Remember when Mark Kitto posted that article “You’ll never be Chinese” in Prospect Magazine back in August last year and how that led to a wave of similar articles by long-term expats who decided to throw in the towel? Well, having successfully overcome my own personal crisis with China, I thought I’d write about my reasons for staying here.
I would describe my relationship with China as a roller-coaster ride: my attitude towards the country goes up, down and lop-sided at an astonishing rate. The first year was the most amazing year of my life: I fell in the love with the country, its people, the culture and food. I was in a permanent state of bliss. I got to travel to places so beautiful that they took my breath away, I was invited for dinner by complete strangers which left an ever-lasting impression on me. I met so many warm-hearted, friendly people. Of course, I also met my fair share of people who just wanted to talk to me to practice their English or scam me out of a kuai or two, which I confess, annoyed me a lot, but by and large my interactions with people were always positive.
In my second year, I got a desk job so I got to travel and party less. My commute to work was over an hour, and after being squashed in the subway morning and evening, my energy and motivation to head out after work started to wane. Eventually, I found myself just wanting to curl up on the sofa, watch a DVD and just go to bed. Socializing was restricted to the weekends and after a while, even that started to feel mundane and unexciting. Because I worked Mon-Fri and only got holidays when the rest of the country got holidays, I lost my motivation to travel. I wasn’t willing to take a 24-hour hard seat train to the south of China any more just because all other tickets got snatched up. Nor did I want to, or was I capable of buying expensive plane tickets on my 10,000 RMB salary. My rent was increasing in price, as was everything else. My savings just weren’t getting any bigger despite the fact that I felt like my entire life in China centered around work.
My third year passed in almost the same way. By then, I was in a full-out rut. I’d somehow accepted that this was my life and the only silver lining was the fact that someday I would have enough money to just quit and embark on an exciting adventure or find that super high-paying job I’d always dreamed about. When nothing changed, including my increasingly lazy attitude, I fell into a depression. My youth was fading; fine wrinkles were beginning to appear under my eyes. Had I wasted my youth on an unfulfilling, low-paying job that was leading me nowhere?
Thoughts about packing up and leaving once and for all quickly followed. I began doubting everything. Had I even made any life friends in the three years of being here? I suddenly felt like everyone I’d ever made an effort to befriend had or was planning to leave and there was always an inexplicable distance between me and my Chinese friends, a distance which I thought was due to cultural differences and language barriers and would never be overcome. Then there were the food scares and the air pollution. Family members would call telling me that I was shaving decades off my life by living here. Friends back home would send me links to articles that portrayed China in the most atrocious light.
All the negativity around me coupled with my own demons just fed off each other, so much so that I had become one of those people who wuld always complain and whine, yet never leave. This was not who I wanted to be, and deep down I knew that it was my love for China that was keeping me here. So, I tried very hard to focus more on the positive things, all the aspects of life here that made me fall in love with the country in the first place. I took a long, hard look at my life here and realized just how lucky I am.
That mundane job turned out to be great experience that led to a promotion and pay rise and opened many other doors. I had found the love of my life in China – a local man whose family have been so open, welcoming and loving towards me. I’ve been assimilated into their family and am no longer seen as the foreign guest who doesn’t have to lift a finger during Chinese New Year. I’m now there with the other ayis rolling out dumpling dough and taking part in their gossip sessions. While I still don’t get to travel as much as I’d like, I have visited quite a few amazing and interesting places along the way and I’m sure I will get to expand on that the longer I’m here.
As for all the health scares, I’ve made some changes to my diet whereby I know mainly cook at home and only eat out occasionally and have joined a gym to get exercise indoors. I walk around with a facemask when the PM2.5 is too high which of course, isn’t something you should have to do, but it’s fine. I now make more of an effort to take weekend trips outside the city where the air is significantly cleaner and I’ve realized that I do have lots of great friends here, who may not always understand me perfectly, but who I know will be there for me when I need them and vice versa.
I’ve had doors open to me that would never have been opened to me in the West. I’ve hung out at high-end parties frequented by Chinese celebs and I’ve been to smokey pool bars and KTV parlours observing people from more shady facets of society. I’ve sipped champagne at a gallery opening in Beijing and I’ve eaten Tibetan tsampa with my hands in rural Sichuan. I’ve been driven around in a BMW and I’ve used the services of a tuk-tuk to get from A to B. I’ve dined at 5-star restaurants and I’ve eaten smelly tofu from street vendors. This is why I love China. All these colourful memories and interesting contrasts that you just don’t experience anywhere else...All I needed was to properly reflect and stop taking it all for granted.
Tags:Expat Rants & Advice Expat Tales
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Great article, it is 100% accurate and this is coming from someone who is married to a Chinese national and lived in China for.... 7 years now. I am not an English teacher but the country can wear on you if you let it. I think the problem most people have is freedom. They are not free to communicate how they want and express themselves like they would in the West. A lot of foreigners feel alienated, even myself... but if you get the language down, the culture... etc... in time you will learn the patterns and expect them rather than dread them. In order to truly become one of them you must give up everything you are used to...
Apr 28, 2013 21:42 Report Abuse
Interesting post. This is a complicated topic and highly subject to individual preferences and desires. I'll just comment on a few things you mentioned. a) Isn't it interesting how China loses its luster fast when you "get to travel and party less"? b) I agree with eating out less, but the problem with cooking at home in China is that many times you still don't know "what" you are cooking. c) You shouldn't have to monitor PM2.5 every day to calculate how much time you should be outdoors. d) as a foreigner, and especially as a Westerner, in China, you don't, or shouldn't, just compare China with home, but also with other places in Asia. In the end, the problem is that most of the Chinese people you know, including your friends, would love to be in your position with a Western passport and being able to get into the next flight out, for good. Of course don't expect them to tell you that outright (something about "face" that you hear). But if you do some research you'll find that if a Chinese has the ways and means, he/she moves out.
Apr 24, 2013 09:25 Report Abuse
Hi Sunsetlover, Thanks for your comment. I agree with everything you said. China definitely isn't "paradise on Earth" and I wish I didn't have to worry about pollution or toxic veg when cooking. There are a lot of problems here, enough to write a book about in fact, but I guess my main point was that China also has positive aspects and that this can actually be a great country to live in if you don't let yourseld get sucked into a negative cycle and embrace the good things. Perhaps some day, especially when I have kids of my own, I'll decide to settle in Europe - I love my home in the west but I don't feel like there is a place for me there right now at this point in my life. My Chinese partner is actually not that keen on moving away to the West as he is very close to his family and has a successful business and wide social circle here. If he moved away, he would suddenly be jobless and friendless and feel completely alientated from a society and culture he knows nothing about. We talk about this a lot and the future's a great source of concern for him.
Apr 24, 2013 11:23 Report Abuse