Examining the Halfpat

I don’t know how I stay ignorant of some things for so long. Take the term “halfpat,” for instance. I just learned it the other day. I might be one of the last foreigners in China to learn it.

halfpat: also known as a “local hire expat.”

> Attracted to China by either a sense of curiosity, or a strong belief in China’s potential, the halfpat (including overseas-born ethnic Chinese) is generally a recent graduate or young professional who have moved to China without a predetermined career path.

I got this definition from the white papers and reports page of a website called All Roads Lead to China.

I find this term interesting because it applies to me, but I’m not sure if it’s actually useful or just some annoying buzzword. I can’t really imagine myself using it in normal conversation.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. funny, i didn’t know it either, and it applies to me too 🙂

  2. Well, looks like I’m a ‘halfpat’…

    I really like the new (not sure how new) design on the Chinese blog. I can’t read much of it, but it’s certainly a cool layout.

  3. Are we all half-pats and just never knew it? I feel like I’ve been granted a wholly self-defining identity… by a random dude on a random blog.

    I wonder what I’ll be next week…

  4. haha.. I got another mention!

    Actually, the interesting thing about the term halfpat is that I have been using it for a while and just put it up on All Roads while trying to see if I could create my own annoying buzzword that would make it into the MBA hall of fame.

    I am not sure it is something that will make Webster, but there are a number of rags in Shanghai that have printed articles about halfpats.

    and trust me… you will find yourself using it!

    Have a good week and thanks for the mention


  5. I guess I’m also a “halfpat”, but it really is just another annoying little buzzword. Let’s just ignore it and hope it goes away.

  6. halfpat is not in The Urban Dictionary yet, but you could add it.

  7. Would the term necessarily apply to you (or any other local hire expats not employed at large multinationals)? If your current employer did not hire its foreign staff locally, would they bring in people on an “expat package,” or would they just cease to exist?

  8. I personnally define an halpat as a foreigner not sent by his/her mother company to work on a local package for a Chinese, Foreign company or its own one.
    I have written recently some tips for youngsters who come to China and are the primary definition of halpats: http://chinaandi.typepad.com/chinaandi/2007/10/my-10-tips-for-.html

  9. Never heard it before either….and yeah, doesn’t seem too useful

  10. Annoying buzzword.

  11. i saw some article in some magazine here in nanjing a couple weeks ago, though i can’t recall which (map perhaps?). i’d assumed it was just an annoying buzz word minus the buzz. looks like i was wrong on that last part.

  12. My wife’s from Taiwan and we met in school in the US, but stayed in the US. Does that make me the opposite of a halfpat?

  13. Find it a useful word. It describes a few people I know. Unfortunately for my company maybe, it doesn’t describe me right now. But I’ve done the hard time in other places, so hell, gimme that expat package!

  14. Halfpat means an expat who makes half (or less than half) the salary of expats sent by their big corporations to work in China with all other expenses covered. Once you’re already in China and loking for a job, they know you’re willing to accept lower pay because you like it here and you want to stay anyway.

  15. Richard: Interesting report, but it seems as if a lot is based on anecdotal information. The “halfpat” phenomenon (or whatever you want to call it) probably hasn’t been investigated much, in China at least. Are there other countries which are experiencing the same phenomenon?

  16. owshawng Says:

    My wife’s from Taiwan and we met in school in the US, but stayed in the US. Does that make me the opposite of a halfpat?

    No, no. You’re a quarter-pat, Owshawng.

  17. Hi Todd,

    To date, I have yet to see anything formal. If you look at Hewlitt reports (or any HR consultancy reports), they typically classify halfpats as local hires, and there is a lot of study into that end of the market.

    As a graduate of Thunderbird, I know of a lot of friends who have gone into a market without a job and are making their living on a local basis. It is not simply a China thing, or an issue of salary or perks for halfpats/ local hires, it is a career decision. they choose to plant themselves in a market and grow roots there. to return home often is just as difficult as the initial move as the jobs they have in China are typically not providing a path home.. even if they are with MNC. they must fight alongside with and be judged along similar lines as others who were born, raised and educated in the market they moved to.


  18. Seven years ago, during a brief and embarrassing period as Chief Editor of City Weekend, we used the term when talking about the magazine’s readership. The intention was to differentiate them from ‘aircon expats’, who at their worst are astonishingly clueless about how China really works (but quite convinced of the opposite), who oscillate between luxurious apartments and big offices, have no Mandarin, think it costs at least ¥500 to get a taxi for the day (or ¥1000 because that’s what their building’s doorman told them his brother would give them as a special price), and who know every French or other foreign restaurant but nothing Chinese except maybe Da Dong or Liqun (because they think it makes them look like Old China Hands) to take Beijing examples. Maybe some branch of Xiao Wang at a push.

    A halfpat, however, maintains an interest in the culture and language, notes down characters he sees but doesn’t know so he can check them later, knows how to use public transport, can tell the difference between Shanxi and Shaanxi, lives in local accommodation, goes to the bar streets sometimes but not as a habit (and then prefers the quieter ones), eats Chinese at local restaurants most of the time and can recommend Shanxi, Sichuan, Hunan, Shanghai, or ‘lao’ Beijing and know what he’s talking about.

    So although there may have been some correlation with the split between those on different salary levels, as well as some with the differences between those who just happened to be posted to China as opposed to those who’d first found an interest and then a job, the main difference was in state of mind: between people who live a live as mentally compound-bound as they would have been if posted to Saudi Arabia, and those open to and maintaining an active interest in (although often infuriated by) Chinese culture.

    The first group might just as well have been posted Amman or Buenos Aires for all the difference it made to their way of life. For the halfpats the whole point was to be in China.

    I thought we’d coined the phrase ourselves, and perhaps we did. But perhaps others coined it too, with a different meaning.

  19. Strong agreement with Peter.

    Except that we should reverse the terminology – expats should be the ones who want to be in China. Halfpats would be the ones who are only here for the money and have no knowledge of China beyond their compound… as in they’re only ‘half’ into it.

  20. Now that term “aircon expat” is pretty cool….

  21. Hi Peter.

    air-con expats is brilliant, but I can see why you chose not to use it.

    Actually, if you read my paper and the profiles I wrote, I think our definitions are not really all that different. For the purposes of this discussion and the paper, the focus was on the jobs they held.. but from a personal perspective I would say that we are talking about the same person.

    So far as who coined what, I hold no ownership to the word and it is a word that a few friend of mine and I threw around in Beijing about the same time you all were. I think the reason we used half though was because we were lucky to onnly get half the package and expat did.. and that was before you considered the 25k in education and 10k for housing was considered.

  22. Then there is the pat-pat — which in Hong Kong Cantoenglish means pigu! 🙂

  23. […] Examining the Halfpat […]

  24. annoying buzzword…yet strangely kinda cute….maybe

  25. Journ-O-LST-3 Says: February 8, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    I like it. Like an expat with training wheels.

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