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LAST WORD: Long Term Ex-Pat Life in China
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Long Term Ex-Pat Life in China

By Mike Cormack

BT 201702 LAST WORD 01Can one ever really fully integrate into China? It's not always easy and it begs the question - how long do ex-pats stay and what encourages them or inhibits them from doing so? Should and could China make it easier to settle, and if so, how?

I recently spoke to four friends - three Americans and one Canadian - who have all spent over six years in Tianjin. I asked them about how they'd come to Tianjin, what kept them here and what might cause them to leave. Here's some of what they said -

How long have you stayed/did you stay in Tianjin? What led you to settle down here?

Matthew: I've been in Tianjin for nearly 13 years. As luck would have it, an ex-classmate brought me here. I value Tianjin for relatively good quality of life and ease of access to Beijing without the hassles of actually being in the capital.

Mark: I've been living in Tianjin for almost seven years. I started working for a company in the United States that was helping to connect American students to Chinese universities, and they brought me to Tianjin after a few months because our main office was located here.

Christopher: I didn't choose Tianjin, Tianjin chose me! I originally came as a teacher in 2009, and the main reason I chose Tianjin was because the initial correspondence with the school's Director and HR Manager was very professional. Being unfamiliar with China, coming to a school where I'd be well looked after was a priority.

Mike: Simply put it's the first place I found a job. I didn't know much about all the major cities in China so one seemed as good as any other. After traveling a bit I started liking Tianjin more and more. It has all the western comforts one can find in any of the tier 1 cities but with a more laid back feel.

What would you say are the main reasons for you staying so long?

Matthew: I'm fairly comfortable in my life and enjoy Chinese culture. I also like witnessing all of China's rapid changes first-hand.

Mark: I've stayed because I've built a life here for myself. My wife feels the same way. Our families both live in smaller, rural areas, and we enjoy living in a convenient, big city that isn't as expensive as Hong Kong or Shanghai.

Christopher: In 2013 I started my own business, so that's largely what's kept me here for so long. Each day I stay it seems that the roots grow a little deeper.

Have kids been a factor in your thinking, and if so, in what way?

Matthew: We haven't had any children yet, but one issue that weighs on us and many other couples is whether it's worth for my wife to work and for us to have a nanny, or for her to be a stay at home mom. Nannies are expensive and their quality varies.

Mark: They have factored into our thinking. Because my wife and I are not Chinese, we are uncertain about raising a child in a culture that is so vastly different from our own.

Christopher: In theory my business could also be operated from the States, so really our kids are the main reason we're here now. But at the same time, having kids is also the reason we'll probably leave in a few years. We'd prefer the boys start kindergarten in the States, so we're looking at a return in about two years or so.

Mike: I'm not a huge fan of the competitive style of Chinese education and it can also be difficult to find a good doctor. We both felt the environment in Canada would be a better place to start a family.

How easily have you been able to plan financially for the long-term? Has living in Tianjin/China made that easier or harder than it would be if you were back home?

Matthew: An issue of concern now that I'm middle-aged is retirement. My wife and I have talked about selling our home and moving back to the States to retire. Consider that even the average Tianjin city dweller could sell their apartment for the cost of three US median homes.

Christopher: The cost of living in Tianjin is one of the biggest benefits of living here. It's very inexpensive, so just in terms of putting savings away, it's a huge plus. My wife can stay home with the kids now, which I'm not sure she could do if we returned to the States right away.

Mike: Quite easily. It was very easy to save money in China and the income was quite stable. The cost of living is much higher back home and good housing is hard to find.

What, if anything, would prompt you to leave? If you did leave, what would be your main reasons?

Matthew: I think if I left it would be because of war, environmental disaster, or some other event that could cause the Chinese society to become unstable. If there's a major economic crisis like the Asian Financial Crisis in Indonesia or Thailand, I'd have to think about leaving then, too.

Mike: Our main reasons for leaving were mostly environmental and health related. The air quality in Tianjin is still often quite poor and I was concerned about the long term health impacts.

I extend my thanks to Mike, Mark, Christopher and Matthew for their time and generous responses.


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