Sunday, December 27, 2009

Various Shades of Expatriatism

After living in Beijing for almost three years, it's been quite a change in seeing how I have adapted to the city, learned more of the language and culture and adjusted to the work situation... or not.

But it's also interesting to see how other young expats are dealing with the same situation.

There are some who studied Chinese before coming here and are quite fluent reading, writing and speaking, but perhaps because of their relatively young age they don't get paid well for being able to do good translations that don't need further editing by a "foreign expert". It's strange, considering they are capable of doing the job of two people you'd think they'd be better commensurated.

Then there are those people like myself who know some Chinese, enough to get around, and have studied Chinese history and so that we understand nuances in news stories or announcements in how they are worded, or can have dinner conversations almost completely in Mandarin. We are just as comfortable in Chinese restaurants as western ones, and seeing a pig's head for sale at the butcher doesn't phase us, and instead fascinates us. Really -- I did see one yesterday, complete with shiny beady eyes...

Further down the chain are those expatriates who either hindered by the language or have no appreciation for things Chinese choose to live as they would back in their home countries. All their friends are foreigners, all their interactions are in English with a smattering of Chinese here and there, take taxis and hardly eat at Chinese restaurants. They also tend to hang around bars after work or on the weekends to pass the time.

Over a year ago after work, I got a call from an English girl on my cellphone, asking me to tell the waitress that she wanted a bowl of rice. Apparently she couldn't communicate this to her and wasn't about to make the effort to learn the proper tones either.

It was so strange to get a phone call like that -- how hard can it be to say mifan (米饭)?

And then there are those young people who have just graduated and don't really know what they want to do, so they come to China to find a job and usually end up teaching English regardless if they are qualified or not. One colleague remarked to me that these people are at the bottom of the expat food chain in China mostly because of their inability to do anything else.

Now because of the fallout from the global financial crisis, we are seeing more young people come to China, but also more seniors, whose pensions lost a good chunk of their value. These gray-haired former executives, teachers and so on are starting to arrive here in droves to find work. It's strange seeing these highly experienced people starting their careers again and then having to adjust to living in China and learning the language.

However, we all need to survive somehow. But starting over again in China is no easy feat and requires lots of energy, patience and most of all openness. Or they aren't really an expat.

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