Expats in Yiwu: blend in or fly solo

By Yilin Yang, Haichuan Xu, Yiyu Pan

Walking down the streets of Yiwu, China, one can see men and women old and young from all over the world. Each of them carries their own culture and lifestyle. Nowhere else in China can someone see Cameroonian, Russian, Syrian-people with different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds working, eating, and partying next door.

However, where there is racial and cultural diversity, there are people who are reluctant to adapt to new social norms. Although Yiwu is a relatively friendly trading city, foreign traders, especially merchants from Africa or the middle east, still experience some levels of prejudice from local communities.

“The people here don’t relate with us, they just want to make money”

Much like the United States, Yiwu is like a big melting pot for people worldwide. But is it a mine a gold, or just another “separate but equal” case? Will history repeat itself a hundred years later?

While some expats in Yiwu found this city welcoming, it was not the case for everyone. An article called “Analysis of foreigner living conditions” shows that 6.54 % of expats hold a negative attitude towards the Yiwu government service, 2.19 % hold a passive one, and 12.21 % of expats have an apathetic attitude on the quality of Yiwu citizens.[1] They felt that the locals are unpunctual, uncivilized, and not exactly friendly.

“Things were not easy for me when I first got here,” says Bashar, a Syrian live streamer who has lived here in Yiwu since 2013. According to his sharing, when foreign live-streamers were rare to find, he often received harsh comments during his streams. Yet, he described this with perfect composure as if it was a walk in the park. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country in 2020, a subtle tension between the locals and “outsiders” started to emerge, including Bashar. Even during the recovery period of the pandemic, things cannot be considered as optimistic to him. As he walked down the streets, the locals would flee from him and put their masks on as fast as possible, simply because he looked not so like “Chinese.” Living here longer didn’t make his neighbors more amicable.

“Walking around campus, the unattachment between local and abroad students drew a clear line that separates the school into two,” suggested Eric, an international student from Zimbabwe studying abroad in China. Through the interview, it is clear that when international students come to China, they are more willing to live with people of the same race than living together with the local people. It is evident that most of the expats did not perfectly fit in with the locals throughout the years. Therefore, some actions have been taken to solve the problem.

“A sun-kissed neighborhood”

In response to this situation, the local government has taken actions to ensure that expats are promised social equality in Yiwu. Since most expats come to Yiwu for business purposes, the authorities granted foreign merchants a two-year residency permit and put tax and visa offices in Yiwu. Furthermore, they also built international communities that help expats find a place to bond with other people. However, due to their diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, collisions between the foreign and local populations flare-up. To address this problem, the Chinese government got in touch with the local public service providers, such as the Tongyue Social Work Service Center, which provides mandarin lessons for expats who live in the local international community. While the course itself is free of charge, it requires its students to actively participate in the monthly community service, to use their language and cultural advantages to help other expats integrate into the community.

Individuals are also contributing to the goal of integration. “The essential thing is to ensure fairness and justice when dealing with the collisions,” Mr. Hami, one of the senior staff in the Social Work Service Center in Jimingshan Community, claimed in his speech. Jimingshan Community is the epitome of Yiwu, being the most diverse and condense local community in the entire city. It was built at the eastern corner of the whole city, which meets the Muslim pilgrim tradition. Mr. Hami has been working as the local “Dr. Phil” in Jimingshan Community for more than seven years. His Iranian background and doctor’s degree in Psychology granted by the University of Tokyo provided him the ability to solve most local foreign residences conflicts. “Just as kids start to help their parents as they grow up, being a social worker is my way to fulfill my responsibility to this community.” Dr. Hami says, “To make a place your home, you actually have to contribute to building and improving the place. Even just a smile can help.” Dr. Hami informed us that most conflicts between residences that need his help were caused by the culture and language incomprehension and misunderstandings.

The Office of Dr. Hami

“After living here for more than ten years, the progress I have witnessed in the city is astronomical”

What is gratifying is that with the gradual cessation of the pandemic in the country and the continuous influx of expats, Yiwu, a city full of opportunities, has embraced ethnic diversity.

Nowadays, one can always see the interweaving of local culture and Yiwu culture from all kinds of foreign business people stationed in Yiwu, which is very rare in China because a considerable part of foreign migrants that people usually come into contact with will deliberately suppress deep-rooted habits to adapt to the culture of the migrant country and eventually become “converted” Chinese. Is the uniqueness of this city, or the flexibility of these businessmen, contributed to such a “cultural hodgepodge”? In this regard, perhaps it is a combination of both. In other words, urban construction and personal attitudes together play an essential role in shaping Yiwu’s multiculturalism and helping foreign people in business integrate into Yiwu culture while retaining their characteristics.

Focusing on the construction of Yiwu as an international metropolis, it is not difficult to find the inseparable connection between Yiwu and foreign culture. With the gradual prosperity of Yiwu’s economic and trade exchanges, more and more expats’ gathering places have begun to take shape, including Korea Town and India Street that are more mature. These exotic streets are the prosperous business districts established by Yiwu City based on the folk customs of merchants worldwide, attracting catering and entertainment institutions from all over the world and satisfying the catering and entertainment needs of global merchants and consumers. To the greatest extent. This way undoubtedly introduces the humanistic feelings of foreign countries into Yiwu naturally, allowing internationales to experience the characteristic traditions of the motherland even if they are in China.

Talking about the characteristics of Yiwu, the popularization of the language landscape is an indispensable part. Language landscape generally refers to the landscape formed by the language presented on public signs. And such signs with different languages ​​are not only visible in high-level public places such as the Expo Center, but also everywhere on the pavement.

Welcoming signs in different languages in Yiwu Expo Center and multilingual shop front

It is true that the practical convenience brought by the language landscape needs to be discussed because the expats who come here have some basic reading ability in Chinese. However, the role of these signs does not stop there, but also reflects the experience and acceptance of expats in Yiwu City. From the aspect of urban construction, the factors of Yiwu have already been reflected.

“Things are definitely looking better now in Yiwu than they were ten years ago.”

Over the years, the current of time has beat down many barriers between the locals and the expats. Many of them found a sense of belonging here in Yiwu, and some even started families with local residents. Yet the future is like a mysterious lake; nobody can see through its harmonious facade. While some international personnel is more than happy to contribute to their communities, others are more indifferent.

The process of integration is nonetheless a compromise on both sides. While expats must try their best to open their minds up and break free from the shackles of old traditions, people ought to do the same to cast away any prejudice against them.


Work Cited:

[1] “Analysis of Foreigner Living Condition.” Analysis of Foreigner Living Condition | WOW Yiwu China, Wow Yiwu, 21 Mar. 2011, www.wowyiwu.com/news/Analysis_of_foreigner_living_condition_85.html.

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