How China (kind of) took over my life

When your CV includes the line “Chinese – fluent in speaking and writing”, I can almost guarantee that you’ll be asked why on earth you would want to learn Mandarin, at least to that level. In my case, the honest reply is – because I had nothing better to do. Boredom can be dangerous, as I would quickly find out. When I had to spend a semester studying abroad, doing so in China seemed the obvious choice. I should have known what I was getting myself into, after all, I’d spent 2 months in the country after my A-levels. My 6 months at a university in Shanghai were quite educational (culturally), stressful (academically) and cold (in terms of ambient temperature, for various odd reasons). I was grateful for the experience, but did not care to repeat ist. Naturally, right after graduating I ended up taking a job that had me work full-time in China. The responsibility that came with it also meant more control over the situation, so in a sense it was a lot more pleasant than studying, despite putting in way more hours. I got to see some remote places and a whole lot of industrial cities. Not exactly glamorous, but fun. And rather overwhelming – not to mention hazardous for one’s health – at times.

Wanting to experience what I had, my husband convinced me to take him on a whirlwind trip through the country after my return from the assignment. Afterwards, he was sure that he would not want go there again… I’m still working in the same position, so we shall see how many more trips I will be taking in the future. And of course, there is always someone who needs to purchase something from China or wants to contact friends there, so not a single day passes without me thinking of 中国-related stuff. But why does this have such an impact on my life?

During my travels, I have met many people on long-term assignments or who simply chose to try their luck teaching English. While I really like my Chinese friends (and colleagues) and would like to point out the undeniable beauty of the countryside, I can see why China is polarising. In my opinion, the mental hazards even outweigh the physical ones. Recovering from smog and questionable food safety is easy given enough time. But many visitors have returned (or stayed) with a severely altered personality. In my experience, when it comes to dealing with life in China, there are 3 kinds of people:

Type 1 “favours knowledge, generalising, postive to negative bias” – initially harbours romantic notions of China, is very interested in the culture and/or language; after actually spending time in the country, he finds his illusions shattered and loses his confidence/enjoyment of life as a result, sub-type: Old China Hand who realises he will never actually be “Chinese enough”

A prime example of that would be Anna, whom I met on my first trip. An 18-year-old girl from Germany, she was taking a few weeks off before enrolling at uni. Her intented major at that time was Sinology (China Studies). Not speaking more than basic Chinese, she was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer sights, sounds, smells and chaos, as she perceived it. She really struggled to like the country and enjoyed the cultural aspects, but the misfit between personality and surroundings was obvious. She ended up changing her field of study.

Type 2 “favours experience, generalising, negative bias”- is not particularly enthusiastic about his location/assignment, rarely bothers to learn the language and familiarise himself with cultural basics, is opinionated about politics and stereotypes; his resulting demeanor leads to him being scammed or disrespected; in order to deal with that, he becomes cynical  and cold; sub-type: went to China to further his career, views the benefits and increased salary as compensation for his hardships

This typology is primarily found among employees of bigger companies who were sent abroad as technical support or project managers. The main draw seems to be the amenities and higher salaries, not a genuine interest in the country. Thus, they usually know very little about China, which gets them into unpleasant situations. Due to their negative view of the Chinese, they hardly ever have positive encounters. The more cultural pressure the experience as a result, the more they withdraw, bottling up their anger and looking for confirmation of their stereotypes from other cynics at expat meet-ups. In the end, some come to expect only bad things from the Chinese and therefore try to use the locals for their own purposes (or to “hack the system”), e.g. treat Chinese women as sexual objects.

Type 3 “open-minded, non-generalising, positive bias” – has some working knowledge of the culture, tries to appreciate the Chinese point-of-view (sometimes to the point of eshewing objectivity), sometimes his career depends on him viewing China in a positive light. On the one hand, he may be aware of certain catches when doing business here, on the other hand, he frequently puts aside his reservations in favour of trust, either ensuring a good working environment and making genuine friends, or being mildly scammed, but able to recover (at least emotionally) from such hang-ups

The third type’s psychological makeup might be the most stable and possibly the most successful, except in cases when his positive bias gets the better of him and results in poor choices. Normally, though, since he tends to knows the ropes, his failures might not be severe in comparison to the possible misadventures of types 1 and 2. His resilience allows him to recover from unsucessful ventures. However, his positive view leads him to defend his Chinese colleagues/friends in most situations, which might cast doubt on his objectivity, which in turn makes working with Westerners harder.

Bear in mind that most people’s stories and personalities will feature elements of all three types and maybe even a transition from one type to another.

Personally, I progressed from Type 1 (after first visit) to 2 (after studying) and am now somewhere between 2 (slightly, there simply are some aspects about which I can’t help being cynical) and 3 (mainly, as experience leads to confidence).

What are your views on the working/studying in China? If you have any questions regarding my experiences, just drop me a line!



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