by Reginald Smith

Teaching is probably the most common way Americans go abroad besides school and the military. As English has become an international lingua franca, English teachers have seen a similar rise in demand for their services. In China this is even more the case. With it likely that there are more Chinese studying English than there are Americans, there is a huge need.

However, as a rapidly developing country, China also has the need for many highly trained and skilled scientific and engineering personnel. They need teachers as well and that’s where scientists such as Dr. Andrea Stith (MS Physics, PhD Biophysics) come in. A second generation scientist, her father is a well-respected physicist that taught at West Point and is a vice president at the American Institute of Physics, Andrea decided to couple both her love of science and travel to teach as an assistant professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University.

Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Mechanical Engineering, Minhang Campus.

At Shanghai Jiaotong, Andrea teaches in the Graduate School of Education where she studies the contributions of postdoctoral students and effects of government support on their success. This is an extremely important topic since in recent years, postdoctoral positions have become an essential stepping stone between completing a PhD and getting a faculty position. Shanghai Jiaotong is known as one of the premiere science and engineering schools in China, considered second only to the world-famous Tsinghua University in Beijing. As China continues to develop its scientific community, research like Andrea’s will be important in helping support researchers through the entire education process to full faculty positions.

Andrea first got the expat bug when she was growing up in West Point, NY where her father was in the army and a full-professor: “seeing all the other military families come and go made me jealous—and made me want to live and travel abroad.” She got her first chance as a freshman in high school where she went on a school trip to France and was (horrors!) able to drink wine as a minor. She visited Paris, Nice, and the Swiss border and loved it.

Later during college, she never took advantage of her college’s summer abroad program to her regret. Having missed that experience, she vowed to compensate later. “My undergrad university had a fantastic study abroad program, which I didn’t pause to take part in. I regretted it always, and really made travel a personal priority…but I finally decided in my mid-30’s that it was time to move abroad. I wanted to make a significant career shift and it seemed that coupling that with a move to another country was a great way to do it.”

Night time view of skyscrapers in The Bund of Shanghai.

She had the chance when she was selected for the prestigious German Chancellor Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation which allowed her to spend 18 months between Berlin, Bonn, and Münich. Through this experience she was able to make contacts that allowed her to land her current position in China. Being in China has been a remarkable experience and opened her eyes to many things but not without challenges. While she is still learning Chinese, she finds she often has to ask her Chinese friends to make phone calls for her. Also, though her pay is good she has to live much more frugally than in the US. Shanghai is becoming increasingly expensive with real estate rivaling or even exceeding that of Manhattan. Therefore, all other prices are increasing in tandem. Where once budget eating was ubiquitous in China, you can now spend US$20 (130 RMB) on one meal at a nice restaurant! For perspective, the average Chinese person only makes between 4,000-6,000 RMB per month.

However, she is taking it in stride. She is doing her best to travel around China and also find ways to get into the local culture. Her latest trip at the time of the interview had been to Yunnan, the southwest most province in China that straddles the northern border of Thailand and Burma. “Travel isn’t always the easiest to figure out, but just be prepared for some missteps by scheduling extra time for things (or being willing to give up on some activities). One thing I’ve found in China is that you can manage just about anything, but it’s going to take longer than you expect!”

A riverside village in suburban Shanghai. Often viewed as a modern metropolis, Shanghai still contains some picturesque rural suburban areas.

She also finds that people in China are friendly though it can be hard to break into the social circles of co-workers off work hours. Once you do make friends in China, they are extremely gracious and do everything they can to take care of you. Also she finds that while there are many preconceptions of foreigners in China, there are often not the same towards Blacks as in other countries.

“Being in China has been interesting given that all the preconceptions about being black or African American just don’t translate here (not to say that there is no bias… it just isn’t the same). People will have no concept of where I’m from (or maybe they just don’t want to guess). But sometimes when they do guess, they come up with interesting places. Anyway, this basic fact makes me question or consider more often how I act or respond to people—even in casual and brief encounters. I ask myself more often, how do I want to portray myself.”

There are the ever present stares though (which I remember living in China) but are mostly harmless and based off curiosity. The biggest thing she is down on is the extreme poverty and treatment of the migrant workers (mingong). Though China has minorities, they are not large in proportion to the population and tend to be regionally concentrated so regional differences and class differences, which typically separate out mingong, have become a degree of social stratification.

Overall, she is happy with her choice and though she doesn’t see herself in China long-term, she thinks anyone that wants to make it work can. There is a mix of short-termers, long-termers, and permanent resident foreigners in Shanghai which can accommodate any sort of plan.


Living & Spending in Shanghai


Monthly rent:

I’ve seen 1500 RMB per month to 20 times that number (or more!).


Cost for meals:

10 RMB to 1000RMB


Transportation costs:

Metro usually 3-6 RMB, Buses, 2 RMB for a single ride (1 for additional transfer). Taxis, 12 RMB is the daytime base rate. I can usually expect to get within the city center for 25 RMB… and the outskirts maybe 50RMB. Pudong Airport to the city costs over 200.

The Shanghai Metro has the longest lines in the world.  A Maglev high speed train coming out of Pudong International Airport, Shanghai.


Compared to your home country are most things cheap/same/expensive?

The ‘basics’ are cheaper, but if you want anything that even approaches a luxury, you’ll pay prices that are equivalent to or exceed US costs (even if your salary is many times less).


Recommended monthly living budget:

I would say 6500 to 7000 RMB per month is livable, but you won’t have loads of excess cash for eating out etc.


Note: Currency converter set to the Yuan for your use. The Yuan is the base unit of the Chinese currency Renminbi (RMB).


How modern are basic amenities/infrastructure?

They are highly variable. You’ll see it all in Shanghai.


Any legal hurdles all foreigners have to face to live there?

I can’t really speak to that… just figuring everything out was certainly a hurdle. Visa rules are a bit inflexible and understanding all the rules for registering (and where) are not easily understood. It definitely helps to have someone take you under their wing.


Top 3 things you would recommend someone to bring when they come:

1. Coffee! (it is quite expensive here).

2. Hair products.

3. A pocket camera!

(I feel lucky that in Shanghai, once you know where to look) you can find just about anything you need. But if you aren’t living in a major city, I would bring my basic and favorite spices for cooking).


Top 3 things you would recommend for someone visiting or living here to do:

Go west! Get out of the cities. There’s lots to see and experience here.

The University City District in Songjiang
Photo credits: Shanghai images sourced from Wikimedia


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4 Responses to “Dr. Andrea Stith: Professor in Shanghai”

  1. Angelas2k says:

    Thanks so much for this very engaging interview. I do hope that you publish more stories on China, and on Shanghai in particular. I’ve been visiting my son for the past 6 years since he began living and working there, and I still haven’t gotten over the full import for me as a black American Episcopalian woman attending a church in which the minister had to preface his service by announcing that on the orders of Beijing, all non-foreign passport holders would have to leave the church immediately.

  2. Thank you Angelas2k!  I have been in the region but never to China before and find the stories we publish on China fascinating. I hope more expats in China will contact us for interviews or submit their own articles sharing their experiences.

  3. Reggie says:

    Yeah I lived in Beijing and Shanghai and had a similar experience. We can only hope they will loosed the reins on religious freedom in the future.

  4. […] Click to read more about Dr. Stith and her take on living and working in China. […]

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