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In praise of… being a China expat

Posted: 03/5/2014 11:00 am

The dorm full of English teachers I lived in in 2007/2008 resembled the Big Brother house in its intensity and internal politics. We would often stay up into the small hours chatting over cigarettes, beer and (occasionally) stronger substances having long conversations at the heart of which was the conviction that there was more to our being in China than the pleasures and conveniences.

Sometimes these conversations may have spilled over into self-congratulation and some of us may have fit the description laid out in this song which ridicules English teachers as “losers”. The anti-China blog Mylaowai illustrates this stereotype in more detail in the post “The Decline of the West.”

According to the stereotype, we were wishy-washy hipsters who forewent working for “the man” to come to China and live in a bubble in which we felt important. But hidden in these rants is the admission that people become expats in China for a reason even more primal than pleasure or convenience – meaning.

Why China?

Over the past two years, a large number of high-profile, long-term expats have left China. Many of them wrote lengthy explanations as to why, citing problems such as pollution, food safety and corruption. Why did a country that’s facing so many obstacles attract so many accomplished people in the first place? Why does it continue to do so?

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankl used the Nietzsche quote: “Those who have a why can live with almost any how.” Considering the place that China occupies in the world’s imagination, there are plenty of reasons why an expat would endure hardship to get the chance to feel part of the place.

China is the world’s oldest continuous civilisation, it is the world’s most populous nation, the land of Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. It is the country whose economy grew seven times as fast as America’s in the first decade of this century and is set to become the world’s largest economic power within twenty years. China appeals to the megalomaniacal instinct in all of us in a way that, say, Vietnam or Cambodia might not.

In 2007, in a drunken discussion with my first employer in China, we threw around the term “nostalgic for a time yet to come” to describe our host country in its pre-Olympic year. One year later, as the final preparations were being made for China’s “coming out party,” I was based in a town where such nostalgia was needed. Most of the students who lived in Longchuan, a predominantly Hakka county in north Guangdong, had parents who worked in Shenzhen or Guangzhou but did not have the documentation to get their kids into a good school in those first tier cities.

I taught in the relatively prestigious Longchuan No. 1 Middle School, which was established in 1913, as well as twice a week being motorbike-taxied across town to teach at Longchuan Experimental School. During these motorcycle trips, the only thing I saw that could be described as a feature was the muddy river.

Burnt out from exam stress, the students could be difficult to enthuse. My role was largely to provide an English-speaking environment in a very traditional Chinese classroom. One of the breakthroughs in bringing some excitement into the classroom was to teach the song “Be What You Wanna Be” by Darin Zanyar, a song about having the world at ones feet, which is how I imagined the new China.

During this stay in Longchuan, while in my bed that lacked a mosquito net in the unfurnished appartment I was provided with, I read “The Way to Paradise: a Novel” by Mario Vargas-Llosa, in which the main character Paul Gaugin muses that the place where we are born is just a matter of happenstance. To gain a genuine sense of belonging, we had to go however far was necessary to find it.

In spite of surroundings that, on the surface, gave little to be cheerful about, I felt a sense of belonging in Longchuan because of a sense (however misguided) that I was part of a large entity that was working towards a bright future.

Why we can’t integrate

In “Descendants of the Dragon,” a patriotic folk song turned into a pop hit by Lee-hom Wang in 2000, the Chinese are described as being a race identified by dark hair and yellow skin. As author Peter Hessler found out when he lived in Sichuan from 1996 to 1998, his Caucasian appearance led to him being subjected to “mocking catcalls” of “hello” on the street reminding him that he would always be seen as a foreigner.

Li Yang, founder of the company “Crazy English” and one of the most influential education gurus of the past decade, called on his followers to see foreigners they encounter as being “English opportunities” they should practise on. Li Yang did not explain what a “foreigner” looks like or the logicalities of simply talking to a stranger without a specific topic.

Countries in which English is the predominant language, particularly the United States, Australia and South Africa, have colonialism and racial prejudice woven into their national histories. The racial sensitivity that pervades these societies today is a reaction to this. For this reason, when a Chinese person shouts “hello” or practices their English on a person of “foreign” appearance, they may well be committing the ultimate cultural faux pas – singling a person out on a basis of ethnic differences.

This is why what are most likely just gauche attempts at friendliness are so offensive to people like Hessler and a former colleague of mine who said I should see the “hellos” as challenges to my manhood.

In legislative terms, efforts are being made to help foreigners integrate. Social security for foreigners was introduced in 2011. A talent visa has been created for those who can offer essential skills. Immigration laws have been tightened to increase the overall calibre of foreigners, which will hopefully lead to better relations between expats and locals.

But there is still a long way to go if China wants to attract large numbers of foreigners happy to call themselves immigrants, and this is a problem deeply rooted in recent history.

Between about 1949 and about 1979 China was in one of its more hermetic phases. One of the few foreigners to make a life for himself here was left wing American Sidney Rittenberg. Rittenberg came to China as a U.S. soldier during World War 2, joined the Chinese Communist Party and lived in China throughout the whole of Mao Zedong’s time as chairman. Despite helping the communists win the civil war while stationed in Yan’an, even he was accused of being a spy and twice held in solitary confinement for a combined total of 16 years.

The inward-looking Chinese government that Rittenberg lived under was itself a reaction to the “100 Years of Humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers. The Mao years are still very much within living memory and the resentment over what the foreign powers did often manifests itself in disturbing ways such as the schadenfreude over 9/11 that many American expats encountered at the time.

So why be an expat?

Why do so many foreigners still insist upon living in a land where, at this point in history, integration is impossible? All expats in China are either running from something or running to something. The things they are running from could be earthly concerns (debt, the law, domestic turmoil) and so could the things they are running to (work, romance, lifestyle).

But what could be the main spiritual reason why foreigners make this commitment? In the 1944 film “This Happy Breed,” the patriarch Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) lectures his wayward daughter Queenie (Kay Walsh) by saying there are worse things in life than being normal, boring and respectable. But this implies that there are still better things.

Coming to China is an alternative to living at home and being normal, boring and respectable and thus it becomes an acquired addiction. The fact that, for an expat in China, being normal, boring and respectable is an impossibility makes it all the more appealing to search for that undefined better thing.

  • Zen my Ass

    Good read, Kev, and good reflections. Being an expat is first and foremost an opportunity to reinvent yourself, without bonds, duties and traditions to hold you back. Why China? It has had the fastest economic growth in the last decade, which means opportunities for everybody quick and smart enough to catch them.
    I think the expat condition is the most alluring one, no matter where you are or what you are doing.


    Good story….the Chinese dream is alive for newbies looking for some adventure and for some long termers that have finally got the hang of it…or at least us that seem to think we have the hang of it! (ignorant us)

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  • Ray

    So we have bloody Li Yang to thank for all the annoying ‘hello’s…

    Challenges to manhood is a bit much, it’s just annoying.

    There is much annoying about China, as well all know. There is much that is extremely terrible on a deep human rights level. And still there is much that is wonderful and full of potential and above all INTERESTING.

    There are many expats that conform to the loser stereotype, sure. Still, those don’t tend to last long and don’t tend to be successful and I’m not sure they’re so worth focusing on. There are quite enough crazy, innovative, creative, just plain INTERESTING expats here and that’s who I’m concerned with. Worthy of praise indeed!

    Overall I don’t find it hard in first-tier cities to be comfortable and enjoy life. I’ll learn a few social rules but I won’t ever be fully integrated, but what is so great about integration? A lot of the famous leaving China blogs seem to complain about never fitting in and being accepted. What’s so great about that? Personally, even if I stay my whole life I’ll always be an American abroad and that’s my identity and I am fine with that. I am extremely appreciative of that, in fact.

    Great blog, man. Best of luck in your appealing search for that undefined better thing~~

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  • Mangrove

    When arriving 15 years ago it was a bit romantic I must say. The history, the culture, the challenges and yes, the “celebrity status” lol

    Today … it’s all about money. No love, no kissing on the lips baby. It’s the money.

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