Monday, February 8, 2010

The 11 Foreigners You Meet In China

The Newbie

It’s intimidating to be one, fresh off the plane and completely out of your element. Once you have been here for a couple of months, however, it’s kind of fun to help out other Newbies. "Zuo gui means turn left," "Don't eat that," and "Never, ever leave the house without tissues in your bag" all prove vitally important to any fresh faces. Any information you have gleaned will probably be news to the noobs. The little sense of satisfaction when you bestow some hard-earned wisdom upon their grasshopper selves is worth the price of admission. Plus, it's karma, as someone no doubt helped you out a few times. However, Newbies are harder to befriend the longer you are here, especially if you have low patience levels with déjà vu. "What's the word for the bill again?" Each new round of folks will talk about the crazy driving and the split pants on babies like it’s the most astonishing thing they’ve ever seen. The old timers just sigh and pat them on the shoulder. “That’s okay, little noob, you’ll stop seeing it after a while. All in good time.”

The Lifer

A somewhat rare breed and not the same across the board, but always interesting to talk to, The Lifer is staying for the long haul. He seems perfectly happy here or he just hates his homeland that much more. Maybe he married a local and started a family, his work is specific to China, or he just loves having someone come to do his laundry and dishes twice a week until he dies. I find it all very intriguing. As I plan to leave this place eventually, I am fascinated by those who do not wish to go home. This is their home now. Folks in this category also have the highest rate of Mandarin mastery and it just makes me jealous. (Plus, it is totally wild to hear a foreigner with a pretty convincing Chinese accent, tones and all. It makes quite an impression.)

The Whinger

To be fair, I think most people here have done this or have gone through a whinging stage. (I use the Australian term for whiner here, simply because it's a fab word. Pronounced like ‘twinge-ah.’) Most people go through culture shock of some sort and usually there is something to complain about, something that gets your goat or that you simply cannot understand no matter how hard you try. Many people get past the bulk of their pet peeves and learn to accept what they cannot change about China. However, the chronic complainer focuses conversations solely on whining. "Why can't they just stop spitting? It's sooo gross!" Some Whingers can be funny when they do it, but if they are not, they drain the energy from anyone who has gotten over the subject in question. A veritable silver lining black hole, these folks are best taken in small doses or only when you are in a bullet-proof good mood. However, perhaps a better plan is to only meet the Whinger when you’ve just had a crap day and you could really use a complaining companion, and a cold beer. "I said a cold beer! Why don't they ever have enough cold beer?"

The Sexpat

Oh dear, this bloke. I don’t need to go into details as this guy is infamous. The most stereotypical variety of Sexpat and, may I say awkward to witness, is the ancient and/or highly unattractive and/or sleazy dude with the young, impossibly hot chic on his arm. Perhaps it's a mutually beneficial arrangement. Whatever. It just hits me like a bad note on the trumpet and I'd just plain rather not be listening, thank you. But on a more day to day level, the Sexpats of all ages fall into two main categories: the guys who are fairly suave before they come here and the suddenly "desirable" expats who find themselves in a once forbidden candy store, of sorts. They see the buffet and just can’t stop sampling. And so, the notches hit the post. You can tell when you meet the guy who has let the game go to his head and now regards himself as some sort of God of Mojo. Being suddenly seen as exotic and desirable is hard not to notice I'm sure. However, this guy is probably leaving China at some point, and unless he buckles down and secures one of these fine ladies to accompany him for the long term, he will need to check his reality along with his bags for the flight home.

The Teacher

The English teacher abounds in China. Many have come for the experience only for the length of the contract. Some use it as a way to get to China and then leapfrog to something else. A few, however, make a career out of it and actually enjoy it. A friend recently started his own school here, committing to years of being a teacher here. Managing a classroom full of children is quite the challenge, but it is no doubt rewarding in a place where learning English is seen as vital for success. I tutored three Chinese boys my first year here and as if I needed any more reason to, it made me respect teachers a great deal more than ever. Well, good teachers. If she’s just playing Finding Nemo for the kids while she sits at the desk and text messages her friends about drinks later, maybe she should quit her day job and get one she cares about.

The Enthusiast

Oh my, he is just bursting with excitement! He loves Chinese philosophy, he loves the people, he loves the language, he just love, love, loves the culture with all the fireworks and backwards walking and street food on skewers he can handle. He likely studied Chinese history in college and majored in Mandarin. He came here to experience it first hand. He is here to eat, see and breathe this place. He wants to live like a local. I have to say, it’s refreshing to see folks who really, really want to be here and are so positive about it all. I envy their zeal, but then I also catch myself wondering if they are in the honeymoon phase and it will all come crashing down around their knees in a few months. This is a terrible thing to think. I hope I’m wrong. I think I am some of the time. But I’m willing to bet that either a week of food poisoning or falling for the tea house scam just might cool his enthusiasm a stitch.

The Fugitive

This one is running from something. You don’t know what exactly, but he is escaping a past. Maybe it’s a nasty divorce. Maybe it’s a native land where he can’t attract a significant other. Maybe he lost his right to practice his professional trade in his homeland. Or maybe…he’s running from long arm of the law! Okay, that’s extreme, but it does make one wonder. Fugitives are somewhat rare, or maybe they are just the least obvious kind, which makes sense. They are escaping something and they don’t want you to know what from. You get this weird vibe around them. They change the subject a lot, don't talk about home much and might even avoid having their pictures taken. I’m all for redemption and new starts. If you’re here to make it all right again, kudos to you. I don’t need to know all your dark secrets. But if you're hiding a murderous past? Yeah, I’d want to know that because then I could stay the heck away from you.

The Young

A great number of post-college people come to live here, the land of infinite possibilities. In a sense, the Young one is braver than her older, fellow countrymen who come here on cushy expat packages. She has to find her own way and take public transportation. Maybe he came to study Mandarin at a Chinese university where he learned to actually read Mandarin which only makes him more valuable if he chooses to stay and work here. Impressive. She might have come to jump start her career, landing jobs and getting promotions that are a few steps above what she could expect in her native land. The Young are full of energy and are enjoying a colorful, challenging, rewarding life working hard and playing hard in the major cities in China. Money stretches farther in China and so, the good times roll on.

The Restless

Eternal searchers, the Restless are looking for their place in life. This may be their first time abroad or just the latest stop on their hop-scotch around the globe, but they come with ideas of a different life, a new perspective and the promise of endless possibilities. They try all sorts of jobs, travel around the country, and get into new religions or philosophies. They search and maybe even briefly find what they want in life and yet, in the end, it’s like trying to catch smoke in their hands. They become bored or frustrated with life here. Many remain eternally optimistic, keeping the faith that if they try this next thing or this new place or this different vocation, they will find satisfaction. Others start to show signs of losing hope, having started over so many times with always the same results. As is the nature of these roving souls, most will slip away when your back is turned without a goodbye, moving on to their next attempt at figuring life out.

The Burnout

This guy should have gone home a long time ago. The Burnout, the grouchy, toxic cousin of the Whinger, is way past the point of enjoying himself or learning anything new. He doesn’t care about experiencing local culture anymore. In fact, he views it all very negatively. Life is shit, baby, and if you haven’t realized it yet, he is more than willing to fill you in on “the truth.” The corruption, the cheating, the shady ways of the government, the fake friendliness of the bar girls, the polluted water, the cooks who never wash their hands. It’s all in the toilet for him, and yet he just won’t flush. It’s hard to picture the Burnout having ever enjoyed being in China. Why did he want to come to China in the first place? What will it take to make him finally leave? Whatever it takes he should check out, and sooner rather than later.

The Tag-along

Simply put, she’s here because her significant other is here, whether it was a job transfer or just a good opportunity to work abroad. In time, she may make her own life here, landing a job in her field, seizing the opportunity to start a new business, or perhaps focusing on exploring a long-lost hobby. Some Tag-alongs enjoy the ride even if they don’t get a job here, taking advantage of the perks by traveling around, getting massages, and going out on the town chauffeured by their personal driver. Some come to resent their situation with a smoldering fury and become bitter, bitter souls. Some “trailing wives”, especially those in the smaller cities, become depressed and lonely, isolated from their old lives with no support group of friends and no clear way to eke out a place in this new life. I have seen this and it is sad. But the Tag-along who goes gracefully forward, taking care of kids or simply themselves, not dwelling on her status as the follower, manages to treat life like anywhere else: normal. I admire that woman most of all.

Where do I fall in here? I’ve been the Newbie (seems like just yesterday…), dabbled as the Teacher and the Enthusiast, and fallen into being the Whinger more than I’d like to admit. Long term, I’m in with the Young (I can play one on TV) and of course, the Tag-along. Some fit better than others and some fit only for short periods of time. The important thing here is to know yourself, or at least be honest with yourself and your intentions. And never, ever stay long enough to become the Burnout.

This piece can also be seen at The Faster Times . Check it out!