Moving to China is a big adventure, the success of which as well as your personal happiness will depend on a number of factors. An essential aspect I have found to be decisive is one’s social circle. Depending on the type of Chinese city, in which you live, the makeup and size of that social circle can vary drastically; and so, in many cases, can your degree of happiness.
Having lived for two years in Nanjing, a second (or arguably 1.5) tier city, I have found the experience very different from Beijing.
This post is part of a two part series, broken up into expat and local friends for want of a better term and is based on my personal impressions.
Expat Friends – Finding the Right Bubble
Second Tier Solitude
First off, assuming you are looking for an international circle of friends, the pickings in second tier cities are unsurprisingly much slimmer than they are in the capital, especially if you are looking for female friends. Therefore, finding people with the same interests as you isn’t quite as simple; after all, merely being “international” isn’t really enough to build up a strong friendship that goes beyond drinking and clubbing.
Even more so, second tier cities more often than not seem to be the destination for students. Professionals with career aspirations more commonly end up in a first tier, even more so as most larger international firms still tend to be based in the Big Four (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). Consequently, the average duration of their stay in China tends to be shorter for second tier expats. Especially where students are concerned, they will leave after six months to a year, a less than ideal time frame to build long-lasting connections. As a result, as a long-termer one can fall victim to a rather cynical approach. I would systematically take people off of the “potential friend list” once I found out their stay was to be just six months. And yes, I got that desperate I had a “potential friend check list” for every new acquaintance. Come to think of it, my problems with finding suitable mates might have been related to the creepy “please love me” puppy face I would make upon each new encounter. You know the one – shiny eyes and excited panting. I’m sure it wasn’t that bad though…I think.
Being in a long-distance relationship, my lifestyle was definitely more akin to a single person. So, for my childless self, expat families, who tended to live in a different part of the city anyway, were usually at a very different point in their lives; more Chardonnay than roadside chuar 串. Hardly suitable for anything more than superficial exchanges.
I distinctly remember, during my Nanjing time, quite a few single, successful expat women complaining at the slim pickings both for potential partners and besties; unsurprisingly many of them have returned to their home countries or moved on to another place.
In Beijing, the picture that emerges is quite different. Hipsters, fashionistas, gamers; you name it, Beijing has it. I have in a very short amount of time managed to build up a circle of friends much larger than at any point in time in Nanjing with people who share my interests and overlap with myself in terms of where we are in life: passed out on the sofa after one too many Mostos. If you don’t get that reference, sorry, you can’t be my friend. It’s all about being selective now.
While I do feel that less expats speak fluent Chinese in Beijing compared to Nanjing, and as a result I am in more of an expat bubble now than I was before, my social life has undergone an incredible transformation. Where I would spend most weekends on my own down South, now no weekend goes by without at least one social occasion. It has definitely made it a lot harder to lose weight, I’ll tell you that.
Even more encouragingly, because there are more professionals in first tier cities, their duration of stay tends to be much longer. While most expats do seem to leave in the end, after maybe 4 to 5 years, that is still quite an improvement on Nanjing’s six month average.
What has your experience been between different tier cities? Maybe it has been entirely different for you? Let me know in the comments!