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The China Expat in Exile

In answer to news of China's recent 'expat exodus,' an old China hand explores what it means for foreigners to have - or not to have - China as a home


The China Expat in Exile

In answer to news of China's recent 'expat exodus,' an old China hand explores what it means for foreigners to have - or not to have - China as a home


Nearly 10 years ago, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I were leaving China after a year there together. SARS had hit, our offices in Beijing’s Chaoyang district shut down, and we didn’t know what else to do with our lives even though I was fluent in Mandarin and a “Sinophile” who anticipated spending my life in China (my husband didn’t speak Mandarin but was willing to give China a try).

We were at the Beijing airport, carrying our adopted Siamese cat, Chairman Mao, through border patrol, when an older American woman, with short white hair and a face that showed its age, stopped us.

“I have a Siamese just like that,” she said. “He’s almost 20 now. I got him the first year I lived here.” The line around us was building and people had begun cutting and jostling us, a common occurrence in China that was exacerbated by the SARS-induced anxiety. The seemingly-kind expat woman suddenly and unexpectedly threw out her hands, eyes bulging.

“There’s a line here!” she shouted in Mandarin at a Chinese family, then cursed, in a not so whispered tone, that the “ta ma de” Chinese family needed to learn some “ta ma de” manners (one needn’t speak Chinese to infer the meaning).

I was appalled, but not particularly shocked, at the woman’s quick temper and rude discourse. She’d lived here for 20 years, I reasoned, she’s so over this place. Then why is she still here?

If you’re not part of the “Sinophile” community who cares about everything China, then you likely missed the recent media blitz about a number of departures from the mainland by prominent Chinese expats. The inciting flame was a Prospect Magazine essay by Mark Kitto, the founder of several popular Chinese publications, about why he’s leaving after 16 years (among other things, he cites the crude pursuit of capitalistic gains, the bureaucracy and the one-dimensional educational system). Chris Devonshire-Ellis, founder of one of Asia’s largest law firms, Dezan Shira & Associates, also announced his departure. In response, Mitch Moxley, an expat journalist in Beijing, mockingly highlighted the long list of expat gripes in a Huffington Post blog. China Geeks founder Charlie Custer left earlier in the summer, citing a desire to be back in the States (and not his public tiff with China Central Television’s Dialogue host—and apparent xenophobe—Yang Rui). Finally, the New York Times published “Heading for the Exit in China” noting that despite how much he’d like to, Ai Weiwei can’t leave. Less recently, Peter Hessler, former New Yorker China correspondent and author of bestselling books on China, including “River Town,” left for Colorado and now lives in Cairo, a far cry from Beijing.

To add to the storm, the announced departures have ruffled the feathers of some expats who find life in China just peachy. Comments to Kitto’s article include one posted by “Andy the Expat,” that reads, “Sure, leave China, it’s better off without you.” A similar sentiment entitled “Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out” is expressed on the China Law Blog.

For me, a “Sinophile” safely removed from the China hubbub at home in Los Angeles, the debate got me thinking about what it means to be a China expat, and how so many of us, particularly those of us fluent in Mandarin who make a living in a career related to China, aren’t necessarily part of this exodus. Perhaps, I “left” China a long time ago, or rather, it left me. But this never meant that my relationship with China was more or less “valid” than anyone else who spent long stretches of time there. I do not permanently live in China, and have not done so for a few years, but every day I speak Chinese, write about China, and return frequently to a home that has been exactly that to me—a home—since 1996.

Alexander von Humboldt, whose thirst for a life less ordinary spurred him to leave his native Prussia

In an autobiographical note written in 1801 in South America, Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt specified his motive for traveling: “I was spurred on by an uncertain longing to be transported from a boring daily life to a marvelous world.” I sympathize: the “boring daily life” was one I’d lived during my childhood in New Hampshire. I’d never left the US, so when my high school offered me the chance to study Chinese, I jumped at it. Same went for the opportunity to live for four months with a Chinese family in Beijing in 1996, to write about travel in Manchuria for “Let’s Go: China,” to study at Beijing University, to research Chinese baseball, to write a novel about China, and so on.

The China I met in the mid-‘90s was caught between its Communist past and its capitalist yearnings: in Beijing, bicycles still plied the streets en masse, but “breadbox” taxis (open-bed vans with wooden benches as seats) also swung around the Third Ring Road (back then, the Fourth Ring was barely finished—now there are six rings pressing into the ever-expanding suburbs).

What had I wanted from China? I suppose I wanted to know its workings inside and out, like we hope to know a new love. There was, without voicing it, this idea of an “authentic” experience—just as Mark Kitto writes that he will never “be Chinese,” I wanted China to love me back as much as I loved it. But what is the authentic China and how can we be Chinese? Is it living in a Beijing hutong?  Is it living in a Shanghai serviced apartment? Is it living in the countryside? (I’m so insanely jealous of Hessler’s country house and Kitto’s Moganshan hideaway I’ve contemplated kidnapping my husband and forcing him to live off the land in Xishuangbanna.)

The truth is, to name a thing is not to own it, but to believe we can understand the incomprehensible. For proof, the notion that present-day China represents the “reality” of the country is foolish to start—its ever-shifting historical borders prove how fresh modern China is; as a nation-state known as the People’s Republic, it has only been in existence for 63 years. Even the official language, Mandarin, is a project enforced by a party eager to simplify and control communication; a visit to anywhere other than the northeast will prove your hold on the Chinese tongue to be slippery and fleeting indeed.

Is this the real China? But even Beijing's hutongs have been given a revamp

In a flailing attempt to understand China over the past two decades, I’ve attacked it from every angle: as travel writer, student, lover, English teacher, capitalist, television producer, musician, anthropologist, scholar, blogger, novelist. If you’d asked 16-year-old me where I would be when I was 32, I would likely have said I’d be living in China, single but with a slew of attractive Chinese and expat men at hand, and a successful career that incorporates speaking Chinese and knowing China well. Instead, I’m living in California, married, with a nascent, but hopeful writing career. The China I once expected to live in would’ve looked exactly like the one I knew as a teenager: small alleyways I’d bike down in the evenings, homing pigeons whistling overhead, neighbors who’d known each other for decades, children playing in hushed courtyards. No Starbucks. No Hooters. No traffic jams. No internet. No English. Few foreigners. Millions of bicycles.

The strange, yet somehow comforting thing is that of all my American and European friends fluent or near-fluent in Chinese who lived with me in China in the ‘90s and studied Chinese subjects, none still live in the mainland: there’s a Chinese shadow puppeteer in Minnesota; a human rights lawyer in New York; a global business manager in London; the founder of a Chinese consulting firm in Vienna; manager of a tree nut business in Bhutan; a non-profit director in D.C.; a Chinese-to-Polish translator in Warsaw. Ironically perhaps, my closest friend currently living in China was transferred there for work—she lives the true expat life with a first-class Shanghai apartment overlooking the Bund, a driver, all the perks. She’s never taken the subway or a bus and rarely eats Chinese food.

The old Silk Market as it appeared in its heyday before eventually being demolished in 2005

As for myself, I never spend more than a year away from China, and still consider Beijing a home, albeit a fickle, transitive one.  Whenever I return, I am stymied by the changes: where I once bicycled down hutong alleyways to my high school, there is now a four-lane highway and a Holiday Inn—and don’t get me started about the new Silk Market that is no longer a narrow row of outdoor street stalls, but a sparkling indoor mall. Or the  Hooters across the street and nearby Nobu (?!) where my brother, a Singapore-based tech entrepreneur, once ate an extravagant sushi meal courtesy of Jackie Chan, new king of Beijing real estate. But who am I to complain? Who I am to say what the “real” Beijing is, or, for that matter, the “real” China?

Some years back, I shared a coffee with John Pomfret, author of the memoir “Chinese Lessons” and former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief. Pomfret lived in China when the country first opened to foreigners; I was insanely jealous of this, cursing my parents for birthing me in 1980 in New Hampshire and not earlier, or, better yet, in China. When I talked to him with nostalgia about China of the mid ‘90s, he said, “Oh, you should have seen China in the ‘80s! Now that was China!”

I think what we China hands are doing here is trying to name the nameless. We fell in love with an idea, and maybe the idea didn’t end up as lovely as we’d hoped. Or maybe that idea was lovely to us then, when we were younger, when China was less globally known and explored, when we were feeling our way into the world like toddlers groping at every tangible object, gripping the shiny stone, holding it to our eyes, sucking on it with an eager, unformed palate. We wanted to taste everything. We wanted everything always to be this new, this lovely, this unknowable.

But then we lived with that stone for a while. We became fluent in its language, its customs. We drank its stomach-curdling erguotou, ate at its unsanitary night markets, dated the locals, spit in trashcans, picked up smoking. But was this the way to our lover’s heart? Was this being Chinese?

This isn’t to say I haven’t thrown my tantrums like the older expat leaving during SARS, haven’t shouted at a taxi driver when he took the wrong turn, thrown an elbow or two when boarding the bus outside Deshengmen, or protested the pollution on my blog and the local BBS. But maybe all of this is what makes me Chinese, what makes us all Chinese. Or, if we really want to be Chinese, perhaps we should take a page from my Chinese homestay father’s handbook. When I complained about the pollution on a hazy Beijing day last May, he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head as if to say, “What is a 73-year-old ex-bookkeeper to do about such grand matters as the weather?”

For older generations in China, the pace and scale of development has left them behind: the “China” they grew up with, their one and only homeland, has proved the futility of individual desire and the necessity to keep one’s mouth firmly shut. My Chinese homestay mother, who died from cancer the year after I lived with her, told me she was content simply to have a roof over her head, food on her table and family by her side. Her daughter’s generation, birthed in the midst of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policies, schooled in post-Tiananmen nationalism and obsessed with scoring a coveted investment banking position at Goldman Sachs, clearly feels otherwise.

Still, we can’t sit back and let China go to the dogs, either. Just as we would expect a loved one not to be cruel to strangers, I think it’s critical we continue to expect a lot of China, to call her out when she fails us.[1] But perhaps we can do this best when we have some distance; are capable of better seeing the nuances, the challenges, and the opportunities when we’re straddling borders.

Last year, after nearly two decades straddling a life in China (where I had a host family, a second home, an adopted language and countless memories) and one in the US (where I had similar ties, but now, notably, a husband—the same man who accompanied me to China early in our relationship), I was offered a position to host a nationally-broadcast television program for China Central Television. Although I was a full-time writer with a novel represented by a New York agent, the lure to return to China, and in such a unique position, was undeniable. I accepted the on-air position, prepared to return to China for at least six months, potentially a year, while my new husband, my cat and the home we’d built would remain in Los Angeles. I was headstrong to commit to my long-lost love and to become a media personality (like the famous Canadian known as “Da Shan,” one of China’s most beloved foreign TV personalities, who, incidentally, lives permanently in Canada these days).

But after checking my luggage on the Air China flight bound for Beijing, I stood outside the security checkpoint, my husband leaning against our car on the curb. He planned to meet me in Beijing a week later; we’d spent stretches as long as two months apart, so a week shouldn’t have been a challenge. Still, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t will myself to walk away. Something about my return to China, as a CCTV mouthpiece, as a woman living alone in Beijing, felt incredibly wrong. It wasn’t that China wasn’t a home for me, it was just that I now had two very distinct homes, and I couldn’t live alone in one of them for any significant stretch of time.

Just an hour before boarding, I returned to the car, and my husband drove us away from the airport. When I informed the CCTV staff (who I’d met in person months earlier) about my decision, they didn’t respond to my email. Like a lover spurned, I knew: in China, there are many fish in the sea, a whole host of recently-spawned hatchlings fumbling their way through the language, exploring its famous dishes, meeting its people in back alleyways, or more likely, in a Starbucks, who’d all jump at the opportunity to host a Chinese TV program. It wasn’t that China wasn’t mine anymore—because no one can take away or even replicate the experiences I’ve had, and continue to have, there. But maybe, I realized, I’ve grown up enough to realize that China cannot be what I always wanted her to be: timeless, unique, removed from the “boring daily life” I’d known at home in the US.

In recognizing the transitory nature of place, I recall Lao Tzu’s sage advice: “Those who look down upon this world will surely take hold and try to change things. But this is a plan I’ve always seen fail.” To those expats who’ve made their departure, you can rest assured that now, more than ever, you’ll understand China, because it is always in leaving a place that we truly come to see it, recognizing how small we are when compared to its grandeur, how futile we often are when compared to its might.

When I called my Chinese father, the same man who’d walked with me down my wedding aisle months earlier, to tell him I’d turned down the CCTV job, he said, “That’s too bad.” He paused a beat then asked, “So when are you coming back?”

“Soon,” I said. “Soon.”

Kaitlin Solimine is the author of “Let’s Go China” and award-winning forthcoming novel “Empire of Glass,” for updates on her publications and further info please visit www.kaitlinsolimine.com.


                [1] I am using the proverbial “she” here as that which we refer to as the “Motherland” is similarly gendered.