Why I empathize with the WSJ’s American expats in Chongqing

An interesting discussion broke out today on The Peking Duck, in Richard’s post on a Wall Street Journal article on the travails of an American expatriate family living in Chongqing. There was a fair bout of criticism of the family for insulating themselves from Chongqing and China and for moaning about the difficulty of living in Chongqing even as they live all-expenses-paid luxury.

It’s worth reading the article, posted here on Howard French’s “A Glimpse of the World Blog”. You can also go read the extract on Richard’s blog.

It made me think a bit about how I perceive “expats” and the expat lifestyle. I spent nine years in Singapore, where only my first job, which lasted for one year, was on an “expat package”. I was pretty well localized by the end of my stay (married to a Singaporean with more Singaporean than foreign friends). In Singapore I became completely contemptuous of foreigners who isolated themselves. But Singapore is a completely accessible city: wealthy, modern, English-speaking and with all the Western comforts you could ever hope to find. (In fact, Singapore often comes in for the opposite criticism, that it isn’t Asian enough, although I think only people who don’t know where to look make that claim.)

But when I think back to my arrival in Singapore, even it was difficult enough at the time. I remember how thrilled my business partner and I were when we discovered a mass-market Italian restaurant. I remember how akward I felt on public transportation for many weeks. I remember how long it took me to feel like I knew my way around the city. I remember how many dumb mistakes I made managing my staff, and how long it took before I started having good, Singaporean friends.

And that’s the thing about culture shock. It doesn’t really matter what the amenities are, or if the language is the same. There are degrees. You could be an American moving to England and still be culture shocked. You could move from California to New York and be culture shocked. You could damn well move from San Francisco to Iowa and be culture shocked. It might be less severe than coming to Asia, but it would still happen. And different people with different motivations will react differently to the experience.

I came to China because I wanted to engage with it. I wanted to feel what it was like, and talk to Chinese people and “have a cultural experience”. I specifically sought out the feeling of discomfort and displacement that I first had when I got to Singapore because I missed the thrill and challenge of discovering someplace new. It has been tremendously rewarding, but also difficult. I invested two years in learning Mandarin before I arrived. I quit a good job to come here and arrived with no guarantee of work. My long-term future will be in Asia, and I will need to have some experience in China. I had every incentive to get into China.

And yet, even as an Asiaphile with nine years in the region, it was difficult when I arrived. Classroom Mandarin got me almost nowhere on the street. I was scared of the bus, scared of the supermarket, intimidated at the thought of trying to speak to people and generally completely overwhelmed. And I was in a language program surrounded by other Westerners.

Even today I still seek my Western comforts. I live in an international apartment with cable TV. The Internet is my lifeline. I damned well beat a path to the local Jenny Lou’s because I am incapable of giving up Western breakfasts. And I consider myself pretty culturally resilient.

Now, what if I had no experience in Asia and no emotional investment in getting under the skin of China? What if I was here solely for professional reasons and knew I was going to leave in two years? And what if I was in Chongqing, a city far less accessible to foreigners than relatively cosmopolitan Beijing? And what if I was desperate to socialize my young Children as Americans?

I’d probably grow a bunker mentality as well, and concentrate on emerging unscathed. And that’s why I find it hard to criticize the woman in the story.

Sure, I think it’s a wasted opportunity to come to China and not engage with it as deeply as possible. I love it here. But not everyone seeks the same opportunities and experiences as me. And I can’t be too critical of that.

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