7 Types of Beijing Expats – Which Type Are You?

When you are coming to Beijing you probably want to know about the people you will encounter here. In a recent post I shared 10 things learned about the Chinese. I now turn the attention to my fellow Beijing expats and explore the different types of expats you find here.

Beijing expats are a diverse bunch

“What are Beijing expats like?” In very broad strokes, foreigners living in Beijing fall into these categories:

  • Traditional working expat – sent by an international company on a temporary assignment, usually 2-3 years but sometimes shorter than that
  • Trailing spouse – usually expat wives, who accompany a working expat
  • Old China hand – has been here for many years, often started out as traditional working expat but stayed in China past the original assignment
  • Self-made expat – not sent by a company but came on his/her own seeking employment or other business opportunities in China
  • English language and other teachers – they are also often self-made expats but because they are a more distinct group I list them separately
  • International student – pretty self-explanatory
  • Hidden expat – foreign born or raised people of Chinese origin, an often overlooked group of foreigners because they seem to blend in

Beijing Some expats may belong to more than one category, e.g. the trailing spouse who takes classes at the university or teaches English, or the international student who teaches English or wants to start his own business here, and of course the hidden expat, who can be a working expat, spouse, student, etc. There are probably also a lot of expats here who don’t fit neatly into any of the categories I described. (I’d love to hear from you!)

Let’s take a closer look at each type of expats and their characteristics (here come the generalizations again…).

Traditional working expat

Although expat packages are supposedly not as cushy anymore as they used to be, this group of foreigners is usually well taken care of by their international employer. Traditional working expats often live in typical expat areas on the East side of the city center. Families with children are often gravitating to Shunyi, a leafy suburb outside of the city.

You will meet lots of working expats at networking events hosted by InterNations, a global expat network with a big group in Beijing. (See my Resources page for links to other the networking groups.)

Trailing spouse

Usually this is the expat wife, although I have met husbands who followed their wives to China. Trailing spouses of traditional working expats often have “amenities” like a driver, a western style apartment, and the financial means to go out often for lunch, coffee, yoga, etc. to the higher priced Western places close to where many of them live.

INN Beijing organizes welcoming events, where you will mostly meet trailing spouses. Most of the events are during business hours.

Old China hand

Individuals in this category have been in China for many years. They often speak the language well and are well connected. Sometimes their spouse is Chinese.

You will meet some old China hands at InterNations events and also at networking events organized by the FC Club (again, check out the Resources page for links and more info)

Self-made expat

Probably the most diverse group of Beijing expats. It includes foreigners who run their own business in Beijing or work for local companies, so they are more spread out over the city. Some of them have been in Beijing for many years.

English and other teachers

This group mostly lives in the Haidian district, Northwest of the city center, where the prestigious universities are. This is also where the best Chinese schools are and therefore the more desirable district from a Chinese perspective. Many Chinese parents here hire English tutors for their kids.

International student

Like teachers, this younger crowd tends to live close to the big universities in the Haidian district. Wudaokou is the hub for student cafes, restaurants and bars, which pretty much double as networking opportunities and places to meet new people.

Hidden expat

Hidden expats are often ABC (American born Chinese) or other foreign born Chinese, who came to their parents’ home country for economic opportunities or to reconnect with their roots. Not all of them speak Mandarin fluently and fully understand the Chinese way of doing things when they first come here, but because of their heritage, everyone expects them to.

So, what type of expat are you?

I’m sure not every Beijing expat sees themselves in the categories above but I’m also sure most foreigners in Beijing have met the types of expats I described here. So where do you fit in? What other types of expats are there?


7 Types of Beijing Expats – Which Type Are You? — 2 Comments

  1. Hi,

    I am sort of an old hand expat. But I have been through the different profiles of expats described above. As a matter of fact, I started off as a student*living in Haidian), then, I became the working expat, working for an international organization * living in Chaoyang Park area ), then I married a Chinese and moved to a real Chinese neighbourhood on 4th ring road east. Let me tell you, life was more fun and a whole lot easier living on the expat side !
    But, I must say, it was not until I totally disconnected from the foreigners in Beijing, that I truly understood Chinese culture and language. I am writing this post from South of Italy, where I have spent the last years. Another culture and language I admire.
    To give an overall advise to those relocating to Beijing, stay under the protection of your expat condo, whilst exploring Chinese markets and neighborhoods on the weekends.
    Baci from Italy…

    • Hi Kris, Thanks for sharing your experience! I agree with you, life is much easier within the expat area but you learn much more about China when you venture outside that comfort zone.