China and the Expat Assignment


So much has changed in China since I first visited Shanghai as a student in 1983.  Every aspect of expatriate life there has seen huge shifts, with modern cities and new roads and railways.

I headed for China back then because it was something different. Needing to do a year of language training outside the UK, I wanted to jump off the deep end, and learning Chinese was something that piqued my interest. In 1989, I returned on a work assignment and eventually joined International SOS.

Accommodation was very limited in choice 25 years ago. Nowadays, you can choose from multiple condominiums or houses in the suburbs. Living in a Chinese apartment building is also allowed, where it wasn’t some years ago. Foreigners can also buy property in China. Virtually everything is available (for a price), whereas 25 years ago, foreigners had to buy things using a special shadow currency and use only in dedicated shops. Many more people speak English, and the attitudes of doing business are increasingly international. All these factors mean that it is easier to be an expatriate in China.

However, living outside the “Tier 1” cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, life is far less international in nature and many challenges still exist for non-Chinese speakers. China has always been a fascinating place to live and work. Knowing the language has enabled me to gain more insight into China, the people, the language and culture.

The most important thing for any expat is that they cannot come to China with an attitude of wanting to “preach” to the local population. While China is a proud nation and it wants to learn from its international partners, it by no means needs to replace its own way of doing things. There is much for foreigners to learn in China, and people coming to live and work here should do so with a degree of humility.

I have no regrets and have had a wonderful working and personal life here in China. I still love Europe (my home continent) and get back there each year, but I have been among the very fortunate to be on the crest of the wave as China has risen to be a global economic power. I continue to look forward to what the future will bring for China and for me.

Listen to an interview with John Williams on the Expat Tales segment on China Now radio. Sign up for a March 29 webinar on health and security in China. Join the discussion.


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