On Being a Trailing Spouse in Shanghai


My first Shanghai trailing spouse mentor, Lisa Johnson, who unfortunately is repatriating this year.

My first Shanghai “mentor”, Lisa Johnson, who helped us have a soft landing in Shanghai.

I have been writing the lostinshanghai.com blog for three years.  In September 2012, I expected that when June, 2015 rolled around, I would be writing my last blog post ever from Shanghai.  Part of our deal to get the family aligned mentally and emotionally to move to China was the agreement that the girls and I would return back to our home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan after three years.   That would allow the girls to start middle school and high school in the U.S.  As part of that plan, Karen would finish the fourth year of her assignment in Shanghai, probably in a serviced apartment closer to her work.  Yet here we are in June 2015 and none of that is going to happen.  We have all agreed that it is too soon to end our China adventure, which has been wonderful for all of us.  Therefore, we are staying another year, and I will continue to blog.

I had two main objectives when I began this blog.  The first was to keep friends and family apprised of all we were doing in China.  The second was to provide advice and assistance for other Westerners planning to come to Shanghai.  Hopefully, I have done a decent job with the first objective.  As for the second, I couldn’t be happier how things have turned out.  For the last three years, I have had the pleasure and good fortune of advising numerous families who found me via the blog.  I like to think I’m helping to provide a soft landing in Shanghai, “mentoring” and giving future expats enough information about life here so they know what they are getting into, and have to look forward to.  My goal is to show them how moving here is easier than it looks from abroad, and that everything will be alright.  What has surprised me over the years is that one of the biggest questions people have, aside from the basics of daily family life, is what the hell does the trailing spouse do when the working spouse is at work and the kids are at school?  I’ll admit that it was a real concern for me as well three years ago.  The good news is it does not have to be a concern.  It all turned out well for me and many of the other trailing spouses I know here.  But there are a few easy things that help trailing spouses make the most of this amazing adventure in China.

Getting Around

As crazy as it may sound at first, there are two critical things that a trailing spouse must have to truly experience Shanghai and thrive here:  An electric scooter and a subway Metro card.

We live in Pudong, which is the east side of the Huangpu river that splits this city in half (Puxi is the west side).  It was built with scooters in mind and most of its streets have scooter lanes, making that mode of travel incredibly easy.  As soon as you get here, buy a scooter.  There are millions of scooter stores in Shanghai, including at grocery giant Carrefour (carrefour.com.cn), where I got mine.  Lots of expats get the fancy looking, Vespa-like scooters.  They are fine, particularly if you are a weekend warrior with them.  However, they are very heavy and go fast, which gives them limited distance per charge.  The worst feeling you can have on a scooter in Shanghai is range anxiety.  I recommend a Chinese scooter that has less bells and whistles, but which is durable and can go really far.  I’ve taken my scooter to the East China Sea and back, as well as ferried across the river and gone deep into Puxi.  It was nice to know I was not going to have to leave it somewhere dead, and have to take a taxi home.

My good friend Scott Orwig on his Western scooter, and I on my near beaten to death Chinese one.

My friend Scott Orwig on his Western scooter, and I on my near beaten to death Chinese one.

Equally freeing is Shanghai’s subway system, the Metro.  After you get a scooter, next get the Metro app (Explore Shanghai Metro Map) for your mobile device and buy a Metro card.  The Shanghai Metro is one of the best subway systems I have ever used and all you need to get started is go to the service desk at any station, hand them 200RMB (any amount will do), and ask for a Metro card.  It is incredibly easy to scooter to a Metro station (or take a driver or taxi), lock it outside and go.  Once you are on the Metro, it is a lot faster than taking a car.

Do Lunch!

Having a scooter and knowing the Metro gives trailing spouses a freedom that will be important to your Shanghai experience, and your sanity.  With that freedom comes the ability to do lunch regularly throughout Shanghai.  I have lunch dates with expats or Chinese friends almost every day of the week (look, somebody has to do this) and almost always scooter, Metro, or both to get there.  The restaurant scene in Shanghai is awesome and very Western friendly.  The best place to find information about it is on websites of the big three English language magazines, Time Out Shanghai (timeoutshanghai.com), City Weekend (city weekend.com.cn), and That’s Shanghai (thatsmags.com/city/shanghai).  These magazines and their sites provide a lot of information about the goings on in Shanghai.  They are Western-oriented, but also give an interesting look into Chinese life here.  These publications helped immediately open my eyes to the far-ranging food possibilities in Shanghai.

Lunch with Chinese friends Christina and Maggie, and fellow expat Scott.

Lunch with Chinese friends Christina and Maggie, and fellow expat Scott.

Speaking of lunch, as the food provider for my family, I was concerned about the horror stories I had heard from China regarding everything from meat to milk.  My goal was to feed my family in Shanghai very much like I feed them in Michigan.  However, when we arrived here three years ago, the Western-style food choices were sparse.  Fields was the main on-line food delivery company (fieldschina.com/en/), and there was a City Shop (cityshop.com.cn) and City Super (citysuper.com.cn/en/), both in downtown Luijiazui.  Today, Western food shopping, particularly in Jinqiao, is almost easier than in the States.  Now there is a City Shop steps from our house.  Times, which is like a smaller Krogers grocery store from back home, has a new market here in Jinqiao that is three blocks from us.  Both chains have multiple locations throughout Shanghai.  Wherever you end up living, Western-style food is likely close by.  And Carrefour, a giant grocery store that I once considered one of the scariest places on earth, has redone most of their stores and now looks strikingly like a Chinese version of Walmart.

Have It Delivered

Because you will be spending time exploring the city and sampling the wonderful cuisine, I encourage you to take full advantage of the delivery culture in Shanghai.  My favorite food provider here is Kate and Kimi, who deliver food and groceries right to your house (kateandkimi.com).  They and their founder, Richie Gelber, do a fantastic job of supplying high-quality Western and Chinese food, including, in my opinion, some of the best produce available in this city.  They are clearly focused on quality products that meet “farmer Richie’s” strict standards and are committed to helping families like ours eat healthy in China.  They are not alone in this endeavor and join a growing list of purveyors in Shanghai that are focused on improving the health and quality levels of the food we eat.  (I wrote about many of these businesses in a recent post on healthy eating in China lostinshanghai.com.)

The girls take delivery of Gabby after grooming.

The girls take delivery of Gabby after grooming.

Delivery does not stop at groceries in this town.  We have all of our beer, wine, and liquor delivered to our front door.  The beer comes from Cheers-In, which has a massive selection of craft brewery products (cheers-in.com).  I have most wine and liquor delivered from a great service called Shanghai 9, which delivers to most major cities in China (shanghai9.com).  On-line purveyors such as Kate and Kimi, Fields, and Shanghai Expat Mart (shanghaiexpatmart.com) also deliver alcohol, and pretty much any kind of beverage you need.  Another remarkable delivery service here is Sherpa’s, which delivers meals and drinks from numerous restaurants around Shanghai, to your home (sherpa.com.cn).  They are generally quick and not too expensive, and make feeling lazy about cooking dinner on a Friday night really easy.  Even the dog groomer picks up Gabby and delivers her back home for her regular grooming.

Tour de Healthcare

There were lots of things that I, as the trailing spouse, was terrified of related to the move to China, and quality health care was one of them.  The good news is there are great medical facilities in Shanghai (and of course, some dicey ones), including many Western-style clinics.  We go to Huashan Clinic, which has many English speakers, a good pharmacy, and it takes our insurance.  It is affiliated with Shanghai United Family Hospital and has locations in Pudong and Puxi (shanghai.ufh.com.cn).  Others include Parkway Health (parkway health.cn),  Shanghai East Medical Center (seimc.com.cn), and Shanghai Ruidong Hospital (sinoaid.cn).  We, and friends, have been treated in some capacity or another at each of these health facilities, and the experiences were all good.  Take the time to visit these places before you actually need them.  You will have greater peace of mind if and when you do need help.

Know Your AQI

The worst thing about living in Shanghai for me is air quality.  It can be good one day, and horrible the next.  I have seen improvement over the three years we have lived here, but it would still be unacceptable in the U.S.  That means you have to fight it on a personal level through awareness, air cleaners, and air masks on really bad days.  First, get the China Air Quality Index app by Fresh-Ideas Studio for your mobile device and make sure you set it to show both local and U.S. Consulate data.  To keep the air clean in your house or apartment, there are many air cleaning machine companies here.  My favorite is Renaud Air Corp, where my friend Leroy Kellogg provides high quality products and great customer service (renaudair.cn).  We have air purifiers in every bedroom and two big ones on the first floor.  (Check out Leroy’s blog on the Renaud site for more information.)  And on bad days we use masks from Vogmask, which considers design when they make their excellent protective masks (vogmask.cn). They also deliver directly to your China residence.

The “Little” Things…

Finally, the little worries that I brought to Shanghai with me.

Banking turned out to be relatively easy, and we are able to access our accounts from home at most ATMs here (of which there are many).  We use Bank of China locally and my advice for opening an account at any bank here is to bring a Chinese speaker with you (boc.cn/en/).

Cell phones were also pretty easy.  I just switch sim cards between the U.S. and China, using AT&T there, and China Mobile here (chinamobileltd.com/).

And of course, there is the internet in China, which generally sucks, but is usable,  Most importantly, you need a VPN here to get sites like Facebook, Google, the New York Times, and this blog on WordPress, among others.  We use Avalink, and my friend Joseph will come to your house and set you up, as long as you are an expat (avalaa.com).

The life of the trailing spouse in Shanghai is what you make it.  I have often compared the move to China for the trailing spouse as similar to going away to college again, only this time you have money.  It can be complete madness, but it is up to you to choose which kind of madness:  the kind that occurs from pushing your new found freedoms to the limit;  or the kind that comes from holing up in your house, living in terror of your foreign surroundings, and trying desperately to recreate some semblance of your life in the States.  To avoid the latter in Shanghai, I chose the former.  It has been, and will continue to be, a spectacular experience for my family.  And especially for this trailing spouse.

It has been a great year in China….Uncle Tim visited us!

It has been a great year in China….Uncle Tim visited us!


Cassidy receiving her graduation certificate from 8th grade.  It is off to high school in Shanghai!

Cassidy receiving her graduation certificate from 8th grade. It is off to high school in Shanghai!




18 thoughts on “On Being a Trailing Spouse in Shanghai

    • And going fast is a good thing. Howard and I have agreed to disagree about scooter choice! I will admit he’s right about range anxiety though . . .

  1. Thanks again for your blog! We are getting super close to our move to Shanghai, which is now in 7 weeks, and it is so good to hear of your fun experiences in Shanghai! You mentioned being able to access your us bank account from atms in shanghai, is there a fee to access your account every time? We are currently working out small details and we came across this question, thanks so much for your time!

    • Yes Monica, there are often fees for withdrawal from ur U.S. account. It depends on your bank, so check with them. U can also arrange to have account in Chinese bank that u can transfer money to from U.S. That’s a little bit of a hassle,but doable. Keep me posted!

  2. Monica, We found Bank of America and China Construction Bank have an agreement in so far as fees. You’ll want to check with you bank about it’s Global ATM Alliance. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_ATM_Alliance . This is a great resource as well for when you **Travel around Asia**!!
    I really miss Shanghai. We spent 5 very happy years there. We had lots of medical issues and accidents, but we also had the best care. I was so happy our company offered SOS~the add on for insurance/health problems.

  3. Just found your blog, and have really enjoyed reading though the archives. My wife and I are fellow SW Michigan natives (Ypsilanti) that will most likely be making the move to Shanghai early next year. Really enjoy reading about you adventures, it’s given a lot of insight as to what to expect. I’ll be making my first trip over to check things out in July, really looking forward to starting our own adventures!

  4. We are a family from West Bloomfield, MI moving to Shanghai in about 5 months. We have really enjoyed the great detail you have provided, it has helped with our anxiety. We are coming in August to tour schools/housing. Could you please provide some recommendations as to the top rated American schools we should tour, our boys are entering 5th and 9th grades? Also, please let us know if you have been pleased with the school you selected for your girls. Thanks so much.

  5. I just discovered your fantastic blog, as I’m looking for interesting commentary on Shanghai. My ten year old daughter and I move to the Hongkou district in 3 weeks (9/8/2015). I have a question re: “on getting around.” I would LOVE to buy a scooter. Do you wear a helmet? Do you ever take a daughter around on one of them? Seems dangerous and crazy but if it somehow made sense for me to scoot around with my daughter behind me, I’d love it.

  6. I am travelling with my husband and will arrive on October 16th – we have the weekend to explore together but then he will be working at the SAP Shanghai office from October 19-30. (Monday – Friday – he’s off the middle weekend) We are staying at the Marriott City Center on Xizang Rd. I was wondering about opportunities to shop, sight-see, or eat with anyone while he is at work

    • Joan: You are right in the middle of the city — People’s Square. You should have no problem finding shopping and great restaurants. You are also close to Nanjing road, which is a great walking and shopping street. I’ll try to send you some more info. via email. Take care.


  7. Hey Howard,

    I’m in Shanghai for a month now and I love it so far! But I’m on a tourist visa (I’m from Europe) and I would love to come back and stay longer since I can work remotely. Any ideas? So far my only solution is to get a X2 study visa which is 6 months. And for business visa I heard there’s strict rule of having an invitation from a Chinese company. :/


  8. For a blog, it’s a bit too long to finish, especially for someone who knows it all, yeah, hehe. Glad you like Shanghai so much, although I still believe you freaked out or pissed off sometimes living here, don’t tell me you don’t. Even myself, as a local, I feel to point my middle finger now and then. Shanghai is not a paradise, just like all the other places in this planet. But, it is really much better than what narrow-eyed westerners can imagine. Be careful riding scooters, ’cause most of the road victims are scooter riders. Keep writing, enjoy sharing!

  9. Howard, I trust you are safely back in USA. I did comment on your last blog, I have been following your blog for two years now, in advance of our move to Shanghai which takes place next week (Aug 2). We did have an “Expat Lite” year in Singapore 1st, which kind of broke us in a little bit…I’m commenting on this post as I was interested in your experience setting up a VPN…it seems avalink no longer exists, the link doesn’t work, and I’m not getting search results…also, we would be very interested in your contact Joseph that could help set up our system..can you email me any contact info you have?
    Like you, I am the “husband” trailing spouse and it seems my job is ensuring these little details. My wife is native Beijing, so at least we have one household member speaking chinese. Feel free to reach out on wechat as well .. CoLax303
    Thanks again for your blog, it was very helpful to me in getting us ready for this adventure… Jim

      • Hi Kerry, sorry about the late response…somehow your post just showed up in my email now. Anything should work over here (China), Apple TV, FireStick, Hulu, Kodi, etc., but you will need VPN. China is cracking down on VPNs, but it seems there are a few companies that are allowed to operate. I use ExpressVPN, the other recommended is Astrill. I use Apple TV with DirecTV Now service (just switched from Sling TV, Sling was really slow buffering). You need the VPN to ‘fool’ the programing so they think your are in the USA…(each show, network, etc sells foreign broadcast rights, hence the need to be seen as a U.S. subscriber. You should be able to VPN through your household router, or you can set up on each device (i.e. laptop to steam to TV, but this is slower. Another alternative that we use is Internet TV. This is not restricted by VPN, only by your internet speed. Service includes about 300 channels, (half are Chinese) but includes ESPN, Asia HBO, BBC, CNN, etc, and sports networks from Japan, Europe, Singapore, Fox, etc. Also includes an USA ABC affiliate so you can watch that network shows and news. We watch NFL games live on the England Sports Channel (we have other options for this, but the reception etc is best this way). Most Chinese households have Internet TV as well. Howard’s recommendation of using TEK- Shanghai is a good place to start… just search for TEK and you will find their website. Koben is the contact, he can be reached by wechat : kc1133. Wechat is another you will need over here, messaging app similar to Messenger. Download before you come. Hope that helps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s