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:
- Where are you from?
- How long have you been in Shanghai?
- 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.