“So, how long have you been in China?” is often one of the first questions you get when meeting another ex-pat. Just as you can tell a lot about someone from their job, so the length of time you’ve spent in China determines your attitudes, capabilities and positions on the Middle Kingdom.

Three months

Wow, this place is amazing! The food is SO cheap! I got a bowl of noodles in a restaurant for five kwai! And the beer – just RMB3 for a bottle of Qingdao! It’s all so different from back home. The buildings are so tall, there are so many people, it’s all so fascinating. I’m so privileged to be in a country of such history and when is developing so fast. And the people are so friendly! I love it! I email all my buddies back home all the time, to tell them everything I’m experiencing. They love it! My company set up everything for me so I haven’t really had to handle much Chinese stuff, though I’m sure it’ll be easy enough. I can’t wait to visit Beijing’s Forbidden City and see the Great Wall. I’ve got so many nice photos of amazing stuff. This has been an incredible experience for me.

Six months

Goddamit! I can’t find anything I need! I can’t get any cheese, or maple syrup, or Hershey’s chocolate. I really miss my friends back home, but I can’t use Facebook or Twitter, for christ’s sake. And why is everything I like so expensive? It’s more expensive to buy a laptop or iPod or Levis here than back home! How can people afford it? And just buying things isn’t that easy either. It took me an hour to buy an external hard-drive, and I took a taxi the other day and the driver dropped me some place that totally wasn’t where I asked. Why are all the shop and restaurant staff so unhelpful? I can say “Ni hao?”, “Ting bu dong” and “Duo shao qien?”, but not much more than that. It’s all too hard for me! I read “Wild Swans” – so sad. Beijing was pretty damn impressive, though I’m not sure I’d like to live there. Too many people, too big, but Sanlitun is a really cool place – lots of nice bars. Looking forward to visiting Shanghai next, too.

One Year

OK, I’m getting a hang of this. I can haggle prices with shopkeepers and know where to buy the stuff I like. I can tell you all about VPNs and proxies and have dozens of cheap DVDs bought from that friendly guy down the street. I got the first three series of “House” for CNY10! I’ve got some Chinese friends and they’re really nice, even if they drag me to KTV more than I’d like. And I love chuar! I can even tell the guy what to cook in Chinese – not bad, eh! I’ve visited Shanghai, Beijing and Qingdao, all fascinating places, but I really want to visit Tibet and Hong Kong, and maybe go on holiday to Thailand too. My Chinese is alright – I managed to give the taxi driver directions to my flat the other night, no problem! I still don’t know too many characters, though I am getting to recognise more and more of them above shops and everything. I’m studying Chinese in the evening and have a tutor, which helps. I now have a Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend, and things are going well, though sometimes there are breakdowns in communication.

Three Years

How long am I going to be here? What will I do when I go back? Will I ever go back? Will my Chinese partner get a visa? Man, the healthcare here is terrible – what if we decide to have a child? I know where all the international schools are, and can discuss their relative merits with other ex-pats who are parents. Beijing and Shanghai – pah! That’s just the tourist stuff. You want to visit Xian or Yunnan or Hainan to experience the real China, and the Harbin Ice Festival is pretty amazing. My Chinese is getting pretty damned good now – I can chat away with the locals, and tell my ayi what to do when she comes round. As for those China newbies all excited about being here – god, they’re so naïve! I remember when I was like that – ah, things were so different then. Maybe I should write a book about my time in China. It’s been some experience.

Five Years+

你已经来这里好几年了,中文也很不错。你长期在国外工作,所以能给刚来中国的人提出大量的建议和帮助。这是坎坷的但也是精彩的旅程,你做的很出色。

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2 thoughts on “How to Rate an Ex-Pat: A Simple Guide to Foreigners in China

  1. I was expecting some actual rating of expats here – the ability of expats, and particularly China expats, to look down on each other is unmatched in any community that I have ever been part of.

    Newbs look down on lifers (and vice-versa), people whose work does not involve teaching look down on teachers, people who teach subjects other than English look down on English teachers, university TEFL teachers look down on cram-school TEFL teachers, anyone who actually gets paid to do anything looks down on language students, people who can speak Chinese look down on people who can’t, people who can read/write Chinese look down on people who can only really speak the language, Tier 1 City-dwellers look down on (but also slightly envy) people who live out in the sticks, Beijing-dwelling culture aficionados look down on Shanghai-dwelling money-makers (and vice versa), and on and on ad nauseam.

    A long time ago the old (and long defunct) Talk Talk China blog wrote a post about what they called the “laowai death stare”, by which they meant the look some expats will give other laowais who come rambling into their neighbourhood and thus messing up the “specialness” of their China-experience. There’s other things that some expats do that are along the same line – speaking loudly in Chinese to show-off as soon as they see another expat and dropping Chinese words into their conversation when English words would do just as well being classic examples. The silliest example of this I saw once in Hong Kong when I was there renewing my visa – a man with the passport of an English-language-speaking country speaking loudly in Mandarin to a HK visa-agent who was responding in a deeply Cantonese-accented version of the same tongue, with mutual incomprehension being the result.

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    1. Newbs look down on lifers (and vice-versa), people whose work does not involve teaching look down on teachers, people who teach subjects other than English look down on English teachers, university TEFL teachers look down on cram-school TEFL teachers, anyone who actually gets paid to do anything looks down on language students, people who can speak Chinese look down on people who can’t, people who can read/write Chinese look down on people who can only really speak the language, Tier 1 City-dwellers look down on (but also slightly envy) people who live out in the sticks, Beijing-dwelling culture aficionados look down on Shanghai-dwelling money-makers (and vice versa), and on and on ad nauseam.

      Sadly true. Although, this tends to be online. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s been so unfriendly in person. Most have been very approachable. Hopefully I wasn’t doing that here, just giving a jokey little overview of age and stage.

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