Strangers in a Strange Land

Jon Lombardo was surprised by the grooming customs at his local Shanghai gym. He and six other expats in China share their experiences.

It's easy to feel outnumbered in a country of 1 billion people, especially for non-natives. But more and more foreigners are finding ways to make China feel like home.

Morgan Alexander Jones (MoJo)

age 26

Where did you move from?Brooklyn, New York.How long have you been in China?Three and a half years.What do you do?My main job is as a radio host for a luxury lifestyle and jazz show called Soulfire. The entire show is in Mandarin Chinese. My other main job is as a hip hop MC. I do my own solo work traveling around the country, hosting, rapping, and beatboxing for hip hop programs around China. But my big project right now is with my group Redstar. Redstar is a hip hop trio consisting of a Chinese-American producer by the name of DJ Sickstar, local Shanghainese rapper Tang King, and yours truly. We've been working together for about two years and we're finally coming out with our first album sometime this summer. It will change hip hop.
There are a lot of black people in this country now ... and they speak Chinese, too.
Any funny stories?A Chinese girl was walking past me and muttered a strangely straightforward phrase in Chinese: "Wow, there are a lot of black people in this country now." So I turned around and yelled back to her "Yeah, there are a lot of black people in this country now ... and they speak Chinese, too."What do you miss most?I miss buying deodorant for cheap. Deodorant out here is like seven or eight bucks a pop.How much do you hang out with other expats?Half and half. I don't really count. I think I'm mostly around Chinese people. I guess part of that is because I'm married to one. But then again, I think my wife is more American than me and I'm more Chinese than my wife. Go figure.Any plans to come back? I do plan on coming back. But I don't think it will be permanent, or at least not yet.

Sherry Smith

age 28

Where did you move from? Before Shanghai, I lived in Wuhan, China. Before that, I lived in Jackson, Mississippi.How long have you been in China?Two and a half years.What do you do and how did you end up doing it?I work at a Microsoft joint venture with the Shanghai municipal government. (Trust me, it just sounds fancy.) My title is quality support specialist. When I worked in Wuhan, I taught maritime English to Chinese sailors.
I moved to China to earn less than someone living below the poverty level in the U.S.
Why did you move?I wanted to get out of Mississippi, and China is on the other side of the world ... literally. I said to myself, "I'm too smart to be paid by the hour." So I moved to China to earn less than someone living below the poverty level in the U.S.What should people in America know about China?Americans aren't the only ones who are fiercely patriotic. And the number of people learning English in China is larger than the entire population of the United States. Learn Chinese.What do you miss most?I miss my bra collection! I had 79, but my friends only let me bring 14.Any plans to come back?I don't know when I'll move back for good. I haven't been home since I left in 2005. I'm curious to see how much I've changed.

Mike Mou

age 28Where did you move from? New York.How long have you been in China? Five years.What do you do in China?I'm now working as a senior brand manager for an up-and-coming streetwear label called Eno. We are building stores across Mainland China focusing on urban Chinese youth, one of the most fascinating and fastest-growing groups in China. The learning curve is fast and the challenge to create a cool Chinese brand is something that's great to be a part of.Why did you move to China?I've been coming to China since I was a teenager. On my first trip to China, I visited a remote village on the Yangtze River. This was 10 years ago, and there were not as many foreigners here as there are now. I was acting as a translator between the local and tourist groups and it was a great feeling, being this cultural bridge between two worlds. My love just grew from there. Fast forward to 2003, the hype of China's growth and development really attracted me here, from a career standpoint. Also, my ability to speak Chinese and bicultural background couldn't really be leveraged in the U.S. China is a huge, relatively untapped market and developing faster than most Westerners can imagine.Anything else to say?You can't study animals at the zoo; you gotta come to the jungle.

Dan Washburn

age 34

Where did you move from?Gainesville, Georgia-about 45 minutes northeast of Atlanta-where I was a sportswriter for a daily newspaper called The Times.How long have you been in China?Since August, 2002.What do you do and how did you end up doing it?Like seemingly every other foreigner you'll meet here, I am a freelance writer. I'm working on a book-Par for China, an insider look at golf in China. I'm also managing editor of Shanghaiist, a blog that has grown to become one of the most popular English-language websites about China since I founded it in the summer of 2005. I also help run an online store-Mudan Boutique-that offers locally designed jewelry, clothing, handbags, and other gift items.Why did you move?Four years in the Bible Belt were enough for me. I ended up in Shanghai not because it was tops on my list-I didn't even have a list-but because it was the scenario that materialized the quickest.How much Chinese do you speak?Enough, but definitely not as much as I'd like. If fluency is your goal, I think you really need to quit your job and dedicate a chunk of time to being a full-time student of Chinese.
If fluency is your goal, you really need to quit your job and dedicate a chunk of time to being a full-time student of Chinese.
How much do you hang out with other expats?Quite often-they are everywhere in Shanghai now. Really, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign faces you see on the streets in just the short period of time I've lived here.Any plans to come back?You sound like my mom. My wife and I have a standard response when people ask us how long we plan on staying here: indefinitely, but not permanently.

John Sorrell

age 27

Where did you move from?Franklin, Ohio.How long have you been in China?Five years.What do you do?Right now I am a youth pastor for expats.Why did you move?After I graduated college, I had lived 21 years in Ohio. I wanted to get out and live somewhere different. So the other side of the world was a perfect fit.How much Chinese do you speak?I would consider myself conversational, but my conversations just remain very short.How much do you hang out with other expats?It's not exactly legal to do what I do with Chinese students. So I work exclusively with expats, because in that field I am fully legal in my role.Any interesting stories?We have adopted several phrases to help us cope during those times that you just can't understand why China is the way it is. My favorite is "China wins again." This is used for when something happens that you just can't change. Right now China's up 1 million to zero.What should people in America know about China?We can learn a lot from the level at which they revere an education. I would never wish the Chinese student life upon anyone (way too much pressure and stress) but I respect the ones who make it through.Any plans to come back?Not for a while. Youth pastors and youth leaders are all over the States, but here they are few and far between. There are thousands of expat kids all over Asia who want mentors, pastors, and leaders.

Lisa Movius

age 31

Where did you move from?Ann Arbor, San Diego, Providence, and San Francisco.How long have you been in China?I first studied in Beijing in 1997, and moved to Shanghai permanently in 1998.What do you do and how did you end up doing it?I'm a freelance writer. I first started writing while doing other jobs here as I discovered there was a lot of amazing alternative cultural activity in Shanghai that was being overlooked by both the Mandarin- and English-language press here.Why did you move?I finished college, needed somewhere to go, and picked the most familiar place.How much Chinese do you speak?What is this "Chinese" you speak of? I am fluent in spoken Mandarin, I understand Shanghainese, but can only speak a little of it, although am learning. I have picked up a little Cantonese, can sometimes follow it, but it's minimal. How's your European?How much do you hang out with other expats?I have almost zero interaction with expats. They live in theirhigh-walled wealthy suburban ghettos, I live in China; the two rarely interact.What do you miss?I miss good tacos and falafel, but have learned to make them. Uncensored bookstores. And clean air.Any plans to come back?I have spent a third of my life, my entire adulthood in China. It is my home. There is no "back" for me.

Jon Lombardo

age 27

Where did you move from?I was living and working in New York City before I moved to Nanjing in August 2004. I moved to Shanghai-where I now live-in April 2005.How long have you been in China?A little more than three years.What do you do and how did you end up doing it?I currently work for a consumer-finance company named China Risk Finance. We are trying to become the Chinese equivalent of Capital One. I am director of internet strategy. I am in charge of the unit that markets credit cards online. Since I joined, we have grown the company from 25 to almost 1,100 employees.
All the Chinese gents at my gym meticulously and publicly blow-dry their pubic hair.
Why did you move?I studied in China during my junior year of college and I was fascinated by the energy and opportunity available to young professionals here. At that point I knew that I would probably need to return to China.Any funny stories?All the Chinese gents at my gym meticulously and publicly blow-dry their pubic hair. I have honestly not been witness to that anywhere else.What should people in America know about China?Whenever people hype China, remember that China is still two-thirds farmers. That means there are roughly 800 million farmers here. That is the real China. Even I don't go to those places.Any plans to come back?I am definitely looking forward to getting back to the U.S. I am pretty sure that I can learn to love eating shitty Chinese food again.