Homebound: 10 Things Expats Miss About China When They Leave

Homebound: 10 Things Expats Miss About China When They Leave
Dec 16, 2013 By Kate Williams , eChinacities.com

My time in China has gone a little something like this - in years one and two, I loved it and couldn’t get enough of it. But in years three and four, my frustrations grew. I’ve now become jaded and sometimes just want to get out. It’s terrible, I know. I should cherish these special China moments because one day I’ll surely miss them. With this in mind I scoured the internet, interviewed friends that have left and reminded myself of experiences from my own trips home, with a view to find out what 10 things expats miss about China when they leave. By the end I realized I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to all these aspects of an expat life in China. 

1) There is just nothing quite like food in China
As unsafe and unappetizing as it might sometimes be, you’d be surprised by the foods you will manage to find a craving for when they're no longer available. Getting the wide range of Chinese food back home is almost impossible. If we find an authentic Chinese restaurant, it will likely serve up the standard fare and ignore the many local delicacies which we have come to love and hate with equal measure.

Food is central to Chinese culture and the way people socialize. Some of my favorite China memories were formed with friends in those long alleyways filled with mysterious-yet-tasty delights or in private rooms, the table groaning with dishes. We all have at least one dive restaurant located near our flats that we love though we’re not sure why. Well, it seems that when you head home you become acutely aware of why you loved it.

2) The cushy hours
I think most people will agree that the life of an expat in China is a fairly cushy one, and unsurprisingly, it is a lifestyle sorely missed after returning home to a hectic, demanding and stressful one. This is particularly true of the English teachers who earned a decent salary and worked a convenient schedule. Many now fondly look back on how easy it was to travel around Asia because of good pay and long holidays.

Source: INABA Tomoaki

3) The buzz of life
The buzz of life in China is best exampled by ‘the blood sport that is grocery shopping’ as one blogger put it. There is constant activity, sound, movement and light here. You can’t escape it, and while it may drive you mad as you head into the market on a Saturday morning to just pick up some eggs to deal with your hangover, when you return home you remember that it was very difficult to feel bored here. A fact some become very aware of as they sit in suburbia back home.

4) The conveniences
We may complain about bureaucracy and how getting things done can take forever, but it turns out that China offers up a number of day-to-day conveniences. For example, having an ayi, being able to find things at any hour of the day, and of course, the delivery services. Whether it’s McDonald’s or a beer and a pack of smokes, anything can be delivered in China. Heck even the postal carriers will come to your house to pick up the birthday card you’re sending to mom.

5) Taxi drivers
There is nothing quite like the near-death thrill ride of taking a taxi, and the interactions you’ll have with taxi drivers. Whether its memories of them guessing your nationality, not having a clue where they are going and yelling at you because of it, giving you their life story in incomprehensible Chinese, smoking up a storm with the windows closed or coming out with flawless English, the taxi drivers in China will surely hold a special place in your heart.

6) The cost of living
Despite inflating prices, most things are still relatively cheap when living on a 'foreigner’s pay' in China. I know I’ll definitely miss paying $400 a month to live in a great location, spending around $50 a month on utilities (cell phone and internet included), taking a taxi anywhere and spending less than $5, and even hiring a cross-country moving service for a mere $50 (plus $10 for the man who carries it upstairs). Then there are the dinners that can be eaten for just a dollar if you so wish and the bottles of beer that can be purchased for a fraction of that and even consumed in public without breaking the law.

7) The vast amount of cheap services and goods
Connected to the cost of living are all the other services such as haircuts, massages, facials, and so on that can be enjoyed at an unbelievably low cost in China. A lot of the blogs of expats who moved back home, said they were really missing the cheap massages. A former coworker of mine emailed to say she misses the fabric market more than anything. She was there every week getting a new tailored dress, coat, or suit made at ridiculously low prices. I still don’t know how she managed to fit them in her suitcases. Oh that’s right, she had 10 of them.

Finally, we can’t forget to mention the cheap movies, CDs, software, and electronic gadgets that people swoon over. As well as the name-brand goods that are found in the night markets and off-the-beaten-path shops at a fraction of the retail price. Yes many of them are fake, but after a life in China, one tends to embrace the fake and be proud of your ‘good’ fakes.

8) The locals
In conducting my research, I found that the charm and occasional absurdness of the locals was a common response when considering what people miss about China. The curiosity, helpfulness, and genuineness of the Chinese people is often longed-for after expats have left. As is the ruthlessness, inquisitiveness, odd behaviors, and even the stares. That’s not to mention the fighting over minuscule matters, budging in lines, and occasional disregard for the world around them. Consider for a moment your favorite street vendors or fruit and vegetable peddlers, how much will you miss them after you go? I know I’ll definitely miss all the random relationships I’ve developed with everyone from security guards to minivan drivers. And remember there is no where else in the world where you will see two old men walking backwards down the street carrying chihuahuas, having a heated argument while chain smoking, dressed in fluffy pyjamas and shower shoes.

9) The perks of being foreign
There's no doubt that life is generally easier (maybe even more interesting) for foreigners in China. We are able to experience life as a bumbling outsider--something that can be so profound and so humbling. We have fewer obligations, more special treatment, and benefit from a greater willingness of people to help you. This fairly unreasonable 'elite' status is definitely missed by many former China expats. One blogger missed the respect and even celebrity-style treatment that was awarded to him and his girlfriend simply for being foreign. Another tall, blonde foreigner missed the feeling of being unique in China and regularly being told she’s beautiful, unlike at home where she just blends in with all the rest. Then there’s the ultimate ‘Sorry-I’m in China!’ excuse that one blogger loved using to get away with social and civic laziness both in the mainland and back at home. I’ve even used it to get myself off the hook. Family trip to Dollywood? Shoot, too bad I’m stuck here in China. 

10) The language
Some expats make learning the language a priority and really miss being able to use it after they move on to other countries or head back home. Then there are the others who don’t bother to learn it at all and because of that, tend to live in a big bubble of ignorance. As one former expat puts it, spending ten minutes in front of the tabloids at the grocery store back home makes him miss the golden days of blissful illiteracy that defined his life in China. Not knowing the language means not having to overhear things you don’t want to overhear. 

So it seems things in China really aren’t that bad. All the odd and amusing absurdities might not hold much value now, but they will surely serve as a source of joy as well as longing later in life. So be sure to take them all in!

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Keywords: Things Expats Miss About China a life in China; China life; expats in China


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agree to your each word

Jun 12, 2014 02:51 Report Abuse



Man, there is a mother lode of angry people in this country. The level of woe-is-me bitterness and cynicism on this website never fails to amaze me. And it always seems to boil down to this: 1. I hate my job/my employer is a POS. 2. My God, I frequently find myself eating Chinese food in CHINA and I don't really like it! 3. Some people here are nice, but there are people here who are not nice and/or who do not seem dedicated to fawning over my greatness. 4. There are lots of people and it's polluted! In related news, The White House is not beige and most people have five fingers on each hand. Apparently I'm the only one who isn't from either Canada or Neverneverland, because where I come from, there are garbage jobs and bosses, people who are mean or who don't really care for me either way, and restaurants that I wouldn't go back to. If life is so awesome where you're from, then why are you here? You know where the airport is- stop making excuses and go whine to your Momma in your home country!

Dec 18, 2013 21:04 Report Abuse



getting my tickets :P

Dec 18, 2013 21:26 Report Abuse



I'd have to agree with JayKnox here; you're just getting defensive. True, there are lots of expats who voice lots of criticisms. But keep in mind that whenever locals ask us what we think of China, this happens: http://space.echinacities.com/239770/blog/spacenodedetail/818 and people stubbornly go on living their perfectly deluded lives. It gets frustrating, so we vent. But the critiques are valid, and people like you would do well to listen for a change.

Dec 18, 2013 22:05 Report Abuse




Dec 18, 2013 23:48 Report Abuse



I honestly wish I could take his advice, too. But the reason why I came to China was because it was taking too long for Dutch immigration to let my wife into the country. We're stuck here for a while, but at least my Chinese in-laws have agreed to sell our house by the time my baby Owen is of school age. Then he will be more than just another zombie shuffling along in Chinese conformity. He'll have a decent education, a personality, and the ability to think critically! But I might advise him to live his adult life in China; there's always profit to be reaped when proud, stubborn people persist in behaving stupidly, hehehe.

Dec 19, 2013 22:20 Report Abuse



"1) There is just nothing quite like food in China" - true enough. Once you try it, there's some stuff you'd definitely miss, but that depends on how much you want to experiment. "2) The cushy hours" Had better hours in my old job, better salary, and without being humiliated. "3) The buzz of life" Do foreigners hang around outdoors for the buzz? I usually retreat to my apartment as soon as my work shift ends. "4) The conveniences" Which are outweighed by the inconveniences, as well as difficulty to get fair treatment from greedy merchants. "5) Taxi drivers" Agreed, Chinese taxi drivers are the nicest I've encountered anywhere in the world. Recently one said "keep the change" to ME because he couldn't break a 100! I was amazed. "6) The cost of living" Definitely useful, to make the decent salary into something you can actually make savings with. "7) The vast amount of cheap services and goods" It's nice, but good luck finding what you need without a translator, though. "8) The locals" Nah. Homogenous bourgeois mediocrity interspersed with local habits and superstitions. No character present, nothing of interest said. To think they're proud of their cultural revolution is hilarious. "9) The perks of being foreign" If you thrive on attention, then maybe. Perhaps Chinese think foreigners should all be happy to be singled out, because Chinese are taught to love gratifying atention. "10) The language" NO! The Chinese character system was designed to make written language exclusive to officials working for the imperial court and inaccessible to normal people. It has defined the system by which the government, society and even education are handled, and it is completely broken. You have to be cruel to a child to force them to learn these characters - how on Earth could an adult learn it? I could have learned any other language much better than this myriad of thousands of nonsensical hieroglyphs. I wish China would switch to an alphabet (pin yin - letters correlate to sounds) instead of using this secret insider code.

Dec 18, 2013 16:59 Report Abuse



This entire topic, and all the items on the list, are debatable and depend on personal preference/experience. I enjoyed reading it, as the author seems to be a glass-half-full kind of guy, which makes a nice change to all the fairly negative stuff that I keep reading. It's easy to come up with reasons to dislike all the items mentioned above, it simply depends on how you look at things. Food, for example, largely depends on your taste (I know a lot of people don't care for Chinese food at all, as they find it too greasy/unhealthy/weird, and they won't miss it at all), in addition to which it's hard to get food that's tasty, healthy, and affordable at the same time. As far as the cushy hours are concerned, this may or may not be the case for English teachers, but it definitely isn't so for degree students (who will need to attend class during the day and resort to crap evening jobs, as most nice jobs that offer any experience that's related to your major tend to take place during times at which you're supposed to attend class), and I imagine any foreigners employed as managers or otherwise working regular (non-teaching) jobs aren't any better off than they would've been back home. The buzz of life, to me, is both a good and a bad thing. I like the fact that you can walk into a bar any evening of the week and find people there, or walk down the street and always have people around, but the reverse can also be true. It's hard to get privacy anywhere, and having to deal with people during rush hour is a right pain in the ass, as is the constant noise during the night when you're trying to sleep. The convenience part is nice, as I too like to order in when the weather's bad or I'm suffering from a hangover, but it's easy to take things too far and turn into a slob. It's easy to get used to ordering in and just spending all your time sitting in front of the TV, rather than going out for dinner and walking around a bit. Taxi drivers and locals alike can be nice/funny/interesting, but they can also act incredibly ignorant/racist/annoying. For every taxi driver I enjoyed speaking to, there has been another who bored the shit out of me by drilling up the same questions I heard a million times before. For every time someone was sincerely interested in my country or opinions, there were a dozen people who couldn't give a shit less. As far as living expenses go, I think the author has either been very fortunate, or somehow miscalculated. Internet alone can cost you 100+ kuai a month, and when you add gas/water/electricity and whatever other expenses it's easy to end up paying 500-1000 kuai, especially if you're hiring a regular ayi. 400 dollars rent will only get you a very basic, old apartment. Anything 'decent', particularly in a nice area, will probably cost you twice that. Of course you can find places for 2500-3000 kuai a month, but those places are hardly as convenient or nice as implied. Even though a lot of services, such as barbers, are more affordable than where I'm from, some are not. Gyms, for example, are more expensive in Shanghai (300 kuai or so a month is the best deal I found, on a 3-6 month contract), even though they are generally busier/noisier/filthier and less well maintained than where I'm from. In addition to this, you're expected to shell out for any help and won't get any pointers from staff unless you're willing to pay for a private trainer. You might be able to get cheaper clothes here, but I find that in the long run you actually end up spending more, simply because a lot of the clothes fall apart after a matter of weeks or end up getting shredded by your (also inferior) laundry machine. Not to mention brand clothes, which will cost you twice as much here as they would anywhere else. I think the perks of being foreign are wearing out quick. I used to run into people dying to offer me drinks/dinner so we could hang out and chat, which I very much enjoyed at the time, but rarely encounter this any more. Asides from getting offered drinks, I can't say I've really experienced any particular boons to being a foreigner (other than the "Oh sorry, I didn't know this was illegal, I'm just a foreigner" wildcard). I often get disrespected or ignored by employees, or more often just get treated the same as everyone else. There have been plenty of times where I stood around trying to order a drink for ages before getting served, simply because the waiter didn't seem to care for me. Now, I'm not expecting any special treatment, and am not complaining about the fact that some random store clerk is just as rude to me as he was to the previous customer, but to say foreigners get particularly better treatment is off by a long shot, and will most likely only be the case if the person in question expects to be able to make money off of you. Finally, language has its ups and downs. As much as I enjoy not being able to understand everything that is said around me, it's also an obvious, big disadvantage to not be able to understand what's going on most of the time. Anyway, I'm not trying to be a complete pessimist here, as I did miss a lot of things about China whenever I went back home. I'm just saying there's a lot to be said about lists like these, and how you interpret them. Overall, I don't regret having come to China but, like I said, there are a lot of bad things to balance out the good ones.

Dec 17, 2013 15:30 Report Abuse



I left china 6 weeks ago, I can say that I hate everything about china now. That list above are not point for missing china, they are points to remember why you hate china. (I was there 5 years and rule of thumb is 4 years or you are mad, I should have left after 3 when I still kind of liked china)

Dec 17, 2013 08:53 Report Abuse



Yeah... being "foreigner" is so awesome... the constant taunting, denial of apartments, denial of hotel rooms... occasional beatings. But hey, it's totally like being a celebrity. How about you go to the US, and when you see someone with a different racial appearance, call out, "Look! A foreigner!" You can ask the if all foreigners are Buddhist, or tell them you'll get them some chopsticks, since no foreigner can use a knife and fork. Don't expect them to be able to speak English either, or really handle any social situations, since they're just a dumb foreigner. See how much they love this "celebrity status".

Dec 17, 2013 06:46 Report Abuse



In America, I miss cheap beer sold by the giant bottles or the box of giant bottles. I miss 大排挡 and spicy crawdads that I watched the women cook live. Roasted sweet potatoes (who cares if they are cancerous, can't be any worse than a weekend in Beijing), sweet sausage thin sliced, "dry-wok" bull frog, "hollow heart" and "oil" greens, cold "saliva" chicken, and sweet and sour bony carp. I know some people hate the food, but for me, it's 50% of the reason to stay. But I think in the end it all comes down to why you came. If for the culture, people and different way of life you will yearn for 1-10. If you came to make money, then you probably won't miss a damn one.

Dec 16, 2013 13:45 Report Abuse



I agree to all your points, but I am really not relaxed here :-)

Dec 18, 2013 00:04 Report Abuse



exactly, that's the non-secure feel. Can't simply switch job when needed, and other pain in ass coming from the situation we are in. I loved to enjoy free time after work with friends, drinks, dance ... hell yeah. Once I married and bringing up a son , I start feel lot of difficulties and non easy going things as I was used to while back home. Like just wake up in the morning, move son to the nearest doctor around in town, have him checked within short time in a comfortable, heated room, be given proper medicaments, and good advice what to do and nos. And you know, that one week in bed with medicine is just fine and perfect. Here ? I am pushed to overcrowded "hospitals" don't let me write the horror stories, we know already. Anyway, I do not regret my time here, I enjoyed most of it, but really become more and more annoyed of all those described things, annoyed to the level, when I am scared go out of home..

Dec 18, 2013 21:19 Report Abuse



"Then there are the others who don’t bother to learn it at all and because of that, tend to live in a big bubble of ignorance." Maybe ignorance is bliss regarding knowing the language. yes, I know a few words or phrases in Chinese, but not much for living in China for 7 continuous years and never returning to the USA. Sometimes knowing the language can get you into fights like a few of my expat friends who overheard some Chinese making vulgar comments never dreaming they knew Chinese, much less local dialect. I'll probably just remain ignorant in this regard. Happy every day!

Dec 16, 2013 09:35 Report Abuse



For sure - absolutely and totally sure I will not miss number 1 to 10!

Dec 16, 2013 09:34 Report Abuse



Same here, same here

Dec 17, 2013 23:44 Report Abuse



I am one of those guys who have been here 6 full years (go back to Canada every summer). This is a great article. Helps to remind me that not all is bad in China. With so many people you will find both bad and good multiplied by 40 times what it is in Canada.

Dec 16, 2013 06:10 Report Abuse



Nice article, I would agree with quite a few of these if I left China, I would miss them. Sometimes they drive me crazy but in another way I have grown to love and accept them.

Dec 16, 2013 01:58 Report Abuse



^Stockholm syndrome. I thank God I left.

Dec 16, 2013 05:21 Report Abuse