Expectations and realities in China

I could easily — easily — have written “Expectations and realities in the Middle Kingdom”, but as I value my own integrity, I do not stoop to such ubiquitous foolishness.

Anyway, the point here is the different perceptions about the real and the wished-for in Shanghai.

One example of this, which helped to conceptualise this article, is office towers in Shanghai. When I first arrived (many, many years ago because I am considerably more of an old China hand than you) I looked upwards at the skyscrapers, imagining the professionalism held within; the recently vacuumed carpets and shaven chins – the attractive Mediterranean women strutting, nay pounding around the corridors clutching both critically important files and the desires of their male colleagues close to their bronzed chests.

This childish fascination soon came crashing down when I actually entered such a building. No matter the glamorous address or shiny exterior, the inside was a disappointing place – not populated by a global mix of beautiful high-achievers, all working towards the greater good of improving upward revenue-stream dynamics – for all of us.

Rather, they were filled with asleep Chinese people and sub-standard DIY office furniture.

This then reminded me that expectations differ greatly from many of the realities here in the Middle Kingdom.

The Expectation

Surely you can expect such a receptionist at each office entrance?

Come on, this is Asia, this is all surely possible?

The Reality

Shirley Chan and Sherry Chen spending all day chatting on msn and discussing current pop-culture with each other.

So what more?

Let’s say that you are a man in China. In which case, the chances are always high that you will meet your ‘girlfriend’ (Lilly from Xi’an) in a bar or nightclub – especially if you are new to China and are not good at making important life decisions.

Lilly put herself in a shiny, short dress and went to an expat bar. You are in Shanghai, so why wouldn’t she also want go there? Just to ‘visit friends’ of course, and not specifically try and hook a foreign man.  So you reason, incorrectly, that the both of you share similar views on life and are from similar backgrounds.

You know, like when you meet a potential partner in your home country, you assume that you have the same ingrained opinions on, say, theology, general morality, logic and animal welfare.

So on you go and proceed down this mental cul de sac of a relationship – you meet her ‘friends’, hers meet yours, and she is generally hanging loyally by your side at all of your favourite expat restaurants and bars. You educate her about ‘Western life’ with DVDs of Will & Grace and she really ‘gets the comedy’. She’s not like the other Chinese girls. No, not Lilly. She has a ‘Western perspective’. Sure.

Then, at some point, you may even travel to Xi’an to be introduced to her family.

The Expectation

The Reality

But it’s not poor Lilly’s fault. Lilly, and tens of thousands like her, make the hard-seated train journey to Shanghai and have expectations of their own. They dream of the glamour, the iPhones and the possibility of bettering themselves through the hedonistic hail-mary of an inter-racial marriage. Their friends, lucky enough to find stable service work in the city, have told them all about the easy possibilities of finding Mr. Right at a Bund bar.

Their Expectation

The Reality

Oh it’s not just us stinking wai guo ren that have muddled perceptions. But we do have them, inevitably. Without seeing things for ourselves, then we may be completely mis-guided.

One of my own first shocks was my first 10 minutes in China, as I arrived and got into the car, all wide-eyed and ready to ‘experience’. I arrived at good old Pudong airport and wondered what my first sights of China be.

The Expectation

The Reality

OK, so I must have been naive to think that of a city or airport outskirts.

But how about venturing further afield in China? Doesn’t it seem romantic to pose for photos in, I mean experience the rest of China?

You know, get out and see the ‘real people’, the ‘real China’ and have tall tales to tell of your nights drinking yak milk ‘neath the stars, only stirring to occasionally have pre-marital and unprotected sex with Lilly?

Yeah. Tourism in China, let’s do that.

The Expectation

The Reality

The Expectation

The Reality

Well, some things aren’t what you would like them to be.

Never mind, you still have your great expat lifestyle and you’re achieving things.

Even if it’s not quite what you imagined your life and career would be before you arrived here, and even now.

The Expectation

The Reality


Tags: , , ,

Categories: Expat Life


Foreigner in Shanghai


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

17 Comments on “Expectations and realities in China”

  1. October 16, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    Hahaha brilliant! You hit in dead on. I will always leave China for the national holidays , forget trying to go anywhere within the country. To be fair though , I have been to a spot on the Great Wall where we were the only ones.

    • October 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

      I went to Beijing once and on the Great Wall day, didn’t wake up early, so therefore had to go to the most tourist-y part. Certainly an experience…

    • roomaomao
      October 16, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

      Ah yes , I think it’s called Badaling. That is insanely packed. It’s definitely worthwhile to make the journey further out. We joined a group in the 9 Dragon’s Hostel and they drive you out a good 2 hours to an amazing section of the wall.

  2. October 16, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    Very funny post. Nearly spit out my coffee when I scrolled down to the picture of the older, over-weight white guy bent over playing pool.

  3. October 16, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    Haha! Nice one! I’d add “accommodation” to the list.

    PS. I don’t know why all the pics on your blog are blocked unless I am on a VPN. I’ve seen this on other 2010 WP themes in the glorious Middle Kingdom.

    • October 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

      Yes, use your proxy… or better, find the link in the Proxy / Astrill / Spotlight article and buy it through there

  4. October 17, 2012 at 6:34 am #

    Haha Great stuff. All true of course.

    Cannot see the pics for some reason….

  5. October 18, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    This is one of the most dead on blogs that really gives the reality about China…lol.. Talk about killing fantasies and facing reality. I have been thinking about going back but decided against it about a week ago.

    • October 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

      Thanks! Yes there are problems here but it provides one *crucial* element: stimulation. Thousands of other cities on Earth have better ‘quality of life’ – but also little that can amaze and astound you. On the other hand you are making a sane choice 🙂

  6. October 18, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    Reblogged this on joveline and commented:
    And here are additional reasons why I have decided not to return to China…this blog is dead on.

  7. October 19, 2012 at 4:07 am #

    I really loved your article and photos! It captures the perfect feeling we all have when we travel and live other places.

  8. sarahinguangzhou
    October 19, 2012 at 6:36 am #

    So true. I particularly like the fantasy class with the interested business people in the nice modern office and the reality of ending up teaching bored kids in a freezing cold/sweltering hot (depending on season obviously) classroom.

  9. October 20, 2012 at 12:47 am #

    I like the sleeping workers LOL

  10. January 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    This is AWESOME! I haven’t made it to mainland China yet, but I was oh-so-close in Hong Kong and Macau. This could be true for many places/jobs in the world… Thanks so much for stopping by my blog, btw. I will definitely be back by yours!

    • January 7, 2013 at 1:56 pm #


      Yes, it can be true everywhere. But there is something about ‘the expat’ (anywhere) that just makes him/her believe that they are the first to explore a new land and will somehow ‘make it’ there, just because they are foreign! 🙂


  1. The best of Shanghai, 2012 | Developing City - December 9, 2012

    […] On balance, I’d say this one. […]

  2. Some buildings in Shanghai | Developing City - December 5, 2013

    […] Expectations and realities in Shanghai […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: