The flippant judgement of all things around us naturally includes the immigrants that also travel with us. Are they good, or perhaps bad? and Really, who are we to decide?
Cast adrift, by accident or design, the expat can be seen as a kaleidoscope of weird. Why would anyone voluntarily inhabit a country where they don’t know the language, have no family and can’t even recognize basic items on supermarket shelves (it’s spicy duck tongue, you fool)?
The average expat in China is often an eternal runaway, always seeking to escape something: the wife that took the house, a pile of debts from a business ran aground, the unacknowledged love child or simply not being able to handle life back home.
Expatriated and exasperated, they become seething balls of anger, irritated that things just aren’t the same in the new country: searing heat, pollution, idiotic locals, bad manners, dodgy food and frustrating sex lives all start to tug at their soul.
Such wretched caricatures are not particularly modern tropes. Twentieth and even nineteenth century stereotypes didn’t do the expat branding any favors either. Laowai living not far from these parts were once known as filth, an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. The idea being that the vast mass of foreigners out here were talentless chancers, merely hoping to trade on the value of their white face. Fiction painted them as a group on the edge of the abyss. Think of all those early Greene and Orwell novels. Sweaty Englishman, sitting around as the Empire crumbled, with nothing to do but have affairs, drink gin, complain about the lack of ice and bitch about the natives. It all usually ended in suicide.
The specific accusation is that large swathes of foreigners are here because they are losers. That if it wasn’t for China, they would be back home burger-flipping in Cleveland.
Still, it’s hard to nail exactly what we, expats, are really like. At our worst, we are deranged alcoholics, whore-mongers looking for five minutes of fun or criminals hiding from distant realities; at our best, we build orphanages for the mountainous Hmong children, offer help and hope to desperate leper colonies and adopt stray puppies by the pack. Most of us are not on these margins, but instead run somewhere between the extremes: teachers nursing hangovers, restaurant owners cooking up schemes to bring in the punters, mums trying to stay sane on the school run.
Nevertheless, dark imagery persists. We have all heard lurid stories of foreigners who couldn’t quite keep their shit together—when things, quite simply, went wrong—through foolishness or plain bad luck. China often doesn’t make it easy. Indeed, sitting around comparing “Bad China Days” has become something of a national parlor game among expats. Usually they are mundane, “I spent all day at the bank getting WeChat wallet reactivated, only to come home to find the dog vomiting on my shoes.” But sometimes, they are tales of monstrous horror, epic cautionary tales of woe.
It is perhaps apocryphal, but the worst I heard this year was of a foreigner who let an incredibly drunk Chinese girl stay at his home one night during Chinese New Year. When he woke up, he found her lifeless in his bed.
Now, that’s a Bad China Day.
Bad hangovers here should not really get much worse than having to answer the simple questions of expat life, “Do I know my address and is my Chinese good enough to get KFC delivered?” They should never require the sort of Chinese that involves explaining dead girls away to the cops. “Officer, this isn’t how it looks. I can explain…”
However, it is not usually tales of death and disaster that give expats a bad name. Instead, the main issue seems to be that they are deemed to be low-quality—a term bandied around both by middle-class Chinese and all manner foreigners, too. The specific accusation is that large swathes of foreigners are here because they are losers. That if it wasn’t for China, they would be back home burger-flipping in Cleveland. Instead, we are told that they are hanging out, doing jobs nobody else wants (teaching, token white-guy gigs) and screwing women when they couldn’t possibly get close to back home.
Who Are We So Far From Home?
Kernels of truth reside in everything, but in the main feature in this is an odd, unimaginative accusation. Surely, somebody that is struggling to get work and who then moves to another country for better opportunities, should be considered to be making a smart move, no? Better than sitting around on your ass all day, wondering what to do with your life. So, why the lazy snobbery?
Imagine someone ridiculing a Pakistani cab driver in New York in the same way: “He’s low quality and only in America because he can drive a taxi and earn easy money.” Well, duh! Fortunately, anyone remotely free thinking will give said taxi driver a pat on the back for chasing the American Dream.
If anything the immigrant (expat?) is a go-getter and a flamboyant adventure-seeker, desperately putting a bit of color into his life. Weird, perhaps, and never more than a few steps away from things going horribly—even dangerously—wrong. But, so what. Sure, we have our dark nights of the soul, but to be expatriated, to live in a strange foreign land, to step outside our comfort zone—now, that is quite a thing.