Let me get straight to the most important point: You will have more opportunities for cultural immersion living in Kunshan versus Shanghai. What is cultural immersion? Well, everything from using your Mandarin skills to interact with the locals, watching the fireworks light up the sky on Chinese New Year, and chilling in a KTV with 10 beautiful Chinese women—workers at the KTV—trying their best to entertain you and get you wasted, to attending multiple weddings of your Chinese colleagues throughout the year, and BBQing it up with local friends at Week Nine Ecology Park or at Yangcheng Lake.
Sure, you can do some of these things in Shanghai too, but it can sometimes feel more commercial or western, and less authentic. In reality, most expats in Shanghai only hang out with other foreigners and tend to miss out on the little, but memorable, cultural experiences that may come about from spending more time with their Chinese colleagues and friends.
Looking back at my time in Kunshan I truly feel that my Chinese counterparts were more welcoming and forthcoming in not only teaching me about Chinese culture and traditions, but were also more inviting in allowing me to undergo important cultural experiences with them up close and personally. Isn't that what truly matters as an expat in China?
The bottom line: Living in Shanghai, you'll most likely end up hanging around other foreigners, which means speaking more English, eating more western food, and going out to bars and clubs, whereas in Kunshan there's a good chance that you'll have more opportunities to interact with the locals and experience more cultural activities.
Yep, and I can attest to it. Since I've lived in Shanghai I've rarely made adventurous trips to nearby cities located along the Shanghai-Nanjing railway line. And why should I? Shanghai is just too big and loaded with enough attractions to keep me entertained every weekend. On the other hand, when I lived in Kunshan, I'd make plenty of trips to nearby cities like Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Wuxi on occasion. I sought to actually get out of Kunshan to explore all that China has to offer and I didn't need to wait until the holiday season to do so.
And it's not just me; many of my friends and acquaintances in Shanghai tell me that they rarely get out of the city. Sure, they've beat me to the punch on partying and living it up in all of the hottest venues that Shanghai has to offer, but I feel like I've scored more points for having immersed myself and taken advantage of more Chinese cultural experiences over the years largely due to my travels across the country.
The bottom line: You'll most likely travel across China more by living in a small city like Kunshan versus a colossal metropolis like Shanghai.
"People in Shanghai are more cold". Huh? What does that mean? Well, I've noticed it first hand that people in Shanghai—locals and expats included—are more independent than in Kunshan; that is, they're more interested in doing their own thing and delving off into their own 'circle of life', which is normal in a big city. Let me give you an example: In Kunshan, it's easier to make friends and hang out with a consistent group of people because, well, there aren't too many expats and as far as attractions go, options are limited. You know the party will be either at someone's house, the KTV, Drank Bar, Wonderful Too, Phebe's, or Mix Club. If you want to gather up a group to play sports, you know you're heading to Civic Park or Kunshan Stadium. In the end, these limitations actually work to help bring people closer together, and thus there's more chances to create a close-knit feeling with colleagues, friends, and other expats across the city.
In Shanghai, however, expats and attractions are everywhere, and with that, everybody's moving somewhere, to some different spot, with some different group. Something's always going on, and with so many options on the table, I've found that you can wind up meeting far too people that are either less inviting to have you join their circle, or are just very inconsistent.
The bottom line: In Kunshan, I found it much easier to meet people and form new friends that I could ring up and invite out at anytime. What's more, I had the same trust with my Chinese colleagues, who were more willing to join the party occasionally rather than 'be cold'.
Establish yourself in a smaller, developed city like Kunshan, THEN upgrade to a mammoth like Shanghai; at least, that's what worked out for me. Kunshan is a very laid back city. It's also safe, very cheap to live in, pretty modern, and close to plenty of popular cities and attractions. Mix these items together and you've got a great place in China to settle into as a first timer in the country.
Kunshan is a better place to start a new adventure in China and familiarize yourself with Chinese culture, traditions, lifestyle, workplace, nightlife, politics, you name it, without getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of the big city life. And, once you've learned about and experienced the ins-and-outs of living and working in China, it becomes much more easier to make that transition to big league cities like Shanghai.
If you start off in Shanghai, you may end up doing well and having the time of your life, but you'll most likely never want to 'downgrade' to a smaller city like Kunshan, and you'll end up missing out on all the cultural immersion experiences that living in a smaller town in China has to offer.
The bottom line: I've found that kicking off my China adventure in Kunshan then upgrading to Shanghai has been much more exciting and memorable than if I had started in Shanghai and reversed course.