Shanghai, Our Home

By Anabela Mok 2022-08-14 17:28:03

When it comes to transitioning your children to a new city, you may be filled with questions. Is Shanghai, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, suitable for children? Where shall I live? How will my child thrive in this new environment? What can we do with our kids?

As a parent who has called Shanghai home for the last 18 years, and also someone who transitioned into parenthood while living here. Being single in Shanghai is very different than being a parent. The best source of advice I found about how to raise my child came from the ever helpful parenting community.

Shanghai is a city that attracts a wealth of nationalities. Whether you decide on international schools or bilingual schools, you are bound to meet friends and families from different parts of the globe. Many expatriats, like the Hannah Zheng and her family have been calling the city home for many years. “I’m from the UK, and my family moved to Shanghai in February 2013. This is our 7th year as a YCIS family.”

There are families who have made Shanghai their home previously, like Marion Delaplace who has the pleasure to call Shanghai home for a second time. “We are originally from France and had been here in 2012 to 2016, and we have moved back to the city in 2020.”

Yet the allure of the big city can be new for some, such as the Shao family who relcocated to the city earlier this year with the unwelcome start of a 3-week long quarantine. And the Seymour family that settled into the city from Summit, New Jersey. From Shanghai old hands to newcomers, hear their transition stories for settling down with families, selecting schools and what the city offers.


The path to settling into the city and overcoming challenges

For the Ang family, they moved to Shanghai in the summer of 2008 from Singapore. Their transition to the city required keeping an open mind. They “learned to embrace the uniqueness and respect local culture, engaging and getting involved in new surroundings.” They have been social media smart using apps such as RED, and online shopping. A pastime for mum, Eve, is people watching to see the different walks of life and to understand local life.

The Ang Family, Concordia International School Shanghai

Even for Shanghai returnees like the Delaplaces, “settling in the second time was so much easier than the first, but both times we had support from our company who appointed an agent to help us sort housing, SIM cards and all the rest. We found that choosing the place to live was the most challenging when you arrive, there are so many options to choose from.”

Of course, when you are preparing to come into town there are also the nuisances such as trying to open a bank account. When the Seymour family arrived, “we made four trips to the bank over the course of a month to be able to open a bank account. Until that was set up, we regularly went to the ATM to withdraw cash so we’d have money for essentials. Also, I wasn’t able to figure out how to get our kids access to money on their cell phones on WeChat Pay until we had been here almost a full year!”

For Zheng, finding a sense of community helped her settle quicker. “I had lived abroad twice before, but both of those times were without children and in countries where I spoke the language (in Chile and in Portugal). I knew living in Shanghai wouldn’t be easy, so I joined Shanghai Mamas before we left the UK, and reached out to the community within a couple of days of arriving here. Within my first week I went to a couple of children’s play dates and a coffee morning, and soon had a crowd of friends from all over the world, many of whom I’m still in touch with even though they’re no longer in Shanghai.”

The Seymour Family, Shanghai American School

The Seymour family encapsulates the experience concisely, “persistence, patience, and helpful people, both local and other expats who have lived here a while all helped us to adjust and become familiar with how to thrive here.” Which is great advice for the Shao family as they have been in the city less than one year and are still settling in and looking for team sports for their son, Chase.


Seeing children thrive in the city

With Shanghai’s convenient mass transit system, Delaplace notices her children’s independence. “Having lived in Indonesia for many years prior, we can see that our children now have the opportunity to be so much more independent. Shanghai is such a safe environment for our children to grow up in as everything is accessible, and they can easily wander the city with all the apps they have access to. We know that they can safely go out with friends, take the metro, and go shopping without really needing our help.” The Seymour children also have found their wings when they “ride their bikes and go see friends at their houses or meet up at places. Transportation, like the subway and taxis, make it easy for the kids to go out. And, now that they have access to funds through WeChat, they can really be independent. So, we’ve seen them grow more independent and confident, despite it being a very large city in a country where they didn’t speak the language at all at first.”

For a bilingual household such as the Ang’s, having the proper language skills allows them to “converse in different languages in and out of the house. A unique trait that the diverse city of Shanghai offers.” Schools are one of the places where children can thrive, as with the Zheng family’s experience, “school life has been the most important area in which I’ve seen them thrive. They are completely bilingual and bicultural, with a truly international mindset that I definitely didn’t have at such a young age. They’ve been exposed to so many opportunities and experiences that I’m incredibly grateful for.”


Key factors in selecting a school

Shanghai has a wide selection of schools that range from bilingual to international institutions offering a broad curriculum from the American system, IGCSE, AP and IB programmes that cater to the educational goals and match the values of each family. For the Ang family, “we truly wanted our children to feel safe and welcomed in their schools. We took them to different schools and let them decide, and Concordia felt like it had a simply embracing culture that was accepting. Rather than focusing on academic factors, while of course that was a consideration, we truly believe having a loving environment is the most important.”

For French nationals, the Delaplace family selected their children’s school based on their desire for academic excellence. “Academic excellence was our number one priority. Well-being and facilities came close after. We want our children to be able to grow in a safe and caring environment, to have both solid academic foundations but also have the ability to express themselves and develop as young adults ready for the world. Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong was definitely the best choice.”

With many families doing school searches before arriving in Shanghai, the Seymours “explored several international schools online while we were still in the US. First, knowing our place of work is based in Pudong, we focused on schools located there. Then, since the kids were old enough, going into 10th and 7th grade, it was important for them to be part of the decision-making process. They unanimously wanted to go to Shanghai American School. I think the appeal was familiarity with an American-based system, access to both AP and IB courses, the availability of a wide range of extracurricular activities and not to be underestimated, no school uniforms!”

Newcomers like the Shao family picked their children’s school, Wellington College International Shanghai, on the basis of “reputation, facilities, and location. Wellington has a wonderful reputation and world class facilities. Lastly the location of the school makes commuting from city centre in Xintiandi doable.”

For long-term Shanghai residents like the Zhengs, “a truly bilingual environment was vital for me, and as YCIS is well-known for its strong Chinese program, it was the obvious choice. When I took a campus tour, together with my three year old, I knew instantly that I had made the right choice. It was such a warm, friendly, welcoming environment, where the staff and students were obviously thriving. My children both happily take the school bus from our home in Lujiazui to their campuses, which takes less than 30 minutes, and is a distance we’re all happy with.”


Selecting a location to live

Finding a great neighborhood for families is a vital part of settling into Shanghai. Pudong and Puxi offer great family selections. For the Ang family, “we wanted to be closer to the school, and one major factor was to let our children have the experience of having friends over at our house. The Jinqiao area is full of their classmates and it is a diverse, self-contained expat community with ample amenities and an international community.”

Similar to the Ang family, the Delaplace family also selected Jinqiao as their homebase. “We chose the school first and then decided we really wanted to live near the school. Our children can cycle to school here, it’s so much more convenient and they can benefit from all the opportunities offered by the school. It doesn’t have the Chinese vibe that Puxi offers but it’s a fantastic place to live as a family. We have everything convenient nearby and we can easily head out to Puxi using the metro whenever we feel the need.”

The Seymours’ choice of living was based on the convenient middle point between school and work. “We focused on looking for a house that could accommodate our family of six, and was a reasonable distance from work and school. It’s challenging to get your bearings when you first move to a new neighborhood, so it wasn’t until we moved into our house about four months after we arrived in Shanghai, that we realized we’re really happy with the location as it’s midway between Century Park with the Kerry Center complex and the Biyun area of Jinqiao, so we’re able to access either area easily walking or biking.”

Zheng decided that Lujiazui was the spot for her family, which has a “good balance between the central downtown and the distant suburbs, both of which are still within easy reach. We love the green also the parents. There is a very active parent association called the Friends of Dulwich, and the college offers a wide range of workshops and opportunities to meet other parents. On top of that, the Mandarin program really helps the children to dive into the Chinese culture and be comfortable and more independent in China.

The Zheng children, who attend YCIS, felt welcome by their teachers. “It’s been lovely to see how well the students are supported in talking about their own identities, without the need for narrowly defined labels. They’ve always been able to be both British and Chinese, with both halves equally appreciated. Additionally, our parent community was also very welcoming, and I’m happy to be able to pay that back by volunteering my time as co-chair of our parent organization, often attending our new parent welcome events.”

The Shao Family, Wellington College International Shanghai

Aside from school teachers and transition programs at the school, the Seymour and Shao children found school activities to be a wonderful tool in their transition. According to the Seymours, “as the kids participated in various extracurriculars they made more friends and experienced more off- campus activities, so this helped them become more comfortable here and willing to try new things and go to new places. Also, the school helps foster a community around the different activities so that really helps to adjust quickly. Additionally voiced by the Shaos, “having Chase in school absolutely helped accelerate his transition into Shanghai. He has met new friends and the new class and teachers provide wonderful space of our compound and the openness of the riverside area, and we’re just a short ferry or metro ride from Puxi.”

But Puxi living also has its benefits, such as for the Shaos who live in Xintiandi, located within Huangpu District, giving them a walkable downtown experience. “We enjoy daily walks to get coffee, breakfast, or a simple stroll in the park.”


Adjusting children to the city

Children are resilient and luckily the schools play a large part in the adjustment process. As indicated by the Delaplaces, “the school is a great integrator and they quickly met people that showed them around.” The Seymours also agree that their kids “adjusted quickly and it was helped by the friends they made at school.” The Angs also share the same sentiment with the youngest Ang member bringing friends home from school within the first day of school.

Although the Shaos’ experience was different, particularly coming into Shanghai during the era of Covid-19, transitioning to a new school may be harder especially with their 21-day quarantine.


The school’s role in transitioning to a new environment

International schools are well versed with new students coming on campus. When the Angs first started their school semester, “Concordia has always had a buddy system, which helped integrate our kids into a new environment and they made friends quickly. This extended to the city as well, as our kids would visit the area with their friends and learn the ins and outs of Shanghai.

For the Delaplaces, “Dulwich is very good at welcoming new families, not only the students but support in his transition as a new joiner.”


Selecting co-curricular programs

According to the elder Ang sibling, Rei, “I have been doing track and field and cross country since fifth grade, and participate in Quiz Team, choir, the school musical and more. It’s been really an experience to grow up in these programs. I still remember being in absolute awe as a fresh fifth grader on the track, watching as the big, scary eighth graders blazed their way past with ease. While I can’t say I have completely matched the now twelfth graders, it’s been extremely satisfying watching the hours I’ve spent practicing manifest in successful milestones. With performance, I’ve seen myself and my friends become more confident and less afraid of what others are thinking or judging. The endless inside jokes formed backstage are a bonus, too.

As for my brother, while he, too, enjoys choir, his greatest passion is football. I’ve watched as he has grown both as a person and a player on the football/soccer pitch. While the progress has been amazing to watch, his skills and number of goals increasing with every game, it’s also satisfying to watch the other aspects too, the jokes cracked during training, the brotherhood that comes of games won and lost, and best of all, the gleeful, all-encompassing celebrations. Sports are as much the swoosh of the ball in the net as they are the highs and lows, each one marked by the support of a team.”

And in a diverse city of Shanghai, the variety of activities extend beyond the campus. As the Delaplace family mentioned, opportunity “both in the school and outside, is so broad that they can do almost anything they want. We love the co-curricular programme that is offered by Dulwich. Our children have a big say in what they pursue in the CCA program. That is very much encouraged at Dulwich. Outside of school a lot of programs have trial sessions but it’s often word of mouth that get us to try a new activity. The children really enjoy it, they make a lot of friends and it gives them the opportunity to try out new things.”

The Delaplace Family, Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong

For Zheng, “my children have both done a variety of extra-curricular activities at [YCIS]. My son has played on the school football team, painted an art installation through an after school activity with our artist in residence, performed in a school recital as well as been elected a member of the student council. I’m currently leading a Girl Scout troop for my daughter, who also loves the artistic options on offer for after school activities.”

The Seymour family see their children thrive at Shanghai American School co-curricular programs, but they also have done their own research into “Boy Scouts before we came here, plus meeting people here and learning about Shanghai Sluggers, and later a lacrosse opportunity as well. We encourage the kids to pursue their interests and try to support them with the activities they want to do. I think the programs and activities help them find what they enjoy doing, where they want to put more focus and develop more confidence in their abilities.”

But for the Shao family, they decided to pick an activity closer to home by enrolling their son in a basketball training at the NBA experience centre in Xintiandi, “to be candid, we chose it due to proximity to our residence. We cannot wait to get him back into hockey and soccer, which he enjoyed back in Hong Kong. That being said, he has developed a keen interest in basketball and a neat jump shot.


Family activities around town

With Shanghai offering the best on both Pudong and Puxi sides, the Ang family enjoys the serene environment of their children’s school, “before COVID-19, we used to go to the school on Saturdays as a family and use the school’s facilities, such as the open field and basketball courts, to play softball, Frisbee, basketball, football and more while mom and occasionally daughter would read a book. While that is no longer possible due to the pandemic, we hope to one day be able to play again.”

For the Delaplace, Zheng and Seymour families, they enjoy strolling through the different neighbourhoods of Shanghai. Zheng enjoys cycling the Pudong riverside path with her clan. The Delaplace family enjoys, “going for a walk in the Expo area, or heading to Puxi and going to a nice restaurant. We also often go on bike rides along the Bund or around Jinqiao as the Shanghai bike paths are super safe and convenient.” The Seymours also enjoy make the best seeing the city on bikes and keep a semblance of homelife with a family movie night with popcorn.

The Shao family, although new to town have found weekend getaways to enjoy the great outdoors such as visiting Sheshan where they can visit friends, as well as explore the city.


Travel and cultural experience

As an expatriate, there is plenty to explore within the city. For the Delaplace family, they have made their stay in Shanghai into one where they have explored the most of what the country has to offer by visiting “Beijing, Xi’an, Leshan, Harbin, Suzhou, Changbaishan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. It’s always an adventure but we find that the Chinese are always welcoming and this country is truly beautiful, it has a great variety of landscapes and cultures so you’re never bored. Because of Covid we have not been able to go home for the past two summers but it has enabled us to discover more places that we may never have been to.”

Even for the Seymour family, exploring the country and the different adventures provided much fun for the kids, “we hiked various sections of The Great Wall and stayed at a farm for a couple of nights before moving to a fancy hotel in the central business district of Beijing. Then we visited all the famous sites so the kids could see the amazing and impressive history of China. We also made a short trip to Hangzhou traveling by high-speed train and staying in a cute hotel near the West Lake. On that trip, we had a memorable visit to see a typical Chinese live performance of the history of the area including singing, dancing and acrobatics. We hope to be able to see some more places in China soon.”

The Zheng Family, Yew Chung International School of Shanghai

Prior to the Covid pandemic, Zheng and her family travelled a lot. “In 2019 we backpacked along the Silk Road through Uzbekistan for two weeks, enjoying history, architecture, food and nature. It was challenging and rewarding in equal measure, an experience we’ll never forget. In China, we’ve spent plenty of time over the years enjoying stunning scenery together with my in-laws in the national parks of Fujian. We travelled to Yunnan province in the summer of 2020, which was every bit as beautiful as I’d been led to believe. In 2017 we spent Christmas in Sri Lanka, which was probably our favourite family holiday, combining beaches, nature, history and culture.”

For expatriate families, there is time when you leave the country. As the Angs left Shanghai for a two year period in Hong Kong in 2015-2017, their kids attended HKIS (Hong Kong International School), a sister school of Concordia. “We enjoyed the many ocean views and scenic hills, as our own apartment near school had a window facing the sea where we’d spend hours gazing at the sunset.”

Shanghai newcomers, the Shao family, “spent seven years living in Hong Kong, and prior to that we lived in Toronto. In addition, we’ve travelled to Paris, Tokyo, Singapore as a family. Although very different ways of life, we’ve enjoyed living in both cities, as well as the cities we’ve visited on vacation.


Memorable moments in Shanghai

For the Zhengs, “in nine years, there’s been too many to mention. I’ve been privileged to see my children grow up proud of both their British and Chinese heritage, able not just to speak both languages but to navigate both cultures.”

For the new comers like the Delaplace and Seymour families, the culture is thriving. Especially looking at the Lunar New Year celebrations and the spectacular Bund views. The Delaplace family remembers the “first days we were able to walk around the area where the IFC is located in Lujiazui and along the Huangpu River and just take in some of the iconic sights of Shanghai and realize we lived here now.”

Despite having a rough start with quarantine, the Shao family is impressed with the exhibitions on display in the city. “We took him to the Jurassic Park exhibition, which he thoroughly loved but at the same time was extremely frightened.”

The experience of city though, as dynamic and fearful as it may be when you first arrive, is best summed up by the elder Ang sibling, “in terms of school, it would be a vignette of moments that, to me, have emphasized how despite the situations and unrest the world has gone through the last few years, my classmates have found humour and light. I’ll always remember the first day back to school in September of 2020, the screams and hugs as we reunited. Even when our tables at lunch had plastic partitions so that we could barely hear each other as we talked, we’d bring washable markers and scribble on the dividers. Recently, several Covid situations have placed some of our classmates in lockdown. Yesterday in Chinese class, as one of our classmates Zoomed in to join the class, the teacher had to reluctantly turn the computer over to us as we wouldn’t stop asking to say hi to him as she tried to teach. As we crowded around the screen, clamouring for a glimpse of our quarantined classmate, there was a faint click of a screenshot, barely audible over the sound of ten kids shouting out, “we miss you!”