Enduring the China Blues

The China Blues are nothing new to me. I’ve had them time and again and I’ve been there as other friends of mine went through the process as well. I was mildly surprised when the other day when a China veteran who had never expressed anything but satisfaction with his life here came down with a case of the blues.

“Man, I don’t know how much longer I can take it here,” he said. “Ignorance is so prevalent”.

Of course I’d heard complaints like this before and I have for sure said things like this countless times during my eleven years in China. Westerners have problems understanding why Chinese people do the things they do. Just look at any expat forum, blog or collection of posts and roughly half of the content will be “absurd China stories” demonstrating how ridiculous life can be here.

Whether it’s environmental conditions or the state of civic affairs, these sentiments come and go.

But when another veteran, also one of those guys who wasn’t very vocal with criticisms of China, said almost the same thing to me, I started to look for patterns. Is it the weather? Is it just one of those Exodus years? I remember in 2008 when a large chunk of China vets returned home for good. I thought I was one of them too, but here I am. Back.

If you don’t like it go home

Makes sense right? Especially when things like this pop up:

“Many foreigners are poor devils, they failed in their home countries, Chinese government gives foreigners a high status, after all many Chinese people blindly worship foreign goods and ideas, moreover some ignorant women like foreigners, it doesn’t matter, China welcomes poor foreigners, nowadays people don’t comprehend the national humiliations of the 1930s and 1940s when Japanese invaded us, people open up to the outside, China is no longer feudal, we awake to the truth, regard foreigners as seeing Gods, you go abroad and will soon see that foreigners are crooked, racial discrimination.”

This is the “winning answer” to the question: Why do foreigners come to China? So we’re failures that run here to be treated like demi-gods.

Let me tell all of you fenqing (angry youth) something that you might not know:

Jade carvingI came to China because I was deeply moved by a large jade carving I saw in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (pictured at right). The jade was carved into a mountain on one side with people sitting and drinking tea, playing chess and relaxing underneath the bamboo. On the other side was a famous poem called the Prelude to the Orchid Pavilion (Click here for a description of that hunk of jade and a transcription of the poem).

This piece of art spoke to me and I did whatever I could to get over to China.

At the time (1999), getting a job at a university teaching English was pretty much the only option for a young graduate. So when I landed a job at Southwest Agricultural University in Beibei, a speck on Chongqing’s rump, I was pretty excited.

No one was more shocked than I to see what the real China was like. No one was more surprised then me to have Chinese girls climb into my bedroom window and fawn over me as I walked through the university campus. I had no clue that’s how things worked here. I didn’t come here for the women; I came for the beauty of a culture that had long since been stomped into dust and only after years of searching did I realize that the jade piece that touched me back in 1998 was a relic of something dead and gone.

Sure, there are still remnants of that special sauce that China used to have. But those guys are struggling in the New China. They’re destitute, unwanted, ridiculed and ostracized by a society that has been futilely struggling to recapture its soul. As we’ve seen recently, many of the best of them are gone without a trace.

And so we get the China blues.

We get the blues because Emeishan, a national relic and one of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism, is overrun by idiots who toss rocks at the monkey and wrappers on the ground. We get the blues because people disregard each other completely. We get the blues because babies die here due to greed.

We get the blues because everything my generation ran away from in America exists here tenfold. Venality. Ignorance. Cruelty.

So the question you Baidu backslappers should be asking yourselves is not why we come here, but why we stay at all.

Missionaries of a Nameless Sect

Why did I stay here?

That is a very difficult question to ask. Part of it can be answered by this quote here:

“Those who deal with China should realize that today it is a frontier country, looking into the future while remaining rooted in the past. In any frontier society, nothing is certain and everything is possible.”

China highway

Opportunities abound

China for all of it’s failings is exciting. The absurdity is part of the draw. Drunk Irishmen can become popular leaders of men out here. Wack rappers aren’t as wack. Bands that sound like something out of 1991 can be rockstars. First year graduates can be given projects they would never dream of seeing in the West, because of the very failings that give us the blues.

Another, less easily quantified part of it are the friends and family we gain along the way. Remember when Westerners were the only ones in Lijiang and Dali smoking bud and listening to reggae? Remember when not a single Chinese person in the country knew what an MC, DJ or a B-Boy was? Remember when 3D animation popped up here for the first time? Remember when you couldn’t buy a Mac here?

Every single Chinese friend of mine that listened to Marvin Gaye for the first time, passed me a spliff nonchalantly, threw up a great tag on a notepad or produced a beautiful design or essay is a new member of my scattered, yearning sect. The sect of youth culture struggling to pull free from the fetters of snide, arrogant, fearful elders and create a better world. That is why we are here. We are not here to follow in anyone’s footsteps. We are not here to meekly inherit a goddamn thing.

We are here to take what is and make what will be.

That dream is never more palpable then when you see it bloom in a Chinese person’s eyes because the system here is infinitely more deadly and stifling than anything we in the West (our generation ie post-70′s) have ever experienced. If you break out of the Matrix here, then you have broken out for good.

So chew on this:

I came here because I was inspired and I stayed because inspiration is my business.

And business is steady.

Have you been affected by the China blues while spending an extended period of time in China? If so, what has helped you work your way through it?

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. He's lived in Chengdu on and off for twelve years and currently makes his home in the South of Chengdu.

56 Responses to “Enduring the China Blues”

  1. Great post Sascha! The blues come on every now and then. Loved the translation of why foreigners come to China on the Ningbo website by the way. Without trying to be hypocritical, I wish more people could grasp the concept that generalisation just doesn’t cut the mustard.

    Chinese vs. Foreign… what the hell is foreign? I’m not a foreigner, I’m British, just like he is American, and she is French etc.

    Foreign food tastes bad… what is foreign food exactly?

    Looking at a multicoloured world through a pair of black & white glasses always leads to problems.

    • That has always amused me as well. Because Chinese society is so racially homogenous many people see foreigners as an enormous lump of people with different colored skin. Of course most of us come from multi-cultural societies with a patchwork of nationalities present, but it’s difficult to imagine how the world would look when you’re used to seeing a million people that more or less look and think like you do.

  2. Every foreigner in China can relate to this. Sometimes it gets really tough! Great post.

  3. Yep this is a common story but i find i have to remind myself of this piece of jade every so often

  4. Honest and truly inspiring piece. Three thumbs up!

  5. See you are getting writing again Sascha – good to see.

    Couldn’t help but smile at that:

    “I came here because I was inspired and I stayed because inspiration is my business.

    And business is steady.”

    All is well, even when it’s not.

    • Yeah writing a lot actually just not all for CL … Gotta get back to it. As for that ending …lol. Couldn’t bring myself to write “business is good” …

  6. See when I see title China Blues, I first think of the documentary on mistreatment of workers at a blue jeans factory. http://www.teddybearfilms.com/chinablue

    Actually that wasn’t a total tangent, as the main character follows the story of a young teenage worker from Sichuan.

    Bravo Sasha, I had a serious case of China Blues upon returning to Chengdu after my stint at the World Expo. Nostalgia for friends that had came and gone, frustration with the smoggy weather, ignorance of environmental protection, women who worship material possessions, being forced to teach English to “little emperors” since the NGO salary was pretty damned low (i.e. free lunch). Pardon the long sentence.

    When people from the States ask me about China, and why I’ve lived there for nearly 3 years, I first explain it is a “Hate Love” relationship. The dichotomy of feelings flipped to emphasize my frustration with myriad aspects that permeate contemporary Chinese culture and society. Rather than adding dirty clothes to vein of laundry list of Western complaints which spring up on nearly every China Blog, I’ll instead echo what Sasha means when he writes, “inspiration is my business”.

    Beyond Ketamine-addled KTVs and World of 网吧’s I do have hope for a Green China in the future. Ma Jun is doing phenomenal work on behalf of protecting the nation’s watersheds and shining light on irresponsible western companies (read: Apple poisoning Chinese workers: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/20/apple-china-idUSTOE70J07K20110120)

    However it is upsetting when you see how dispatching SEPA (State Environmental Protection Agency) on polluters is like sending the Tiger Scouts to persecute the Mafia. China really needs to grow some claws when it comes to it’s ecosystems. Small steps are being made as seen in my “Plastic Bag Article” on CL, when the CCP sets policy there is no Elephant/Jackass bickering that shuts down the gov’t as we have seen in the US. Shit, I should have became a Republican instead of an Anarchist, I could have said I helped shut down the US gov’t!

    Anyhow, leave it to me to turn a Blue post Green, as Tupac said “Baby don’t cry ya gotta keep your head up”

    • Thanks for making blue green .. my favorite combo.

      To all those who just got done with the blues, yeah i felt it in the air, funny how things like this come in waves.

  7. It’s a common phrase that expats are either Missionaries, Mercenaries or Misfits.

    • I haven’t heard that before but it makes a lot of sense. I get the feeling that this is how China was, maybe ten years ago, but the influx of foreigner business people and language learners into China over the last decade has been enormous. It must be getting more difficult for a rational person to conclude that all foreigners here are mercenaries or misfits when so many come for six figure jobs and bring their families.

  8. Thanks for this timely post. I had a week-long episode of China-blues, which peaked a few days ago. My wife caught me and asked why I was being so critical these days. It’s hard to tell what causes this ‘malaise’. We talked about it all evening and eventually found out the cause.

    But this morning on the way to work, I realised that of all the places in the world we could have settled comfortably (other than home itself), we chose China. And no matter how infuriating and frustrating life here can be, I love it.

  9. Every year there are a few events that really bring this upon me. Recently there was one, I’m sure everyone reading this knows what it was. Like you say, it’s important to remain focused on what keeps you here. For me it’s business.

    Fantastic article though, I can really empathize with this along with the other commenters. It’s comforting to read that others go through the same thing.

  10. Who hasn’t got the ‘China Blues’ at some point during their time living in China, and if anyone hasn’t I want to know your secret!!! Many a time I’ve comforted a friend through their China Blues and convinced them not to buy that ticket back home and though over the past year I’ve had my case of the blues I haven’t quite got to the searching for ticket prices extream.

    For me the best way to get out of my China blues rut is to remind myself why I’m here, for the culture for travel. So what do I do? I try to go on a little adventure, re-excite myself, rediscover China and why I love it!

    • Yeah, for me discovering the great things that China has to offer is really fulfilling. Last weekend I attended a calligraphy class for the afternoon and had a great time even though my calligraphy skills are terrible. The passion of the teacher, a retired Chinese literature teacher in his 60′s, was inspiring.

      There are all sorts of cool things like this waiting to be explored in China, you just have to seek them out.

  11. @elias thanks for making blue green .. my favorite combo.

    to all those who just got done with the blues, yeah i felt it in the air, funny how things like this come in waves.

  12. Brendan

    I wasn’t naive enough to think it was just me, but I’ve definitely been questioning why exactly I am here in the far away city of Chengdu since arriving.  And I’ve only been here for four months!

    I think firstly, I have to say I’ve been reassured when meeting other ‘foreigners’ here, and hearing their tales of bewilderment and woe.  I met a guy just recently who’s been working for a software company for the past few months, and the manner in which he asked the question ‘how do you find business here?’ was just priceless.  He went on to tell me that after several months in the company, he still hadn’t worked out who exactly was responsible for what.  I could only laugh.

    My own brief experience here has been a test of patience, resolve, and above all, my own ability to give others the benefit of doubt.  Getting a straight answer here, or perish the thought an immediate one, has had me running back and forth since I arrived.  Either that or I’m whistling in the wind waiting for enlightenment.  And if anyone else runs the ‘China is complex’ spiel by me again, I’m going to have to try hard to refrain from beating them.
    Then there are the social and environmental aspects of life here in Chengdu that don’t sit well with my conscience, not least the abhorrent disregard I see for both.  I’d been living in Vancouver, Canada before arriving here, and though I was more than ready to move on, it remains one of the most beautiful places I have had the good fortune to have lived in.  People are deeply respectful of their environment, and at the same time openly proud.  I do see a respect and pride held here, but it’s a sentiment rather than a participation.  Venom eyed, Gucci bag clutching starlets won’t be spending too much time considering centuries old tradition (or sentiment), and neither will the cheap suited oafs who paid for the venom.

    And of course there is so much more than that.  So much more than my being infuriated when I see some oaf toss a cigarette packet to the floor, or when 50 people try and get into the elevator before I have taken a single step out!!  And the fact that the city becomes a pool of filth each time it rains, or that everywhere I turn, I see examples of blind ignorance, and inefficiency.

    But here’s the crux…

    I first visited Chengdu last summer for 9 short days, just to see for myself if I really could make the jump for 2 years or more.  And that didn’t go smoothly either.  Having the company offering me a post make the flight arrangements was a task in itself, one that without any ‘Chinese’ prior experience, had me reeling.  Then I picked up food poisoning on the flight out, and it started to look like a sign!  Regardless, after having slept for a day straight on arrival, I got hooked up with some Chinese medicine, and ventured out to pastures new.
    What struck me immediately was the air that everyone seemed to have about them, even at a distance.  The humid heat of the sun perhaps romanticized this notion a little, but it was the subdued focus and pace that people appeared to have that really intrigued me.  I came here seeking shelter from a city that had itself fallen to the ills of rapid development and fast money, and was brutally tired of all the idiosyncrasies that had come with it.  So here I was in a breath of fresh air, and I have to admit that the charm of that had my mind made up on moving here within my first day out.  I’ve tried to explain to friends back home the essence of Chengdu (when I haven’t been ranting!), and how it’s growing desire to push itself further forward into new frontiers, is why I chose to come.  It’s also why I will choose to stay for the forseeable.  Chengdu must rank as one of the most interesting, evolving, and prosperous developing cities in the world at present, with nothing but promise for the future.  I might not share Sasha’s affinity for Jade carvings, but I love being in the mix of this great unknown, wrestling with it’s past, present, and future.  And of course there are facets of this change that are repulsive, and disturbing.  Heart breaking even.  Any of us with a concience came here looking for some otherwise absent humanity, and 10+ Nike stores in the downtown alone detracts from that somewhat, but still there is a unique calm to be found here without too much difficulty.

    I could canter on about this or that reason I dislike or like this or that, but that would be escaping the reason I wanted to post a reply here after another episode of having to ‘deal with it’ this week.

    I came here in search of something new, something previously unseen, though often dreamt.  I’ve spent the last 8 years hopping from one place to another, asking myself exactly what it is I’d be happy with should I be lucky enough to find it.  So rather than allow myself to be permanently (or even intermittently) infuriated when I don’t get what I’m after, when I’m after it, I’m going to try and go with a smile and remember why I left the place I came from.  I think it’s ultimately a happy medium that we’re all looking for.  I like the idea of living a self sufficient existence on a remote tropical island, but then I like being able to ride the subway, or jump in a taxi and cut through the hustle and bustle of busy streets and bright lights.  I don’t want the vacuum of material possession and ‘getting ahead’ to pervade, but I want the challenge of an opportunity or two.  

    So here I am.  Watching, waiting, taking it all in.  I might have to suffer the inconvenience of a delayed response, or being seemingly targeted by every moving vehicle on the road, even when I have right of way, but that’s okay.  I didn’t come here on a whim, or because I couldn’t make it in the big smoke.  I came for the promise of the new, the unchartered, and otherwise unimagined, but for a dream.  

    Things would have been infinitely easier had I stayed put, but who in he’ll wants to do that!?

    • thank you very much for this comment … lotsa great thoughts in there.

    • I definitely felt a bewilderment for the first year or so that I was in China. And for all of the negative aspects of life here, there was an overwhelming feeling that I was enduring the hardship to learn something new and important.

      What I’ve found as the years have passed though is that the bizarre nature of China itself becomes a weaker crutch upon which to rest my concerns.

      You came here for a job opportunity so the situation is different for you, but most of us who came here 4-5+ years ago didn’t have those kind of job prospects upon arrival. People were actually amazed that I found work quickly without ever teaching English, which was considered the default foreigner job just a few years ago. In reality there were others in the same situation as I, but the idea that foreigners were relegated to teaching their native language was prevalent at the time.

      Even with all the concerns though, China is filled with hope and opportunity like you say. It’s always changing and it never gets boring. Considering that the Western world has already gone through most of its urban development, that’s something. China is catching up, even though it’s far behind in many aspects.

  13. 嗯!不错。发出来让大家了解一下!

  14. I have similar US blues as a Chinese living the US. Guess it is somewhat universal.

    • for sure. feel free to elaborate i’d be curious to know

    • Perhaps it is. For most foreigners in Chengdu I think the pollution and dreary weather are some of the biggest factors.

      I imagine there are some downsides that foreigners experience, that maybe wouldn’t come to mind to Americans. It’s hard to be objective, but on average the standard of living in the US is much higher.

      China has wonderful aspects but it has unique challenges like hosting the worlds largest population while trying to build a strong and modern economy.

      What are some of your biggest gripes about the US?

      • I’ve been in China for one month but it feels like about 6! I thought I was prepared but I had no idea how hard the first month was going to be. Things are starting to flow now and I think I’m pretty much over the initial hump – thank goodness!

        Great article! Thanks for sharing.

  15. I just added this blog to my google reader, great stuff! I’ve gone through the China Blues before like it seems everyone else here has.

    • its like malaria. once you get it … you kinda just got it. only Peter Hessler and Da Shan seem immune.

      • Lolz. Nicely put. Da Shan essentially ran the Canadian Pavilion @ EXPO and strategically ventured outside when the queue was running long. Canadian friends told me Da Shan was met by the crowd with utmost veneration. I’m willing to bet Da Shan can even invoke China Blues on the Chinese, pwn3d.

      • Da Shan appears to be totally immune, lol.

  16. I think I’ve gone about a half dozen times where I was sure I’d be leaving China. Yet somehow, I’m still here. Like several others have said, timely post, I’ve been feeling the same thing as you guys recently. It makes it feel more tolerable reading that others are enduring the same thing as well. Not that it was a mystery, of course!

  17. Nice post! I was first attracted to China for the same reasons you were, the simple, seemingly elegant ways of the the old culture. Of course, things are rarely as they seem. Maybe in the past, things really were that simple, but as you said in the article, if that was indeed at one time the case, any remnants of that way are regarded as out-dated and old-fashioned. It’s quite sad. However, there’s still enough of that here to keep my affection for China strong, and I’m looking forward to the day when I can say I’ve lived here for 11 years!

  18. I’ve had the China blues as well since I came here about 3 years ago. My original attraction was after living in Taiwan and listening to most of my Taiwanese friends talk about “Barbaric China” as they made it sound – I wanted to see for myself, but knew it probably wouldn’t be as nice as Taiwan. I studied Chinese in university and then decided I would come to Chengdu. The economy crashed in the states and I didn’t think going back would be productive; staying here to improve my Chinese was a better idea, plus I had made a lot of guanxi, so I thought I’d use it. But the realities of the situation here for foreigners hit pretty quick and all of my superficial guanxi withered pretty quickly once my research project was finished and they realized they weren’t going to benefit since my paper didn’t get published. Blues 1: when someone doesn’t benefit from you, you’re no longer valuable. I could either teach English or become an entrepreneur of sorts like I’d seen lots of other foreigners do (open a bar, start a small company, translate…). My dream of working in a museum died when I realized how much work it would be and that few people cared. Tried an NGO, tried translating. Small things also started to get to me – the pushing, the rudeness to strangers, feeling like I never have privacy but no one ever knows me. One thing no one has mentioned in this post is relationships – I’ve dated a few people here, but my friends seem to come and go. The problem is not a language barrier, but rather an idealistic problem. It’s so difficult to find people here to connect to who are truly creative, forward-thinking, brave… “Inspiration is my business” you say, but do you ever feel tired of doing all the inspiring?? I feel my thoughts in some ways are at a dead end and it’s gotten too lonely. What got me through was that as a musician I could work and be accepted well – I never thought I would have the opportunity to perform so much.

    After weighing all the pro’s and con’s, I decided this year to go back “home” and study a trade that would eventually allow me the freedom to work for myself anywhere. I figure I could give this piece of my youth to my family for a short amount of time and come back anytime after that was finished. Who knows – maybe I’ll be back sooner than I planned. Because you remind yourself that you’ll probably get the blues anywhere you go.

    • Of course I get tired of “being the inspiration” — hence the blues. for real i was done in 2008. I have nothing left to give China really and I feel more and more that China has little to give me. Unless I just tossed it all away and just traveled along the periphery again.
      Its just really hard when you’re surrounded by people that have no courage and not just that, do not see the need for it.

      and so that same thing exists for me in the States as well … I mean the US got fucked real hard by a bunch of pigs for the past decade 9and i’m not even going to go back any further than that, but its been the same song for a long time) … the only difference is that in the US when i talk like this people feel me and might even chime in.
      in china they reflexively say something about China being awesome, the West being evil … its always some sort of competition here between one and the other … man i am getting sick of writing this type of shit to tell you the truth.
      good luck back “home”

      i am thinking of going home to … but i am not really sure where that is.

      • Sorry Sascha, I guess I was meaning that response to be rhetorical. I think for those of us who are here and have tried our best to immerse, we will always be torn between several places, physically and mentally. Hopefully our hearts will eventually settle somewhere.

      • I remember when you (Sascha) were out in 2008, you were going to Portland to open a Sichuan style tea house. Having kids and getting married really throws a wrench into escape plans, huh.

      • dont be sorry angela, not yer fault.
        charles, you should be happy, you get to have me around a little more ;)

        where is the paradise city? and i dont want any: its “in your soul Sascha” answers. I want a geographical suggestion …

  19. I guess we are all looking for our own versions of paradise and sometimes, when we find it, we don’t really know what to do with it and the search continues. As a Chinese who grew up in New Zealand (very frequently referred to that place they filmed Lord of the Rings and what many consider paradaisical) the blues was a regular companion, frustrating, but there nonetheless – part and parcel with being someone in between cultures. Yes New Zealand is beautiful, environmental, clean, inventive and creative,the superlatives flow on, but even paradise has its off days, and its that kind of isolation and singlemindedness that made it infuriating to live in. And that is why I “escaped” to China. Why many of us come to China maybe. To be overwhelmed in the chaos and the collective history and to sieve through it all – and hopefully revel and find something in that process. To be jostled and pushed, nearly run over, frustrated, but be greeted with utmost sincerity, kindness, generosity and humor on the flip side. Sometimes the west is too sanitized and too uniform for that kind of chaos to materialize. Maybe thats why many of us come back time and again. Probably because this country gets under your skin. Being overseas Chinese throws an even more interesting spin into daily affairs. Our parents lament our lame decision to “find ourselves” when they worked so freaking hard to leave the country to make a better life and what do we do? We haul ass right back to the “uncultured” motherland.

    Must be something in the water. Something that makes us need to leave once in a while and then come back. And why we travel in the first place. To be frustrated, inspired, angry, enlightened, angry again and all those emotional shades in between.

    I passed through Chengdu 3 years ago fleetingly and the image was indelibly imprinted into my mind. I knew I would come back. On my return 3 years later, 2 days into the trip I wanted to leave and move to Kunming. It was raining, the streets had turned to toxic gruel, cars were trying to kill me, the city suddenly seemed a lot grayer, bigger, with more steel, glass and less of the slow pace I remembered. There was nothing redeeming. The traffic was at a gridlock, every girl was wearing glassless glasses as a fashion statement, there was more neon, less culture. More I-phones, less talking. China Blues was hitting much faster than I anticipated. But a few more days in, I remembered why I quit my job to come to this country. Its a place of many superlatives, of many people seeking out inspiration and to be inspired. Being Chinese, I understand the rudeness (maybe I forgot what it was like after being in NZ for too long). Its not intentional. It just comes from being one of 1.3 billion people. Dog eat dog maybe. It permeates every facet of culture.

    This article really touched me because I feel the reverse – like I have just left NZ never to return and I’ve stepped into another parallel universe where I still don’t belong and the blues is waiting just round the corner.

    But then I remember why I came. Ex soldiers musing about being posted to Tibet and the amazing friends he made there. Middle aged men and women dancing in public squares. Mahjong. Getting cracked lips from eating too many sunflower seeds. Dirty hole-in-the-wall noodle shacks that serve heartbreakingly good food and loving the abusive waiters that smack your food down with an angry huff. Bottomless glasses of tea. The public-private osmosis (outdoor pajamas). Markets filled with fresh produce. Bureaucracy. When you make real friends, you are part of the family. Killer scenery (the blink and a skyscraper might take its place next month kind). Idiosyncracies of language – Cantonese and Sichuanhua can be so different, yet we can still communicate. Little old ladies in traditional dress with shopping baskets yelling into their cellphones while surrounded in a sea of traffic. Monks in Nike sneakers. Friends doing things above and beyond the call of hospitality simply because you are a friend and you are far from home. Crowds of old men huddled around 2 other old men playing chess and discussing tactics. Water calligraphy. Blind massages. Blind erhu players. Backwards walking. And if this doesn’t fix the blues, I get out of the city and get slapped with the mega jaw dropping magnificence of China.

    Thanks again for a though provoking and timely article.

    • what a beautiful, well written and insightful comment. Have you ever thought of writing for a publication? we’d be interested in what you have to say ;)

      • Thankyou – this article (and many others on this blog) kept me up till 5 am this morning. In fact, I quit my job in NZ and came to China to write or something along that bohemian creative vein, but so far, days have been consumed with self study and trying to decipher the dialect. I would be love to have a media with an audience to rant to – I mean, share my thoughts with :)

    • Brendan

      I have to concur with Sascha on such a great post. You’re reflecting many thoughts I had here a little while after arriving, it’s great that you’ve shared a sentiment held by many who dare to venture here.

      Sascha, though I haven’t endured anything like the length of time you’ve been here, I do sympathise with not quite knowing what to do next, even if I do feel as though I can be here for a long time to come. The idea of returning ‘home’ to the UK is so far removed from my conscious thought, it’s not even a conversation. We’re all stuck searching for ideals, as hard as they might be to find, I just wonder sometimes if that’s really enough (should I ever get to figure what they are!). Compromise is a dirty word, but as the world continues to close in, perhaps we all need to find a way to be content stuck in the hunt. So long as the hunger for something new doesn’t wane, hopefully we can wake each morning with a smile, knowing that we were prepared to at least try for something beyond.

      • dude ya’ll need to start putting together essays and submitting them. I find the weather really really …. really helps

      • Thanks Brendan – its kind of a recurring theme this whole poetic search for something meaningful that pops up in conservation with travellers. I was re watching the series Mad Men the other day and a character talked about the Greek word Utopia having two meanings – eutopos:the good place, or outopos:the place that doensn’t exist. It pinched a nerve so to speak. Especially when you love a place so much but it doesn’t really love you the same way back. Maybe the idea that we all need some kind of home – physical, spiritual, imaginary whatever it may be is important to the creative process. Now I’m just ranting. But Brendan, I agree – the thought of returning to some pre-agreed on “home” sits uncomfortably with me.

        And then I remember snatches of conversation from old men who have never ventured past their village when they ask what a young woman is doing so far from home and what I’m looking for – its those times that I don’t have answer, it keeps me up at night.

        Its an exciting time to be in China I think. Kind of a chaotic adolescence with so much new money, years of repression finally with a tiny window with which to burst through. And then sometimes I realize that cities everywhere have the same kinds of bad behavior and I start searching for ways to get to Xinjiang hahah.

        Keep on trucking!

      • Hi Brendan,

        Sorry I know this is a bit on-orthodox. But I saw you have an interest in BodyBuilding would you be able to get back to me. As we run a Foreign Talent Agency (Actors/Models) in China and we’ve had a lot more people ask for Body Builder/ Muscle men type of physics.

        Thought you might be able to help.

        Best,
        Oliver

  20. “Westerners have problems understanding why Chinese people do the things they do. Just look at any expat forum, blog or collection of posts and roughly half of the content will be ‘absurd China stories’ demonstrating how ridiculous life can be here.”

    This is a really common feature of expat life in Japan too. But somehow the WTF-ness of it all is much easier to bear (more amusing than frustrating) when you’re living in a country with clean air, spotless streets, incredibly clean and efficient public transport, high-quality food, arguably the best service in the world and possibly the world’s most considerate and emotionally generous people…!

  21. Yeah, I’ve seen that jade piece at the MIA. Not only that, but the whole asian collection at the MIA is incredible. I personally like the scroll paintings.

    Good counter article to those chinese who have formed a negative opinion of mr. laowai. It certainly is an easy path to follow for any angry youth in this country. They can get maniacal toward anyone so long as the evening news says that person is stepping on their toes (ie Japan, Phillipines, France, etc) Not to mention that in truth there are a lot of foreigners in china who leave a lot to be desired.

    But as short-fused as some of these fengqing get, they are as easily calmed with a smile, laugh, or a shared table of beers. (a minuature table with minuature plastic chairs)

    It must be a real mindfuck to be a young chinese person in china. Maybe not more than african youth, but really, a genuinely strange reality. (“into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown” comes to mind) Competing for a single job against a thousand plus others.
    Seeing the consequences of wealth on the street everyday and its status symbolism constantly shoved in your face when most of thse guys can’t even afford a good dinner out.

    Does anyone wonder why those guys working at Foxconn threw themselves out the windows?

    I personally give chinese credit for remaining as positive as they are. I don’t think I’d fare so well in their situation. However, it is a chinese zeitgeist, so to speak, which western youngsters also went through during the industrial revolution and so on. When the going gets tough, the tough do something or other…

    Perhaps outsiders like us get the china blues because we know what lies outside of these borders. We get nostalgic about order, moral conduct, manners, good beer, etc. For the majority of locals, however, that reality has never so much as winked at them. They are in this country for good, and they are in it to win it.

    Or as ol’ Patrick Stickles says in their latest album, “I made my bed, now I’m fucking in it. You gotta be fucking in it to win it.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Hao Hao Report - April 12, 2011

    Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  2. Arnold - April 12, 2011

    Every year there are a few events that really bring this upon me. Recently there was one, I’m sure everyone reading this knows what it was. Like you say, it’s important to remain focused on what keeps you here. For me it’s business.

    Fantastic article though, I can really empathize with this along with the other commenters. It’s comforting to read that others go through the same thing.

  3. China in a Year | mala with a fork - July 31, 2011

    [...] people, experiences and meals with an open heart and mind, not taking things personally. My “China blues” days were when I was acting inwardly, it was all about me, me, me and me was not happy. Of [...]

  4. Three Book Reviews | just charlie - February 21, 2012

    [...] his observations, having made so many of the same ones myself. All expats in China go through the China Blues and if you’re going through that, this book is like therapy. It’s a hand on your [...]

  5. Planes, Trains, & Tuk Tuk Rides | hoops & homonyms - February 26, 2012

    [...] when there is no sunshine through the smog, but sooner or later I was bound to catch a case of the China Blues. The bleak, gray, industrial setting of urban China, the muddy building sites at every [...]

  6. like a chicken grease chord - November 23, 2012

    [...] round of the blues in this again. This feels familiar like I’m saying goodbye and sneering as I go to help me [...]

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