Expat privileges: my experiences in Shanghai

Expat privileges: My experiences in Shanghai

Last month, a group of my non-Korean coworkers went to a free K-pop concert. At the mention of the word “free,” I immediately asked them (no shame) if I could tag along. They broke the bad news to me: “sorry, it’s only free for foreigners…WHAT.

Ok, so that was obviously a marketing plan to boost tourism in Korea, but still, the foreigners who attended don’t care about that bit – heck, it’s free! However, one thing is clear: that was one of the privileges of being an expat. Expat privileges are those given to expats when they live in a foreign country. There are no laws or rules that grant these privileges – they’re just there! These privileges are seen as special because expats won’t get such treatment in their home country. I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with these privileges as long as one doesn’t abuse them.

Ever since I’ve returned to Korea, I have pretty much lost all of my expat privileges I had back in China. Even though they’re not life-changing privileges, they’re still perks you won’t get in your home country. Here are some of the ‘privileges’ that have been left behind:

Better service

Alright, this doesn’t apply to all types of service, but just general, basic service you would get on a daily basis. From my observations, when I lived in Shanghai, I realized that I received somewhat better customer service when I spoke English rather than Chinese.

(I can technically get away with this in Korea as well, but I don’t abuse it as much, because the consequences of Koreans finding out that I can actually speak Korean is just not worth it. Long story. I won’t get into it now…)

Getting away with sticky situations

Ting bu dong (Chinese for “I don’t understand”) is a phrase that all expats in China learn from their expat 101 handbook. It is a lazy phrase we throw out whenever we’re caught in any sticky situations. For instance, store clerk in the department being too over-enthusiastic about helping you find that perfect pair of shoes? Ting bu dong. Sales rep approaching you with brochures and flyers? Ting bu dong. Problem solved.

I’m actually not too sure if I can categorize this as a ‘privilege’ per se, but it’s something that expats use to shield themselves from any situations without having to provide further explanation. Or simply put, it’s a ‘get out of jail free’ card that allowsΒ expats to brush off any complicated situations.

Cheaper living expenses

This one might vary from place to place, but when I first moved to China everything was so cheap I couldn’t believe my eyes. 2 RMB ($0.30 at that time) for a bottle of water, anyone? Of course, the living expenses inevitably rose with China’s economic boom and everything’s slightly pricier than before. But overall, many things are relatively affordable compared to prices back in your home country.

Compliments for simply being a foreigner

I have gotten compliments in Shanghai for being Korean. Yes, this sounds a bit strange, but nonetheless flattering. Hey, compliments are still compliments, right? The rise of hallyu (the ‘Korean wave.’ Think Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ and Girl’s Generation) in Asia has given Koreans an elevated image and associations with everything cool and trendy. “Yes, you look very Korean,” “I knew you were Korean right away because you dress so well” were the types of comments I received.

I gave a very specific example above, but compliments based on nationality ranged variously. “White girls have very long legs that I envy,” “French are very chic,” etc. Expats will never hear such a compliment in their home country. I repeat, never.

One thing I want to make clear is that the above ‘privileges’ mentioned are based on my experiences living in China. I have also lived in the U.S. for a long time but the term ‘expat’ did not apply to me then, and I had no privileges whatsoever. If you live there as an alien, you’re pretty much a sad being holding dearly onto a visa. Fact. 😦

In addition, in the U.S., there is a general notion of cultural assimilation and that you should try your best to assimilate with the U.S. culture. InΒ China, there seems to be no apparent reinforcement of assimilation, and expats can live comfortably while maintaining the lifestyle they carried out back home.

What other types of expat privileges are out there? What type of expat privileges are there where you live?

7 thoughts on “Expat privileges: my experiences in Shanghai

  1. theepowerofgood says:

    In Viet Nam, I get expat privilege (mainly I get a pass on the social and cultural stuff), it sits uneasily on me. But I have to say that it does benefit me in many ways that I probably don’t even realise.


  2. annie lee says:

    pretending not to speak korean but λ“€μΌœ later… AHAHAHHAA omg. tell us about it!! i do that too sometimes.. like i pretend to be thai in front of other koreans LOL. but only when i’m having one of those days i just can’t be bothered. πŸ˜› and i do agree with better services. majority of thais seem to adore foreigners!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tiffany Ang says:

    though i am Taiwanese, but sometimes i do get away with speaking English comes better service in the country and people are really a whole lot nicer to me!!!
    also during traveling as some people doesn’t believe Asian speaks good English, “hella i am gonna tell you we can” and you outta get me a good service like the one you just gave to the caucasian in front of me, speaking of some people think some culture have superiority over the others


    Liked by 1 person

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