The Expat Tango

Recently, the trend in writing about China seems to have become focused on the theme of exodus. Long-term expats are leaving, and telling all about the reasons. Mark Kitto – already famously? – gave one reason in the very title of his article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese.

There is a lot to be said for his argument, and quite something against, but it’s the general theme of home I’d like to take up.

After all, somehow, even  people proposing international, nomadic, location-independent living often talk about the pleasures of living free and unencumbered by ties to any place – but all the while, the notion of “home” figures prominently in their lives.

Sure, there are some who just tick off the countries they’ve been to, the places they’ve lived, without much of any apparent care for where they find themselves. Sure, there are different things that are important to different people – and if you seriously enjoy being in the mountains, but were born and raised in flat land (such as me, here), you may want to consider moving.

It’s often less about living nomadically and being free from ties, so much as it is about the latter, though: an attempt at finding a place to call home, a place that just feels right.

Looking onto dance class
They dance – but are you a partner or an outside onlooker?

Well, a move can help with that. At least, a different context may make for a different frame of reference.
Go somewhere else, and things look different. Whereas you wouldn’t buy foods on the street where you come from, because that’s what you do only in a sterile-looking supermarket (which is boring), it’s normal and even pleasurably exotic in another country (regular digestive problems notwithstanding). It’s all (at least more easily) accepted somewhere else, and the fun and exoticism may make it more of the home you imagined sitting “at home” in a place you felt you knew only too well.

There’s quite something to the notion that you may not simply be at home somewhere, and especially where you grew up. I’m a strong proponent of the view that it’s better to feel a bit uncomfortable, especially in the place of one’s origin, rather than feel comfortably at home without ever experiencing any other place (and its people and culture).

Even the average corporate expat willing to go abroad probably didn’t feel quite “at home” where s/he grew up, studied, lived, and thus has a rather less “natural” tie to any such home.

If we are not simply at home in some place, if there is no home – here, or out there – just waiting for us, though, then that applies everywhere.

So, the problem is when the exoticism and excitement about a place becomes an expectation that things should be better there quite naturally, and that, if you feel rather better there – maybe even at home – things should just go exactly your way.

To the extent that we idealize a place, we impoverish it, reducing reality to a list of shortcomings.

There’s the rub. It takes two to tango, and as the stranger, you must make yourself at home. Yet as the stranger, you may not be accepted.

Power plays between people and countries, openness or closedness of societies, racism or other notions of superiority and simple ethnocentrisms, expectations and experiences,…  all come into play – and the expat who moved somewhere because he/she loved that country/culture so much may find that the feeling is not, or not always, reciprocal. Add in that the allure of the exotic fades away and the negatives may come to outweigh the fascination, and discontent can easily be bred.

China has been one of the best, and most difficult, examples of that.

The country is big and diverse, and thus offers great fascination, and it is a place with a landscape and climate for just about everyone. The people are typically curious and hospitable, and may even follow the notion that you are somewhat Chinese as long as you (struggle to) learn the language and fit into the culture. Of course, as everywhere, cultural conventions can make for a bit of a shock – and it’s typically not those stereotypical things like dog meat, but things like the unexpected openness with which visible differences between people – which would typically be talked about only in a circumscribed way, if at all, in ‘the West’ – are discussed: tallness, supposed handsomeness, soggy midsections, big noses… And when the situation somehow changes to a disenchantment with the foreign(ers), these obvious differences single out any foreigner, and the side of China where you are always on the outside if you weren’t born here and look, speak, and think like a Chinese can quickly come to the fore.

There is, of course, also your own set of priorities. China is on the rise, and China is and remains fascinating. Having lived in one place, even if it should be a part of China diametrically opposed to where you grew up, the fascination will be replaced by familiarity, though – and that may be comfortable (if not broken by rising ‘outsiderdom’), or a reason why other aspects, such as ‘outsiderdom’, but also pollution, career opportunities, etc., become more important.

As many of the expats now leaving have noted, once you have children, rampant pollution of air and water, food scandals, insane traffic and test-based schooling, along with legal uncertainties inherent in outsider status (and in China, also the status as citizen) easily become just too much.

As those who stay have started commenting, China is and remains fascinating, has more job opportunities for those who can navigate its market and offer something that is needed.

To me, the lesson is that one needs to make him-/herself at home, anyways, anywhere, as much as one can and wants to. And one needs to make him-/herself sufficiently uncomfortable, so to speak, to not only fall into an everyday monotony, but continually learn and do something more, better. Disenchantment comes everywhere, no place – and no person – is perfect. Handling that is a big part of what life is about.

Only part of all that is up to the individual, though; social acceptance in smaller social circles, for example, but not by the general population. It takes two to tango.

Feel free to contribute