Foreigners in China share whether there is an ‘expat bubble’ and how to deal with it

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/14 18:33:39

Some expats from Western countries say that the expat bubble is more prominent in China, due to the big cultural gap and the "foreigner privileges." Photo: Li Hao/GT

The "expat bubble" is a long-held myth which refers to foreigners living in a country only making friends with each other and rarely coming out of their comfort zone to explore the local culture. But to Juli Bradley, 54, president of local expat organization the International Newcomers' Network (INN), the bubble is real.  

With grown-up children who are not in China, the Bradley couple live in the hip, bustling neighborhood of Sanlitun in a compound that accommodates both locals and expats. "We want to experience the city and what it has to offer," she said.

Many of Bradley's friends have children and they choose to live in expat-majority neighborhoods in Shunyi district, where they can be close to international schools and other facilities which make them feel more like home.

According to expats Metropolitan talked to, in some of the "expat neighborhoods," you can almost see bubbles in the air surrounding some foreigners - those who walk around sipping their Starbucks coffee and talk about the few expat restaurants and pubs, and refuse to speak Chinese.

Nobody would admit that they are inside the bubble, the expats told Metropolitan, but everybody is at different stages of coming out of the bubble.

Is the bubble real?

In choosing to stay in or getting out of the bubble, the job and age play a crucial role. For instance, Bradley finds it is easier for the younger generation of expats to mingle with the local culture through clubbing or karaoke. "They are usually more open and adaptable."

But in the end, it all boils down to whether one is interested in the local culture and how keen they are to be a part of the culture. The majority of expats are on their way breaking outside of the expat bubble, Bradley said. "The majority I personally know came here with the same vision, to see and learn." 

Bradley came to Beijing in 2013 when her husband took a work assignment in China.

She remembers when her husband first left Beijing on a business trip, she felt very anxious. "How do I get my groceries" and "how do I figure out transportation," she wondered. "But once I am out there, the rest is fairly simple from there."

Chinese food allures expats like the Bradley couple to get out more. "The food here is phenomenal and we can never get back to the Chinese food we had back home." They also drive their electric scooters instead of a car.

Being outside of the bubble means not only getting out of the house and mingling, but also contributing to and interacting with the society and enjoying it. That is what INN helps expats with. "When we first come here, we are all trying to find other expats. Because in the beginning you are trying to stay in your comfort zone before going out on your own to explore," said Bradley.

Complex terrain

Bradley thinks that compared to being an expat in other places such as European countries, China means more exploring, adapting, and comprehending to get out of the bubble. "It takes a while to understand the culture and life. In the beginning, foreigners can't find Chinese people to answer their many questions so they can learn more about the life and culture better."

For expats like Bradley, the challenge lies in making good Chinese friends. She finds that a lot of Chinese people she knows are curious and inquisitive about foreigners and their lifestyles back in their home countries. But she also realizes it is difficult to find some Chinese people who want to associate with the outside world or are very comfortable working with the outside world. "It's especially so for my husband. I have met many Chinese people to work with through INN," she explained.

According to data by global expat network InterNations, the "expat bubble" stereotype might be outdated. About 33 percent of the surveyed expats say they are mostly friends with other expats, and 19 percent with mainly locals, while 48 percent mix with both. And for those with mostly expat friends, the main reasons are cultural issues (44 percent), language barrier (36 percent) and having mostly expat colleagues (39 percent).

For 29-year-old French Isabel Romane, it's the "expat privileges" that make it harder for expats to even want to come out of the bubble.

"It's the English logos and banners on the street, and the free drinks and complementary food you get simply for being a 'foreigner' [that make expats feel privileged]," she said. Many foreigners including herself feel they are very welcome in China. "Even though in big cities like Beijing, you don't get stared at or asked to pose for photos any more, you still feel very welcome, because you'll find the Chinese people want to make friends with you and are 'proud' to have foreign friends."

Romane had lived in other countries before coming to China in 2016. She feels that the bubble is especially prominent here. She noted that one of the reasons is that there's a big expat population, making it easy to survive without knowing the language or having any local friends. Another is the high demand for foreign employees.

"Foreigners don't lose jobs because they can always teach English, or do 'modeling' jobs," she added.

Big city bubbles

According to 26-year-old American Michael Kurtagh, it's a different case for international students.

"It's a lot better since you have classmates from other countries and have a lot of opportunities to interact with people outside of the bubble. For foreigners working in China it's a lot easier to get stuck in the bubble because you might be in an all English-speaking environment," he said. Kurtagh majors in economics and has been in China for three years.

"For me I never really was in the bubble, from the start I reached out to native Chinese and people from other countries rather than limiting myself to American or other Western friends," he said. Like many people here, Kurtagh believes that it's important to get the real experience of living in another country, and being inside the bubble puts a limit to what expats can see and understand.

But he does know a number of foreigners who choose to stay inside. Most of them find the cultural differences too difficult to handle, and others are short-term expats. "Their company or school forced them to come rather than because they have interests in the country." 

Kurtagh noted that the bubble only forms in big cities. "It's especially easy to get stuck in the bubble in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou (Guangdong Province)," he said. He explained that the bigger cities have large expat populations and a lot of restaurants and other expat-friendly facilities catering to them, while in smaller cities, there simply aren't enough expats to create the bubble.

To break out of the expat bubble, people are advised to learn the language and make local friends. Photo: Li Hao/GT


Breaking out

Expats interviewed by Metropolitan have different views when it comes to whether or not the bubble will stay in future.

Kurtagh thinks it's increasingly easier to remain within the bubble, due to the ever growing support system for expats. "Today it's incredibly easy," he said, "but 30 years ago, I imagine it was much more difficult to find foreign products and places that catered to foreigners."

Others argue that there's a growing resistance against expats staying in the bubble. Romane thinks that the laowai privileges will eventually be gone.

"Expats won't be forgiven merely because they are the 'cute, ignorant' laowai any more," she said. Only hardworking people with educational background and expertise in the most needed areas can find their place, she added.  

In the past few years, many expats have been adapting to the world outside of the bubble while they experienced great changes in Chinese society, including how mobile Internet connects people and the growing economy that offers more jobs and opportunities to foreign talents.

Many expats find the recent demolition and renovation of shops and eateries alongside the streets in Beijing changing their life greatly. "I feel sad to see some old markets and great little eateries gone," Bradley said. But the bright side is that such changes push more expats out of their comfort zone, Bradley said, and new expat-friendly communities are forming.

Bradley advises to simply take the first step. "If you can just get yourself outside of the door, the rest of it will be easy. It might sound simplistic and child-like but just take yourself outside of the door. Your survival instinct will take you further."

Signs that you are in a bubble

1. You refuse to use squat toilet.

2. You never learn how to use chopsticks.

3. You don't have even one Chinese friend - personal friend, not work friend.

4. You live in an overpriced expat-majority compound, and you have a driver or you ride in a taxi all the time.

5. You rarely go anywhere else than your home, work, the one place you order your take-out food, and you blame it on the air.

6. You still can't speak Chinese and constantly block information out, and you blame it on the language being difficult. 

7. You've been to the Great Wall once, and that's it for traveling.

Liu Yufei contributed to the story.
Newspaper headline: Are you in or out?


blog comments powered by Disqus