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What keeps foreigners in China?

2012-02-10 09:21     Web Editor: Su Jie comment

Many people are perplexed by the long term foreigner in China and their motivations for staying in China a period of many years. The complex reasons behind the seeming inability of some to leave China are best understood after having spent a little while in the country. Here we peer into the mind and motivations of the long term expat in China: what keeps them here, what are the advantages of sticking it out, what on earth are they thinking?

Western people are on the receiving end of a lot of benefits as residents of China. There are a lot of opportunities to do things that you would never accidentally walk into in another country. In China, as a foreigner, it's quite possible to come across work opportunities just walking down the street or being sat in a restaurant. Jobs seem to virtually drop from out of the sky. One is unlikely to find work as an investment banker through such channels; however there are definitely opportunities in China to earn a decent living, which are just not available back home, particularly in these times of economic hardship and apocalyptic financial gloom.

The one catch of this situation is that many of the jobs – English teaching, voice over work, acting, etc. – focus mainly on the person's ability to be his or her own skin color and to be proficient in his native tongue, (not such a difficult task, most would say) rather than on what they bring to the table in terms of skill or experience.

Along with employment opportunities there is the financial advantage of comparatively low living costs. People that may have struggled to rent an apartment the size of a shoebox in a big city in their home country are able to rent comfortable apartments, eat out whenever they feel like it and even have an ayi (a housekeeper who can do washing, cleaning, tidying and even cooking for them) to clear up after them, wash their clothes, and generally take care of them .

In addition to the concrete benefits of living in China, such as money and housing, there are also other aspects of living in China that appeal to some expats. Due to the relatively closed nature of China, foreigners are still on the fringes of society, rarely taking any role other than "observer." Being an observer rather than taking an active role is quite suited to the personalities of some expats, particularly those drawn to China. Some take this passivity to extremes, making little effort to learn the language and just relying on basics, grunting and hand gestures.

For many, it is a quite relaxing to be totally unaware of the conversations going on around them. Indeed, in my first year in China, with next to no language ability, I imagined Chinese people around me to be constantly dispensing pearls of ancient Chinese philosophical wisdom. Much to my dismay, when I learnt some more Chinese, that bubble burst and I came to realize that, unsurprisingly (in hindsight), monotonous conversations about which brand of snack food is best or which celebrity is dating which celebrity are just as rife in China as they are back home.

Fortunately, my disappointment at realizing that Chinese people are not the mysterious mythical creatures they are sometimes portrayed to be in pop culture and literature was outweighed by my new found satisfaction in learning to speak Chinese and read Chinese characters. This is another one of those factors that keeps people in China: once they begin the arduous but often rewarding task of learning Chinese, they feel that they cannot possibly leave until they have mastered it. Chinese being notoriously difficult to learn, this means that many who plan to be short term residents end up staying much longer than expected

Most people having been in China for any amount of time are familiar with the phrase "bad china day", which is ubiquitous in conversations amongst foreigners. The many challenges that people face as an expat in China add to a person's sense of achievement when they overcome them. Living in China is a unique experience and full of highs and lows – it may be delightful, it may be maddening, but it's never boring – for many this is a great draw and often one of the driving motivations behind their decision to stay in China for a number of years.

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