I’m leaving China and it doesn’t mean a thing

It started with the oven. In Singapore in 2001 I bought a used Sharp R-8H50(B)T Rotisserie combination microwave and convection oven from my buddy, Tuck Wai, for S$200. Say what you will about the Sharp Corporation, which is struggling, but that oven was The Bomb. It followed us from Singapore to Beijing to Shanghai and back to Beijing, proving its worth repeatedly in a country where most apartments don’t have ovens. It even survived one front panel change. It was the best S$200 I ever spent in my life. Tuck always regretted selling, a sure sign of a good deal.

Earlier this year the panel started to fail again, and no transplants were available. It was a protracted death, like a person with progressive organ failure. One by one, over the course of a couple of months, the buttons stopped working, slowly narrowing the list of things the oven could do. First we lost the grill. Then the convection function. Then the microwave time entry. The last gasp was the quick start. Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Anyway, I’m not superstitious, and I don’t generally believe in portents, but if the death of our trusty Sharp Rotisserie isn’t a sign that change is in the wind, what is? So after eight and a half well-documented years in Beijing and 17 in Asia for me, we’re moving back to Palo Alto in January. I’m going because my company has asked me to move to the Silicon Valley office, very near where I grew up and where most of my family still live.

For a long time I resisted the idea of moving back to the United States. My self identity is largely based on being “the one who’s in Asia.” I was 27 when I left the US in 1995, six months out of graduate school and in most measurable ways a complete doofus. My personal and professional development has pretty much all been in Asia, and most of my friends and virtually all of my experience and network are out here.

Which, when you think about it, seems like a really good reason to do something different, even if that something is going home. Sometime in the last year or two my previously steadfast resistance to going home started to soften. Last May, when my boss proposed I come back to Sunnyvale, which is now where most of our senior execs are based, I found myself much more receptive to the idea than I would have expected.

There is no greater message behind our departure. I’m not disappointed in China. I haven’t been involved in public slanging matches with any Chinese celebrities. There is no shroud of legal action looming above me. I am, in fact, profoundly grateful to have been able to live and work in China for as long as I have. We all take it for granted, and piss and moan about the air and traffic and censored Internet and sketchy food because that’s our version of water-cooler sports talk. And we all rationalize a bit to be here. But step back and think about it for a moment. From your average suburban American perspective, who gets to live in China? Nobody, that’s who. It’s the stuff of fantasy and scarcely-believable tales from exotic relatives, like my mysterious uncle Stephen, who lived and worked in Hong Kong in the late 1980s. It has been a gift, and under other circumstances I would have remained here at least for a while.

But I was never in danger of staying forever, and nor are most other western expats. That’s why I was amused by the mass fluster that surrounded the public departures of Mark Kittoand Charlie Custer. All of a sudden foreigners were abandoning China! I know and like both Mark and Charlie, and admittedly much of the fluster was within our particular echo chamber, but, seriously, coverage in the New York Times, BusinessWeek and The Economist? Both of their personal experiences can be used to tell larger stories about life and power and business in China (and maybe I’m just jealous that my own departure is about as newsworthy as a bad air day), and both of their articles were great reads. But “foreigner departs China” is the very definition of dog-bites-man. The satirical site China Daily Show nailed it with a funny “dear John” letter from a foreigner to China.

“Foreigner stays in China,” now that’s a story. For an increasingly cosmopolitan and globally interconnected country, China isn’t really a place encourages foreigners to settle down. In fact, it goes out of its way to keep us at arm’s length. I should make a collage out of eight years of temporary residence certificates arranged around the confession I had to sign for registering my son’s birth with the police a few weeks late. Economic migrants bleed across the borders in search of something better, and perhaps some Vietnamese mail-order brides wind up here for the long haul, but in general foreigners don’t immigrate to China. We just visit, sometimes for a very long time.

In the end, there are only two possible outcomes for a foreigner in China: you either stay here for the rest of your life, or, sooner or later, you leave. If you were to diagram it, it would look something like this:

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

That little dot encompasses the handful of old communists who settled here for ideological reasons, such as Israel Epstein and Sidney Shapiro, and maybe Carl Crook, who was born in Beijing. One or two businessmen I’ve met have been here for thirty or more years, and a couple of journalists I know are edging in that direction. Maybe Kaiser is here forever(though I doubt it). But even Sidney Rittenberg, famously “The Man Who Stayed Behind,” didn’t actually stay behind. He retired to Washington State in 1980. Of course, he was thrown in jail in China. Twice. You’d probably retire to Washington State, too. According to the People’s Daily, China has granted permanent residency to less than 5000 foreigners since it started doing so in 2004, and it made the news when Shanghai issued its first batch of green cards in 2005. It’s a safe bet that granting citizenship is even rarer.

We leave. That’s what we do. But just because leaving China is normal doesn’t mean something isn’t going on. Among my friends there has been a tangible change in mood in the last couple of years. A sense of excitement about being here that endured for many years has in many cases given way to a sense of weariness or indifference. The most common reaction when I tell people my company is moving me back to California is, “you’re so lucky!”

There’s nothing sinister happening. It’s just a generational change. My cohort is largely mid-career expatriates, many of whom, like me, had their children in China. As our lives have changed, so in many cases have our expectations and needs. At the same time, the China we arrived in has also changed profoundly. Change is part of what makes China exciting, and on balance much of the change has been good. But people come looking for different things, and for some China today is less appealing or simply different than whatever they arrived looking for.

So they move on, and new people come in. That’s as it should be. Out with the old, in with the new. One thing that has not changed is the number of students and young professionals interested in working in China or studying Chinese. One of the fun parts of my job is speaking to MBA and undergraduate student groups, and I always ask who actually wants to live and work in China. Trust me; the supply of young westerners interested in China is not in danger of drying up.

I quit a perfectly good job in Singapore in 2004 and came to China with rudimentary Mandarin and the dream of living here. It was a crazy stunt that worked out better than I could have ever imagined. I’ve not lived the hard-boiled life of my journalist friends, many of whom are forever getting tossed out of some hardscrabble village by local thugs. Nor did I arrive in the FEC era or spend two or three years in the boondocks. But I’ve had my share of adventures. I’ve bargained for long distance taxis in Yanji and ridden through the Zhalong Wetlands in the back of a xiaobengche, surrounded by crates of live fish. I got caught in a youthful waterfight in the alleys of old Kashgar. I’ve been invited into a Uighur house in Tuyoq for tea and sweets, and into the one-room hutong apartment of a family from Shanxi for homemade noodles. I stood on Tian’anmen Square with tens of thousands of Chinese people during the memorial a week after the Wenchuan earthquake. I was in the Bird’s Nest during its Olympic pomp. I helped companies wrestle with the melamine crisis and the acrimonious collapses of their Chinese joint ventures. I had huge stretches of unrestored Wall all to myself on spectacular, blue-sky days. I scuba dived on a sunken village in the dark and freezing depths of Qiandaohu, on sunken Great Wall in Tangshan, and with a whale shark in Dalian’s morose Tiger Bay aquarium. I walked from one-side of Beijing to the other and discovered neighborhoods I’d have never found any other way, and went for runs in the pre-dawn winter darkness when the city is as still and quiet as it ever gets. I spent a year in Shanghai and learned that it is every bit as cool as Beijing, in its own way. I made great friends and worked with amazingly talented Chinese colleagues who disabused me of every stereotype of Chinese employees. I wrote a silly blog that people actually read. And I raised a little boy who calls Beijing home and speaks Mandarin with an effortless fluency that I am scandalously jealous of.

They’re the experiences of a lifetime. Some scruffy air and occasional difficulty with Facebook seems a small price to bear. I’ll miss it, but it’s time to go. Here’s to the next generation of young westerners who are dreaming of living in China. May they all get the chance, and may their lives in China be as amazing and rewarding as mine has been.

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Note: Because of the significance of this post to me I have copied forward the comments from the original.

54 Responses to I’m leaving China and it doesn’t mean a thing

  1. “Who gets to live in China? Nobody, that’s who.” A great line from the post and one that reminds me of how fortunate I am to have lucked into my own “crazy stunt” to show up mid-career in China–with 3 kids and wife in tow–hoping to make a difference here. Hope your next leg of your journey is as exciting as your last, and that we get to share more of this next leg together as well!

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  3. Kai says:

    Great post, Will. You already know I’ve always enjoyed your blog posts and your humor. Hope you’ll still be in Silicon Valley whenever I make the big move back to the Bay Area! Cheers!

  4. Anna Coffeysays:

    Oh Will! I’ve loved reading your blog as I’ve moved back and forth from China. I’m sad to see it end. Thank you so much for your delightful commentary on the vagaries of life in China!

  1. Kevin Mcgeary says:

    Actually, I preferred this to Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer’s farewell articles.

  2. Ryan says:

    Best of luck with what comes next Will. Imagethief has been an insightful source of commentary on living and working in China. I hope we get to follow you into the next chapter here too.

  3. Will –

    And so the world turns. Life’s like that. I am sure the move back to the US will have new experiences that I’m sure you will write about and I look forward to reading.


  4. Excellent farewell post Will. Must be a good feeling to know that so many people were reading this article that your server couldn’t handle the traffic right after you posted it.

    I wish you a good transition to the Valley and I hope you’ll keep documenting your experiences on Imagethief. Good luck!

  5. Liz Choi says:

    This is so fascinating considering I’m a 26-year old from California who just moved to Hong Kong three months ago. I must be part of the trend of young westerners aspiring to live in Asia. In my mind I’ve only given myself a few years to live here but in the end, who knows? Thanks for sharing your experience.

  6. Ben Ross says:

    Excellent post Will. Glad our paths crossed in summer of 2008. Best of luck in the Bay Area, and hit me up if you ever pass through Chicago.

  7. Erica Jiang says:

    Best of luck Will~~~ You are one of the most interesting people in the B-M office~ Salute to the “moldy” pears ^^

  8. Thanks for the writing. Your piece on wiring money out of China was truly inspired. All the best.

  9. Great post, Will. It’s been a pleasure to know you and your family both on a personal and on a blogging level. I’m sure we will be keeping in touch!

  10. Great post, Will. I’ll always regret that we never met up during that year you were in Shanghai. (As I remember it, you pretty much left right after you arrived… I only had time to get like one text message in.)

    And, in keeping with the “no drama” tone of your post… you can always come back.

  11. Kedafu says:

    Another one bites the dust.

  12. I’ve never posted a comment on this blog, but I wanted to wish you the best on your transition and let you know that you’ve provided some wonderful insights across the years. They will be missed.

  13. Hey Will, just stumbled across your blog today via a RT on twitter. This is my first visit to your website, your a great writer and look forward to reading more of your posts. You give an interesting insight into the long term life in China! Great Article!

  14. Braedon Links says:

    Sad that your particular insights will be missed on the Sinica podcast. Best of luck!

  15. You’ll be dearly missed, Will. Imagethief has been one of the best blogs on China. You have written a beautiful post.

  16. I’ve really enjoyed following your posts about China over the years. As you say, we mostly end up leaving after a time – in my case because of the children’s education. At the moment it only seems possible to live short term in China (10 years at most), and there is a predominance of people who are either just out of college or have retired. expats are . I do wonder whether China will ever become residence- friendly for those of us in the 30+ age group.


  17. Will says:

    Big thanks to everybody for the kind words here. With any luck, moving home will give me a rich, new vein of material to mine. After nearly two decades away the US seems approximately as weird to me now as China did when I first got here.

    It’s been a serious ride.

  18. Clay Burell says:

    Bless your heart, you’re one of the few fellow Westerners in China whose drama-queening departures haven’t made me feel I owe China an apology for the rude-guest behavior of my compatriots. Thanks for going out with grace, and good luck.

  19. Alex says:

    Many thanks for hours of laughter and thinking. You’ve deepened all of our stay with insightful anaecdote as I’m sure you do wherever you go. Much appreciated.

  20. Sergio says:

    What a cool laowai. You seem to leave China happy and full of some wonderfull experiences. I wish you a happy life in California!

  21. Elyssa Rae says:

    I really appreciate how you articulated how so many of us really feel about China – we all complain about the air quality, the traffic, the sketchy food … but, in the end, I’m so grateful for the unbelievable experience I had living in one of the most fascinating countries in the world (though I could have done without the bug in my 西红柿炒鸡蛋 ;) .

    I’m also grateful for being one of the young professionals you spoke with – your insights and wisdom into both China and the PR realm has had a large effect on me and has helped me as I continue my journey. China may not have been forever, but it was an incredible and insightful chapter.

    Good luck in Palo Alto. Let me know if business ever brings you to DC!

  22. Ann Lynch says:

    Will, I so enjoyed your BLOG post about leaving China. My husband and I lived in Shanghai for 3 years – 2008-2011 – LOVED IT. We are now back in Pittsburgh – living the life of grandparents and missing the mei meis and our fabulous Chinese friends. I think of them often and wonder if I will ever see them again. I hope so. Good luck in Sunnyvale – repatriating is very difficult.

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  24. Enjoyed your articles over the years, your articles along with Alan Paul’s gave me a different point of view and more insight into life in other parts of China other than Dongguan where I was based. If I had a written a “Why I Left China” post back in 2009 when I left it would have been a lot like this. Without the broken oven part. Sometimes, like when you’re at a good party, or visiting relatives, it’s just time to leave.

    Keep writing though, the transition to living in U.S. is going to be a surprise, be interesting to see your take on the changes.

  25. Shannon says:

    Great post, Will! Glad that the decision you were pondering has been made, and looking forward to catching up just about as often, now that I’m in Chicago and you’re in the Bay Area, as we did when we were both in Beijing! ;-)

  26. Ac says:

    You hit the nail on the head right about here:

    “There’s nothing sinister happening. It’s just a generational change. My cohort is largely mid-career expatriates, many of whom, like me, had their children in China. As our lives have changed, so in many cases have our expectations and needs. At the same time, the China we arrived in has also changed profoundly. Change is part of what makes China exciting, and on balance much of the change has been good. But people come looking for different things, and for some China today is less appealing or simply different than whatever they arrived looking for.”

    I thought the same to myself when the first round of “leaving China” letters did the rounds. People are just growing up.

  27. That´s a way to say goodbye to China… congratulations!! and thanks for sharing it!!

  28. David Fieldman says:

    I regret that during my 15 years in China, 13 of them in Beijing, we have never met. But thank you for this uplifting post of your experience and the knowledge that you are leaving with a happy heart full of memories that you cherish and which will linger for the rest of your life.
    Easy transition to your hometown.
    Warm regards,

  29. claudia says:

    Great comment I could feel how is your relationship with Asia and China, you have had amazing advedntures so you know china inside and out if that is possible but at least you can said you saw China more than others and the most important you had an open mind about China no an idea what China should be and you are not leaving with a bitter taste you are leaving with sorrow. China will always be in your heart and your boy who knows if he would be one of those future western to come back to his child coutry. Good luck back to EEUU, long life, I will look for you blog.

  30. Justin Mitchell says:

    Vaya con Doritos. I’m sorry we never met, but have enjoyed your blog immensely and learned a helluva lot from it. You are one of the good guys and will be greatly missed.

  31. Michael & Cynthia says:

    Well written Will – as always.
    All the Best for you and your family back home. Enjoy the rest of your time here and hopefully see you again sometime.

    Michael & Cynthia

  32. JH says:

    A great post, and I wish you all the best. I’ve enjoyed your posts for years and hope you keep writing on Asia-related topics.
    If you were six months out of grad school today and planning a career in Asia, what would be your advice? How are the opportunities different in China today for someone at that stage of life than they were in ’95?
    Best wishes for life back in the US…

  33. What a fantastic read. Thanks Will. As a fellow expat in Asia, I wish you all the best. You’re very inspiring.

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  35. Richard Lai says:

    This isn’t a goodbye (you know how much I travel these days), but I’m just super grateful to have met you while you were still in town. This blog post is a prime example of what one can learn from you, and that’s what makes you awesome, wise buddy.

    Now I’m going to vomit in penance for saying something nice.

  36. Edna says:

    You were one of the first China expats I followed on twitter way back before twitter was cool, and it’s great to see you finish your China years on a sweet note, with little fanfare or drama. Life moves on, people move on. Shame we never met during my three years in Asia, though. Best of luck in California!

  37. Bob Page says:

    Will, thank you for this blog and for writing about your experience in China.

  38. Eric says:

    Happy trails, Will. And I am sure you are right: the U.S. will be every bit as weird as China, and then some. Hope to hear about it on the blog.



  39. Michael D. Wallace says:

    Wow, just finished reading you are leaving China and heading where I live and work. I only spent three years living in China and still consider it my second home. In fact I brought part of China with me on my return, my wife. Welcome back to the Silicon Valley grind.

  40. steven says:

    you’ll regret it. there’s so much more to do in china !

  41. n says:

    i moved to china in 1998 when i was 21 and will leave in early 2013 after 15 yrs. thx for the encouraging words and evoking poignant memories. good luck.

  42. Thanks for this post, Will — I wish I found your site earlier.
    As someone who has lived in China off and on since 1996 and has witnessed nearly three decades of changes there, I certainly agree with many of your points, especially that “There’s nothing sinister happening. It’s just a generational change.” I wrote about this very topic in a recent essay entitled ‘The China Expat in Exile’ in The World of Chinese Magazine (http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2012/09/the-china-expat-in-exile-a-response-to-the-mark-kitto-debate/). To me, it seems arbitrary to talk about expats ‘leaving China’ as if the only way we are connected to China is by living there permanently. Many of us do not have that *luxury* (due to family or work), but China is always a part of our lives; in fact, I find that living between borders had allowed me even greater access and understanding of both sides of the Pacific, something I may be too jaded to see if I lived permanently in the PRC.
    Thank you for adding to the dialogue and I look forward to reading more here soon. And welcome to California — I’m sure you’ll like it here.
    Kaitlin Solimine
    Los Angeles, CA

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  46. Samuel Yu says:

    Many people are keeping moving, that’s true.
    You are lucky you can back home easily.

  47. Frank Fomby says:

    Will – Great post. I’ve been back a little over 4 years now, and trust me in that you will find no shortage of material when you get back :) When I left I had spent (at that time) 30% of my life in Asia. Obviously the number will only get smaller, but the experience remains larger than life.
    I wish continued success in the future!

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  49. Xavier R says:

    Best of luck for what comes next.
    I’ll be landing in Beijing around the time you’re leaving, we might even bump into each other at the airport :)
    I plan on staying there for at least 5 years, already landed a job there, I consider myself among the lucky one in this regard.

    I sure hope my time (that I hope will be much longer than 5 years, but it’s the girlfriend who’ll decide on that ;-) ) will be at least 25% as great as what you’ve just told us, and I would be pretty happy with less :)

    This was a much better post than the two previous “expats leaving china” you were mentioning, and it bodes well for my future, so thank you again :)

    Wish you continued success in the future (not being native english, I’m getting my inspiration from previous comments :D ), and please please please continue on writing like that. I’m sure Palo Alto is no less source of wonder than China was :)


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