1. Your salary.
I get paid pretty much equal to what I would in the USA ($40-45k) as a history teacher at a local school, which includes a stipend for housing and round-trip flight home every year... but my salary goes further here.
At home, I could hardly afford an apartment (I'm from New Jersey) because I had student loans, car payments, car insurance, rent, utilities, etc.
Here, rent is paid. Utilities are cheap ($100 max for heat in the winter; $10 water bill; $30 unlimited internet). I have no car, no car insurance. I can get taxis (starting at $3) or hire a car (starting at $5) or take the metro (less than $1) everywhere. I can eat very well with a variety of foods, go get massages & spa treatments ($30 for 90min at my fave place, but you can go to cheaper places), and travel cheaply. All while still having enough to send home to pay for student loans...
2. The food.
I left Shanghai for a year for another job and that is what I missed most. All the regional cuisines (Hunan, Sichuan, Yunnan, Dongbei, Taiwanese, Xinjiang, Tibetan) are delicious and fantastic. I can also get a wide range of international cuisines within 5km of my apartment (Thai, Vietnamese, Vegan, Organic, Japanese, French, Italian, Mediterranean, Spanish, Mexican, Turkish, Moroccan, Indian, Malaysian, Singaporean, etc. etc.) and, for the most part, are reasonably priced. Shanghai is more expensive than Beijing and people here always complain about inflation, especially with cost of food. However, with everything else being relatively cheap, I don't mind spending $15-30 on a Western restaurant brunch which includes a bloody Mary or two... (not the four star crazy buffets... they are $80-100)
You don't have time to clean your house or do your laundry? Hire an ayi (maid/nanny) ... Mine costs about $6/hr ... You don't want to go to your favorite restaurant for dinner because the pollution is bad? Don't worry, you can have it delivered. There are many restaurant delivery services where you can order online and someone goes to get your order from the restaurant and brings it to you... You don't want to go to the foreign supermarket? You can order online and have it delivered. You don't want to go to the store to buy bottled water? You can have it delivered. You don't want to spend $100s on a new suit? Bring a picture to the fabric market and they'll make it for $10s. You want to do a juice cleanse? You can buy one and have it delivered to you every day. You can get a lot of things done for you if you know how... And the list keeps growing! All the choices for foreign food markets & deliveries were not around 4 years ago, so the market is growing...
You can travel cheaply in the entire region. You can also splurge on a hotel because the cost of wherever you're going is going to be nominal. I treated my mom to a private villa in Thailand for Christmas. I stayed at the Sofitel in Hanoi for my birthday. I am a ardent budget backpacker at heart and have been travelling & living in hostels for 8 years, but living in China has given me the opportunity to see many different cultures around East and Southeast Asia and stay within my budget. Only in the last year have I started splurging a bit, and while I don't do it all the time, it's nice to know that I can...
Now, I know friends at bigger international schools with bigger salaries that live in bubbles on the outskirts of town and spend my entire monthly salary on apartments or going out to eat... My boyfriend lives in such a bubble with a driver and he eats at the top tier restaurants all the time... I like being in the middle of it all... I would probably be considered rich by most Chinese, but middle-upper class by most expats here in Shanghai... I can`t enjoy top tier luxuries all the time, but I can afford way more that I ever could in the USA at my age (I'm 29)
Living in the middle of Shanghai means that I interact with the local culture every day. I've learned to read and speak enough Mandarin to haggle in markets, order in restaurants, talk to taxi drivers, have conversations about where I'm from and what I do, navigate around the city, etc. It can be very frustrating sometimes, and I know if you are in your expat bubble, you don't even have to speak any Mandarin at all, but I like what I've experienced. I speak Mandarin every day and as a history teacher, I find living and experiencing the changes in China to be fascinating. You can see the impact the past has had on the current government and how the economic changes are paving the way for a new China to emerge... it's great to be here and experience all of the energy...