's new young spends their time.


Expats in suits and ties riding electric scooters in Shanghai are a familiar sight. In this community, foreigners and locals compete to live the Chinese Dream in a concrete jungle. A champagne brunch on the weekend will do, and there may be a work-related meeting between brunch, lunch, and supper.

In Beijing, hipsters on fixies dashing to Chinese lessons are common. While many of the cool Beijing set have non-traditional work schedules owing to teaching English, freelancing, or full-time studies, you may find them at a newly-opened art show, exploring millennium-old landmarks, or resting in a park surrounded by nature.

These are stereotypes, and the best part about them is laughing. Your choice between Shanghai and Beijing depends on whether you're a yuppie or a hipster. Both cities provide something for everyone.

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