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Why we become expats

Why we become expats

Encounters with strangers in Shanghai always come with difficult questions.

For one, ‘why did you come to China?’ is one that has been asked each time I have met someone new and over time, it’s become more and more of a burden to answer it (seriously, being greeted with ‘which school did you go to?’ at an alumni mixer last Wednesday was almost a welcome change of pace). I’ve already written about some of my reasons for coming to China, and though when approached by people I don’t know, I usually just give my ‘dinner party’ answer involving an inclination towards the spontaneous, a night of a little too much tequila and Ivy Noodle, as well as a series of escalating dares, in the end, the real answer is actually much more intricate.

But isn’t that always the case with questions like that?

In Shanghai, the three questions asked of every expat within the first 15 minutes of meeting are:

  1. Where are you from?
  2. How long have you been in Shanghai?
  3. Why did you come to Shanghai?/How do you like it? (I really don’t understand the last question. Is it socially acceptable to say you hate Shanghai even when you live here ? I’d like to think that it’s not )

The fourth question, which only comes up sometimes is ‘When are you leaving?’. But that question carries a little more weight, so I won’t talk about it here.

What I find weird about these three questions is that the people who answer them feel as if they need to have an excuse to have come to Shanghai. At times, this can indeed be a touchy subject because there are some of us who do come here to escape (one of my close friends abandoned a career in law to start fresh in China this fall). I’ve met at least three people who barely told anyone they were moving to China before leaving. Me – on the other hand – my entire last month in New Haven, I threw weekly parties to celebrate my imminent departure (adulthood be damned). People often call expats ‘brave’ for coming across the world without a sense of purpose. Well, then, why do we feel the need to justify our choice to be brave?

But the main question, more so than any of the ‘small talk’ we make at networking events (truthfully, I’m there for the cheap drinks, not the mingling) is the question of “why did we choose to become expats?”. It’s not a question often asked out loud, but it’s one that looms over almost every conversation.

People rarely ask: why did we choose to leave our countries, our homes, our parents, our friends behind to start a new life abroad? In China, we are all either overworked or wandering and lost. China is a country that is both overwhelmingly convenient, yet one that is strikingly unfamiliar. And the longer I live here, the more I become scared that in a few years, I won’t know any other life than the one I have now. I’m scared I’ll get too used to cheap cabs and day-drinking on the street. I’m scared that I’ll lean in too much into China’s conveniences and grow too unfamiliar with my life back home to return.

Being an expat is, in its own sense, a sort of exile. Now, I’m no Solzhenitsyn, but exile is a subject that’s I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I have been struggling with my own physical and cultural ‘exile’ from Russia for the majority of my life. I wrote my Undergraduate Thesis on the life (and the demise) of several American and Soviet writers living in exile in 1920s Paris (it’s almost forty thrilling pages of literary analysis), examining the relationship between these writers and the cities they left behind.

In ‘exile’, we develop a perverse relationship to our culture. We cling to the very artificial things that define our countries (like peanut butter and American Football) and forget the subtleties (like Chipotle cream cheese at Brooklyn Bagel or that stretch of I-91 in Connecticut between exits 8 and 17 that is never illuminated). We seek out familiarity, becoming friends with expats whom we would have never even talked to back home, choosing to focus on our similarities rather than acknowledge our differences. In ‘exile’, we diverge from the culture we once knew to create our own – often inaccurate – imitation of the life we once had.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love living in China. I love discovering new things about about Shanghai with every day. I love the rapid pace, the people, the steaming cups of soybean milk. But perhaps the reasons I love it all so much precisely because I am an expat, living both inside and outside of China. Because while I can immerse myself in the late-night chuanr, the aloe yoghurt you can only drink through a straw, or the five-story Tea Malls, I know, in a few years, I’ll be going back back home – back to New York – because now I know that’s where my heart truly lies.

10 thoughts on “Why we become expats”

    • Haha I imagine Singapore must be less alienating, with Western culture being much more prevalent, but I haven’t had any first-hand experience myself!

      • Argh! What a week!! I totes didn’t see your msg in all the terribléness. Soz for rudes : (
        Well, babes, you drop by any time. We’d love to have you! Though you’re better off at the Mandarin. Just across the road.
        EJ x

  • I guess it’s hard for us to fathom as I “get” why friends have moved to France or Germany with jobs, and I “get” why someone might emigrate to Australia, but with China we have so little cultural traction to be able to explain it to ourselves and the notion of moving from a first world country to a second world country seems counter-intuitive. I get the ties that bind you to your homeland though as I don’t think I could ever leave here.

    • Leaving home is a crazy thought, isn’t it? I think a large part of being in China is just how ‘far’ it feels from the familiar. Visiting Russia this November, I got this overwhelming sense that I could fly back to the US at any time, but being in China seems a world away.

      I did get good news this week that I’ll need to make a trip to the US before July 4th to renew my visa, so I’m excited to make a return trip back home earlier than expected!

      • You have to go to America for that? A nice excuse for a trip home, but it sounds an expensive business. My friend in Bangkok said that every year all the “foreign” people have to travel down to the south of the country, with not great infrastructure to get there I think, to renew their visas. It just sounds like they’re putting hurdles in your way. And he’s married into the country. I get the impression that that doesn’t count for much there.

        • Ahh yes, the Asian visa runs are infamous. The typical trips are to HK and I’ll be there next week to sort some things out, but since I’ve started working for a new company and my visa as a whole is expiring, it’ll be easier to make sure my work visa is guaranteed in the US and I had been planning a trip back in July, so it’ll just speed it up by a few months.

  • I completely agree about the questions, there is no simple answer either. For the adventure maybe, or the opportunity? But I hate most when people ask how I could “give up” my life at home for the unknown.

    • Absolutely. I feel like people who choose to live abroad definitely share some characteristics and being adventurous is one of them, but a lot of times it feels almost startling to get something which for many is a difficult and personal question asked upon a first meeting.

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