My time in China has gone a little something like this – in years one and two, I loved it and couldn’t get enough of it. But in years three and four, my frustrations grew. I’ve now become jaded and sometimes just want to get out. It’s terrible, I know. I should cherish these special China moments because one day I’ll surely miss them. With this in mind I scoured the internet, interviewed friends that have left and reminded myself of experiences from my own trips home, with a view to find out what 10 things expats miss about China when they leave. By the end I realized I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to all these aspects of an expat life in China.
1) There is just nothing quite like food in China
As unsafe and unappetizing as it might sometimes be, you’d be surprised by the foods you will manage to find a craving for when they’re no longer available. Getting the wide range of Chinese food back home is almost impossible. If we find an authentic Chinese restaurant, it will likely serve up the standard fare and ignore the many local delicacies which we have come to love and hate with equal measure.
Food is central to Chinese culture and the way people socialize. Some of my favorite China memories were formed with friends in those long alleyways filled with mysterious-yet-tasty delights or in private rooms, the table groaning with dishes. We all have at least one dive restaurant located near our flats that we love though we’re not sure why. Well, it seems that when you head home you become acutely aware of why you loved it.
2) The cushy hours
I think most people will agree that the life of an expat in China is a fairly cushy one, and unsurprisingly, it is a lifestyle sorely missed after returning home to a hectic, demanding and stressful one. This is particularly true of the English teachers who earned a decent salary and worked a convenient schedule. Many now fondly look back on how easy it was to travel around Asia because of good pay and long holidays.
3) The buzz of life
The buzz of life in China is best exampled by ‘the blood sport that is grocery shopping’ as one blogger put it. There is constant activity, sound, movement and light here. You can’t escape it, and while it may drive you mad as you head into the market on a Saturday morning to just pick up some eggs to deal with your hangover, when you return home you remember that it was very difficult to feel bored here. A fact some become very aware of as they sit in suburbia back home.
4) The conveniences
We may complain about bureaucracy and how getting things done can take forever, but it turns out that China offers up a number of day-to-day conveniences. For example, having an ayi, being able to find things at any hour of the day, and of course, the delivery services. Whether it’s McDonald’s or a beer and a pack of smokes, anything can be delivered in China. Heck even the postal carriers will come to your house to pick up the birthday card you’re sending to mom.
5) Taxi drivers
There is nothing quite like the near-death thrill ride of taking a taxi, and the interactions you’ll have with taxi drivers. Whether its memories of them guessing your nationality, not having a clue where they are going and yelling at you because of it, giving you their life story in incomprehensible Chinese, smoking up a storm with the windows closed or coming out with flawless English, the taxi drivers in China will surely hold a special place in your heart.
6) The cost of living
Despite inflating prices, most things are still relatively cheap when living on a ‘foreigner’s pay’ in China. I know I’ll definitely miss paying $400 a month to live in a great location, spending around $50 a month on utilities (cell phone and internet included), taking a taxi anywhere and spending less than $5, and even hiring a cross-country moving service for a mere $50 (plus $10 for the man who carries it upstairs). Then there are the dinners that can be eaten for just a dollar if you so wish and the bottles of beer that can be purchased for a fraction of that and even consumed in public without breaking the law.
7) The vast amount of cheap services and goods
Connected to the cost of living are all the other services such as haircuts, massages, facials, and so on that can be enjoyed at an unbelievably low cost in China. A lot of the blogs of expats who moved back home, said they were really missing the cheap massages. A former coworker of mine emailed to say she misses the fabric market more than anything. She was there every week getting a new tailored dress, coat, or suit made at ridiculously low prices. I still don’t know how she managed to fit them in her suitcases. Oh that’s right, she had 10 of them.
Finally, we can’t forget to mention the cheap movies, CDs, software, and electronic gadgets that people swoon over. As well as the name-brand goods that are found in the night markets and off-the-beaten-path shops at a fraction of the retail price. Yes many of them are fake, but after a life in China, one tends to embrace the fake and be proud of your ‘good’ fakes.
8) The locals
In conducting my research, I found that the charm and occasional absurdness of the locals was a common response when considering what people miss about China. The curiosity, helpfulness, and genuineness of the Chinese people is often longed-for after expats have left. As is the ruthlessness, inquisitiveness, odd behaviors, and even the stares. That’s not to mention the fighting over minuscule matters, budging in lines, and occasional disregard for the world around them. Consider for a moment your favorite street vendors or fruit and vegetable peddlers, how much will you miss them after you go? I know I’ll definitely miss all the random relationships I’ve developed with everyone from security guards to minivan drivers. And remember there is no where else in the world where you will see two old men walking backwards down the street carrying chihuahuas, having a heated argument while chain smoking, dressed in fluffy pyjamas and shower shoes.
9) The perks of being foreign
There’s no doubt that life is generally easier (maybe even more interesting) for foreigners in China. We are able to experience life as a bumbling outsider–something that can be so profound and so humbling. We have fewer obligations, more special treatment, and benefit from a greater willingness of people to help you. This fairly unreasonable ‘elite’ status is definitely missed by many former China expats. One blogger missed the respect and even celebrity-style treatment that was awarded to him and his girlfriend simply for being foreign. Another tall, blonde foreigner missed the feeling of being unique in China and regularly being told she’s beautiful, unlike at home where she just blends in with all the rest. Then there’s the ultimate ‘Sorry-I’m in China!’ excuse that one blogger loved using to get away with social and civic laziness both in the mainland and back at home. I’ve even used it to get myself off the hook. Family trip to Dollywood? Shoot, too bad I’m stuck here in China.
10) The language
Some expats make learning the language a priority and really miss being able to use it after they move on to other countries or head back home. Then there are the others who don’t bother to learn it at all and because of that, tend to live in a big bubble of ignorance. As one former expat puts it, spending ten minutes in front of the tabloids at the grocery store back home makes him miss the golden days of blissful illiteracy that defined his life in China. Not knowing the language means not having to overhear things you don’t want to overhear.
So it seems things in China really aren’t that bad. All the odd and amusing absurdities might not hold much value now, but they will surely serve as a source of joy as well as longing later in life. So be sure to take them all in!