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Living Abroad In China: Interview With Stuart Strother, PhD

Expert Insights | May 8, 2020

Are you considering moving to China? Are you interested in living in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen, but you’d like to know some of the differences between the cities?  Do you have questions about the culture and the lifestyle adjustments you’ll have to make?

Of course you do!

Stuart Strother, PhD is a professor of economics and leads the Azusa Pacific’s School of Business and Management China Program. He’s also the co-author of Moon Living Abroad in China: Including Hong Kong & Macau.

He spoke with Spacious about his book and topics such as types of expats you’ll meet, housing in China, learning Mandarin, moving to China with a family and understanding communism from a Western or foreign perspective.

You and your wife, how long were the two of you in Asia?

“We first came to Asia in 1993, when we were students. We moved to Shanghai back in 1999, we spent two years living in Shanghai, came back to the States and then when I became a professor we started spending about one to two months, more like two months a year in China every year. Sometimes more than that. In 2011, we lived in Yunnan, that was super chill.”

Stuart Strother
Stuart Strother

When it comes to China, what’s the biggest cultural adjustment Westerners have to make if they’re coming to a place like China? Based on my experience, there is no Chinatown that will prepare you for China…

“That’s a really good question. I think a basic answer, of course, would be the language barrier. A lot of foreign people were not so good at studying Mandarin at home and a lot of people are lost when they do get to Asia. I think a better answer would be, China’s so dynamic that even my Chinese friends, they often don’t know what the heck is going on.

I remember when we lived in China, before Shanghai we were in Indiana where my wife and I were finishing up some schooling there. In the States when you have a free day or free afternoon or whatever, you make a list of things to do, you got three or four errands, grocery, barbershop. You got a list. Living in Shanghai, your daily list can really only have one thing on it. ‘I’m gonna go down and get my passport taken care of or I’m gonna go shop or I’m gonna do this.’

We learned daily life is quite challenging.

Most foreigners don’t drive in China, so you gotta figure out transportation, and that’s quite difficult. Many things are quite difficult. For us we loved living in China. It’s possible we’ll come back again full time. There’s a university program we’ve been talking to about opening up a campus there. We love living in China, we spend most of the summer there. Sometimes we do a winter study abroad program where we take students.

I would say that the short answer is, it’s just so dynamic and really confusing. Not just for foreigners, but my Chinese friends as well. We’ll be hanging out with Chinese friends and we’ll be like ‘Why that guy do that? Or what happening here?’ and they’ll be like ‘I don’t know!’”

One of the things I was concerned with before I went to China, was communism. When I got there, it didn’t really bother me. What was your take on communism? How would you explain communism to another foreigner?

“Good question, the first time we went to China, back in 1993… At that time we had the impression that China’s a communist country, it’s closed, it’s dangerous but we didn’t really know what we were getting into. We only spent a few days in mainland China at that time.

After we went back and lived in China we found that it’s really communist in the name of the ruling party. The whole economy is capitalist. With the exception of the utilities, the military, and the press. I’m in many ways very capitalistic. Which in many ways would be the opposite of communism.

Anywhere you go, you have street vendors hustling to make a couple of kuai here and there. The booming economy kind of discredits the idea that it’s a communist country and people are largely free. You can go to church, you can get on the Internet, so people have quite a bit of freedom.”

How would you explain the vast difference between Hong Kong and mainland China?

“When you read the books, supposedly, they are the same. They’re way different. I guess the culture in the mainland is a little more child in my opinion. It’s little more tied to the farm culture, everybody is kind of chill. People in Hong Kong are a little more uptight…

In the mainland, people are generally very chill and very happy. There was one trip we had, we took students to mainland China and as a foreigner, people just celebrate you so much… we took students to China and they just embraced the liberty and how there were celebrated everywhere they went. Then we went to Korea and the people were not as chill and then after that, we went to Japan and man, those guys are way uptight in Japan.

I like Hong Kong, the people are great, the food is great, I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie Blade Runner, but I feel like I’m in the future when I’m in Hong Kong, especially at night.”

Stuart believes that one of the biggest cultural adjustments for Westerners is that China is so dynamic. Image from flickr/iceninejon.

In your book, you have a chapter called HOUSING CONSIDERATIONS. What was covered in that chapter?

“The target audience for the book is the expatriate family that maybe works for a multinational company that just assigned them to China, so they’re starting with a base knowledge of nothing. So the housing chapter, it starts with how to look for housing, realize the first edition of the book was kind of before there was anything good on the Internet on these matters, so we start off with how to find housing, what to expect with housing, what you are going to pay in various cities.

How does the billing work? Back in the day, when the first edition came out, you just gave your landlord a chunk of cash. But now the tenant generally has to pay their phone bill, water bill gas, whatever. We also talk about the different types of housing. We were teachers, so we lived on campus like a lot of teachers do, whether it’s grade school, international school or university… Teachers, you generally don’t worry about housing because you’re going to live at the school.

The multinational companies when they send employees over, generally they hook them up with a real estate agent who will show them around various place and there is a range of quality like back when we first wrote our first edition back in 2004 and 2005, the expats were still put up in super nice villas which would be comparable to a suburban house in America. A standalone house, three bedrooms, a garage, kitchen.

Whereas China is not so much considered a hardship post as it was 10 years ago, the multinational corporations are generally not giving those sweet hookups. We had friends, they had a driver, they had a maid, they had a ten thousand dollar a month villa, and I understand those benefits are being scaled back quite a bit by the multinational companies.”

The class of expats in China, how would you classify them?

“I hate to stereotype, but they really fall into these camps. We were part of Christian international fellowship. It’s funny, even at the fellowship, you could see different classes. I would say at the top would be the diplomat core. We had a friend who worked for the state of Georgia, and she had an assignment over there. People at the embassy, they get all kind of special treatment and hookups.

I’d say the second class would be the corporate folk. My buddy worked for Cummins, and typically a factory like that would have like a thousand Chinese workers, maybe two or three American guys, a top guy who was the manager of the whole operation and then maybe an engineer and so those guys got major hookups. Driver, ayi, all kinds of hookups. Huge salary, but they also never learned how to speak Chinese or how to interact with the locals because they were living like kings.”

In terms of learning the language, what do you recommend? You have a chapter in your book about learning the language. What advice would you give regarding learning Mandarin?

“There’s a lot of advice I can give. People have different learning styles. We take students to China and they start off not knowing any Mandarin. One of the better strategies is to have a Chinese friend who doesn’t speak any English or doesn’t speak much English so you have to learn how to speak Chinese.

This is bad advice, but one of the best strategies is to get yourself a Chinese girlfriend… One of the better strategies it to have genuine Chinese friends. For me, when I got to China, I like to play street ball, basketball. I made friends with quite a few of the local ballers and a lot of those guys are blue collar. Their English ability is pretty poor. I became fluent in basketball Chinese. I still couldn’t talk politics or finance, but I think the main strategy is to have a genuine friendship with people who will speak Chinese to you.

Other advice, nowadays there are good apps like Pleco and Hello Chinese a few years back I was a real big fan of Chinese Pod

What’s cool about you and your wife, the two of you went to China together. From your perspective, what was easier as male or female, what experiences were easier based on your gender?

“We traveled a lot, we were in a number of countries before we went to China. We were really thankful China was a place without that machismo culture so a woman can be safe. They’re not guys whistling at her or grabbing her, like in India or parts of Latin America or the Middle East. So that was a real positive that we kind of discovered.

When we moved to China full time we had our two sons, we have twins sons, they were 2 years old at the time, so the real difference besides male and female, the real situation we noticed was the difference between adult and child.

In China, a child is like everyone’s child… For my kids, moving from the Midwest to China as two-year-olds it was quite difficult for them in public places, because all the old uncles and grandpas would just grab them and pick them up and sometimes they’d offer my kids beer when they were two years old. That was a huge adjustment for my kids. For my wife and I, I think we adjusted the same. I don’t think there was a gender difference.

The key difference was the first semester we were there. She was off work to settle the household and get things figured out whereas I’d go off to work. I had some good social interaction and she was kind of cooped up in the house. It drove her little nuts at times.”

In your book, you summarized some of the cities. How would you summarize Beijing? What was your assessment ?

“I go to Beijing a couple of times every year and I honestly try to limit the number of days I have there. We first went to Beijing in 1993 and the only shop was the friendship store and the only thing there was cheap souvenirs and cigarettes.

Since that time, every foreign visitor to China must go to Beijing. It’s always on the itinerary for all the tour groups. You know how it is when you go on vacation, your wallet starts off just fat. In Beijing, they realized foreigners are largely dumb because they don’t speak the language. So the stereotype of the foreigner who comes over with a fat wallet and is stupid, it seems to me a predatory culture that developed in Beijing…

To me, Beijing is a hazardous place for foreigners. It’s not all of the people. I tell my students, out of a thousand people in China, nine hundred ninety-nine are saints they’re wonderful. But that one bad guy, he will find you and he’s in Beijing and he drives a cab and he works at the restaurant. I take like 30 to 50 students to China every year and we usually hit up Beijing. Of those 50 there’s like 10 or 15 who meet those tea girls or the art student girls or the cab drivers. To me, I’m kind of biased against Beijing.”

I haven’t been to Shanghai. How does Shanghai compare to Hong Kong?

Shanghai is like you’re in Times Square. It’s just so much energy, without the hookers and the pimps and the crackheads. Shanghai has the same or higher level of energy than like Manhattan where people are hustling. They’re extremely fashionable they’re extremely culture, they’re well read, there well educated.

They’re really very sophisticated. The stock market is there, the fashion industry is there. The music scene. Shanghai is really a very dynamic place. It’s the architectural capital of China compared to Beijing’s hutongs, Beijing’s pollution, Beijing’s heavy government presence. You can get away with anything in Shanghai.”

Stuart thinks Shanghai is so much energy, “like you’re in Times Square”. Image from flickr/Valentin Stanciu.

Have you spent any time in Shenzhen?

“What fascinates me about Shenzhen is it’s a very young city. It wasn’t even a city until 20 or 30 years ago, a bunch of people moved and the government put up this and put up that, business and colleges and infrastructure.

What fascinates me about Shenzhen is the city is brand new but also the population is brand new… Anywhere you go in China, you go to Beijing they speak the Beijing dialect, you go to Shanghai they speak Shanghainese. In Shenzhen, there are no local Shenzhen people and there are no senior citizens there. Senior citizen general live where they grew up.

Generally, demographically, it’s an amazingly young city, in term of the people but also the built environment. It’s a highly educated city too, we did a little research and Shenzhen has the highest number of PhDs of any city in China…”

Who is the audience for you your book?

“As I wrote my chapters, I mainly visualized people like us, young families who were being posted to China by a company. But certainly, a student could benefit or a bachelor or bachelorette who’s moving over to China…”

How has China changed over the last 10 years? and where do you see things going?

“I’m an economist by training. When I think of how China has changed over the last 10 years, really I would have to say, the quality of life of every Chinese person has dramatically improved. When we first moved to China in 93, there were on automobiles on the road. There were taxis. We had two bicycles with the kid seats. We’d take those out grocery shopping. Nowadays it’s not just the wealthy but the middle-class families have a car and a refrigerator and a television. And the kids have an opportunity to go to college, even in the countryside everybody has got a mobile phone, everybody as got a car. So to me, the big change has been the quality of life of the average Chinese person. To me, that’s awesome.”

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