"Regional discrimination is so severe in China that even one of my foreign friends in Shanghai told me that he tends to look down upon Beijing's foreigners." This WeChat post recently went viral, raising heated discussions about whether it is true or not that Shanghai expats feel superior to those in Beijing and other Chinese cities. Regionalism has always existed in China, with residents from different provinces tending to form stereotypes of their counterparts in other areas. For instance, Shanghainese are generally perceived as arrogant and self-important whereas Beijingers are regarded as scholarly and well-educated.
But does provincialism also exist among China's expat community? Do expats in, say, Shanghai have a sense of superiority simply because of the city they live in?
The Global Times recently interviewed a number of foreigners living in Shanghai for at least several months to glean some insight into this age-old debate.
A WeChat post recently goes viral, raising heated discussions about whether it is true or not that Shanghai expats feel superior to those in Beijing and other Chinese cities. Photos: CFP
Spanish Carlota Victoria (pictured below) said that she wanted to live in a city with only "a bit of Chinese" culture "but not so much," which is why she chose Shanghai.
She said that living in the city doesn't make her feel any superiority over expats elsewhere, though she admitted that she feels better living in Shanghai than in Beijing due to Shanghai's cleaner air quality.
American Matt William (below), who moved to Shanghai about five months ago, explained that the city has more job opportunities and better pay for English teachers as opposed to smaller Chinese cities.
"Everybody has different reasons for where they want to live and what they want to do. Lots of foreigners want to be surrounded by traditional Chinese culture, not being in big cities, and I admire that," William said.
William added that he has never heard any of his friends in Shanghai look down upon expats in Beijing or other cities. "I think most people tend to respect others' decisions of where they want to live and what they want to do," he said.
Another interviewee, Peter Smith (below), said he has been living in Shanghai for around a year after his company decided to base him here. Previously he lived in Beijing. "I feel healthier living in Shanghai than in Beijing. The air quality is better," Smith said.
When asked whether regional discrimination exists in Shanghai's expat community, he stressed that people are all equal. "Being a local or expat doesn't matter. We are all human beings. It doesn't matter where you are from," he said.
"It's not a question of being an expat or being a local, it's a question of character; it's a question of education, not school education but what your parents taught you," Smith said, adding that his parents taught him to respect people from all cultures and backgrounds.
Russian national Sasha Green (below, middle) has been in Shanghai for three years. She pointed out that living in big cities like Shanghai also comes with some disadvantages.
"Nowadays, with more and more foreigners here in Shanghai, there is more competition between us to find better jobs. In comparison to a few years ago, now it's more difficult for expats to live here and find their own place under the sun," Green said.
Bram (below) from the Netherlands has been in Shanghai for four and a half years. He first came to China to study Putonghua, in Beijing, but felt that Shanghai appealed to him more.
Photos: Wang Han/GT
"But I don't have the feeling at all that expats in Shanghai are superior to expats in other cities," he said, adding that expats who choose Beijing tend to really go for a "China experience" rather than the international experience of Shanghai.
"If you come to China to expand your perspectives on Chinese culture, you should definitely move to Beijing, not Shanghai," he said.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Canadian national John Armstrong, who has been living and working in Shanghai for over a decade.
"Beijing attracts a different sort of foreigners usually. Expats in Beijing tend to be academic or diplomatic and they probably speak better Putonghua, know more history and politics and integrate better with Chinese culture," John Armstrong pointed out.
American expat Tommy, who lived for several years in both Beijing and Shanghai, agrees that the cities' respective industries and histories are what draw their foreign populous.
"The expats I knew in Beijing were particularly interested in Chinese politics and culture or the arts and music scene, whereas from what I've seen in Shanghai there is more involvement in finance or entrepreneurialism."
But Armstrong stipulated that such descriptions could be a complete generalization.
"I'm sure there are plenty of business people in Beijing and academics in Shanghai. Just my impression that those who embrace Beijing are in for the long haul," Armstrong said.
The untouchable caste
Another long-term expat in Shanghai, Canadian Timothy Nash, said he understands why some foreigners in Shanghai tend to have a sense of superiority.
"Well I think it's kind of obvious, because the cost of living in Shanghai is higher than most other cities in China," he said.
Though most interviewees said they don't think there is any region-based discrimination among Shanghai's expat community, they admitted that career-based divisions among foreigners still exist here.
French artist Dezio has been living and working in Shanghai since 2007. He said that he has seen a separation between those expats with low-income jobs, such as teachers, and those with higher qualified ones, including bankers.
Likewise, Armstrong said, "it's a rough division but I'd say that the highest paid expat in Shanghai would come from the business sector."
Tommy concurred, explaining that Shanghai's night life and bar scene are emblematic of the city's foreign divide.
"You have all the expats on a budget chugging beer at (the former) Yongkang Road and all the suit-wearing types sipping cocktails on the Bund. There is never any crossover. The two classes just don't mix."
As an English teacher in Shanghai, William admitted that some foreigners here tend to scoff at his occupation.
"I teach English, so sometimes I feel that people with 'real jobs' look down on us because they think it's too easy," William said. "It's just something you have to deal with."
Green said that being an English teacher should not be perceived as beneath other jobs.
"I can say for a fact that teachers' salaries in Shanghai are much higher than, for example, interpreters or translators," she said.
However, Armstrong pointed out that, from his experience, the number one cleavage in the expat community in China is not region-based.
"It is English teacher versus everyone else," he said. "Shanghai unites fairly or unfairly in its disdain for English teachers. They are the untouchable caste."