Coming to China seemed like a no-brainer. In spring 2010, after four years of comfortable shelter at a small private liberal arts college, I wasn't mentally prepared to enter the economic storm that was and still is the post-recession job market. So as an affordable extension of my "Global Studies" major, I came for a semester of Chinese and stayed for two. Then part-timing as an English tutor became a full-time gig. After a two-month summer break, I came back last fall excited to have narrowly escaped a gruelling stateside job hunt.
I'm not alone—the Middle Kingdom has become a shining beacon of hope for students and recent grads looking for that "I speak mandarin" edge, as well as discouraged individuals looking east for a brighter horizon beyond this tedious and often hopeless "jobless recovery."
If that was you before you came to China, maybe you can relate: I call what I've recently been recovering from "GAGS"—Grass is Always Greener Syndrome. It's characterised by disproportionately high-grade homesickness, low-grade anxiety about future prospects after China and an accompanying sense of slowly getting "stuck here." Symptoms include Craigslist perusal, China bashing, China loving, more China bashing, expat intolerance and Facebook Friends Dismorphic Disorder (the feeling that Facebook friends are all having good times, enjoying their burgeoning "real" careers and leading more meaningful and productive lives than you).
The million dollar question at the moment is, "Why am I here?" Now that I've settled in, it seems even more obvious that teaching English is not my career. A lot of days I feel like I'd be better off back home. I start thinking about the opportunity costs of staying here and asking myself questions like, "Am I screwing myself over by living here, missing opportunities that I couldn't possibly know about unless I was home? Do I have an expiration date? Is China my metaphorical professional quicksand? Will I become an "old China hand" if I don't get out soon?"
On (not) coping
Such questions are admittedly overwrought. I am here because I choose to be here and I can just as well choose to leave. I have that agency. If I felt like I was loosing it, I'd be gone in a heartbeat. Sure, I'd have to face a daunting job hunt but I can't deny that I have choices.
The problem is learning how to cope — no small task since homesickness and anxiety are fuelled by being here and simply being here is the x-factor that makes finding good coping mechanisms more difficult. It's been said before, but expat bitch sessions are not a helpful coping mechanism. Going off on random people due to one too many "cultural differences" — also not a useful coping mechanism. As for drowning one's sorrows with cheap beer and baijiu, it should go without saying that self medication is probably not the way to go.
I'd feel insincere if I didn't admit it — venting and isolating myself from China sometimes feels good. As far as I'm concerned, the things that enrage me about Chinese society are mostly inexcusable. I sometimes like to console myself in my knowledge that I am in the right when I feel something is downright wrong. I am human. Furthermore, I refuse to be an apologist. But here's a caveat: being negative isn't necessary.
The burden of negativity
If not emotionally, at least cerebrally I recognise that things wouldn't be magically better back home. I'd be a foolish romantic if I thought that was the case for at least two reasons. One, I'm here because things aren't 100 percent rosy back home. Lastly, as a member of the American society I bear part of the burden of responsibility for my own culture's shortcomings. I know from experience that when I go home the novelty of clean air and home cooking will fade but those facts will remain.
That doesn't mean that I'm going to flog myself for failing to forgive China while dreamily thinking of America from the polluted city I call home-for-now. To some degree, that tendency is inescapable. We are, all of us, guilty of regarding the problems of other societies more critically than our own. But while self-flagellating is unnecessary and unhelpful, we should make a concerted effort to approach this society without the burden of negativity.
There are things we can and cannot change about China, either because we don't have the right or we don't have the control. But in terms of the experience of living here, we have 100% control. In light of this agency, the choice that we make every single day that we don't book the next flight out of China, we'd be downright wasting our time if we didn't let go and make an effort to have a good experience.
"Easier said than done," you say. But that's the crux of GAGS—the negativity. Dwelling on China's shortcomings is a symptom and so is the aforementioned fear of missing out or getting stuck only to one day return home and become a misplaced "old China hand," like some sort of contemporary Rip van Winkle. This dwelling and fear are both anchored by grains of truth (yes, pollution sucks; yes, you will miss out on changes back home and you yourself will come back powerfully changed) but they are also massively inflated by a harmful sort of negativity. Positivity, on the other hand, can be a powerful antidote.
If you're a person who sees the word "positivity" and instinctively recoils, consider this: positivity doesn't have to be unrealistic. Embrace doesn't have to be apologism. And both positivity and embrace can be great coping mechanisms. Like self-affirmation, it is an exercise of will. With regard to our experiences in China, I'll call it China-affirmation.
Psychologists recognise that affirmative thinking can be a powerful first step toward satisfaction with the self. Being able to honestly look at ourselves and actively find reasons to like what we see is a skill, and as mental health professionals will confirm, it doesn't have to translate into arrogance or denial. All it takes is a little bit of positivity. With regard to our experiences in China, this is instructive.
China-affirmation means taking stock of China and our experiences here and doing much the same thing. Where self-affirmation means refusing to feel "stuck" with who you are, China-affirmation means refusing to feel "stuck" on the grey side of the pasture. It means embracing my agency and doing what I need to do so that at the end of each day, I can honestly and positively answer the question "Do I know why I'm still here?"
Why am I still here?
I'm still here because I like wrestling with the tangle of social and political contradictions in both Chinese and American society that I've become attuned to while living here. I'm still here because I like the flavour of Chinese optimism. I'm still here because I want to learn more Chinese. I'm still here because trying to understand if and to what degree the distinction between "Chinese" and "American" is useful still challenges and thrills me.
When I soberly weigh the costs and benefits of being home versus staying in China another day, I find that I affirm my decision to embrace my life in China. The day I find that the scales tip the balance toward returning home, I will leave. Until then, I am committed to taking control of my experience and enjoying China free of the baggage that negativity tends to encumber expats with, either in the form of anxiety, homesickness, or derision toward Chinese society/culture/politics/people.
When I do go home, I know one thing: coping with GAGS has been just as valuable an experience as the China-disasters and painfully awkward interactions that will someday make good stories. In a deeper way than saying to myself, "I knew I'd laugh about this one day," I now have a tool to combat the inevitable glance-over-the-shoulder. And when I'm home and I begin to think "Gee, the grass sure does look greener from China" I will know it's only the burden of negativity that can stop me from enjoying my life at home and abroad.
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Keywords: negativity in China expat life in China living happy in China Chinese experience for foreigners staying positive in China
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