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Movie lover. Growing Capoeirista. Space enthusiast. Dedicated craftsman. And best of all, homegrown Los Angeles native. Wait, how in the hell did I end up in China!?
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Shanghai or Kunshan? I know, it's a difficult choice to make, especially considering that both cities are vastly different but lie within a few minutes train ride from each other.
I've had the chance to live in Kunshan for 4 years—2012-2015—and in Shanghai's Pudong District, of which is my current residence, for just over a year now. Both cities have their fair share of ups and downs, but in the end, Kunshan still remains my top choice for incoming expats to consider; well, at least in the beginning. Before you decide that I'm out of my f**king mind, hear me out:
#1 Cultural immersion
Let's get straight to the most important point: You will have more opportunities for cultural immersion living in Kunshan versus Shanghai. What is cultural immersion? 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 a park.
Can you do some of those things in Shanghai? Of course! But it just ain't the same. Not only do Shanghai expats not have as many opportunities to do these things, but also, in reality, most expats in Shanghai tend to mostly hang out with other foreigners. That causes them to miss out on a lot of the small but memorable cultural experiences that can 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 experience important cultural experiences with them up close. 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. If you're looking to live in China and truly immerse yourself into the culture, Kunshan scores more points.
#2 People in Shanghai don't leave Shanghai!
Why would they? Heck, I can attest to that. Since living in Shanghai I've rarely made adventurous trips to nearby cities located along the Shanghai-Nanjing railway line like I used to. Shanghai is just too big and loaded with enough things to do to keep me entertained.
On the other hand, when I lived in Kunshan I'd make 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 a holiday to do so.
And hold up—it was NOT because Kunshan was just so boring that I had to get out of town. Rather, it was because I heard more about things to do, attractions to explore, and events going on across those cities. What's more, I also made friends with locals who were from those places and encouraged me to pay them a visit.
Additionally, many of my friends and acquaintances in Shanghai tell me that they rarely get out of the city. And sure, they may have beaten me to the punch on partying and living it up at 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 tour China more by living in a city like Kunshan versus a colossal metropolis like Shanghai.
#3 Close-Knit Relationships
"People in Shanghai are more cold". Huh? What the heck does that mean? Well, that's just what comes with living in a city of some 24 million. With so many people, things to do, and events going on, there's a chance that you may find it difficult to connect with others and make genuine friendships. Hey, it happens.
In Kunshan it's easier to make friends and hang out with a consistent group of people because, well, the city is significantly smaller, there aren't too many expats, and as far as attractions go, options are kind of 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. There are more options than that, but I'm sure you get the picture.
The bottom line: In the end, these limitations actually work to help bring people closer together, and thus there are more chances to create close-knit relationships with colleagues, friends, and other expats across the city. That's especially important if you're worried about moving to a new country, isn't it?
#4 Good place to establish yourself in China.
Establish yourself in a smaller, developed city like Kunshan, then upgrade to a mammoth like Shanghai. 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.
You could start a new adventure in Kunshan 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 top tier cities like Shanghai.
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.
Alright. I get it. This is all crazy talk, right? Maybe you've landed in Kunshan and can't stand living in the city. Or perhaps you're already in Shanghai and think I must be insane to recommend a small town like Kunshan over one of the most popular cities in the world.
At the end of the day, it's just my take on the matter, and my opinion has come from a pretty positive experience. I still believe it's ultimately better to start your China adventure in a city like Kunshan for 1-2 years, and then you can consider upgrading to a city like Shanghai. Furthermore, I only recommend that path if you are looking to experience the topics above. But then again, there are so many counter arguments that a person whose started in Shanghai can argue. Whatever decision you make, I wish you all the best. Safe and happy travels!
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->
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