An Unhelpful Guide To Your Feelings About Living Abroad

Expat on the outside, Chinese on the inside?

Living abroad is/can be both a hellish nightmare and mesmerising paradise, a paradox incomprehensible to those who haven’t tried it (a holiday abroad DOES NOT count) and even less explicable to those right in the middle of it. The avalanche of ‘new’ and ‘different’ impressions in one’s current place of residence is, on occasion, enough to temporarily blow even the sanest person’s mind, in both a positive and negative way. If you stay close to home, adapting to a new country and a new lifestyle can be easier and quicker, but if you, like me, choose to move half way across the globe to a country that is so completely different to anything and everything you’re used to, you’ll inevitably find yourself floating somewhere between love and hate, mind you, not purposefully. Eventually one feeling can and will become stronger than the other and your decision to stay or leave, to fight or flee so to speak, will be based entirely on that. That’s at least my perception of the culture shock sensation, and the different depths to it.

As for me, I was in love with the place long before I actually stepped off a plane for the first time, although sometimes I wonder whether my judgement was clouded by the love for the guy I uprooted my life for. While I, after some soul-searching, have come to the conclusion that he played a strong part in my decision to move, and was at the time the deciding factor, he was by no means the sole reason why I moved. It had been on my agenda for quite some time, I’d just been too chicken to really do anything about it, but when tall, dark and handsome marched into my life, took possession of my heart and (temporarily) also my sanity, the decision to move was made in a heartbeat.

Well, how did I fall in love with China then? I think I can blame my dad for sowing the seed for that. His love for material arts movies and spring rolls got me interested in a culture so completely different to what I was used to. Watching Jackie Chan’s movies was our little thing, it meant quality father-daughter time (since mum couldn’t care less about a bunch of guys punching each other into oblivion), it meant endless cuddles, it meant laughter and bonding, it meant absolutely everything to me. While I admit that action movies don’t contribute much in terms of allowing you to expand your cultural knowledge, they certainly drew me into an unknown, mystic world. Sparks of curiosity result out of the weirdest situations…some matters are better left unquestioned!

Later on, when dad insisted I pursue the Chinese language, he sowed yet another seed that finally bloomed into an irresistible desire in late 2010 and came to fruition in early 2011. From then on, I suppose, I must blame my Chinese teachers for not only teaching me a language so completely different to anything I’d ever seen or heard, but also for their persistent, passionate crusade in getting me to appreciate the food, culture and traditional values they’d grown up with. They were by no means overbearing when it came to acclimatising me to their culture, but they both had this unique way of sucking me into their world, impressing me and awaking the overwhelming desire of curiosity inside of me. On the surface they were teaching me how to speak and write Mandarin Chinese, but on a closer look they gently sowed the seeds that would make me fall head over heels in love with a country sometimes so grossly misunderstood by not only most of the world but also by me, someone who’s been living in China for close to five years.

Whenever I’m asked what I like most about China, the answer inevitably differs based on how I feel that very moment. It is something I can’t quite control and I blame it entirely on the uniqueness and mysteriousness that China possesses so majestically. I frequently tell people that I just love the food, then again, I also tell them that love the language, the country and the people just as much. Sometimes I hesitate, unable to answer, and if you press I will tell you that I couldn’t possibly choose just one thing that I love about China, because there are just too many things I’m fiercely passionate about.

Why is it then, but I sometimes bulk at the mere idea of letting myself swept away by the irresistible pull China has on everyone who is just remotely passionate about it? I reckon it’s because the idea of losing complete control over the person I am most familiar with, the idea of becoming someone else entirely, influenced by the land I live in, the people I’m surrounded with, the culture I’ve learned to love and (mostly) accept and the traditions I’ve come to appreciate, it’s scary as hell. I feel stuck in limbo, curious enough to take a step forward but at the same time also not brave enough to let go of my safety net. It truly is a mind-blowing paradox.

Let me explain…or try to anyway.

While Chinese food brings me immense joy and pleasure and I am quite convinced that I couldn’t (or maybe wouldn’t) want to live without it, it has, on occasion, also brought me immense pain and tears. I hereby refer to the at least five occasions of horrible food positioning and adverse reactions to Chinese food I had over the years that all ended in A&E, getting emergency treatment from a bunch of doctors and nurses, utterly concerned over my inability to digest the food they’ve been eating since long before they could walk, yet at the same time truly amused by my insistence that Chinese food is more delicious than Western food.

While I’m passionate about learning Mandarin Chinese, and always strive to improve my skills, learn new words and phrases and reduce my grammar mistakes, I also find it frustrating when I listen to a conversation and understand absolutely nothing. I could tear out my hair when I try to improve my tones but fail over and over again and I get beyond frustrated when I’m misunderstood by the people around me.

I might be 100% certain that I’m using the correct words to express myself, it often becomes quite clear that the meaning of my word (or phrase/sentence) of choice is so far removed from what I intended to say, and I have to spend hours trying to explain myself. It is then that I just want to throw down the towel and surrender to my own lack of mastery of the language.

On the other hand, it is usually sometime around then that intrepid insanity kicks in and I involve myself in a debate, I couldn’t possibly win, and although I know the outcome (it’s always the same), I continue to refuse to give in or up. I’m usually so utterly intend on explaining myself that I don’t realise I’m in the middle of digging my very own grave until it’s too late and I’m up to my neck in dirt. When I do realise that I should I have chosen the high road, I tend to end up frustrated with myself and in desperate attempt to veil my own weakness, I lash out, inevitably causing even more damage than contributing to repairing a badly handled situation. I swear, sometimes I am my own worst enemy.

While I love Chinese people, their way of handling problems, matters of the heart and other everyday tasks is frequently beyond my comprehension since I’m just so used to doing things differently, and in my opinion, more effectively. I do try to understand, to make concessions, to see things from a different perspective, but, on the other hand, I am strong-willed and stubborn and understanding change and tolerating it, is by no means equivalent to being able to abide by it. I’m sharp-tongued, direct and criticising, and though I have no ill intentions, I frequently find myself being perceived as having negative character traits and it often makes me wonder whether it’s all worth it or whether I should just up and leave.

While I love the Chinese culture and its long-standing traditions, I must admit I’m also a very curious character and although quite accepting of change and tolerant of all things different, if I get, what I perceive to be an incomplete explanation of a certain way of doing things, I am reluctant to follow through on what is expected of me in certain situations, such as a traditional festival, a dinner or other quite Chinese things. On the surface I appear to be accepting, but on the inside, I’m fighting a wild battle of wills. Should I just abandon absolutely everything I believe in and have been brought up with and have experienced over the years and therefore believe to be right, or should I stand my own ground and insist that I have a point too, that what I have been brought up with, what have experienced over the years and therefore believe to be right, matters just as much? Most of the time, I go down the appear-to-be-accepting-route which results in me receiving frequent praise for my in-depth understanding of Chinese culture and my ability to adjust to it. While I don’t look the part, friends and acquaintances often refer to me as an ‘old-China-hand’, then turn around and look at me with disbelieving eyes when I do the exact opposite of what is expected of me.

Sometimes I think I might be so good at pretending to be Chinese, that people just roll with it, at times forgetting that I am not Chinese. On the outside I’m this outgoing, loud chick that loves to laugh and appears so utterly confident about anything and everything. On the inside, I tend to be nothing like that. I question, I dissect, I overthink… It’s just that hardly anyone gets to see both sides.

I act like them but I don’t think like them and that leaves me at an internal crossroads, fighting a battle between the worlds. One I’m so utterly used to that I don’t even have to think about how I handle certain situations and another that I apparently also appear to be extremely used to, and have a natural grip on, but that is in such dire contrast to everything I am, that the inner battle keeps raging on, regardless of my personal feelings about it.

There’s culture shock no matter which way you turn. Your mind bulks against just about everything and there are moments when you lose focus on who you are, you become this someone floating between two worlds, no, two universes, both pulling you into their direction, giving you little personal choice. Once one of them gains the upper hand, the other strikes in protest, unwilling to let go and allow such a profound change to your very core.

Looking at other expats in China, it seems that not everyone is fighting that hard of a battle. In some, it appears the ‘foreign’ character is more dominant, while others appear to seamlessly let go of their past and adapt to their future, blending in like it’s a piece of cake. It’s frustrating to find yourself stuck in a rut, unable to decide whether you should turn left or right, longing to turn both ways at the same time but realising that it isn’t possible. Lack of understanding from just about everyone around you, foreign or local, doesn’t make it any easier and frequently ends in arguments, disagreements and misunderstandings.

Apparently the ‘seven-year-itch’ isn’t just reserved for marriages, but also applies to living in another country. I am, however, two years short of being in China for seven years so what’s the timeline here? After how long do you get to the point where you need to make a decision about who you want to be going forward? And how the hell are you supposed to abandon the person who were for the quarter of a century in favour or rising from the ashes as someone completely new, as an overhauled version of yourself, effectively reborn with a new identity, belief system, character and even personality? Also, does being able to speak Chinese really make that much of a difference when it comes to living in China? Does it make adapting to a new lifestyle really that much easier? It seems that while it does, it, in hindsight, comes back to bite you in the behind.