One thing I understood in Tianjin: life as an expat can be lonely. Beijing and Shanghai have growing populations of foreigners now, and there is a grain of good among the numbers. But – Koreans excepted – they still think of Tianjin as a frontier town; and as such, it appeals to a weird mob.

Roughly speaking, there’s four types of expats in Tianjin. The first are the mechanics. Aerospace technicians flown over from Toulouse to train local staff in the new Airbus factory. Or similar profiles, I suppose, from other countries. In France, they’re normal people – a good job, but no particular status attached. In China, they think they’re on top of the world. And so come out with a string of pseudo-wise judgements about the country: ‘they just haven’t evolved’, ‘it’s hard to get them to work’ or even ‘it’s a new country, that’s what I like about it’. Painful.

The second are the Gold Diggers. They read about the Tianjin boom – 15% of GDP growth per year in the middle of the GFC. They heard it will be the main Financial centre in East Asia – some time in the future. So they came early, to get their shares in the local market at early bird’s price. I met one of those in a bar, receding hair and Lenin-style glasses, a waitress hanging on his neck. He thought he was inventing cool. His bar-snack was opening soon. There would be kebabs.

The come the spouses, a more interesting and varied mix. They come in two kinds: European partner, or Chinese partner. The first are handbag housewives, who spend their husband’s expat package on maids and manicure. Most are not working, and spend their days complaining about the life of luxury they live in China, pining after a proper baguette or a nice cup of coffee with milk.

The second are more colourful – and come in both genders. They came first as a student, or on a visit; they met a Chinese partner, and they decided to stay. Most of those work as language teachers, or in some sort of mediating role. As time passes, they become more and more Chinese, and talk of how everything is changing. They have a touch of sadness to them – life in China can be tough – but they’re settled here, have respect for people around, and make an effort to understand. The one problem with them is – newcomers endanger their exceptional status; and though they are a worthy lot, they tend to know better than you.

Finally come the students. They’re in China to learn Chinese, for a year, or just a few months. Either Tianjin was not their first choice, or they come from a remote place. But they’re enjoying it, or try to. They write blogs, go to cafes, and have a try at market food with adventurous internationals. On week-ends, they train to Beijing and hang out around the cool bars.


15 thoughts on “Expats

  1. I guess I’m the English teacher! But I do understand what you mean about the expats. I think I’ve met maybe 5 or 6 Westerners in China that I actually liked. The rest, around 20 or so, are losers, jerks and idiots.

  2. I´m going to ttTianjin for six months next year for a workshop at the Fine Arts University.
    I¨m from uruguay, South America and I´ve already been in Chine for a month a few years ago and it was difficult to meet people and I´m a very social man.
    Hope this time is going to be better.
    It´s very interesting your blog.

    1. Good luck with the stay in Tianjin! I found it’s actually a remarkably beautiful city – hope it inspires you. If you want to learn more about China I’m now running a collaborative translation platform called Marco Polo Project – go and have a look some time :-).

  3. Moving to Tianjin in mid August to teach English at Tianjin Foreign Language School high school. Looking forward to it even if a bit scary to leave US OF A for 2 years. I like your blog – hope it’s manageable and enjoyable for wife and I.

    1. Hi Dan! Thank you so much for your comment! I was just back in Tianjin about a week ago – and it’s become much more comfortable than when I was there, now that most of the heavy construction work is over. It’s always a bit challenging to live in China, but Tianjin is a really lovable and livable city! You can head to Beijing for the week-end if you want some expat-relief time – but also walk through the old concession districts, and enjoy the European vibe. For food cravings, there’s a place called Metro you’ll probably discover soon enough, with heaps of affordable Western stuff. I might be back in November for a conference – send me a line at julien@marcopoloproject.org – I’d be happy to catch up for a coffee or tea or mala xiangguo if I drop by.

  4. Hi there, I just found this blog, I moved to Tianjin about 3 weeks ago, I’ve been here for barely a month. It’s my first time in China, I’m 26, and I’m teaching art at a local school. I live in the Hebei (?) district. It’s been a huge, but remarkable adjustment moving here from the suburbs of New Jersey. I know you posted this months ago, but I like your blog as well, and was wondering if you had any tips or were still even living in Tianjin.

    1. Hey Josh! Thanks for sending a note – I hope you like Tianjin! I only lived there for a couple of months in 2011, so it probably changed a bit since – but I’m glad you enjoy the blog. Tips hey? Generally speaking, I found that the best way to live in China is alternate between deep engagement with only locals, in Mandarin if you can – then have a few regular ‘starbuck moments’, retreating in an expat only bubble. Too much expat kills your mood – too much Chinese only can be exhausting. I had great great pleasure walking around the old concession bits and along the river – I would recommend doing just that. And if you’re interested in digital literature or collaborative translation, send a line to julien@marcopoloproject.org!


      1. Hi I have now been in Tianjin about 3 months and slowly getting adjusted. Do you know of any “natural”places close to the city to enjoy peace and quiet and nature. I know that a portion of the Great Wall is near Tianjin but no idea how to get there yet. The one nice park that is here is Shangguo Park near the TV Tour – but it is a bit cold to walk outside and it doesn’t really feel like getting away from it all!

    2. Hello Josh, where are you teaching. My wife and I live near the Tianjin Ferris wheel (Tianjin Eye) and I teach at an international high school. (branch of Chinese school) We have been here 3 months and starting to find our way around a bit. Let me know if you wish to connect – 13602035320 and also on wechat.

      1. Hey Dan! I went to the Great Wall with a local Chinese friend (his parents had a house nearby), and it was beautiful – really worth a visit! If you’ve got a car, it’s not a very long drive – otherwise I’m sure there would be buses. Another very nice thing I did was drive around the Chaobai new river area – it’s beautiful country, with cute villages. You can fish crabs, or just enjoy the marshland / waterland landscape. Here’s a link to a video :-). http://julienleyre.me/2013/10/17/chinese-water-land/

      2. I’m teaching for a company called Beneath the Tree International, a company that helps high school students apply to western art colleges. It’s by the Tianjin Academy of Arts. It would be nice to connect with with you, my number is 18722661497, I’m also on Wechat as well

  5. I really enjoyed reading this blog and really agree with many observations. I bought an apartment in Tianjin in 05, but only spend a few weeks a year there. I also have never had any work there, but wish I did. The Great Wall is about a 2 hr drive up the road and a driver can be hired for a out 500 rmb round trip.

      1. Can someone let me know the best way to get to the Great Wall from Tianjin (renting a private car or taking a bus). I’ve been here 4 months and would love to take the family.

        Dan dmlandis@yahoo.com (if you care to send private message)

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