Moving to China: Preparing for Life in Shanghai

Preparations before moving abroad can seem endless, and this is especially true before a move to a country that can be as bewildering as China often is. Moving here means that you’ll have plenty of physical things to pack- clothing, electronics, cash- but you’ll also need to prepare your mental and emotional state of a country that changes shape rapidly. Below you’ll find 5 things you’ll need to prepare for life in Shanghai.

Prepare your networking skills. In western nations, relationships are valuable (in Chinese it is called guanxi), but in a city with 200,000 foreigners from hundreds of countries bumping elbows at restaurants, bars, and social events, being prepared to sell your “personal brand” and get put in touch with the right connections is key. Nearly anything is possible in Shanghai if you can network properly. Want to make some cash doing some import-export? There’s always someone who knows someone who’d be willing to give you advice or even partner up. Side note: make some personalized business cards, whether or not your company supplies them!

Your personal network will soon spread internationally as people inevitably move elsewhere throughout the world, meaning you could end up with reliable connections and friends on every continent.

Prepare yourself for an international population. No matter where you’re coming from, Shanghai provides a unique experience to meet people from all over the world, in all walks of life, in the middle of all types of business and careers. Shanghai remains one of the few places in the world where it seems there are ideas and opportunities being passed around freely.

Most interactions with other foreigners will be taking place in English, and the majority of people don’t use English as their native language. If you’re a native English speaker, this means it’s important to speak a bit slower than usual and respect others’ language levels. Many newcomers to Shanghai don’t respect others’ language capabilities. If you’re not a native English speaker, be prepared to test your limits!

Prepare yourself with some basic Chinese. Most expats who have lived here for longer than a few months can quickly agree that Chinese language skills are not required to live and work in Shanghai, aside from a few exceptions. Although it’s not required, its ideal to pick it up if you want to broaden your horizons and gain access to more experiences.

We encourage our interns to get a few basics down. Simple vocabulary and some background knowledge of the tones can go a long long way. Download a copy of Pleco to your smartphone for an easy way to begin memorizing Chinese vocabulary. 

Prepare an open mind. Shanghai boasts some incredible sights. The former French concession is world-famous for a collection of European architecture that surpasses anywhere in Asia. It’s a great place to soak in some history. Exploring the city without expectations will allow you to stumble upon breathtaking views of buildings and infrastructure alongside culture hidden down in shikumen alleyways.


With that being said, you’re going to be seeing things you’ve never seen before, experiencing things you’ve never experienced. Be prepared for seeing different habits- spitting, pushing, shoving, unwashed kitchens, dirty gutters and remember be prepared to continually reset your expectations.

Prepare to go with the flow. Moving to China will help you learn to roll with the punches. More than anything, going with the flow will prevent you from daily frustration, stress and headaches. Remember that things aren’t going to work at your pace here in Shanghai. You can push and push and push but ultimately flexibility is key. Cultural differences, language differences and completely different histories are going to play a part in roadblocks and barriers in getting from point A to B.

On some days, Shanghai can feel like a (barely navigable) maze where you might spend an hour in the bank trying to exchange money, dealing with “maybes” instead of “yes” or “no” before fending off reckless drivers on your way home. Life in China is full of grey areas and uncertainty, but all of this just makes it that much more interesting. Life is fun when you are not quite sure what will happen next.

Being new to Shanghai, you need to keep an open mind, be ready to meet new people, network and get social! The energy found in Shanghai is non-existent anywhere else in the world. Spend your time here making new friends, learning a new language and professional skills, and reacting quickly to the inevitable mistakes you will make and you will leave Shanghai having had a truly transformative experience.

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About the Author
Author: Mike

Mike is SmartIntern's co-founder and a 6-year Shanghai resident. With beginnings in the Midwest, USA, he brings a sense of midwestern hospitality to the SmartIntern team. You'll be likely to spot Mike riding a bike through Xuhui district, grabbing a cocktail at Arcade, and dropping into Ippudo for a hearty bowl of Japanese Ramen. 

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