Interview with Julia S., expat spouse in Shanghai

JM: Hey Julia, a very warm welcome and thank you so much that you agreed to be interviewed by me for this series on how expat spouses in China create their lives here. You are not the “classic” expat spouse, and haven’t had the typical story of a relocating partner. Would you tell us how you came to be in China and how you have followed your partner here?

JS: I’d love to and thank you for the invitation. How did I come to Shanghai? Well, the whole thing started about 2 years ago, when I met my fiancé Fabian over New Year’s Eve in Hamburg. I’m originally from Braunschweig, but I’d been living in Hamburg for about three years by then, and we met there by chance at a New Year’s Eve party.

We got along pretty well and just kept in contact after that. He flew back to China right on the 2nd of January, and for me, it was like “I like the guy, but he’s way too far away from me, it won’t work anyway”. But he stuck with it, and so we kept writing messages back and forth, switching to voice messages and then to video calls. We liked each other and in March 2019 he came back to Germany to pay me a visit. He kidnapped me for a romantic weekend – and that’s when we really connected. Now it was my turn to visit him in Shanghai to spend more time together.

The real estate start-up I had worked for at that time ran out of funding and let most of their staff, including me, go. Luckily, because this gave me the flexibility to come to Shanghai for 4 weeks for a first glimpse. My very first weeks in Asia ever. At the end of these four weeks, I knew that I would just fly home to pack my things and move to Shanghai.

I returned to Hamburg to prepare everything for my move. I lived in a wonderful shared apartment in the heart of Hamburg and it was more than difficult for me to say goodbye. But my inner feeling told me, Julia “you are on the right track. You can only win. At least experiences”. I knew that I wanted to keep my independence in Shanghai as I had in Hamburg. For that, I applied for jobs from Germany that would underpin my strengths and my interests. Luckily, my second application was successful and the starting signal for the day of my move was given.

In September 2019, I started as Project Manager Events at the German Chamber of Commerce. I am incredibly grateful to have joined a great team and was warmly welcomed. In this function, I have already been able to build up a large network in the German community, which I am very proud of.

JM: Seems logical, with the kind of job you have.

JS: Yes. It goes so far that Fabian, who has lived in Shanghai for almost 10 years, says my network is already bigger than his.

I’ve been here in Shanghai since September last year and I have not regretted my decision. Of course, it also happens occasionally that I am homesick and miss my family, friends, and my life in Hamburg, but my inner feeling still tells me clearly: “This was absolutely the right decision”.

JM: Great to hear that you feel you have made the right decision. What types of doors do you feel being in China has opened for you? What are things you get to have and do that you would not have back home?

JS: An extremely inspiring network and a very open circle of friends. Fabian always says that the people here are very similar types. All of them have an enormous drive for their private and professional life in Shanghai. Through his network, I have slipped into a circle of friends who have all lived in Shanghai for at least 5 to 10 years. Most of them have built their lives here in management positions or built their own companies from the ground up and are very grateful and happy for it. This mentality is also very inspiring for me to start my own project.

This is what, about six months ago. gave me the inspiration to found a real estate network that helps Germans to find real estate as an investment from abroad.

JM: Can you explain a little more in detail how that works?

JS: My German business partner Chris and I have built up a network of experts in Germany, consisting of selected trusted experts specialized for investments in Germany out of China. Since we both come from the real estate industry, we know what is important for an investment property and which partner you can work with. With these experts, we help like-minded people in Shanghai to find their investment project in Germany. The network is called the Shanghai Investor Club (

JM: That sounds so interesting. But, let me guess – a full-time job and your Investment Club are probably not enough for you, right? I bet you have other things cooking already. So, tell us: what are your future plans?

JS: There is actually another project I am currently working on. I am about to complete my second Reiki degree, I have already dealt with the topic in Germany and now I would like to put it into practice in Shanghai.

Reiki is a form of alternative medicine, also known as energy healing. It is a wonderful way to focus on your inner self while settling down in the crazy new world in China. And my thought behind it is to experience this possibility not only for myself but also to pass it on to my circle members and Expats who arrive in China.

My love of bringing people together and helping them drives the interest in Reiki but also the real estate platform, where we support like-minded people in their search for the investment object they are looking for.

And the Reiki practice is another way I can fulfill my need to help others.

JM: It looks that way! Now, your path is not that of the typical expat couple, who stay in China for an average of three to five years. You are planning on staying for the foreseeable future. I would think that such a plan is easier to put into reality in a big city like Shanghai, though. In smaller cities, there might be many things about home you miss. But in Shanghai, you never have to look for someone with whom to speak German, for instance, right?

JS: Not in my case, no. Since I have a German fiancé, I work in a German company and a large part of my network comes from Germany, I speak a lot of German here – sometimes a bit too much, to be honest.

JM: It seems to me that you have a lot of advantages in Shanghai that expats in smaller locations lack. If you feel like having German food, for instance, you can go to many restaurants to satisfy your craving.

JS: Yes, unfortunately in my case it is.

I must admit that before I moved to Shanghai, I had never been to Asia. Many people here say that Shanghai is an easy entry point for China. 

When I arrived here, however, it was a culture shock for me. We, for example, live in a very local district where the neighbors on the street still wash their hair in a pot, and a few streets away there are Gucci stores. 

I had to understand these differences first – but it is exactly these differences that make Shanghai so unique and worth living in.

JM: To me, that is part of China’s charm. I don’t know about Shanghai, but in smaller towns, it often feels like three centuries are happening at once. Like buying fruits or vegetables off donkey carts, but paying through a WeChat or Alipay QR code. That, to me, is the real China.

It makes me chuckle when acquaintances in Shanghai ask me: “How can you even stand it to live in a small, primitive town like Shenyang?” But to us provincial town dwellers, or me at least, that is part of the charm of living in a smaller town.

One last question for you: What would be your advice for someone who is about to follow their partner? With the knowledge, you have now, after the move, what is the best advice you would give?

JS: Hmm,.. be open! This is very important. Be open to other cultures, traditions. Don’t be closed off when you say something: “I don’t want this, or I can’t do this”. Be open, try all the things you can do.

As for language, I have to say that in the beginning, I had to work very hard on my English. I had never been in an international circle of friends before and I have never worked in an international working environment.

My first priority was to become confident in the English language and then continue learning Chinese.

Unfortunately, I have not yet started to study Chinese intensively and since Shanghai is so international, it is possible to live here with very little Chinese. In a restaurant, I order by using the pictures on the menu if they don’t have an English one. And if all else fails, I use my phone and show that I want to order THIS. My experience was also that the locals are always very helpful to support us foreigners.

Another thing I would advise others to do is to be open to opportunities for personal development. You really have all the opportunities in the world here. You can realize almost any dream here and you are not criticized for it. All doors are open for you here.

JM: I totally agree. In China, you get to decide who you are. If I say I can do something, then prove it, people will accept it at face value. Whereas in many other places, you have to always bring the right certificate, proving that you passed the relevant exam for a certain skill.

JS: Exactly. No one judges. They go: “Oh, is that what you do? Great, carry on.”

JM: What a great way to end this interview. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your story with me.

As a coach serving relocating partners in China, I connect with many amazing spouses who find their place, purpose, and passion in the Middle Kingdom. If you are moving to China soon to follow your partner in their expat assignment and would like some support, contact me:

-with a LinkedIn message

-on WeChat (julie_marx)

-through my Facebook page @ChinaExpatSpouse

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