I wandered into a blog the other day that sent me down a rabbit hole. What is a rabbit hole you might wonder? First it IS NOT a movie starring Nicole Kidman for the purpose of my thoughts today (even though there is apparently a movie by that name); it is a colloquialism that could mean a couple of things 1) a difficult, puzzling, or embarrassing situation from which there is no easy escape or 2) where satisfying some curiosity might produce bizarre or paradoxical experiences.
That rabbit hole continued as I read the related firestorm essay by a long-term expat in China. He had been living in China for 16 years, a successful businessman that had a number of experiences that made him realize that he needed to go another direction in his life; out of China. His article is here.
I was, of course, curious about what would cause someone that has lived here in China for that long to finally call “uncle”? You might remember the word “uncle” as that word you were required to say when the bully was tormenting you to get relief. Now, I don’t know why “uncle” was the word. I just don’t. But it was what we would say. If you want a rather humorous example of how this worked I would recommend that you watch a few scenes from the movie “A Christmas Story” where Scut Farcus bullies the movie hero and his friends. That was, by the way, the movie that we shared with our Chinese friends for Christmas Eve this year, they laughed in all of the right spots so I think it was a success but that is the topic of another post.
I had always felt like I was pretty much in the clear for surviving my Chinese Expat experience now that I have made it past the one year mark and I am well on my way to 2 years. I am more than a little curious about what would “ruin” what appears to have been a successful expat career in China.
The article’s author and the blog author both shined a light on many aspects of the expats’ experiences here that can easily get the best of you. It served as a wake-up call for me to not take for granted how challenging this experience is and ALWAYS will be. It will never really achieve NORMAL. I will consistently find things that frustrate, irritate, infuriate, and puzzle me. I must always be alert to those challenges. I must remember that there are other things going on in my life that really are important and to compromise on those things will spell certain disaster.
What I really learned though is that sometimes the right answer is to “take my ball and go home”. There is nothing wrong with calling uncle. There is nothing wrong with admitting that this place will eventually wear me out if I don’t do the other things in my life to remain grounded and connected with my OTHER reality and life priorities.
As I have sat here at the bottom of this rabbit hole, I have a new or renewed paradigm. I didn’t expect to be at the bottom of the rabbit hole when I started reading these posts. I didn’t realize that it was even a rabbit hole when I started reading those articles and posts. I was just curious. I look at what it is that I see at this moment and time, and I can see a different perspective of what my greatest “risk” is right now as a Chinese expat. I don’t think that it is exclusive to me and it is probably applicable to many others having a similar middle kingdom experience.
I would summarise that problem to be that the situation fails to meet our expectations. For me and my unique perspective, the bill of goods seen in the media about China, how it is the saviour of the modern world, how the country is successfully competing with the major nations of the world in productivity and life, and how the cities like Beijing and Shanghai are just like other big cities are stark contrasts to the reality that smacks me in the face EVERY DAY; day in and day out.
It only takes a few weeks living here in China to realise that ALL of your perceptions of what to expect are wrong. No amount of preparation or study can prepare you for how untrue and unreal that facade really is.
The ability to accept that difference and to reconcile in your mind your expectations and reality determines whether an expat will make it through the first year and beyond. The continuation of that effort is strenuous because even after years of experience here and the development of expectations, China will consistently give you a different reality than you expect. It is a huge bait-and-switch that we experience. What we see and how we perceive it doesn’t fit with the non-Asian and Christian upbringing that I have. The changes that are happening here occur quickly yet in so many ways there is no change and everything stays the same.
In many ways the change drives me crazy, yet on another plane it is what keeps me coming back. I have accepted that I will never be Chinese and no matter how long I stay in this country and how well I learn to speak the language I will always be considered something that they are not. I have in many ways lived that way all of my life. I am a peculiar person, my religion has made me that in addition to all of the other weird little quirks I have from growing up in the Wild Wild West of Wyoming.
Being able to do what I want to do when I want to do it, being able to make decisions and to suffer the rewards or consequences of those decisions, and the all to frequent desire to ask “WHY” make this experience run right on the “red line” of my psychosis. So, having that peculiar background should make it easier for me to accept that I will never really fit in here, I don’t really fit in no matter where I go; and that is OK.
There are certainly experiences that make this experience worth it. The challenge occurs when I don’t constantly remember that this place will NEVER fit into what I logically expect. When I begin to assume that I understand and know what is next, then that is the day when the uniqueness of living here and having the Chinese expat experience will not be sufficient to justify sticking around to have more of them. Because on that day, I will be disappointed, confused, and disgusted with the whole experience and know that it is “time to take my ball and go home”.
- “You’ll never be Chinese” by Mark Kitto (chinadailymail.com)
- My perspective on going to Asia as an expat, working there (fncischen.wordpress.com)
- Beijing expat clip (internationalmanofmystery.typepad.com)