What do expats think about China? Really.

I ask the question after reading Water’s dark and disturbing reflections on this topic:

I know each time I go back home that few people can understand how darkly I view this place since the images that are filtered back to Western TV sets bare scant relationship to what I have experienced here.

However, I would say there is an Achilles Heel to the image making of China: China itself. How many long-termers do we know that hold China in high respect? It’s a harsh question, but the truth is, the longer a foreigner stays in China the more likely they are to be disillusioned with the place.

We all read other China blogs and it’s hard to come across one that is unabashed in its respect for the place. Indeed, one is more likely to find good things said about the place the farther the person is away from China. Something’s wrong with that picture.

That’s a horrible thing. The implication is clear: the better you know China (and the closer your experience of it) the less likely you are to like it.

Almost all of us will return home and when we do we won’t be available to reinforce China’s glowing self-image. Instead, we’ll probably mumble agnostically when people talk with us about China, or if they hit a cord and say something exceptionally ignorant we’ll snap and let fly with our true feelings of the place.

It’s not like people staying in Australia for a long period of time and coming away with real warmth for the place. It’s not millions of immigrants crying with happiness during a citizenship ceremony. No, I have yet to find anyone here rushing to become a Chinese citizen, the ultimate compliment a foreigner can give a country.

Long termers no doubt have complex emotions when it comes to China and it would be false to say that all are bad. But in general, what good we feel tends to be on those occasions when we see someone swimming against the tide, someone with integrity swimming in an ocean of moral corruption, someone brave while others are meek, someone indignant when others have accepted their lot in life. In all cases, it tends to be the exceptions that we respect, not the general rules.

That’s sad.

Now, these are very strong contentions — “The implication is clear: the better you know China (and the closer your experience of it) the less likely you are to like it.”

Is this a rule of thumb? I know I met at least a few expats who truly love living in China. When I sang in the chorus there, I shared scores with a Scottish fellow who said it was truly home to him, and he felt alienated and uncomfortable in Hong Kong and more Westernized places. And there’s fellow blogger China Hand (remember him?) who always struck me as a true Sinophile, quite in love with his home.

But on the whole, what Water describes above is more common. And if the expat does like it, he’s most likely to be in a love-hate relationship. My New Zealand colleague, in Beijing for 12 years and with a Chinese wife, never ceased with his complaints about life there, but you don’t stay for 12 years if it isn’t offering you something in return. He was in perpetual conflict over the place (like me).

I remember living in Germany and El Salvador, and I didn’t want to leave. I felt a connection to those places, and I still have such warm memories. I felt a lot of things about China. I miss it and I’d consider moving back — for a while. But warm memories? Not the way I do about the other places.

I really have to congratulate Water for continuously demonstrating the courage to say aloud what many others think but are reluctant to broadcast, lest they be perceived as prejudiced, intolerant or politically incorrect. And for saying it so beautifully.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

One thing I would say is that a blogger’s necessity to have a reactive and eager audience probably in large part shapes his or her perception of the place he or she is living in.

Many people who have positive experiences here don’t reflect those experiences in political commentary or theories on economics or society in whole.

February 4, 2004 @ 8:37 pm | Comment

Byoi: One thing I would say is that a blogger’s necessity to have a reactive and eager audience probably in large part shapes his or her perception of the place he or she is living in.

Oh come on, I started this blog when I lived in HK, and I never altered my perception of HK to suit any audience. I was enchanted here in Singapore my first few week, irrespective of what my audience may think or be expecting. I really don’t know how you can make such a statement.

February 4, 2004 @ 8:58 pm | Comment

China has been an experience for me, I was used to more developed Asian countries like Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. However China has been a time of discovery and learning for me, at least I can say I lived in the “motherland”.

I am due to leave in the next few months and while I can say I am happy to be “getting back to civilization” I will still have fond memories of the place.

I don’t have any noteworthy grievances about China, the main thing I did here was have a good laugh at the idiosyncrasies of the place. I am actually in the process of writing a comedy type book on China, the culture, people and the different experiences I have had here.

I do however know of a fair amount of ex-pats who hate the place. Lots of things get to them, the spitting, staring and general ugliness. These things get to me at times too but I tend to pull out my camera or write it off as China. :).

I can’t say I have a “connection” with the place, I did however have enjoyable times here.

February 4, 2004 @ 9:40 pm | Comment

I’ll go on record, as an expat who’s lived in China now for a total of nearly 10 years, with the sure-to-be-unpopular assertion that I like the place better and better even as I see more and more that I loathe. I came here first in 1981; I can assure you that I’ve seen things on most fronts improve vastly since – personal freedoms, material weal, the general level of cosmopolitanism in the population, the sophistication and media savvy of the leadership, tolerance for alternative lifestyles, environmental consciousness, you name it, it’s all simply better than it was.

I’m plenty disgusted with the blithely knee-jerk China-lovers who bristle at the slightest criticism of the CCP, but I can’t stomach those who can’t acknowledge that things have gotten a helluva lot better either, who insist on seeing the leadership as a monolith, who don’t recognize that Hu’s not Jiang, that Jiang wasn’t Li Peng, that Li Peng wasn’t Mao, that Deng wasn’t such a monster.

I should note that I’ve been on what you might call the “cultural cutting-edge” through much of my time here, having spent years as a rock musician. I’m acquainted with numerous prominent dissidents and many a malcontent. I’ve been hauled in and harrassed. I’ve been on the wrong end of intellectual piracy problems, crime, corruption, and all sorts of small-mindedness. But all that doesn’t change the fact that life’s simply gotten better for the overwhelming majority of people here.

I have empathy for expats who are consumed with negativity. But I’ll never number among them.

February 4, 2004 @ 10:12 pm | Comment

Living in China

China, you gotta love it.
China, you gotta hate it.

February 4, 2004 @ 11:18 pm | Comment

“We all read other U.S. blogs and it’s hard to come across one that is unabashed in its respect for the place.”

Oh, actually the original was about China… People being unhappy about a place, I am not sure how much it indicates.

The happiest and richest people in the U.S.A. are living in LA, San Francisco, New York and Boston etc. Those people complain about the government and the state of the nation. They hate the president. They hate their country’s foreign policy and believe that their country is becoming a police state.

So what do you say?

I have been living in China for almost ten years, and despite the country’s many flaws, I still love the place. On the other hand I grew up in aprtheid South Africa, so what do I know?

February 5, 2004 @ 12:14 am | Comment

I’m another who loves the place the longer I’m there (or away as at the moment). I spent a year working in Guangzhou, and certainly had a priveleged time working in the art scene, but from the moment the KCR pulled into Guangzhou Dong Zhan I’ve never felt as home as i did there.

February 5, 2004 @ 7:20 am | Comment

Thanks for the great comments, everyone. This is an interesting topic and the diversity of opinion is remarkable. After reading Jeremy, Kaiser and Frances, I’m ready to go back and give it a second try. Some day.

February 5, 2004 @ 11:43 am | Comment

I left Vancouver almost 10 years ago and now I call China “home” … when I go back for more than 2-3 days I am bored stiff … why do I stay here? One of the main reasons is that it is never boring ….

February 6, 2004 @ 3:51 pm | Comment

I totally aggree. China is many things. Boring is not one of them.

February 6, 2004 @ 4:23 pm | Comment

I can’t comment on mainland China, but I can say that I love life in Hong Kong so far, and I really have no need or desire to return to Canada.

February 7, 2004 @ 5:57 pm | Comment

Many expats are here because they have to be here for business reasons. The general standard of English is very poor outside Large hotels. I unfortunately happen to be one of those expats who yell “whats the matter doesnt anyone in this country speak any ******* English”, but that doesnt get anywhere around here. Just have to deal with it or go back home.

July 2, 2005 @ 10:41 am | Comment

guys. have a taxi shouting at you”wo cao ni de ma” while bearing a snarl that could belong to a serial killer. Try. the tell me you love china. And I’ll tell you that you are mad.

What you feel about the place is what you experience. Some are more lucky than others. I think this place is the arse hole of the world, where from all the shit comes from.

Rough? Racist? u name it, I love my chinese gf, I will marry her not only for her beauty as for her sense of duty and her education. There’s a lot of great decent people over here. 200 000 000 is alot. compared to 800 millions peasants and another 300 million emmigrated to the cities, that leaves you with 1.1 billion of spitting, staring, snarling, hateful u name it peasants.

I’ll give in that its shameful toi give in to hate. It also gave me the worst arguments with my girl. Ok, I don’t hate. I don’t like them, and they surrely return the feeling 10 times over.

What’s left? yeah, like u said, a non-boring place. A cheap place too. Rather quite interesting after u’ve taken out the filth. How can u ignore people spitting in front of and naming you “cao ni ma laowai” ? how can u see peasant construction worker treating your gf as a slut and a whore for being with a foreigner? could you bear it?

Don’t fuckin kid me. If u do, u a big puss. that’s all. Same goes for girls. Don’t kid urselves, china IS the arse hole of the world. Its a cool arsehole if u want.

Oh, if u live in Shunyi, in a nice laowai terraced house, with white kidas all around and u drive your own audi around town then I’m sure it won’t be such a bad experience. Or if u are one of these eggs, white outside, yellow inside. All good, u love the culture, the language, u put their angy on the account of being poor and uneducated.

Well, big fucking news, don’t expect them to treat u like u treat them. Only a minority can show some sense. Whatever, writing this won’t change anything, I hate this place, only good stuff is the money I can earn, the exp points I can earn, and a beautiful and clever wife.

the rest, I’ll throw it to the dogs.

July 18, 2006 @ 2:30 am | Comment

I have been in china for four years and the truth be told I find many(not all) Chinese crude and unrefined.God forbid Logical/Practical/Rational thinking creep its way into their mindset either.Money is the soup of day where human rights prioritises a sloppy second(hence the motor vehicle fatality rate of most major cities).Domestic blinkers being the peoples primary suppressor,China shall stay mentally gridlocked at least untill it can acknowledge the rest of the world.Is’nt it rude to stare?

July 18, 2006 @ 2:51 am | Comment

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