Each and every expat has to face the demons of living abroad. Some can handle it, most can’t. Expat life is difficult no matter where you live but China presents a specific set of problems. The majority of expats are broken by China in the first three years. Different things break different people but most of us China expats face the same demons in our daily lives. Let’s take a look at what sends many of us home crying to our motherland.
The 7 Demons of the China Expat
1) Pollution – The end-of-days feel to winters in Suzhou are hard to deal with. Really, really hard to deal with. If that’s not enough, they’ve been getting worse every year since I started coming to China in 2006. If anything is going to break me, it will be the pollution. Gray, energy draining, shower inducing nastiness relentlessly assaulting us day after day after day. Good thing I’m from Detroit and am used to looking on scenes of utter depression everyday. I’ve traded the apocalypse of the man-made world for the apocalypse of the sky.
2) Loneliness – “Ronery, I’m so ronery….” Team America’s Kim Jung Il nailed it. Expat life is a lonely existence. Far away from friends and loved ones, you don’t really know isolation until you live on the other side of the planet. If you’re an expat, this needs no further explanation. If you’re not an expat, you can’t really understand what I’m talking about.
For expats living in the countryside, this loneliness is the number one killer of sanity and breaker of spirits. Every expat I’ve met who’s lived in the countryside for a while reminds me of someone who is recovering from a tragic loss. There is a sense of damage or a life altering event in their expressions and words. At least us city folks have access to Western style places and goods to help us stay sane in during our darker days. Those countryside folks are lucky to get regular flavored Lay’s potato chips. The countryside is truly a full cultural immersion/isolation situation that breaks a VAST majority of people who experience it.
3) You are still you – I meet a lot of expats who come to China to escape something in their lives. Could be drama, family, money, lovers, job troubles – whatever. The problem is that you don’t stop being you unless you put in a lot of effort in the process of change. Simply moving will help for six months or a year but doesn’t cut it in the end. That’s true in Europe, America or China. Many expats seek refuge abroad only to find that the same problems seem to follow them across the oceans. Why? They haven’t changed their self-damaging ways and their problems start all over again. Drama finds drama in any culture and, when the chickens come home to roost yet again, your expat friend is going to hit the road hoping to outrun their problems one more time….
4) The food – Chinese food is tough on an expat’s stomach. My GI track does not work in the normal and healthy way that it used to back in the states. Yes, I have more energy and feel better in general but I did sacrifice predictability in the bathroom to get it.
For me, it’s not really the health aspect. I actually like Chinese food (excluding Jiangnan food – so why do I live in Suzhou again?) but something weird happens if I eat too much Chinese food for too long. The problem is that I can never be satisfied. I feel a kind of emptiness inside of me coupled with a low level anger pulsing through my body. If I could name it, I would say that my appetite is dissatisfied. It’s damn annoying.
I know I’m not alone on this one. Either you’ve got to cook it up at home (with varying degrees of success due to ingredients and cooking limitations) or you’ve got to go drop an unreasonable amount of money at an over priced and disappointing expat restaurant to get any relief. I can’t imagine how hard China would be on an expat who can’t cook. That’s why I provide recipes on this blog.
5) Outsider status - One annoying thing about China is that you will always be laowai – an outsider/foreigner. You could master the Chinese language, understand the culture as well as a native, marry into a Chinese family, learn to act, dress and behave like a Chinese person – you will still be a laowai.
Unlike the West, particularly America and Canada, you can never immigrate into this culture. The idea of that barrier is depressing to people like me who are here for the long haul. Forever and always….not Chinese. You will never be accepted on a real level. When push comes to shove – you are a yangguizi (a foreign devil) – always have been, always will be.
6) Money - Most expats run into money problems at one time or another. I know I did when I first arrived. It’s easy to make money in China but it takes awhile to figure out how the game is played in this country. Not only that but it also takes time to know how to save money in this country. My only advice to expats who want to stay in this country for the long term is simple: Save at least 6 months of living expenses plus money an emergency plane ticket home. I’ve got that covered now and it makes the ups and downs of working in China a lot easier to deal with. Plus, a 5.6% return on your savings account if you stick your emergency cash in a short term CD. Booyah!
7) The grind - When you first arrive in China, everything is shiny and new. It’s “Oh I love this X, Y and Z” and “Why can’t these people drive – ahhh!” all day long. Slowly the glitz and glamour of your expat life starts to fade. The reality of the place sets in and the day to day grind of working for a living or actually having to be a student kicks in. Just like anywhere else, life can be come a grind if you’re not careful.
Some people like me seem to be made for China. Most expats are not. When the grind sets in, every little annoying thing about China is amplified by your bitching (see anything I say about the pollution here – even though it’s all correct). You can fall into the ‘this place sucks’ spiral and then your days are numbered. I’ve seen this happen to many an expat. They board a plane and they’re never, ever coming back to the Middle Kingdom. Unless, of course, they soon remember that home is no less annoying.