Enduring the China Blues: Continued

I just returned from a month and a half in the US with my family this summer and while I was away, two prominent foreign writers in China have announced that they’re leaving the country. Both Charlie Custer and Mark Kitto went semi-viral on the China blogger circuit, stirring up a debate about what it means to be an expat in China. These two guys have strong and undeniable China credentials and for them to write about how China is basically driving them away, be it the weather or the enduring sting of getting shafted, makes the rest of us question our commitment to a country that often makes me want to grab my submachine. If I had one.

The two essays, Why I’m Leaving China and  You’ll Never Be Chinese really made me think hard because, as I sat down to read them, my kids were frolicking in Lake Harriet, my wife was gushing about the conscious people, clean streets, and beautiful backyards of the United States, and I was enjoying excellent food and drink. And sunshine. And good driving.

After a trip up the West Coast and some great times in Portland, Chicago, San Francisco and Mt. Shasta, we were dreading coming back to China.

I kept asking myself, “Why the hell am I in China?” After I read a letter from “Harold Jansen” on China Law Blog regarding the recent popularity of foreigners departing China, I started asking myself, “What the hell do I do here?” Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that I am the most intangible guy you’ll ever meet. I have no investments, own no property, create nothing but words, and my idea of a productive day has more to do with teacups than RMB. Although when I do make RMB (or $) I consider that to be productive as well.

So I have to face the nasty truth: I am exactly one of those expats that probably should leave China. And I herewith announce that I am leaving China. Just as soon as I can string together enough productive days to finance the whole thing. I also am fully aware that I am neither famous enough nor do I have the timing nor conviction to make this post go viral … or even have a deep impact on the Worthless Laowai vs. Contributing Laowai i.e. Don’t Let The Door Hit You debate. I’m just dipping my toes in.

I once wrote an essay called Enduring the China Blues about inspiration, China and how the relationship between the two keeps me here. In that essay, I specifically mentioned a huge jade carving that sent me to China 12 years ago (O Lord what have I done with my allotted time?). While in Minneapolis swimming in rivers and lakes, I decided it was time for a spirit refresher, so I took my wife and kids to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and showed them the China Collection and the great jade piece that inspired me to come here in the first place.

Enjoying the best of China, in Minneapolis

The first words out of my wife’s mouth were,

“You can’t find any of this stuff in China anymore.”

And it is true, as far as I can say. I have seen very little in the way of Tang Dynasty painted figurines, Song Dynasty jade carvings, Han Dynasty sculptures of Uigher guys and the like. You would think that they would be everywhere here, but I honestly have to say that the collection in the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts pretty much crushes any exhibition I have seen in China. The antique market, the Jianchuan Cluster and the Jinsha Museum are awesome, but rarely do they feature the good, authentic classic stuff.

Naturally that is because White Devils stole a bunch and Yellow Devils pounded the rest into dust. Although in this case it was the Dayton family’s cash that provided most of the M.I.A.’s collection (does that count as theft?). One of the exhibitions is a completely re-constructed Song Dynasty scholar’s den. I found myself drooling, looking at this scholar’s set-up and putting myself in the picture. Talk about productivity. And this person’s room was bought up from a town outside of Hangzhou, all of it, and shipped over to Minnesota just a few short years ago.

It is hard not to fall in love with China wandering around the third floor of the M.I.A. looking at this collection. There’s so much beauty. So much brilliance. I felt almost ready to go back to China again, after seeing the great works of this ancient civilization. But then my brain was shocked back into reality by a vision of Hongpailou, the run down, greasy neighborhood that I live in, where traffic lights are ornamental at best and loogies lead the way to the meat vendor, like a runny, Yellow Spit Road.

Let’s Be Honest

Where have all the poets gone?

That jade carving is in a museum for a reason: they don’t make them anymore.

Even the residue of such works has long since been ground down and mixed in with concrete to build the New China. We’ve been through this discussion so many times, there really is no point in repeating it. But just in case you didn’t know,

Today’s China is a vast construction site filled with ruthless, desperate, angry, resigned, and isolated people riding a crimson tide of wealth creation toward a future that may be a tranquil pool from which all may drink, but could just as well be the edge of a flat world, sending everyone tumbling into an abyss of acrimony, chaos, and woe. No jade emperors. Few kung fu sages. A shrinking window of stories to write about. In fact, the same things foreigners said 100 years are being said again, such as,

Life here is comedy.

In fact, if you laugh at the piece of jerked meat that just cut you off and is now purposefully leaning over to hock some phlegm out of the window instead of meeting your furious gaze, then you’ll probably have a greater impact than if you threw a fit and wrote a blog post about it. Most likely not though. There is precious little “inspiring” going on out here, no matter what fluff I wrote before about “business is steady“. Most unhappy interactions in China are unhappy purely because you know that you just dealt with someone who is completely ignorant of their own ignorance – or worse yet, proud of it – and there is no chance of changing them for the better.

Most types of idiots revel in being mean spirited, and they exist all over the world. A ridiculously high population density just makes it seem like China is the source of them all, kinda like the largest variety of peppers is in Mexico so you know that is where they came from. The only thing you can really do is wait for them all to become old and irrelevant and pray their influence on the next generation is as minimal as possible.

What we really fear is grandpa pointing out the Hated / Feared / Preposterously Walking Upright just like Us Alien to a little one and saying, “Look Junior, there goes a …”

That’s why I always take time out to smile at the kids.

Now Let’s Be Really Honest

and why did they take the Jade Emperors with them?

No matter how much I piss and moan about it, I got love for Hongpailou. When I skip over the BBQ ooze from last night to buy meat and taters from the downstairs lady, she always squeezes whichever son I have along with me and she’s just genuinely nice and honest. She even defended me the other day when some dude walked up and said, Oh look, a Foreign Devil.

The guards of my compound honestly missed me. I know they did. There is this old man who walks around in hiked up pants, dress shoes and a wife-beater and tonight he bought my boys a watermelon and held their little hands all the way home.

The broke down peasant lady who sifts through garbage for stuff to sell always cracks a gap tooth grin at me and I can take my boys to the gym and let the ladies watch em while I try and run off all this high fructose corn syrup I sucked down in the US.

Even though I am a bum leeching off of the cheap living standards of China, I can still talk my way onto the airfield at the Xinjin Pilot’s University and even get in a plane with an instructor. All because I am a foreigner. I can sit down with high level officials and get a job running a big website, not because I am overly qualified (although I am. Really.), but because being a “laowai” opens a bunch of doors.

Last weekend a group of Chengdu laowai went camping on an island in a lake surrounded by bamboo covered hills. Every 10 days or so, a group of us will go to Wenjiang and follow the green belt up toward Dujiangyan or maybe go to our secret beach spot underneath the Grand Buddha in Leshan. When I talk to my friends here in the Du, they are unanimously in favor of staying here.

Custer probably hates Beijing because Beijing is not Chengdu. We have Yulin and Hot Pot and Sichuan cuisine and mountains in every direction. Hidden hot springs where monks get naked and villages enmeshed with prehistoric ferns where the farmers spend the late evening drinking tea and steaming fish.

Sure, it ain’t Mt. Shasta or Highway 101, and Chengdu is a popped pimple compared to San Francisco, but we got our lives here. It isn’t bad. But it isn’t enough either; not for a footloose semi-bum like me (or my wife either for that matter). I am leaving, not for another year or so, but yes, I too have my exit strategy. I am not going to hate on China that much because, honestly, China was good to me.

I was saved from complete ruin by a sweet, generous woman; the society gawks at me, but in general treats me much better than they treat their own; I make more money here and spend less than I would in the US; and, best of all, I’m getting away with it.

Are you getting out while you can? Or are you staying put? Let us know in the comments below.

58 thoughts on “Enduring the China Blues: Continued”

  1. Talking of “ignorance”, do you agree being judgmental is a kind of “Being ignorant”?

    Similar in the article” You’ll Never Be Chinese”, the whole piece doesn’t sound like an explanation why one can not be Chinese, instead, more emotional complaints about how China doesn’t satisfy him.

    Why live in China? Why live in anywhere? People make choices. Especially those who travel, they’re motivated to stop by somewhere, then move on when they lose interests. In your case, maybe because you can make more money here due to locals’ abnormal kindness to foreigners?

  2. no i dont think calling an idiot out is ignorant. i think chalking up idiocy to cultural differences is ignorant. and for that matter i am entitled to my opinion on what constitutes ignorance.

    also, throughout my rant, unlike other rants, i call myself out for being a bum that takes advantage. i am also entitled to that opinion.

  3. I was in the US for 3 months this summer and went through a similar thing before returning to China: I was dreading finding myself in what seems like such a less enlightened place.

    To me, the timing and development of China (and by extension, Chengdu) is a crucial aspect to it’s attraction. Chengdu has seen dramatic change in recent years and will continue to see kind of change for the foreseeable future. The opportunities emerging from this change are really compelling – sometimes it feels like anything is possible.

    While the US is comfortable, there’s a feeling that “this is just the way that it is” and few people are expecting dramatic change in the coming years. Compared to China, it’s just a less exciting lifestyle – especially when you compare the routine of life in America versus being a freewheeling traveler like I was and you were over the summer.

    What I found when I actually returned to Chengdu was that I had forgotten about a lot of the nice things. Because of those and other recent developments, my return to Chengdu has been more pleasant than I expected. For this and other reasons, I’ve decided to continue to stay in Chengdu for the time being, when this was very much in the air just a few months ago.

    “I have no investments, own no property, create nothing but words, and my idea of a productive day has more to do with teacups than RMB.”

    In your eyes it sounds like this is the damning evidence that you don’t belong in China, but I don’t interpret it the same way. These look more like reasons why Chengdu suits you than anything else, to me.

    One thing I can see though is that having kids really changes the equation.

  4. Solid. solid, my man, 4x longer than I b4 I bounced. I too found myself swept over with negativity yet basking in the simple laid back 慢走 lifestyle. Felt like a hypocrite after a while. You can “Make it” in China and then have it all swept away because there is little sense of integrity or justice.

    I also really missed bird song in the morning and crickets at night.

    Hope you plan an exit strategy soon. I’m still keeping China in the “Meta-career” phase after grad school. Life is too short to not B global

  5. There’s no right or wrong, I’m just saying, wherever one lives, whatever one does, do it and enjoy it, otherwise, change it.

    Sadly agree, the lack of integrity and justice is very depressing.

    • true, a lot of this is tongue-in-cheek ie sarcasm. and also a bit of “haha i am jumping on the bandwagon” ism. try not to take it too seriously. if we were “ChicagoLiving” we’d be talking just as much shit, trust me.

  6. Thanks for sharing, Sascha.

    We’re just ending a year back in North America (after 4 years in Mainland and 1 in Taiwan). Right now in the middle of all our preparations to head back to China these posts about higher profile laowais leaving start popping up.

    Funny thing is we are sort of doing a similar thing — leaving Tianjin, where we’ve been for 4 years, for greener (or in this case, bluer) pastures in Qingdao. Big, polluted, increasingly homogenous Chinese cities like Tianjin… If you don’t have a specific reason, something personal or big money, seriously, what keeps foreigners there? We are heading back to China in October but to a new city. We already have a job and an apartment and a preschool for our oldest daughter.

    China’s part of the equation, no doubt. But my hunch is that for many laowais, they came to China mostly for their own reasons and eventually leave due to their own reasons, and China itself isn’t the biggest factor in the equation.

    • I like Yulin because there are several little lanes there that remind me of what all of Chengdu was like maybe 5-8 years ago. Each little nook hides something interesting (or tasty) and the sense of community is pretty strong.

    • Yulin is one of the last remaining places in Chengdu that feels like a neighborhood to me. It’s interesting because some locals that I’ve spoken to say that Yulin was one of the original “neighborhoods” in Chengdu and now there are others like it.

      Personally I’ve lived in the East, West, and South of Chengdu and I find the South to be the best living environment.

    • Thanks for the replies. I just went for a run this morning in Yulin and was delighted to discover a corridor park sandwiched between tenement houses. There’s an entrance with a metal moon gate just opposite the Arts School. I’ve lived in the vicinity for two years and it was nice surprise.

  7. I’m in the same boat and can totally relate. Longer schedule, I think, but definitely starting to look for the exit.

    Kids is a big part of it. Cost of living vs. quality of living isn’t changing in the way I would hope, and so it starts to make less and less sense to use China as the crutch for a slightly “less responsible” living.

    When I start thinking about schooling, having a backyard (any yard), hockey games, BBQs with friends (that don’t involve a game of “Guess the Meat” and “Name that Formaldehyde”), healthcare and general safety… it adds up.

    So, like you man, not today, not tomorrow… but it’s coming. As you said, China’s been good to me. I’m betting other places will be good to me too.

  8. I think most “long-term foreigners” experience a back-and-forth view on their life here. They recognize it’s not as bad as their experienced, but jaded, views might make it seem when they are pushed over the edge with that one stare, comment, or act of ignorance. However, we just can’t accept things that are clearly taboo or immoral almost everywhere else. It’s a constant weighing of whether it is worth it that pervades our minds.

    For me, I’m about to have my first child and that was the point at which I said it’s time to go. I can eat all of the formaldehyde-laced mystery meat and experience all the behind-the-back racism, but I never want my kids to do the same.

    China has been good to me, but it will never view me as anything more than a foreigner who may or may not be doing bad things to their culture, country, or political ideology. Like you said, I’m also betting other (and more accepting) places will be good to me (and my family) too.

  9. Having kids makes a difference, doesn’t it? I remember flying back to China from Vancouver, Canada with our 4-month-old, who spent her first month in neonatal intensive care. We landed in Beijing and all the Chinese people on our plane were looking out the windows and the partially visible terminal commenting on all the 污染。Then we got in a taxi – no baby car seats, of course – and did the crazy Chinese traffic thing. And we imported all our baby formula. Having kids changes things that used to be funny and adventurous to dangerous and stupid. And unnecessary.

    • Personally I’ll leave China because the perks of being foreigner are way in the past. People being kind to you, offering silly jobs, paying more money, treating you differently because of the color of your skin, it isn’t real and it isn’t given to me because of who I am. I much prefer to be treated based on who I really am, not because I am from outside China. Constantly explaining to people why I can speak Chinese, where I learned, if I like Chinese girls and Sichuan spicy food, and clarifying if (despite being able to explain all of the aforementioned items in Chinese) I can use chopsticks!

      I thought the “You’ll never be Chinese” article would touch more on the false reality of being white in China, but it didn’t say much about that. While China has given so much to me, I always just wanted to be normal. I wanted to learn a language, travel around, make friends, and maybe develop some business opportunities. Instead I have to walk the streets listening to people talk about my height, skin color, eye color, and basically every little thing about what I’m doing or carrying or saying and how it is different from them. The black and white view of outsiders vs. Chinese is so boring and frustrating to me and such a far cry from the racial and cultural tolerance we have (or supposedly have) back in the states. How many variant foreigners, foreign brands, foreign movies and TV shows and music, foreign foods will it take for the Chinese to realize it’s a big world out there with endless diversity and that they too are just part of the cultural tapestry?

      Ok, done with my rant, and I do agree that us long-term foreigners waver back and forth with these issues, but this thread gave me a chance to say it, and I admit I’ll still miss many things about China once my exit strategy has been executed.

      • that’s the deal. most people don’t realize that expats act out most because they treated like aliens. call a man a freak all day and he’ll start behaving like one. if i could just BE and not have everyone scrutinize me while i be in their area, then everything would be schmoove.


        • I have the same feelings. However, if we were just let BE, then it would take a lot of the good out of China. Like you said in a this article, you enjoy a lot of perks because of your foreign status. So it is always the good with the bad.

          My next comment is not about anyone here, just an observation I have seen from foreigners I know. A lot of times, I feel that people here complain about China because it makes them feel smart. Tearing things down instead of building themselves up.

          We have 2 options, complain and be unhappy or transcend. Most people are here living the bum life because it is easy. Whenever we do not live up to our full potential we will never be happy. Just by chosing this LIFESTYLE (emphasized because we could be anywhere and feel the same way) we are opening ourselves up to feelings of inadequacy. Since China is an easy target we can complain about China as a stop gap to our own feelings of inadequacy.

          This is not always the case, some people are just particular and like things a certain way. I like clean bowls and eating utensils, so it is not very convenient for me here in China. But I carry around an alcohol spray and clean things that I will use for my food. Do what needs to be done.

          China is just a country with more obstacles than Western countries. Why do Chinese people endure in these conditions, because they do not know any better or expect any better. From talking with a lot of locals, they tell me even though they personally do not like the dirty conditions, they feel powerless to do anything about it. Also, that they are just used to it, so can ignore it easily.

          We are spoiled compared to the rest of the world. The South Africans, the ones that I know, tend to be less critical about China and Taiwan than other foreigners. Reason…. I believe because they had it bad in South Africa and they are making more money teaching English than they could at a regular job in South Africa. I knew several South Africans teaching in Taiwan who were buying multiple houses in South Africa and setting themselves up for early retirement, just off their teaching salaries. They thought Taiwan was great. The Americans and Australians complained constantly. The above conditions are not true for Americans, Australians, and most Europeans.

          So take what you will from my amature analysis. The main point is that things are more difficult here, if you are lazy or not an upbeat person, China will suck. If you can laugh at the never-ending craziness and find a place or two you can relax, then all is good.

          China is good to us foreigners in many ways. We cannot take from this country and then not even show an ounce of gratitude.

          Most, if not all, of us chose to come here. So we can also choose to go back. If you stay, then vent your frustration in a healthy way (ie. exercise, writing, music) and get on. Do you really want to live your life in a state of constant frustration, anger, and resentment?

      • I work in a manufacturing company with more than 100,000 people and I am the only white person. I feel the same way. I do not know how much longer I can go with people thinking that they are hilarious for yelling “Hello!” at me as they walk by. Granted a lot of these kids are 19-21 years old and have never been to College. It is their first time out of their small village. So I try to understand. But 5 times a day, everyday, gets a little silly.

        I think the mainpoint of what you and I are trying to say, is that no one ever tries to crack the surface. How do we make real friends with Chinese people when they only care about the superficial aspects of us being foreigners. We are seen more like shiny new toys and not people. This is my biggest reason for negative feelings of China.

        It is difficult to establish any kind of real roots here. Back home we have friends for life. Here if you are lucky enough to find some cool people to hang out with,they usually leave after a year.

        The constant feeling of never being settled keeps me wanting more. No matter how much China modernizes, it will still never be home. You can get a 300rmb steak that is delicious, but I cannot find any Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

  10. It does feel like their is a bit of a zeitgeist of long-time expats getting fed up with China. But I think part of that is just a function of era. China has now been open long enough that the second and third waves of expats in China have been here long enough to get disenchanted, or at least long enough to want to return to their lives in their native countries. This phenomena of prominent laowai leaving may not indicate an overall trend of foreign populations in China diminishing, but rather indicate simply a certain kind of laowai returning home – to be replaced by a new wave of fresh faced naive fortune seekers.

  11. Glad to read your riff on this as I had read the pieces you mentioned and wondered about your take on them. Like yourself I just returned from an extended visit to the States and and have more or less come to the same conclusion vis a vis China. BTW, your post contains one of the best sentences on China I have read: “Today’s China is a vast construction site filled with ruthless, desperate, angry, resigned, and isolated people riding a crimson tide of wealth creation toward a future that may be a tranquil pool from which all may drink, but could just as well be the edge of a flat world, sending everyone tumbling into an abyss of acrimony, chaos, and woe.” Now that’s viral worthy, though a little too long to tweet, I suspect.

  12. Good article.

    Now that I am leaving end of the year back to European shores I kind of feel like that I never got too attached with the country anyway in order for me having to reflect so much.
    Thing is when you come here on assignment you are here to work and it became obvious at an early stage that learning the language was not an option:

    A. for lack of talent
    B. for lack of time.

    I also never entered anything that could be considered a serious relationship. And I tried for a while because in general I am one for the more stable and continuous things between a man and a woman. But I also realized pretty early on that I could not in million years build a bridge across that cultural divide. That’s a personal preference of course.

    So from my perspective, I am still surprised to read these articles from people like Kitto who got married here who speak the language fluently and now leave with so much bitterness in their heart. I feel more pity for him than sympathy to be honest. If it takes you 16 years to find out that this is not for you then fair enough but maybe don’t blame it solely on China but maybe reflect on your weak judgement as well.

    I also can’t really understand what kind of country he is talking about as if in the recent past there was a better more kind China and now all of a sudden things are going downhill.

    I love China and I know I will miss it. But maybe that is because I never expected anything and I never thought the country owed me anything so I could never be disappointed in the way like some long time foreigners now seem to claim.

    I also smile at the Children. But sometimes i also make devils horns with my fingers and scare them haha.

  13. I’m leaving China too in the very near future as the costs of living are just totally out of balance with the quality of life you get for it these days if you rely on income generated outside of China.

    Lots of cafes in Chengdu ask $5 for a crappy coffee, cheap restaurant food is full of MSG, recycled oil and low quality ingredients, in a quality restaurant it costs $12 upwards to fill you up which is comparable to prices in western second tier cities.

    Combine this with the fact that Chengdu is basically a construction site and has few nice areas of first world standard, then you have a pretty bad deal.

    As a man married to a Chinese woman I have basically no improved legal status as you’d have in first world countries. I can’t buy property, I can’t work legally and I constantly have to jump through hoops to get the next visa because my wife has a hukou from outside of Chengdu.

    The novelty of China has long worn off for me and all I see these days is the vast gap between what I get and what I pay for.

    • I bought my apartment in a second-tier city, in 2008, with the help of a Chinese woman who later became my wife.

      I was the grateful recipient of the stimulus package: Instead of a bank loan at 7%, which I had been told to expect, I paid around 2.75%, so was able to pay the place off within a year. Instead of a one-time purchase tax of 38,000 rmb, which I had been told to expect, I ended up paying less than half.

      Admittedly, it helped a lot that my girlfriend at the time (later my wife) had a houkou in this city and so was able to counter-sign the loan.

      I’ve been told that one who is over 60 and owns an apartment in China can get a visa to stay (though it does not confer the right to work).

      Does anyone have some info about this? I believe I could get a F visa by virtue of my marriage if I lost my job and my z visa. Anyone know for sure?


      • If you are married, you can get a Relations Visa 探亲, and that is one of the best ones around. you can get it multi-entry, up to 2 years, easy to renew, easy to get (marriage certificate basically) and no hassle. Only thing is you can’t work.

          • well. yes they do. and there are people who make money and do not live on a Z visa. It’s a spouse visa, it does what it is supposed to do …

        • Hi Sascha, Thanks for the prompt response! Does the Relations Visa have an alphabet letter, like F or Z? Does one have to leave the country to change a Z visa to a Relations Visa?

          Best wishes to you and yours for the holiday season, Rob

          • In my experience, the Relative visa is a L letter and does not require leaving the country. But, changing a Z visa usually requires leaving the country. So you may have to leave, come in on a L Tourist Visa and then get your marriage cert. as well as hukou, passport, and another doc which the PSB will give you, a form that describes the relationship and perhaps a few other things (always an adventure!!) and then go get the visa. It is easy as pie and your wife should be able to handle it w/out big problems.

            Remember though that you cannot work on that visa. Or do business.

          • Yo Sascha,

            Thanks for the input! Though I would like to work for another ten years, one must always have back-up plan B, and maybe even C …

            So, I’ve got an apartment and a wife here … if I leave when the Z visa is gone, what’s the alphabet letter of the tourist visa with which I would return in order to apply for the L visa – for relatives?

            Thanks, Rob

  14. Faced with view job prospects in Ireland when I finish my PhD in the the next few weeks, I was considering going to China to teach English. Would you suggest I look elsewhere if possible??

    • i would yes. There are other places to go and teach like Japan, Korea and Thailand or S. America even. I hear Spain hires English teachers even. China is great in many ways, but if I were to advise someone, I would say Live in Japan/Thailand and travel through China. Travelling in China is awesome. Living here …. meh.

      But hey, i’m here 😉

    • To offer a counter balance to Sascha’s input: there are more opportunities emerging in China than in any of the other countries that you could teach English and probably more cash and less red tape than in most of those countries as well (with the exception of S Korea and Japan).

      Depending on what your PhD is in though, your academic credentials might not suit the job market here perfectly. A huge percentage of English teachers in China either have no degree, aren’t native English speakers, or both.

      I’ve been living in China for years and I’ve never regretted it. I’ve always lived and worked with Chinese people and despite the annoyances which everyone is aware of, modern China is a place absolutely unlike any other.

  15. damn, this is more of a “How to get the China Blues” article.

    I think a lot of good points were raised, but mostly like someone mentioned people come for personal reasons and leave for personal reasons. People’s disappointments are based on their expectations, and lots of people come here with inflated, misguided or morally questionable hopes. and if you came just for the perks or the fact that you get ‘treated’ different, get real, that’s necessarily a fleeting thing.

    Im starting in on my 3rd year here, and while my opinions and expectations have changed drastically over the last 2 years (as they must in a ll places and situations in the world), im still excited to be here, and find myself chuckling regularly at little situations i get involved in, saying ‘o china this is why i love you’. when people travel and when they live somewhere, they view their environment through different lenses, one is open to amazement, one often ignores all the little amazing things around. but thats true anywhere, not just in China. people often come here with that adventure lense, and maybe it takes longer to wear off here, but the idea that it should never way off is unrealistic. China is more than just novelty, and that being said is far more than its ancient artistic history. its easy to romanticize any places history and demonize its present, but each place has its right to carve its path to the future.

    all this said, the point about kids is very fair, i dont have any, but not the safest/best place in the world to raise a family.

    im not looking to leave right away, but Canada will always be home to me, and i think that plays a big role in people leaving as well, inexplicable ties to the landscape (not necessarily politics) of the place where they were born. but when i go, i sure hope its not cause im ‘jade’d.

    • I think maybe when I was three years in, China was still some kind of glimmering pearl with the occasional sea shit on it. I went home and all I could think about was this mystifying place called China. I arrived at Pudong once and took in a huge breath, then exhaled, just shrugging off everything which “the west” meant whatsoever. It was like entering a void. Albeit a void with hot pot, generosity and honest faces. I don’t think jaded is such an evil word. In fact, anyone who never comes across that feeling must be some sort of insect.

  16. “when i go, i sure hope its not cause im ‘jade’d.”

    yeah you also have to understand that people go through phases where ever they are. I was still smelling like redwoods and craft beer when i showed up in Hong Pai Lou and someone spit right in my path. So i was like … oh hell no.

    But as the days go on and my life here moves to the forefront of my experience, I just live. Like anywhere else. Do my thing, say hi to my people, try and get better all the time. Laugh.

    I wouldn’t take one feeling and make it absolute and permanent. Too bad this essay is inserting jaded-izm into the atmosphere, that’s not what I try and do. With these stories I try and exorcise evil spirits. I would feel real bad if I infect someone … so if you feel the blues, shake em off. write something, smile at someone, look at the world through a lens of engagement and wonder. Ignore gripes by crusty China Hands.

  17. Sascha, reading this and other related posts from you in the past, I’m not sure I’m convinced you’re done with China, but then it’s been a while since I’ve seen you in person so maybe those anxieties have risen to new heights. I think personally if I had children, my initial gut reaction would be to get the hell out as soon as humanly possible, though I’m not so sure that would be my final choice. I could wax lyrical on a philosophical trajectory as to why I would or wouldn’t, should or shouldn’t stay under that condition, but as with all of this, my opinions and experiences are my own, and personally being responsible for no one but myself allows me a far more cavalier attitude to what I’m doing with my life.

    I’ve been here for almost two years now, and in that time I’ve swung from having absolute wonder and amazement for Chengdu/China, to boiling over with contempt and frustration for the apparently perpetual and relentless ignorance and indifference around me. As I write this, I don’t think there’s any degree of change to that since my arrival to this burgeoning, half construction site of a city, but for myself and my own approach to it.

    I’ve recently signed another contract with my employer, and leading up to that went through an intense reflection on what I might do next, and where. My thoughts are always playing with where to go from here should I decide it’s time to go, but where would that be and why? We all have our own personal reasons of course, just as we have our own personal frustrations, be it with our work, our neighbours, or our hopes and ambitions for the future, but much of this is internal. I don’t want to sound cliched, but the view you take is the path you make in all things, and we all know it’s easy to be beaten down by the brutality of that indifference here. And this is definitely a place for personal reflection, brought about not least by that alienation or separation that keeps us all from crossing the cultural divide. There are so many instances and occurrences day to day in living here that would test the mettle of even the saintliest of Saints, I barely know where to begin. I’ve actually just sat here at this paragraph for a few minutes running through it in my mind, and it really reinforces that mixed emotion I have about being here. Maybe if I’d been here longer I could qualify my own interpretation further, but I really haven’t seen any change outside of the construction taking place while I’ve been here. There are new malls, new apartment complexes, the occasional new walkover, or road, and even a new subway, but I still see Mothers dropping their kids trousers for a pee on the department store floor. But even that’s okay, I’m not going to get too hung up on the inequities of social development, or lack thereof. And it’s not that I (or any of us) could expect some radical cultural shift in such a short time, but it does get old after a time when I step into an elevator and cast silence piercing spells of murmuring on everyone. And I don’t mind it, it’s a small thing, but it constantly reminds me just how reinforced that division amongst us is. And as open minded as I will always continue to be, that division can rear it’s head in the most surprising of places. I’ve had conversations with seemingly intelligent, open minded, thought provoking Chinese individuals who have managed to knock me out cold with statements that stand in polar opposite to my view or opinion of their character. But then they too are in this whole mix. Any one of us coming from the West has generations upon generations of free thought to draw upon. We’ve all been crossing each others borders for hundreds of years, we’ve had the time to rise above that human condition that seeks to segregate us on our appearances, beliefs, and practices in living. These poor souls are still trying to claw themselves out of the wastelands, and to do so they’ve been forced to embrace what is arguably the most rapid urbanisation any of us have ever seen, or indeed will see.

    I’m not sure if I’m falling away from my point there, but if I’m to boil it all down for myself, or perhaps for anyone who’s been here for a short while, I think many of my frustrations can and have been cured by a smile. I know on the face of it (no pun intended) that’s extraordinarily simplistic given the complexities we know exist, but the more I see the absolute comedy of being in this time and place, the more I get to accepting and appreciating it. I could give you insights into the monolithic frustrations I face every day in my work, but those are really my own, and how I choose to see them is what’s made the difference. In fact some of those very frustrations are the things that help keep me here. I might be pissing in the wind, and my time here might close as one great big experimental wash out, but whatever happens I will have been here and taken the experiences for myself. I’ve met some great people since arriving, sometimes helped by the very division of which we all speak. I’ve tried to see positive influence where I can, be it professionally or personally, and I think for the most part I have.

    For the time being I’m choosing to see this place I’m in as the new frontier, embracing any of the opportunities and experiences it may bring. Maybe I too will be ‘jaded’ after a time, or maybe I’ll just continue on in my chosen direction and take what comes with a quiet smile.

  18. Sascha, I appreciate your writing and the thoughtfulness behind it all. Many thanks!

    I was in the ‘du from 2000 to 2003 and missed it terribly after I left. I did stints in New York City and Japan and really tried to shake the China (Chengdu) Bug out of my system, but to no avail.

    I came back last month and I am glad that I am here. I told myself that I will give myself 1-3 years this time around. We’ll see.

    Thanks again for your writing. I really like how you sum up the “Chengdu Experience” (whatever that means) in your writing. Keep scribin’ the good stuff!

    Warm regards.

  19. On a recent trip to Japan (BTW, I love Japan… but will probably never try living there again), my Japanese and foreign friends residing there ask me after hanging out for a day or two, “Is there anything you LIKE about China?” Of course this question shocked me… “Why of course. Why do you ask?”

    As it turns out 99.9% of what I had to say had been negative and they were wondering why I’d want to be in a place that irked me in so many ways. Well the answer was complicated. More or less, 80.9% of what I had talked about was issues involving the Party and China in international relations. The other 10% were observations about the differences between Japanese and Chinese living, which they took as negative. In the end, I had to sit down and really think about what in fact was keeping me in China…?

    The simplest answer I came up with was “change”. China is changing in ways and at a pace I have no chance of ever experiencing anywhere else on the planet. That in itself is a good enough point for me to go on living here.

    I enjoy observing rapid social and economic change. I’m from a world that developed long before I was born.

    Sure, road full of bad drivers is a danger and a city full of uninspired newly constructed and disintegrating high rises is an eyesore, plus many more things I don’t have space to list. But it is interesting to behold these things, and from that I derive great pleasure. by contrast, my native home of Canada or Japan that I briefly called home and visit every year is extremely boring and stagnant.

    I also enjoy having a world view to add to contemporary China issues. Most Chinese have very little grasp of anything that happens or has happened in LaowaiLand. Therefore, when ever anything makes the news or is a subject of popular conversation, I enjoy the opportunity to add my foreign perspective.

    Of course there is always the cost of living that comes into play as well. In western Canada, though I love it to the depths of heart still and long to see its stately mountains, blue skies and clear oceans everyday another grey Shanghai day greats me, I never really like paying for it. Working half a month every month just to pay to be there was always a load of stress. In China, my lifestyle and monthly purchases are way more extravagant than that which I could afford on my native soil and I never have to think about what anything costs, let alone use credit or bank loans (something I’m immensely please to have completely banished from my life).

    There are times I want to leave, specifically when I get bronchitis or pneumonia as I am now suffering through once again. Also paying thousands of RMB for medical care makes me long for Canada’s socialist medical system. But that’s about it. Right now it is not enough to make me want to leave.

    Like Chris above, I lived here on a couple short stints a decade ago and no matter where life took me, I always had an urge to return. Now I’ve been back for over 3 years and I’m finally coming into my own, as far as writing is concerned. Being in China now, knowing something about the country beyond the headlines in the foreign press, and being able to write about it in a somewhat coherent way is actually giving me great opportunities to further develop as a writer. Maybe in another 3 years this won’t be enough to keep me here, but for now it is enough, and who knows, maybe in 3 years it’ll take me other places…?

    When or if I leave China, it won’t be because I don’t like it or can’t handle it, it’ll be because I’ve changed in some way and desire something elsewhere. Hopefully the years I have spent here will be a reason I get a chance to move on, if I move on at all.

  20. Ten years here this year. the key to my longevity? I’m lucky (and hard-working enough) that i can get out for 3-6 months most years and travel to more interesting places. And as a long-timer, Chengdu is MUCH better now than 10 years ago. Those jaded, drunk old guys romanticising about the “good old days here” (when you’d get the dreaded “L” word 500 times a day)? Enjoy the present….

    • That is a winning strategy. I was able to do that this year for the first time and I think it had a real impact on how I view China. It makes the hardships much more bearable and gives me more of an objective look at them.

      In some ways Chengdu was better in the old days, it really depends what you value most. The sense of adventure was more palpable then, when there wasn’t Starbucks and McDonalds everywhere in Chengdu. The city is more modern and international now but I think it’s lost a little bit of it’s charm in the process, as any developing city does. Personally I agree with you again though, I wouldn’t trade current Chengdu for the old Chengdu.

  21. “Naturally that is because White Devils stole a bunch and Yellow Devils pounded the rest into dust.”

    I don’t know about this, but a lot (the majority?) of China’s most valuable art and artifacts were “evacuated” to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek during the civil war. Not sure if this was mostly out of spite or out of a genuine fear that the communists would pulverize everything, but the result is that the National Palace Museum in Taipei now houses one of the world’s best collection of Chinese art–better than anything to be found in China, at least according to the Taiwanese.

  22. The wife and I are looking to get out of China next year. Not because China is bad, I genuinely enjoy my life here (with the exception of the bad china days) and like you, China has been very good to me. But hailing from a sleepy English Seaside town I yearn for the peace and quiet of the rolling green hills and little coves of home, the smell of fish and chips and the turn of the seasons, from rainy augusts to blustery septembers. Rather than the Stifling heat and humidity and permanent dampness of the south eastern Sichuan Basin (Luzhou). My wife also yearns for a quiter simpler life, free of face and guangxi.


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