Life of a Halfpat

The Urban Dictionary describes the term “half-pat” in two different ways: “1. Halfpats are people who have relocated to another country, developed a nearly native understanding of the language and culture by themselves. Normally used in regards to China’s halfpat community.”

and

“2. An expatriate who is not being provided a “package” (salary bump, housing allowance, car allowance, home leave, etc.) by his employer, and who perhaps is not even formally employed. Halfpats sometimes earn income as “English teachers” but are primarily engaged in the avoidance of real life in their home country.”

My life in Shanghai thus far, has definitely fallen somewhere in between these two definitions, but made more interesting by my Taiwanese heritage and a native understanding of the language, but not always the culture.

Despite my Chinese looks and non-Western-accented Chinese, I am as much of an American as the next golden-eagle-navy-blue passport holder. As such, I tend to surround myself with the Western crowd – those who understand my love for cheese. Yet, the foreign crowd isn’t all created equal. You have the true expats who are sent here on assignment by their employers, who enjoy massive benefit packages that allow them to live in huge apartments, to hire help, etc. Naturally, there is class difference even within the expat world – it’s a competition on whether you have a driver, or how big your “hardship” allowance is, etc.

And then, there is the rest of us, who actually move themselves here on their own (no hardship allowance whatsoever), or through a teaching job. Unlike myself, most people aren’t insane enough to move to China without a job, and the best next thing is to arrange for a teaching job.  Yet, even with a run-of-the-mill teacher, the salary typically runs between 10-15,000RMB/mo (USD $1,600-2,400). I recently learned that the average salary in Shanghai is about 4,000RMB/mo (USD $640), and around 9,000RMB/mo (USD $1,400) for white-collar workers. So when you compare that to the local wages, you can still very much be an expat.

Supposedly, we are the species who are fascinated by the Chinese culture and would do anything to be here and to absorb the culture and learn the language. Although, I would argue that some of us are here because the economy in our home countries are in such dire shape that we want to take our talent to a market that would appreciate it. But that’s another story for another time.

Unlike our expat counterparts, us halfpats can’t afford to think of things in USD prices. Shanghai is a city that you can live very cheaply or extremely extravagantly. The choice is yours. As a half-pat, we can’t afford Western meals everyday, but we can splurge on the occasional wine and cheese. Subways and buses are main modes of transportation, but those taxi rides on late nights are still affordable.

The culture integration, while mostly self-motivated, is also to a degree motivated by the need to live on a shoestring. Let’s be honest, “white tax” is true and real, and sometimes, fair. If you want your menu in English, or want someone at the hair salon who can understand how you want your bangs cut, you gotta pay the premium. For halfpats, who can’t afford to always pay this premium, we gotta “go local”. Luckily for me, the ability to speak Chinese with a native-ish accent, allows me to flow easily between the expat and halfpat world.

Having relocated myself around the world many a times, I’ve never realized that expats can live so far detached from the local culture. Perhaps this is because I’ve never had a fancy expat package, and thus I can never truly grasp the ways of expat-living. Though as I discover more of the expat culture, I wonder why they still exist in such large numbers (fewer than before, but still).

This perplexity is probably accentuated by the fact that me, and many halfpats like me, are seeking jobs outside of the teaching realm here in China. We are throwing our qualified selves to employers at the local wage, sans fancy apartment, driver, or any sort of hardship allowance. Yet, the journey hasn’t been easy, and that, my friends, is the life of a halfpat – noodle-eating, bus-taking, Chinese-speaking Westerners, who are just always a tad bit envious of their foreign expat counterparts, but nevertheless, proud of our “culturally integrated” selves.

Post originally appeared in China Personafied on March 30th, 2013.