China Expat Stereotypes: What Do People Back Home Think of You?

China Expat Stereotypes: What Do People Back Home Think of You?
Jul 18, 2016 By Kate Williams ,

My family hated my decision to move to China. I mean they really hated it. In their minds, it was the most ridiculous, off-the-wall, absurd thing someone would ever want to do. There were select family members and friends who felt—and maybe still feel—that my moving to China was irresponsible and that I’m living a directionless life here. I found myself falling victim to some of the many expat stereotypes that exist and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Even after moving here I still had to beg, plead, and bargain with my parents until, three years later, I finally have them convinced. As we all know, moving abroad means leaving behind family and friends. It’s not an easy move to make and oftentimes isn’t well received by the ones we are leaving. Many people show disapproval due to the sheer fact that they will miss you. They love you and can’t imagine living life with you on another part of the planet. Of course, everyone moves to China for different reasons and faces different reactions from friends and family about their decision, but here are some labels I’ve encountered either personally or vicariously through friends and acquaintances. What expat stereotypes have you been victim of?


Living a “hippie” lifestyle

While not all expats fall into this category, enough do find themselves victims of such a stereotype (I certainly did): the 20-something who comes to China to teach English 20 hours a week, earns a decent wage, and fills the void with parties and trips around Asia. Some of these expats suffer from the so-called “ three year syndrome”, coined by Christ Marshall of The Telegraph, wherein they get bored after three years in a country, pack up, and head to the next destination. Meanwhile, their parents are back home cringing at the thought of their son or daughter living such a “hippie” lifestyle.

How will they ever explain this to your classmates’ parents when they run into them around town? And by classmates, they mean the ones who are successfully enrolled in medical school, just got engaged, and are soon-to-be homeowners! Otherwise known as the lifestyle someone at your age should be living—at least in their minds. My mother used to be so considerate that she would even send me newspaper clippings of my classmates’ wedding or baby announcements. Thankfully, she snapped out of that phase and my family finally came to realize that being here doesn’t automatically make me a slacker. They appreciate my timeline and understand that I too, will have all of those things. No hurry necessary.

Does living abroad make us “stuck up”?

You live in China and go home for the occasional visit. Have you noticed that your interactions with people are a bit different? Personally speaking, I know that living in China has definitely changed some aspects of my identity, but at times I worry that it’s also distanced me from these people who were once my good friends or close family members. Back home, I’d often catch myself telling one of my weird China stories, only to realize mid-story that people either didn’t care or didn’t really see the humor in it. Like I’d unwillingly become more difficult to relate to, just by virtue of living in China. Oftentimes, they simply had no basis to share in or understand the experiences I was trying to convey. Yet, whether intentional or not, such situations can easily lead to uneasy feelings that your friends and family think that you’ve become “stuck up” about your international lifestyle. Have we become snobbish? I don’t think so. I feel that we’ve simply taken different paths in life and perhaps have less in common with some people than we once had, which isn’t necessarily a product of living in China.

At the end of the day, many of us are taking the unbeaten path and for that we should be proud. Everyone comes from a different walk of life, but not many people I know back home can say they’ve lived in China, can speak Chinese, or have eaten <insert weird food here>. But don’t mistake my interest in China for a dislike of my own country. Living in China has made me even more proud of where I come from. But this isn’t the case for everyone—the snobbish attitude does unfortunately exist. I’ve met some people who just love to bash their homeland. Those are your roots, dude!

Catching the notorious “yellow fever”

And finally, there are those of us who not only love living in China, but have also managed to fall in love while living in China. If you’re one of them, then good for you! But these days, for many people back home, the decision to move to China carries with it the connotation that you too have caught the “yellow fever”, and that it's especially ubiquitous among male China expats. Granted, the cache of media reports about wealthy foreign men in Asia on business with Asian trophy wives isn’t helping things. Perhaps this is all beside the point. After all, we're all human; why can’t two people just be happy together?

Jests of contracting “yellow fever” are less often directed at the female proportion of the China expat community. And while one is much more likely to see a foreign guy-Chinese-girl couple on the street than vice-versa, foreign women dating Chinese men most certainly does occur; take me for example. Since I’m a foreign woman in such a relationship, I face an entirely different stereotype about Chinese men, which needn’t be mentioned here in graphic detail. Initially, owing to this stereotype or not, my family and friends didn’t consider my relationship to be anything worth considering. It was unimaginable to them; and the distance factor—both geographically and culturally—made it unrealistic. But time and stability have helped change their minds, and now my parents WeChat with my boyfriend more than they do with me. So it has worked out. And in case you’re wondering, no, the aforementioned stereotype about Asian men isn’t always true.


The more time that passes, the more my family and friends have let go of these stereotypes about my expat life in China, and have come to respect (and sometimes even envy) my decision to live here. I’ve found that a lot of the harsh feelings and negative reactions stemmed from the fact that my family and friends didn’t really know that much about China. I think they pictured me over here living in a tent with no running water and riding a water buffalo around town. But what’s more noteworthy than their general misunderstanding is that they were simply showing their love and concern. They knew that they would greatly miss me, but they weren’t sure how to really address the issue other than through disapproval. But once my family and I identified and discussed the problem, we came to understand one another and reach an agreement, my gaining their support, labels aside.

Although it’s still not entirely easy for them (or for me), they can now see my true happiness and appreciate the experiences I’m allowing myself. In fact, it’s actually turned out to be an eye-opening experience for them as well. If you would have asked my parents 20 years ago, I bet they would have never guessed that they’d be in their mid-50s, traveling around China, hiking the Great Wall, and eating pork gristle. In fact, my mom was at home the other day listening to Chinese music and telling me how much she missed China. Oh how the tables have turned!


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Keywords: China expat stereotypes


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Jan 12, 2017 23:14 Report Abuse



Tasteless article, if I may say so. I mean really... Bringing up the subject of Asian men's private parts is hardly relevant here. Which brings me to my next point. Do you get paid to write this? Were you told that you are an 'authority figure on stereotyping with a very unique outlook?' or did you think that penning this 'article' would finally make people go: 'Oh, right! Why have I never thought of that!?' Please, 'Katie Burkhardt'. Anybody who lives in this country long enough will NOT give a flying continental fuck about what people back home think. I suggest you stick to dating advice. No, maybe you can start a column about debunking the myths of penis size in the Far East. Happy Hunting!

Jul 21, 2016 11:45 Report Abuse



That picture is crazy.

Jul 18, 2016 17:19 Report Abuse



a lot of "folks back home" are, unfortunately, stereotypically self absorbed, shallow, and blissfully ignorant

Apr 06, 2015 08:41 Report Abuse



I wish my mom showed as much consideration as yours. When I payed for her plane ticket here to see her grandson, she acted like royalty expecting to be waited on. When I explained that we're caring for a newborn baby, and she was brought here for Owen, she reacted like we had betrayed her trust and trapped her in a foreign country. She showed disdain to my wife and in-laws, and to this day has contributed nothing but cheap trinkets and extra expenses. She gave Dutch a bad name, and thanks to her, living in Holland is off the table for my wife. Now I need to figure out how to land a job in Britain by the time my son is 5, because all my professional qualifications are only valid for Holland...

Nov 27, 2013 15:46 Report Abuse



When I of think of English teachers in China I think people who are content doing as little as possible in life, who are waiting until they inherit their families money ^__^ And like drinking a lot. Am I wrong?

Feb 18, 2013 21:21 Report Abuse



When I think of you, I think of a very narrow minded person, is that true???? Some teachers are highly trained and educated whose sole purpose is to educate others. Yes, some do like to take a year or two and party like a rock star, whilst trying to discover who they are while they are young. But is that such a bad thing. Or are you regretful. I came to China after being made redundant from the financial sector. My life as a trader had ended. And I couldn't be happier now. The money is a joke now, but I have true friends, not ones who spend hours fighting over who thinks who is better. Yes I am teaching, but I am providing an education to others like no other. Teaching the tricks and the trades of my old profession without looking back. Take a look in the mirrow Guest2099220. Is your job meaning less to others, are you lazy at work, every called in sick or not bothered to call in, or even done the bare minimium. Or is it teachers get paid more than you for what you think is less work.

Feb 20, 2013 15:30 Report Abuse



Do you work at training center?

Feb 21, 2013 22:18 Report Abuse



I do. I studied Evolutionary Biology, with a minor in English language. I can and do tutor older children and adults 1-on-1, but the majority of what the training centre needs me for, is to do entertaining performances to 3-8 year old spoiled rich kids. Is it my fault that the system works this way? Hollow and pointless, but it pays the bills. Anyway, rest assured that insulting value judgements like yours are the least of the humiliations I have to bear. As for my background: Poor family, ex-wife took my savings, scraping by on teacher's salary to take care of my 8 month old son. If I ever do go out to have a beer with another foreigner I met, then my wife does a much better job of making me feel bad about it. I'm sure you can tailor a more fitting value judgement about my kind of people now. Happy to help - because you do need help polishing your singleminded, rigid world views. I hope you can learn to keep your mouth shut until you actually know what you're talking about, by which time you might be less of a jackass. Or do you see 'spouting hurtful value judgements at those less fortunate than you' as a useful skill you picked up here in China?

Nov 27, 2013 15:57 Report Abuse



Yeah, I'm a trustfund kid who doesn't need to worry about anything in life since I will inherit several dozen millions plus twenty-ish flats in Europe soon enough. Sounds like you are jealous on your 4k salary, are you?

Jul 18, 2016 15:29 Report Abuse



Yup, that pretty much sums it up

Jul 22, 2016 12:40 Report Abuse



It's more likely people come here to make money to build a future and leave.

Jul 30, 2016 09:21 Report Abuse



You live more than 5 years away from home, you are a HOMELESS ! That's what a British told me ONCE and that's very true for me. I have been away for 22 years now. I traveled 32 countries and lived and worked in 12 of them. I have a big luggage, my cloths, and 2 smalls ones,one is for my laptop and documents, another for umbrella, drinks, .... i got used to losing connections with old friends. I don't have any fix long life friends whom I can share and redigest my/our experiences, and believe me, I don't feel the least need for that. All I need are new short term friends and new unique experiences. More to that, I don't have any savings and if I do it's used to move to a new place, somewhere I haven't been before. When I know enough of a city and it's people then it starts getting boring and the time to move to a new place. I am constantly learning. I have tried a few times to settle down somewhere, you guess. Yes, I'm chasing life, and when it slows down, it gets scary. What I am trying to say is that there is a point of no return in the path you are walking. You pass that point, then you know what I mean by "scary". This planet is damn too small. Cities are all the same, cars, buildings, peoples rushing to work, ... The only drive is the games with the new apes out of the 7 billion.

Feb 12, 2013 17:48 Report Abuse



You sound a little jaded and unexcited about things. 32 countries, worked in 12, travelled for 22 years! You should be writing a book about your experiences. Maybe you are suffering from travel overload. I doubt you will ever settle down. Not sure whether to worry about you or envy you!

Feb 13, 2013 07:11 Report Abuse



A neighbour's garden is always more tempting than your own. Until you know it, too. :-) You become homeless when you find out, you're not happy in your home country. The more you travel, the less illusions, the more things are alike. Thank you for sharing - you're not alone in this respect!

Feb 15, 2013 01:25 Report Abuse



thanks for sharing your unique life, i agree with your statement about "when i know enough of a city and it's people then it starts getting boring and the time to move to a new place, I'm constantly learning" that's what im trying to do with my life as well, i have been abroad for 4 years now, and i dont really want to go back home and live the way i used to, i want to live your kind of life...thanks for the inspiration.

Oct 14, 2013 12:19 Report Abuse



after travalling the world, you become snobbish more or less.

Feb 12, 2013 09:55 Report Abuse



It's not so much you're snobbish, you just have better opinions. I try to NOT express myself too much when we're talking about places other people haven't been to avoid being snobby. :D

Feb 12, 2013 10:47 Report Abuse



haha, very true. I fail at this whenever people start talking about stereotypes that aren't true. i also try to stick to this line of advice though.

Feb 15, 2013 01:29 Report Abuse



I'd like to know how ex pats , especially older ones deal with a lack of language, especially older ones[?]

Feb 12, 2013 09:25 Report Abuse



Find some good chinese freinds, a few others with at least a smattering of the language, sign language, a pointy finger and finally investigating taking some lessons!

Feb 13, 2013 08:10 Report Abuse



oh and google translate!

Feb 13, 2013 08:10 Report Abuse



Most people at home were amazed at what I was doing so late in life. My contact with family is a little ragged and I have yet to see what happens when I return home, something I haven't done yet. Good article. I'll be prepared...maybe.

Feb 12, 2013 08:09 Report Abuse



Lol. my folks reaction pretty much the same, nor have i returned yet. Would be good to keep up with how it goes for u!

Feb 13, 2013 08:07 Report Abuse



It will be 18 months before I return making it 3.5 years since I left Australia. I return in July 2014. Scary. Yes keep in touch.

Feb 13, 2013 10:45 Report Abuse