Last Column: Halfpats

Younger, Nimbler, Cheaper:
‘Halfpats’ Are the New Expats


I went to college at the University of Michigan. During my freshman year, before any of us had really started to venture far beyond our dorm, a friend dubbed Ann Arbor “teen island,” referring to the odd feeling of being in a place where everyone was the same age and at the same stage of life. Everywhere you looked you saw yourself reflected back. I never experienced that sensation again in quite the same way until we moved to Beijing and landed in a compound where it seemed everyone was Western, just turning 40 and had two or three kids between two and 10 years old.

This crew, which has been at the center of our social life here, represents the classic expat population — successful people in midcareer who have been exported, generally at great expense to their employer, to establish a beachhead or expand market share in a foreign land. But these old school mainline expats may be endangered. There is another, growing group of expats in Beijing who are younger, more willing to move around and less expensive to employ.

Beijing and the rest of China have seen an explosion in younger expats because the region has been so economically and culturally hot. Many people come here post-college, some simply to experience the place; some to learn the language or put into practice their college China Studies classes; and others simply because they want to punch the China ticket and give their career a boost.

But the trend towards younger expats is not exclusive to China. “It is a noticeable change which is often discussed by people in the relocation business,” says Geoffrey Latta, Executive Vice President of ORC Worldwide, a management-consulting firm. “Companies are interested in sending younger people abroad because they are cheaper and simpler to move, with less family entanglements. And more young people are interested in moving because virtually every field is becoming more global.”

These changes are beginning to be reflected in the data, such as it is. The 2008 GMAC Global Relocation Trends Survey of human-resource managers shows that fewer expats are married and have kids than in past years.

“Companies are basically saying to up-and-coming employees that they value international experience and young people are much more open-minded about it than in the past,” says GMAC’s Scott Sullivan. “In fact, they are often aggressively pursuing these opportunities, sometimes even at cost to themselves, or at least accepting much lower expat packages. They see it as a way to get experience and become more marketable.”

The GMAC survey only reflects people who have actually been moved abroad by employers, but there is also an exploding population of “halfpats” — people who travel on their own. Many of them end up getting onto a career track, even if they arrive overseas initially as students, interns or even backpackers.

Beijing is filled with college students and recent graduates studying Chinese at a university or teaching English as they feel their way around the city. Many of them spend some time here and then head home or off to further travels, but an increasing number seem to be sticking around and launching careers, often finding it more fertile soil than their homelands for advancement and experimentation. Because they are often seeking entry-level jobs and generally don’t have houses full of possessions to move or kids to educate, they neither expect nor receive the large expat packages that have always made it so expensive for an employer to send someone overseas.

Maria Guimaraes, a 28-year-old Portuguese who came to Beijing for a three-month internship three-and-a-half years ago, now works as a consultant at Ogilvy Public Relations.

“I think three years work experience in China is the equivalent of twice that in Europe because things move so fast,” she says. “I have been given a lot more responsibility and worked in a lot more different environments. I don’t think Europe or America offers such opportunities to people just starting out.”

“And that’s in the best of times… right now the job market is not good in Europe. It is difficult for graduates to even find opportunity to prove themselves. China offers more possibilities. I am making two or three times what I would in Spain or Portugal and just learning so much more. This is a tremendously exciting place to begin a career.”

Chad Tendler, 28, has worked for Prudential PLC in Hong Kong for three years, after four-and-a-half in Beijing. He came to China after graduating from New Jersey’s Drew University, where he studied Mandarin, in 2001. Not seeing a lot of career opportunities in the U.S. in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble burst, he decided to return to Beijing, where he had studied for one semester.

“I just thought spending time overseas would be a great interim move,” says Mr. Tendler. Instead he has found a career and a lifestyle he never pondered. He sees himself as part of a growing trend.

“Traditionally there were two main ways for a young person to spend considerable time traveling and seeing the world,” says Mr. Tendler. “It was either backpack travel, maybe teaching English so you can get a stipend to stick around some place, or it was the Peace Corps. People still do both of those things, but I think increasingly new graduates are also looking at job opportunities overseas. And they are out there.”

Alex Chen, 30, is another young American who has found unexpected career opportunities in China. Now the communications manager of the Opposite House, a luxury boutique hotel, he worked as a producer at the Food Network before leaving at age 26 to study Chinese for a year in Beijing.

“My parents are from here originally and I wanted to be able to communicate with them better in their native language as they got older,” he says. “I didn’t have a plan beyond the study but living as an expat presents opportunities to reinvent yourself and see what else there is to do out there.”

Before landing his current job, Mr. Chen worked for a publishing company and for Warner China and he had little difficulty making these career changes here.

“I could have stayed in the U.S. and been a relatively good television producer, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that forever,” he says. “Coming here has allowed me to have some really interesting jobs and then move on to something else.”

Obstacles remain. Longer-term visas have become harder to obtain in China. Many of the visa brokers often employed by halfpats have been shut down and there are rampant stories about expats without full-time employment having to leave China, at least for a while. But there is a widespread anticipation that at the end of September, when the Paralympics are over and this extended Olympics period finally ends, things will lighten up again.

Immigration restrictions can largely be overcome with a good job, but all of the young expats I spoke to think that the golden age of job seeking in China may be over; many opportunities still exist here, they say, but there is more competition. More local Chinese now have good English skills and a higher level of comfort operating in a foreign environment. And more and more young Americans, Australians and Europeans have figured out all this and are coming to China — and more of them have good language skills, as studying Mandarin becomes more popular.

“The novelty of being a foreigner is really wearing off in Beijing and Shanghai,” says Mr. Chen.
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Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. Read comments by readers on my last column, about how I acted as a cultural interpreter for both local friends and visitors during the Beijing Olympics.

As a long-term fellow expat — and because I’ve enjoyed your articles for quite a while — I’ll thank you by providing some grammatical school-marming regarding the excerpt below:

“If all goes according to plan, when you read this I will be laying on a beach in Sanya, Hainan, a tropical island off China’s South Coast. We planned a short trip there to reconnect as a family — our sons returned from three weeks in the U.S. on Tuesday — and to allow Rebecca and I to wash the Olympics… “

1. “I will be laying…” should be “I will be lying…” (You “lay” — or place — SOMETHING on the ground…but YOU “lie” on the ground).

2. “to allow Rebecca and I” should be “…Rebecca and me…”

— Jerry Kopel

You were far from alone in pointing these out. “Rebecca and I” is incorrect and has been changed — the beauty of online publication. Mea culpa (and my editor sends her regrets, too).

“Laying” is not so clear cut, however. Merriam-Websters notes that “‘lay’ has been used intransitively in the sense of “lie” since the 14th century. The practice was unremarked until around 1770; attempts to correct it have been a fixture of schoolbooks ever since. Generations of teachers and critics have succeeded in taming most literary and learned writing, but intransitive lay persists in familiar speech.” It goes on to caution that “some commentators are ready to abandon the distinction, suggesting that lay is on the rise socially.” It also cautions — wisely — that “even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.”
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I’m Chinese, living and working in California. Your writing is not only about Beijing, it is about Today’s China. It is so important for me to understand what’s happening and what’s changed in China.

— Xinghui Cai

Thank you. I am flattered and shocked; I’m sure you can find more in-depth sources of China information!

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