After living in China for years, some expats feel they do not fit in at home or abroad

By Liu Meng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/25 17:03:40

Many expats say they get stuck in a cultural limbo after working and living in China for years. Photo: VCG

When 48-year-old American Daniel Maldonado went back to visit his hometown in New York City, he did not feel relief from homesickness. Instead, he suffered from a longing for China - "missing China syndrome."

"I missed Chinese food and needed to constantly go to China Town. It is not the same food, but it is the same taste," said Maldonado, who has been a college teacher in China for eight years.

For Maldonado, having a Chinese wife has sped up his assimilation into Chinese society. But he has not been as mesmerized by local culture as he expected, and he is still a laowai, a word whose meaning he does not like.

"In New York, when I get pissed off, I raise my voice, and New Yorkers don't care. But in China, Chinese people look at me," he said. "I have always felt alienated and between two worlds."

Recently, a comedy video titled Nobody cares that you lived in Asia released on video-sharing website on January 15, has become popular. In an ironic and exaggerated way, it features two American men who returned to New York from China.

In the five-minute-long video, one man said to the other that he is having trouble "coming back" and even resorted to seeing a therapist about it. They both felt that New York is nice, but they just miss feeling unique in China.

They were sharing their sadness when two Chinese girls walked past. They excitedly followed the girls, trying to show off their Chinese in front of them to attract the girls' attention. In the end, when the girls complimented the two Americans saying, "Your Chinese is good," they finally retrieved the "unique feeling" they desired and even burst into tears in each other's arms.

China's fast economic growth and plethora of job opportunities keep attracting foreign workers to the country. Although they are financially secure, some of them have found that they are getting confused about their identity. Like Maldonado and the guys in the video, many expats get stuck in a cultural limbo. Living here for years, they cannot identify with Chinese people. But at the same time, they feel they can no longer fit in with their own culture. Metropolitan talked with several expats who share their sentimental nostalgia and ways to better blend into the local culture.

Caught in between

Living in Beijing for 10 years, David, an American who works as a management consultant, said he is equally apprehensive about whether he can easily fit back into his own culture.

China has changed some of his perspectives, for example, the value attached to the family.

"The concept of family does not mean only parents, spouses or children. It extends to grandparents, in-laws and much more. This has such a big impression on me that I would perhaps not fit into the very nuclear family concept in the US," he said.

With poor Chinese skills, David often encounters cross-cultural conflicts and problems. At work, his Chinese colleagues and even external agencies do not reply to his emails or messages if the answer is a "no."

"To me, it means they are ignoring me. But in their mind, it is a polite way to avoid confrontation," he explained.

In meetings where David is the only foreigner, his colleagues listen to his suggestions without any reaction. They listen expressionlessly and hardly act on his recommendations. He said that over a period of time, it becomes frustrating and often forces him to remain quiet.

David said he also seems to be losing his sense of humor and wit in China. He has forgotten how to laugh loudly at ludicrous jokes or impress others with his sense of humor as he did in his home country. His colleagues just do not appreciate or perhaps understand his jokes.

"I guess humor is perceived differently here. I have to control myself in China," he said.

"I find myself keeping my feet in two boats at the same time, the Chinese culture on one side and my country on the other. I sometimes feel I am half-Chinese and half-Westerner. I have been transformed."

Maldonado agreed with David.

He said that sometimes he does not feel entirely accepted by Chinese society. But whether he is accepted or not, he does his best to eat in Chinese, think in Chinese and feel in Chinese.

"Now I find myself in sports rooting for China over the US. I think it means I'm proud and finally adapting," he said.

Some expats say that learning Chinese, making friends or falling in love with locals and traveling around the country can help foreigners feel less and less nostalgic. Photo: IC

Not quite Chinese

"If someone wants to adapt to the culture of any other country, he or she has to sacrifice a lot of things from his or her own culture," said Fazal Ilahi, a 24-year-old Pakistani who is in his second year of studying Chinese at Beijing Language and Cultural University.

Ilahi said he spent almost 22 years adapting to his own culture, and it is very difficult for him to adapt to another culture in just two years.

"When you adapt to any culture, or you try to fit into a society that is totally different from your own, you will try to escape from your roots, and in the end, you forget who you are and where you are from. And when people return to their societies, they face a lot of problems to settle themselves," he said.

Ilahi believes that language learning plays an important role in causing expats to feel confused about their identity. Language learning affects your mind, your thinking style and your approach to life, he said.

"Every year thousands and thousands of students come to China to learn the Chinese language. When they learn the language, this directly affects their mind," he explained.

On the online conversation forum Reddit, a foreigner named Blaze Miskulin, posted a comment under the topic of cultural limbo, saying that as a second-generation American, he feels that Americans do not experience being in a cultural limbo as much as those from other countries.

He said, "Over the years, I've talked with and become friends with a fair number of immigrants (to the US) from all over the world, and the feelings they express seem to be the same. They remember where they came from. They're proud of where they came from. They hold on to many aspects of their culture, but they are 'American' or 'Canadian.' A foreigner could live in China for 50 years, and I don't think they'd ever be 'Chinese.'"

David said he could not agree with the comment more. He said that it might be easier to fit into a country that has diverse cultures.

"The US is a boiling pot for different cultures whereas China opened up to foreign cultures just a few decades back," he said.

"I personally think that it would be impossible for an American or a Westerner to fully imbibe Chinese culture in the true sense. It is a matter of an international mindset that is flexible and broad-based versus the Chinese mindset, which is deeply rooted in traditional cultural values."

Feeling less and less nostalgic

David said his long stay in China is owed a lot to his adaptability to Chinese culture. He has worked in several Chinese companies, has a good working relationship with the locals, and has been a part of their festivities, baiju (Chinese?white?liquor) parties and other cultural events.

But in his opinion, this adaptability is more for survival than changing his psyche or the way he thinks.

"I love China and Chinese culture, but there is something of the Western world in me, which won't leave me so easily," said David. "One half of me is lost in the China years. I even started looking like a white Chinese with blonde hair. I don't belong anywhere. Sometimes China attracts me, sometimes I feel like running away."

Nowadays, David prefers to go with the flow. He is not sure about his next step, to stay in China or return to his home country.

Josh Bernstein, an American who has been in China for more than 12 years and married to a Chinese woman, is now in Beijing with his family. He said in terms of his own and Chinese culture, he feels he fits into both and the key lies in his efforts in trying to blend in with Chinese culture as much as possible.

He said that it helps for foreigners to read and watch documentaries about China and Chinese culture before coming to China and that when they come, they should try to make friends with Chinese people.

"I studied about China before coming. I have a Chinese family and hope to stay in China long-term. I always try to learn and take part in all different parts of Chinese life and culture," said Bernstein.

Maldonado is more relaxed toward his cultural nostalgia. Being married to a Chinese woman for eight years, he has felt that the longer one lives in one single place, the longer one adapts to it.

"There's a point when you have to 'man-up' and say, either I let the nostalgia bother me or I ignore it. I choose to ignore such feelings because I get a greater satisfaction of love from the people around me. I learn something in this country almost every day," he said, adding that learning the language, falling in love with a Chinese woman or man, and traveling around the country can all help one feel more culturally accepted.

Ilahi is also optimistic about fitting in better with the Chinese culture. He said that the Chinese government has started a lot of projects to promote Chinese culture.

"The big example is the Belt?and Road initiative. The Chinese government is doing their job very well, which will open a new era to showcase the Chinese culture to the world," he said.

"Chinese society is changing little by little. The more China becomes a plural society, foreigners [if they are open-minded] will feel nostalgic less and less," said Maldonado.


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