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LAST WORD: Missing China
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Missing China

By Mike Cormack

BT 201703 LAST WORD 01Recently I spoke to some long-term expats to ask why they had stayed so long in China and how they had made their lives here. But what about the moment when you decide to leave? We've all heard of the reverse culture shock, I'm sure - the feeling that things back home have become alien and unfamiliar after an extended time living in China. Is there more to it than that initial wave of estrangement, though? What are the things people truly miss about living in China and which would make them consider returning?

I spoke to a number of people who had returned after long-term life in China, in Tianjin, Beijing and beyond, and have compiled their comments into a series of areas they most miss. Here are some aspects of life that you just can't seem to capture anywhere else -

Energy and vitality

With its enormous cities and still fairly-rapidly growing economy (Tianjin's economy still grew at over 9% in 2015), China is still a country buzzing with possibility and development. This can be a gloriously heady feeling, and something you probably just can't get in the US or Europe. China feels rich with possibility. There's something about the culture, too, where the whole country feels in a hurry to grab a piece of the pie. This can be brash, but it is invigorating. Where else can new subway lines and buildings appear at such a rate? This rapid pace of life might sometimes seem annoying, but you may be surprised how you miss it once it's gone.


Not only does “Chinese food” actually contain eight cuisines (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang) - most cities will have a plethora of other options available. Here in Tianjin there are Spanish, Italian, French, German, Indian, Thai, Korean, and Japanese restaurants. And in nearby Beijing you can have everything from Yunnan to Hunan, from African to Russian. It's a foodie's paradise.

Let's not forget the street food. It might not be good for your stomach, and the food source might not be the most reliable, but it is pleasant to sit and eat delicious barbecued meats with a frosty beer on a warm evening. With the vendors with their drums selling aromatic roast sweet potato, the roadside pineapple with spiral carving exuding a delicious sugary tangy aroma, the stalls selling jianbing and noodles...the most humble food is often the best.

Openness and meeting people

One of the best aspects of living abroad is that you often meet people in the same boat. They too are far from home and have left behind all they once held most dear. They are thus actively looking for connections, for friendship and adventure in a way that would never happen back home, where it is too easy to get cocooned in your specific social group and socio-economic demographic. (Admit it: how many friends outside of your family's class did you really have?)

As a foreigner, you are also the object of some curiosity to the locals, and thus have an entrée to a wide social network. You can get to know officials, taxi drivers, students, shop keepers, middle managers, the retired, ayis, journalists, and small business owners. For the socially curious, this is a fantastic opportunity which would probably be far more difficult back home.

BT 201703 LAST WORD 02Career opportunities

China has a foreign population of something like just half a million, which is infinitesimal (around 0.04% of the total). English speakers are a minority even within that: Koreans, Japanese, Myanma and Vietnamese comprise nearly half the foreign population. With enormous demand for English tuition and corporate output, this makes it unusually easy to find work. For once, the polarity is inverted: demand exceeds supply. Recruitment agents seek you out; employers often pay you over the odds - certainly more than your local colleagues. But when you go back home, you're just another fish swimming in a crowded sea - and sometimes your experience abroad that you're so proud of won't even count for anything.

Keep on learning

Being uprooted and thrust into a different culture can be discomfiting. Some people do not adapt well. But on the flip side every day can be a learning opportunity. Whether it's the language, history, culture, society, food, politics - China presents such a different experience that you can keep learning the entire time you are here. For the curious and the open, this makes life in China a fascinating experience. It won't be like that when you go home, of course, which can appear crushingly dull after the noise and vigor of even a medium-sized Chinese city (unless you live in London or New York).

No-one suggests, of course, that China is a heaven on earth. Every foreigner will have their bad days when frustrations mount and you despair of ever adapting. But when you leave, from what I understand, there will be a space in your heart and in your mind that is forever China.


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