Goodbye Shanghai: After 16 years, COVID curbs send family packing

STORY: [Heather Kaye, 48-year-old Expatriate]

"We will miss it so much I think. So it's those little things, you know, the person who hands you your dumpling, the person who, you, all these people that you see on a daily basis, that are just part of your rhythm here that, yeah, I just want to capture those memories and take them with me.”

After 16 years in Shanghai, American expat Heather Kaye and her family are part of an exodus of both foreigners and locals driven out by China's unshifting COVID zero policy that’s seen two years of strict curbs, border controls and a crushing two-month lockdown.

For many, this lockdown was the final straw.

Some opted to leave in the midst of it, stunned by how hard it was to even get food delivered or fearing separation from family members should they be infected with COVID.

Others, like the Kayes, opted to wait it out.

But in the end, the deteriorating health of her parents back home added to the growing list of reasons to leave.

[Heather Kaye, 48-year-old Expatriate]

“It was sort of a perfect storm of those decisions. Talking to people who were, you know, scheduled to move in the summer. They are not, they are going to Singapore, they are going to Bangkok, they are going to alternative countries to still service APAC, you know, to be part of the APAC leadership. But you know, being based here, so many people can't really do their jobs any more because they do require so much travel."

According to the European Chamber, the number of foreigners in China has halved since the pandemic began.

It predicts that number could halve again this summer, with few international workers coming in to replenish the numbers leaving.

Heather and her husband moved to Shanghai from New York in 2006 for a 1-year adventure.

16 years later they both speak Mandarin, run businesses here and own a flat.

For their daughters – this city is the only home they’ve known.

[Charlotte Kaye, Heather's daughter]

"I would describe Shanghai as just like my home really. I have lived here for so long, for my entire life, and I think it's, yeah, it's going to be a difficult change."

[Heather Kaye, 48-year-old Expatriate]

"We're so thankful for all of our amazing years here and look forward to coming back soon. So we want to say 'Zeiwei' (goodbye in Shanghainese) Shanghai!"

The Kaye’s bought a new house in Washington, D.C. during the two-month lockdown.

Upon landing in the U.S., Heather and her daughters all tested positive for COVID.

But none of them have regrets about their move.