There’s something curious, yet undeniable, about life as an expat, and that is the fact that the longer you stay away from home, wherever home may be, the harder it becomes to ever go back. What started off as a year long adventure, a break from the “real world” can quickly morph into a longer hiatus from life, and “just one more year” soon becomes five, and before you know it you’re one of those people, the old China hands, the ones sitting at the bar talking about how it was “when I first got here” and reminiscing about the good old days back when the residence permit wasn’t stuck in your passport, when there was no cheese unless you count rubing, and Starbucks had not yet arrived on Mainland soil. What’s more, you’re effectively stuck in China with no viable exit plan. While being a China lifer might be fine for some people (and you probably know who you are), if you plan on repatriating at some point it is best not to put your return off for too long.
Photo: Ray Montgomery
Careerwise, a year or two off while doing something like volunteering, working as a teacher, or even traveling the world can always be justified if you know the right way of presenting it. If you stay in China beyond two years, however, you need to start thinking about your resume and how you can pad it with activities that will show potential employers back home that you aren’t just here on an extended vacation. If you’re an English teacher this might be the time to think about getting out of teaching and trying something new. If you haven’t got the skills necessary to land a non-teaching job in China, then work on building them, starting with your Chinese language skills. Even teaching can be fine, but once you start approaching the three year mark, you should be thinking about what sort of certifications and qualifications you can get to make teaching a viable career option even after you return home. Unfortunately, a long gap on your resume can spell career death in many industries, especially highly competitive ones which are dependent on technology and new talent. While it is possible to spin a stay in China in a positive light, be aware that even this has its limits. Stay in China beyond three years and expect to face serious questions from prospective employers about what you were doing over here that was so worth your while. Stay longer than five and don’t be surprised if you’re pretty much starting all over again, with any pre-China experience being overshadowed by the sheer length of time you spent out of your industry.
However, even if you’re not worried about your career, there’s another good reason why you might want to think about whether or not you’ve stayed in China for too long, and that’s simply your ability to ever again accept life back home and fully fit in. Many long term expats slide into depression upon returning home and find themselves longing for the life they left behind. While a short stint in China can easily start to feel like a dream, and it can be easy to get back into the swing of things once you get over the reverse culture shock, it is not so easy to go home again once you’ve been here for many years. Not only will your home no longer be the place you left, people will have changed as well. Your friends will have moved on, and even if they are still physically living in the same places, rekindling old friendships may not be so easy. The landscape of home will have changed and you may return to changes that you find hard to accept. You might return to a new political party in power, a new highway where your favorite Mexican place used to be, and to a bunch of punks hanging out at your favorite bar. Once you’ve been away too long you might return only to find that, ironically, you’re actually more comfortable in the foreign country you just left. You’ll miss your favorite China haunts, long for the friends back in China who really “get” you, maybe even pine for the guy (or girl) who you thought was just a fling. This scenario becomes more and more likely the longer you stay in China, or anywhere for that matter. If you don’t want to get too attached then you need to consider how well you’d cope with re-entry and try and return before it becomes too difficult emotionally and psychologically.
So what if you’ve been in China past the point of no return, but still plan to go back “some day”? When should you just give in and cast your lot in with China, for at least the foreseeable future, and stop worrying about whether or not repatriation will ever be a possibility? If you find yourself approaching your 10th China anniversary and you’re still not ready to leave, well then you really might never be. Perhaps China is the place for you; you’re a “lifer”. The sooner you decide to make China your home the sooner you can start making plans to make sticking around a realistic possibility. You can buy an apartment in China, become fluent in the local language, and even start a family here once you’ve made that mental leap. Much like with relationships, no one can tell you at exactly what point you should either leave or commit to China, put the proverbial ring on her finger and settle down. However, China can be an enchanting place, and it is easy to get caught up in life here and forget that at some point the party will end and the adventure will become life. Too many expats in China are surprised when time creeps up on them and all of a sudden a year becomes five, five becomes ten, and suddenly going back is no longer as simple as booking a plane ticket. While it is fine to get swept away by China for awhile, keep the big picture in mind and don’t pass the point of no return unless you’re doing it on purpose
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Keywords: does staying in china too long hurt career can you stay abroad too long when to leave in china how many years to stay in china How long in china is too long
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I've been teaching in China for three years in total. Luckily, teaching is my field back home as well. I say "home", but Europe seems more like a holiday destination now. Recently I got some new courses (no Oral English anymore) from my Chinese employer and am thinking of getting another degree from a Chinese uni. This may take several more years and although it would probably increase my chances of landing a good teaching job back in Europe, I don't know if I will want to leave then, considering how tough it has been for me to go back "home" even this summer. Frankly, I can't wait to go back to China in two weeks' time. I guess I have already passed the point of no return - for better or worse.
Aug 17, 2011 12:17 Report Abuse
I think It's ok to find a new home on earth and China is a good one. I remember moving from Washington DC to the desert in Phoenix. Thought I would stay a few years and go back home. 15 years later, its home and no where feels like home except here...and...China....just may be my final home someday. I'm applying for work in China and if I'm approved and get the job, I may never come back to the USA.
Jun 12, 2010 20:00 Report Abuse
The article suggests that most foreigners have a superficial interest in China, they are just here for some temporary, selfish reasons. To use the same analogy as the author, if I found that a girlfriend had this same attitude towards me, I would be turned off. It sounds like an unhealthy relationship.
Jun 12, 2010 15:47 Report Abuse
thanks for the article,i m in the same situation right now,my coming here was to stay ,for a while,but now it is over 8 years i m confused if to go back or to stay .staying here ,there is a lot of uncertainties,going back home will take time to adapt to the changes,i really need a bold and strong mind to make a decision about this.
Jun 12, 2010 21:10 Report Abuse
Hi there people. I don't agree with anyone, I see traveling as exploring new venues, and meeting new people, making new friends and connections. Where ever I go is my home, remember that this is our planet, not China's not UK's nor Canada's its all ours to take care of it to visit our neighbors and enjoy each experience that comes by. My home is where I crash, I've been here 2 yrs and have no plans further then 24 hrs ahead. Stop worrying about tomorrow it may never come life is short do the right think always and respect each place you visit for nomatter how long you live there and ride the wave of life, be self sufficient as much as possible and worry about tomorrow when it comes one day brings enough for one person to handle at a time. Peace to you all citizens of the planet earth. China your beautiful and thank you for welcoming me into your turf.
Jun 14, 2010 07:09 Report Abuse
Nothing wrong to hold on ur own blieve and values. Thounds of more Chinese overseas are experiencing the same, to come back or to stay..people change their minds. We should call ourselves " international people", in my opinoin, once u lived in a country that is so different from ur own for more that 4 years, u defenitely inriched ur life than the fellows back home. And u will try to understand it is not only one kinda of culture on this planet, try to respect others and seek the commen aspects.
Jun 13, 2010 21:41 Report Abuse
Yes I agree, another good article. I have been in China 6 years now, and every time I go home there is less for me. I come from the UK, from a small town, and it just seems to get more depressed each time I go back. I also hate the Chav culture. Admitedly, China is not for everybody.
Jun 13, 2010 01:41 Report Abuse
I don't understand the point of this article. You are implying that all foreigners living in China are doing teaching jobs and are here on a temporary basis. I've been here for 3 years now. I work in the same field I did back home (IT) - never even considered teaching. China is my home because this is where I live right now. I might move to some other place, but that doesn't have anything to do with how long I've been in China. I stopped thinking about Europe as home 1 year after I left. The world is big, why limit ourselves to the place we were born in?
Jun 19, 2010 20:06 Report Abuse
But you're a positive and intelligent person, whereas the point of the majority of the articles on this site is to complain about the rut that one has no interest in getting oneself out of and all the silly doom-and-gloom outcomes that will inevitably happen to an individual regardless of what choices one makes in life.
Dec 18, 2013 21:20 Report Abuse
Living out of our home countries is most often pleasant upto and beyond 10 years, but it does take a special breed to fully mould oneself into a society that is always going to be foreign. The article makes good to highlight the unforeseen difficulties when one is suddenly faced with the option to stay or go. A Chinese proverb says "even the leaf of a tree one thousand feet tall will fall to its roots".
Jun 25, 2010 08:38 Report Abuse
@ibz You're right not everyone here is teaching. But, since there is no green card or long term visa, we're all here temporarily. Just from observation, very people stay here for long hauls. Some expats stay for up to ten years but, because of jobs or kids or family, most do end up leaving.
Jun 20, 2010 01:35 Report Abuse