My friend A. has had enough. He’s done. A. is going home and putting China in his rear view.
When you’re a long term China expat, this kind of thing happens all the time. You’ve already watched your original China social network crumble. Tears were shed, last night in China binges were thrown, promises to see each other again were made. Many of your subsequent friendships have fallen by the wayside too and you become all too wary of making closer bonds as they will likely fall apart within a year or two. Most people go back home or bounce off to other foreign locations. Dealing with that reality is just part of the long term expat experience.
If you’re hoping to have a successful expat life, there are some simple things you should do or shouldn’t do that can have a profound impact on your experience in China. My poor friend A broke many of those rules and his initial fascination with China morphed into a deep hated of the culture and his life experience here. Had he made a few tweeks to his lifestyle, things might have turned out differently.
Some Do’s and Don’ts for Expat Life in China:
Don’t live at your job – Spend the money and get your own place. Get a side job if you need extra money to pay for it. Poor A. lived at his job. It’s a terrible mistake that will slowly beat you down. Most job provided housing will be substandard. Not only that, but everyday, all the time, you will be at work. Look out your window, work. Go out for dinner, work. Who wants that? Add to that any personal problems you may have with a troublesome boyfriend or girlfriend and that shit is happening at your job instead of in your home where it belongs. Coming home drunk to your place of employment is never a good thing either…
Do pick a nice neighborhood to live in – This is a critical part of life. Have the China experience you want. Want a plush, Western friendly existence? SIP is where you will want to live. Want to feel real Chinese life? Move into a Gusu neighborhood or live in the countryside. Maybe the Beijing Hutong lifestyle is what you really need. Plan ahead and get what you want.
Don’t only hang out with foreigners – Making friends with the locals will dramatically change your China experience. It opens up whole new avenues for your Chinese life and you’ll have native friends around when you need help. Just be wary of those assholes who only want to hang out with you to practice their English. After a few months, you’ll be able to spot them with ease.
Do remember the reason you moved abroad – Why did you make the jump? Money, adventure, to learn the language, to meet someone special? We all have our reasons but the most important thing is to remember why you came here and focus your energy on keeping that as part of your life, no matter the cost. If you came here for money, work your ass off while you’re still filled with piss and vinegar. If you came for adventure, plan trip after trip and keep hitting the road. Wanted to learn the language? Go to class, get out there and do it.
Don’t spend your life in the bar – Drinking and enjoying the scene can be an important part of life. Do it if that’s your thing. Just don’t make it your everything. Thailand would be a cheaper and better destination if you’re looking for happiness at the bottom of a bottle.
Do learn the language – Yeah, Chinese is a bitch of a language to learn but it’s hugely important to life here. After a year and change, A. can barely string together a complete sentence in Chinese. That’s a major handicap and will limit your experience range to pricey, Western activities. China is a very, very different place when you can talk to people. Chinese people are also very different when you can engage them in Chinese. Many of my favorite people I see in my daily life can’t speak a word of English beyond “Hallo” – and my Chinese is not even that good.
Don’t take problems personally – This place can make you really angry if you let it. A friend of mine is fond of saying that the three things missing in China are logic, common sense and reason. It really feels that way sometimes. Just remember, it’s not personal.
Do have a sense of humor – Speaking of getting angry, some horrific things are going to happen to you from time to time. Being able to laugh at your own misery and the absurdity of it all will go a long way to your happiness. Just remember that it will make for a great story sometime in the distant future. How else can you survive sacrificing a pair of underwear to the toilet gods because you forgot to bring toilet paper with you or deal with missing the last train out of Shanghai and needing to black cab it back to Suzhou to make work the next day? Remember to laugh.
Don’t think that the standards of the West apply here – This is not the West. You are not at home. You came here with your own free will. Don’t expect things to be like home – they will not be. Yes, it pisses you off. Yes, it can be personally insulting. Yes, it will make you homesick. You are in China. Accept things are different or leave – for your own sake. Try putting the shoe on the other foot. I’m an American and if a French person was working at my American job and asked for things to be more French (like demanding less work hours, specific codes of professional behavior or more than two weeks of vacation), they would be laughed out of the room or be fired. Americans, Europeans and most other Westerners don’t give a shit about how things were where you came from and neither do most Chinese people – even though the market dictates that they need to make some concession to keep us marginally happy.
Do make the time to take care of your needs – We all have needs. Make the effort and take the time to do whatever it is that floats your boat. You must find joy in life or you’ll go to the dark places of your mind quickly. I wake up at 3:30am to listen to college football games on the internet because, no matter how stupid it may be, it’s important to me and I enjoy it (and fuck you Buckeye fans, you know you were short and the refs gave you that game.)
Don’t be a cultural imperialist – Most foreigners have no idea or respect for the amount of change China is currently undergoing. None. Many foreigners talk a big game about inclusiveness, multiculturalism, and cultural equality. In one breath, the world of race and culture in their home country is rainbows and unicorns (while bashing America – which they don’t get) and in the next breath they’re talking down to a Chinese waitress or ayi like they’re some kind of human scum. Cough cough, many older, white European males, cough cough cough. This country has undergone many changes in the last 30 years that took our societies hundreds of years to complete. It’s not a nice or pretty process. Try to keep that in mind.
Stay active – Get out of the house. Live. Downtime in your apartment can be a good thing – in moderation.
and most importantly:
Design the life you want! – The greatest thing about moving abroad is that all the bullshit and obligations of home are removed from your life. Build the life and responsibilities you actually want to have – not those that imposed on you. Moving abroad is liberation from your own culture. You now have an a la cart life. Pick out the things you love and do it right!