Re-Americanization: life of a former expat

By Shannon Fagan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/28 20:28:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

After marking my fifth-year anniversary in Beijing last year, I decided to embark on a journey back to the US. It was a bittersweet choice. Thirteen months later, my heart is still heavy. Now, I am still considering if I left China at the most opportune time, if "re-Americanizing" my business has tied correctly to my personal life and if I have missed out on life in Beijing.

While I could discuss to some considerable length any one of these above topics, I would say the impact that my work experience in Beijing had on my competitive ability to re-enter the US successfully is the most overarching. 

Previous to Beijing, I spent 10 years working in New York City. I compare this time to my personal growth while in China. Beyond the countless conversations with expats which corroborated my feelings about trying to "fit in," mocking the phrase "have your cake and eat it too," and understanding Chinese cultural values, I began to wonder what actual definable skills I could put to use in my future career back in the US.

Firstly, the overall US economy is generally distrusting of Chinese businesses, politics and social structures. To the US, although I'm being slightly facetious, China is Asia and Asia is everything west of LA. There is a lack of appreciation for the day-to-day routine that is held in Beijing by enterprising foreigners seeking success on the other side of the world. Due to the natural economic gaps between the marketplace in the US and China, former China-based expats find themselves "re-tooling," a demoralizing exercise, in order to re-Americanize their work experiences.

Simply put, when arriving back home, there is a significant amount of working one's way back up again, which leaves one feeling culturally "out-of-it" in one's home country. For example, one recent returnee told me his MBA from China's prestigious Peking University was largely unrecognized by hiring managers in the prowess of Manhattan. This is concerning since New York City is arguably one of the most China-driven US cities.

Secondly, life as an expat in China was at times isolating and demoralizing because doing the simplest things, such as ordering at Starbucks, was confusing, but so was the fact that American businesses would house development experts in five-star apartments lining the Third Ring Road, which is far-removed from daily Beijing life.

Another observation is adjustments to Chinese social media and website usage, which is essential to Western businesses' success in China. Former expats can easily return home as Baidu, WeChat Pay and Weibo experts due to the high reliance on such digital networks in China. But it is exasperating to realize that such essentials are not household names in the US - not to mention that Americans returning home will discover a shift in national politics in the aftermath of Trump's inauguration. 

My last observation is tied to my second one. Expats in China gain a deep first-hand appreciation as to what it feels like, and what it means to be, a far removed outsider in practically every waking moment, in most daily interactions, for an extended period of time.

For Americans, this is not common in our upbringing and is certainly not the life skills that one typically seeks. We tend to lack true niches and hands-on abilities that are seen in some of China's most enterprising families. American Senator Ben Sasse recently addressed this "softening" of America through an inspection of what it means to come of age in his book The Vanishing American Adult. 

Americans bartering at the differences seen in China are provided with a deep enrichment in what it means, again, to be an immigrant in a new environment. They tend to grow up quickly or go home.

To the expat returning home, China's learned experiences manifest themselves slowly over time in a revelation that is both self-inquisitive and contemplative to a question as to why did any of us seek this often-difficult experience in the first place? In an attempt to address this question, I returned recently to Beijing to wander the former back alleyways that I once called home. 

What I found amongst all the changes that had taken place in such a short amount of time was a sense of longing. 

I stood silently in tears in front of my old apartment residence, because it was where my dreams once lived. There is one more thing that China provides expats with: pride.

The author is a business owner in the commercial photography industry and consultant with Beijing Golden Orient International Education Exchange.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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