A while back the Telegraph asked me to do a short piece, something like ’10 things I wish I’d known before moving to China’.
Suffering as I do from literary diarrhoea, I found that once i’d started, i just couldn’t stop. The edited version, deemed acceptable for publishing, can be viewed at the following link whilst the full unadulterated version is copied below. Enjoy !
The full unabridged submission was as follows ;
- There ain’t no PC in the PRC…
You’ll need to put your western liberal sensibilities to one side and “man up”. China makes the racist, sexist 1970’s look like afternoon tea with Polly Toynbee.
A few examples ;
A colleague once showed what appeared to be genuine sympathy for the poverty suffered in many African countries. “It’s not their fault..” she exclaimed…”they’re just not as clever as us…..”
An Austrian woman we knew well told us about the stunning sales figures achieved by the dealership she worked for. On telling us that they used stunning girls from the provinces to attract customers I retorted that we should resist being too judgemental as it wasn’t long ago that manufacturers in the west were draping models over their cars at motor shows to achieve the same objective. “Yes, but my dealership usually sells the girls with the cars ! ” she replied.
She must be pulling my leg I thought. “You can’t sell women at a car dealership. It’s the 21st century….There’d be an outcry !”
“Oh no, it’s not against their will.” She replied. “The girls want the buyer to take them. They are poor girls from the provinces and for them, becoming the play thing of some Shanghai sugar daddy is viewed as a great result !”.
And finally, on returning from a mediterranean cruise with my father I could see that my Chinese step mother was bursting to tell me something ;
“Lichard ! On the boat Blian went over to talk to a black man. I said ‘Blian stop !’ but like normal he ignored me. Anyway, in the end I went over to talk to this black man and you know what ?”
“What fang ?” I could see she was massively excited. What revelation was about to surface. Had my Dad perhaps been talking with Pele himself ?
“This black man was a NICE man I think……”
Well there you have it. Yes Fong, you have indeed shocked me but not in the way you think.
So if the west is too PC for your liking and you frequently worry that you’ll put your un PC foot in it, then China might be the place for you….
2. The Chinese don’t do modesty…
I wish I’d known that to the Chinese, humility is a puzzling, alien concept.
In Spring and Autumn when the temperature hovered around 20c and the skies were blue I used to enjoy the two mile walk from my house in Honqiao to my office in Gubei. To my surprise I was confronted about this apparently harmless practice by several of my colleagues.
“Why are you walking to work ?”
“Because it’s a beautiful sunny day !”
“But if you walk, people will think you are poor. They will think that you cannot afford a car ! “
So there it was. Forget what makes you happy, the respect of others is paramount and that respect will only accrue if these others believe you to be wealthy.
A neighbour once rang our door one night and said to my wife ;
“Hi. I’m from opposite house. Have you seen my new car ?”
“Oh, is that the nice yellow one over there ?” My wife replied
“Yes !” the woman beamed. She then proceeded to produce an official looking, credit card sized photo of a yellow sports car from her bag and thrust it at my wife. “Look, I want to invite you to party on Thursday night. Now we have new car, now we are members of ‘Fellali (Ferrari) Club’. You come to the party as our guest..”
To my everlasting regret, we were off on holiday to the Phillipines the next day, and so could not attend the party. I imagined how I could have had an embossed credit card sized photo of our 8 year old decrepit Daewoo people carrier made up so I could greet members of the Fellali club with “Hi, I am member of financially challenged Daewoo van owners club. Pleased to meet you ….”
I still think about the missed opportunity that party represented to this day. I often speculate as to the conversation between the Fellali Club members. China is a huge place and I’m sure that somewhere they must have a dialect akin to a black country accent. Did perhaps the brasher members of Fellali Club thrust the pictures of their cars under the noses of the other members while exclaiming “Look at my car (wad) !……i am considerably more wealthy, than yow……”
3. Manners maketh man….
On arriving in China, I wish I’d known that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people don’t do manners. I am unsure as the reason behind this. Someone once told me that when the Communists had come to power, Mao had labelled manners as bourgeois and consequently those with the good sense, dropped their manners overnight for fear of being perceived as a class enemy. Whatever the real reason, the sheer rudeness on display can take the breath away.
The first time I queued at an ATM in China, I was appalled that just as the man in front of me went to insert his card, another man from nowhere, pushed him aside and took his place. Outraged I grabbed hold of the intruder and “placed” him in the back of the queue. Being British, I instantly regretted getting involved and felt sure that violence would now ensue. Strangely however, the rude intruder that I manhandled to the back of the queue meekly accepted my intervention and just smiled at me weakly.
I was also puzzled as to why the man in front of me who been denied his rightful place at the machine made no reaction at all when the rude intruder had pushed him aside. I asked the people I worked with and one speculated… “Well, the man pushing in may have been a rich man or even a party member so it might have been risky for the guy who was being cheated of his place to object… ”.
On another occasion I took my family to the observatory at She Shan. Basically the observatory was strategically placed there as She Shan was the only hill in hundreds, perhaps thousands of square miles of delta land. My wife was at the counter, establishing the price of the tickets when a woman flew in at speed from her right and knocked her a few yards sideways. The woman, who was now occupying my wife’s place at the counter then calmly proceeded to negotiate the purchase of around 12 tickets as if nothing had happened.
Angry and,indignant, I pushed the lady away from the counter and told her that she had taken my wife’s place. Again I regretted my impulsive behaviour however no violent repercussions ensued. She and her group just laughed as if to say …“Yep, it’s a fair cop. We tried it on but you stopped us !”.
Another time, playing golf with a friend, the man behind us marched through our game and proceeded to play our green under our very noses. I shouted to his caddy “Hey Xiao Jie (young lady) ! What the hell’s going on ?”
“ He’s in a hurry so needs to play the hole now…” She calmly replied.
In short, if you are moving to China and a lack of consideration for others really winds you up, then I suggest you start practicing your deep breaths now…..
4. Don’t drive !!!
On arriving in China, I really wish someone had sat me down and talked me out of the stupid notion of acquiring a Chinese licence and driving myself. Most expat postings, particularly in China, come complete with a car and driver. Though to outward appearances it may look like the employees are being over indulged, the real reason behind driver provision is often the protection of the company. For example, when we arrived in Shanghai in 2004 we had several good friends who worked for BP. They were all provided with company cars and the expat employees had to sign a contract stating that they would never drive themselves whilst they were in the PRC. The reason behind this was that a BP employee had been in an accident whilst driving a couple of years before, had been deemed responsible, and as a result BP had been sued for very serious money.
The Shanghai road system is something to behold. A vast network of roads bisected by the mother of all roads, the jugular, the Gao Jia (Yanan Rd). Millions of cars, driven by people who appear to have no idea how to drive ! Every man for himself and whatever you do, you should never show consideration, never give way to any other driver. It shows weakness. I once stopped to let an oncoming car turn left across my path to leave the highway. No acknowledgement. No thanks. Just a long suspicious stare as if to say “What’s your game Lao Wai ? (foreigner) “.
Anyway, any outsider wanting to drive in such an arena, such an atmosphere of anarchy, would surely need his head examined. I am that man.
I love the freedom that driving brings. I didn’t want to be solely reliant upon a driver, or have to queue patiently for a taxi. I wanted to be free to drive whenever I wanted to. Consequently, against all good advice, I decided that I would acquire a Chinese driving licence. Here’s the paradox. Chinese drivers who are nothing short of dangerous are allowed to drive in the UK with a Chinese driving licence. However, UK drivers who by contrast represent much less of a threat are not allowed to drive in China with a UK driving licence.
I queued at the bureau for the relevant documentation and on completing all the forms I was told that I would not have to prove my ability to physically drive as I had already driven in my home country. However, before being given a licence I must pass a test to be sat at a computer terminal. I was given a book from which I was to revise and was told to report back in a week’s time to sit the test.
I “studied” the book but it was of little help. The English was so bad that I just wasn’t sure what was being advised at all. In the end I abandoned the book and resigned myself to a ce sera sera approach.
On the day of the test I have to admit I was more than a little nervous. The invigilator patiently explained to me that a total of 20 multiple choice questions would appear on the computer screen. If I scored 16 or more then I would be given my Chinese licence. I scanned the questions. Some were easy to understand and answer. Some were written in an English that just defied comprehension however.
I struggled. I tried to lighten the mood by asking the invigilator if she would take 2 of the options away. When she looked at me blankly I followed up with “then can I phone a friend ?” I was desperately playing to the gallery but of course there was no gallery. Grimly, I returned to the test. I know this one I thought ;
A car aggressively overtakes you, then dangerously cuts in, almost forcing you off the road. Do you ;
- a) Flash your lights and sound your horn, whilst loudly admonishing the driver.
- b) Overtake the aggressive driver and cut in and try and force him off the road, just as he did to you.
- c) Adhere to the rules as laid out by the Shanghai Municipal Driving Bureau.
I was sorely tempted by both a and b but that’s just got to be c I thought !
By my reckoning I was quite confident with the answers to 14 questions but had just randomly guessed with the remaining 6. Anyway, I took a deep breath and then clicked on the button which promised the ‘result’.
“Congratulations ! You have scored 16 out of 20 !”
So, by the skin of my teeth, I had acquired a Chinese Driving licence.
Was it worth it ? No.
I went out on the roads no more than 7 or 8 times. It proved to be a terrifying experience. With the constant blaring of the horns and the unremitting aggressive driving it didn’t give me the liberty I was hoping for at all, rather a continual feeling of stress and foreboding. So, after just a week or so, I hung my keys up for the duration and threw my newly acquired licence to the back of some draw.
If you are of a delicate disposition, or indeed, if you are just a normal human being, don’t drive in China.
5. One more shake and the top will surely give….. Every Expat experiences their China Moment !
We stoic Brits abroad, steadfastly rise above it all, whatever frustrations and torments we have to endure. Kipling would indeed be proud of us, wouldn’t he ? No. I’m afraid he would not !
As a friend once explained to me, in China we are like bottles of coke. We shrug off one frustrating experience after another but like the bottle of coke, each time we are shaken, the cumulative pressure within builds. Then, completely out of the blue, one small frustration breaks the camel’s back and the previously calm collected expat, loses it.
A friend of my wife once told me of the shame she was feeling about her “performance” in the bank. “What happened ?” I enquired. Apparently she had been going back and fore to the bank for days trying to arrange the simplest of money transfers. On each occasion the story changed as to the documentation that was required. On her final visit, the teller had changed tack and just sat there ignoring my wife’s friend. The teller was oblivious to the fact that she was playing Russian roulette with a coke bottle. Too late. The coke bottle had been shook one too many times and my wife’s friend “lost it”. She confessed that she found herself beating on the glass partition shouting “talk to me !, talk to me you idiot !” at the teller.
My own China moment came quite unexpectedly whilst in the midst of a relaxing walk in to work. Ipod headphones in, cut off from the world, I was mouthing along (hopefully silently) to ‘rock the casbah’ as I sauntered along Xianxia Rd. All of a sudden there was a blaring of a car horn. I turned to find that there was a car about 1 yard behind me. The driver locked eyes with me and was angrily gesturing for me to get out of the way. I duly moved out of the way and he drove a further 30 yards along the pavement, turned in to a drive and parked up.
I was apoplectic. Had the driver really just elected to leave the road, drive along the pavement whilst angrily demanding that I get out of his way ? The red mist descended. The coke bottle top gave way. I ran to the parked car and before the driver could escape a I banged furiously on his window. I caught the fear in his eyes. He was at a safari park and I was one of those wild beasts, the ones that you should never wind the windows down to.
Eventually, he wound down the window and apologised profusely to me. A wise move. I think it saved his life and preserved my liberty….
So if moving to China, reconcile yourself to that inevitable China moment. It is not a matter of if, but when…..
6. The televisions are not on the blink !
After a long day at the Shanghai office I would look forward to unwinding with a relaxing evening in front of the tele. Our TV had a very irritating habit however of intermittently shutting off, for just 2 or 3 minutes at a time, say once every 3 or 4 days.
If picture and sound were permanently lost I could easily report it to the landlord, get an engineer in, and get it fixed. But a TV that appears to switch itself off for a couple of minutes just once every 3 or 4 days ? How do you explain that to a repair man and how would he fix it ? Would he wait around in your lounge for several days, just waiting for it to switch off ? My God ! What would the call out rate be for that ?
My body is hardly a temple and I was living in an atheist country in any case, however I would occasionally take myself down the gym. The treadmill was hell but like everyone else, I loved to bathe in that smug, self satisfaction we all get as we tuck in to that post workout mars bar. I am generally unfussy as to the quality of the gym however a TV is a pre-requisite. In short, without a TV to distract me from the pain, I couldn’t manage more than 10 minutes on the treadmill.
After several trips to the gym I discovered that the TV there had the same problem as my TV at home. It cut out every now and again, but only for a couple of minutes. Had a manufacturer chosen to dump a number of sub standard TV sets on the Chinese market ? It seemed unlikely. I told the lady at the gym reception about the problem with the TV and she just gave an embarrassed smile and said rather enigmatically “I do not think this is a problem sir…”
A couple of nights later, over a few pints with my friend Dominic, I complained about the irritating shortcomings of Chinese TV’s. Dom chuckled and said ;
“What were you watching in the gym when the TV suddenly lost reception ?”
“ A CNN report on speculation that Norway might give the nobel prize to a Chinese human rights activist….” I replied.
“And when the TV went off at your house 2 nights ago ?”
“ A BBC World interview with the Dalai Lama……………….” The penny finally dropped. “Oh….Oh…. I get it !”
So if someone had just old me about the intrusive censorship before I went to China then I wouldn’t have wasted so much time worrying about defective televisions !
7. In winter, always go well wrapped up to restaurants and cafes…….
I wish someone had told me that due to government decree, there can be no central heating in public buildings south of the Yangtze river. This one size fits all policy was intended to bring about huge savings in energy costs though of course the realities of this diktat are ridiculous. For example, just a few miles to the north of Shanghai, the public buildings are toasty warm throughout the winter. However, in Shanghai itself, people are expected to happily shiver through freezing winter temperatures.
With the Chinese people increasingly tending to think for themselves, the decree is nowadays often ignored. However, as one who has endured the odd lunch or two in very cold surroundings, I’d advise you to go well wrapped up, just in case….
8. Your kids won’t automatically pick up mandarin.
Some good Dutch friends of ours regretted how little Mandarin their kids had picked up in China. Many newly arrived expats assume that their kids will absorb the language, simply by living in China. The reality is that you and your children will largely exist in an expat bubble. Once you have experienced the “real China” a couple of times you will really appreciate your cossetted expat bubble. However, it does have its drawbacks… I’d therefore give a couple of pieces of advice ;
Choose your school carefully. Our Dutch friends chose one with a good reputation however it gave close to zero mandarin tuition. Consequently, after 10 years, their children left China unable to communicate in Chinese beyond being able to say hello (ni hao) and counting to 10. By contrast (more down to luck than any skill on our part), our children left China at a state of near fluency thanks to the pro- mandarin fluency at their international school. So, if you want your kids to learn the language, do your homework on the schools before you go.
Furthermore, choose your Ayi (maid) carefully. See number 13..
9. Chinese Bath Houses
I didn’t discover the world of Chinese Bath Houses until very late in to our stay in China. I so wish I’d been told about them earlier !
How to describe ? Maybe the most surreal experience possible without drugs. It is all so random it is quite difficult to summarise although if there is a theme I would say it was the word ‘incongruous’. If pushed, I would say it was British 1970’s variety performance meets traditional Qing dynasty bath house culture.
At first it all seems so refined and sedate. At reception, you hand over your shoes and are given a pair of plastic slip ons before you are ushered in to separate male/female changing areas. You strip off completely and are handed a nice warm bath robe with the idea that you then choose from a variety of plunge pools. I was informed that the exfoliation services on offer from the pink uniformed ladies was rather good but I considered that a step too far and politely declined.
We were there for the show rather than the bathing so we declined the bath robes and opted for the tropical themed pyjamas instead. With my two young sons, I made me way to the ‘performance’ area where we met up with my wife and my daughter. In competition with numerous other decoratively pyjama’d spectators, we secured ourselves some cheap reclining loungers whilst a hostess in traditional Chinese attire, arrived and took our drinks order. We sat back in anticipation of the show.
The lights dimmed and a Chinese compere hit the stage. I think he was the Bruce Forsyth figure whose job it was to hold it all altogether. Anyway, he told a few jokes then on comes 2 funny looking children (or were they dwarves ?) on unicycles. Whatever they were, they were very good and the crowd clapped hysterically when they finally took their bow.
There followed a sentimental crooner. He reminded me a little of Mike Yarwood. He clearly couldn’t sing but just like Mike, he wasn’t going to let that hold him back. It was a sad ballad and I noticed a tear in the eyes of several of the Chinese ladies. Next on was a young girl, maybe 11 years old who performed a seemingly impossible and incredibly flexible acrobatic routine. “Fantastic” I exclaimed to my wife but I couldn’t get her attention. I appeared to have lost her to a large gin and tonic and a traditional Chinese foot massage, a cold flannel lay over her eyes.
Back came on Chinese Brucie to introduce us to the next performer. There was a roar from the Chinese audience when he took the floor. What a comedian he proved to be. He had everyone in stitches. My Chinese was not good enough to follow but it seemed to me that most of the jokes went along the lines of
“My mother in law, I’m not saying she’s fat but….”
Anyway, I admit that it may have been in some way drink related but I was really in to this now. The final act was a troupe of only very slightly pornographic Russian dancers. Nice steady way to finish off I thought but they took the bizarreness to a whole new level. Their act appeared to be a representation of all the dances of the world in a 5 minute medley. I recognised a Brazilian salsa and a Scottish jig and the rapturous applause at the finish was well deserved.
The stage finally cleared, the lights dimmed and the we returned to gentle Chinese music as the foot massages continued to be administered and various people in tropical pyjamas milled around with small bowls of dim sum.
As we finally left at around 11.30 I reflected to my wife, “You have to experience that. If somebody told you about it, you wouldn’t believe them….”
10. Face !
On arriving in China, I wish someone had taken me to one side and fully explained ‘face’ to me. I had thought that I had understood the concept of face before going to China. I assumed it was just the idea that a person should be shown respect and be spared humiliation which on the face of it sounds fair enough. I discovered that the concept ran much deeper than I had ever imagined however and the consequences of “keeping face” can be very frustrating and irritating for an outsider.
One of the first things I learnt in Shanghai was how to ask directions. Strangely however I found that the directions given to me often didn’t take me to the requested destination. Was it simply a case that my Chinese wasn’t up to it ? I relayed my experiences to a colleague who explained… “ Many people cannot admit that they do not know how to get to the requested destination so they just make up some directions and let you continue on your way…”
“But why can’t they just tell me that they didn’t know the way to that place ?” I replied.
“ Because, if they admitted that they didn’t know the place or how to get there then that would be a loss of face ! Better to just make something up and have you believe that they know….”
This concept of face can even destroy relationships. When my son Tommy was 5 years old he was close friends with the neighbour’s son, Dor Dor. One day on a visit with his mother he had a quite unexpected tantrum and pushed over some chairs. My wife took him to one side and explained that all would be forgiven and he could remain on the play date if he would just say that he was sorry. Dor Dor steadfastly refused. The surprise package however was that Dor Dor’s mother was in complete support of her son. She looked at my wife in disgust, took Dor Dor by the hand and led him home.
If Dor Dor had apologised and had admitted he was wrong he would have felt humiliated. He would have lost face…. Much better to retain your pride and lose the friendship…
11. Choose your topics of conversation carefully….
On arriving in China I wish I’d been advised as to the importance of political discretion, or the need to keep one’s own counsel.
In the west we see nothing wrong with venting our spleen at anything which raises our ire, particularly on a Friday night in the pub ! We are usually at our indignant and argumentative best when criticising various government policies and the politicians behind them. You should be aware however that criticising the Chinese government or any “achievement” connected to the Communist party goes down like a lead balloon in the PRC.
On expressing my admiration for Taiwan (big mistake !) a Chinese lady responded by repeating the mantra “Taiwan is undeniably part of China” about 12 times in a row to me !
The indoctrination in school and from the state media is very strong so if you are foolish enough to embark on a political conversation take care to remember the following ;
– Tibet is and has always belonged to China and the Dalai Lama is a trouble maker.
– The population of Hong Kong are a collection of uncle Tom’s who were both delighted and relieved to be re-united with the motherland in 1997.
– In WW2, the Japanese were defeated by the Chinese. The Americans did not fight the Japanese, however, if you push, it will be conceded that the Americans did drop a large bomb.
– To the West’s eternal shame, they did nothing to help the victims of the 2004 tsunami. Unlike the Chinese government who provided a huge amount of aid.
– The Japanese are the devil’s spawn. The spontaneous uprising of the people to go and stone the Japanese consulate (actually orchestrated by the Chinese gov’t) is fully justified therefore.
– Westerners hold ignorant political views as they have been brainwashed by the media in their home countries, which the Chinese assume, must be controlled by western governments. Not having experienced a media that is not state controlled, they unfortunately cannot imagine a scenario where the press is not state controlled !
12. Be prepared to ditch your favourite clichés ….
Following on from above, you really do need to re-consider how appropriate your favourite throw away lines are, now that you’ve moved to China. One of my favourite retorts on being told that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something was to say “ Why not ? It’s a free country !”.
A few months in to my China posting I was persuaded to abandon this line and find a new, more appropriate retort. Unfortunately, “I acknowledge the need for a socially harmonious society and accordingly, I shall therefore temper my instinct to selfishly pursue my own interests…” just doesn’t have the same ring to it though…
13. China is expat wife nirvana….
Please forgive the obvious sexism, but there’s a good reason behind the oft quipped remark “When I die, I want to come back as an expat wife…” Yes, some ladies will come to China for work but a good many come to accompany their husbands on a posting. My advice… Put your western liberal guilt about exploitation to one side, get over such hang ups and relax. Some expats stick to their principles and do all their own cooking and housework however the vast majority succumb and before they know it are enjoying the services of an ayi (maid).
Choose your maid carefully. Your kids will pick up a fair amount of Chinese from the ayi so it’s better she come from a northern province like Henan, where Putonghua (spoken mandarin) is the norm.
There must be a downside ? Your ayi might need some basic training with regard to hygene before she starts. A friend of ours complained that she discovered her ayi using the same cloth to clean the toilet as she was using to clean kitchen surface tops….
14. China can be a marriage breaker……
Moving to a new and challenging location can of course put relationships under stress whilst big cities like Shanghai are magnets for poor girls from the countryside who are desperate to improve their lot. Can you see what I’m getting at ?
My wife and I witnessed the breakdown of many a marriage, with beautiful young secretaries and bar girls inexplicably “falling in love” with run of the mill, balding middle aged western men. For some reason Caroline Aherne and Debbie Magee come to mind.
The husband of a Dutch friend developed a seemingly insatible appetite for the learning of Mandarin, spending increasing amounts of time with his young and attractive teacher. His was eventually undone by the predictive text on his phone. He sent a rather steamy message to teacher describing in detail the particular ways he would like to be pleasured in the next lesson. His teacher’s adopted western name was Suzanna. His daughter’s name was Susan.
Yes, you’ve guessed it. “Mum, Dad’s sent me a really bizarre message……”
To be forewarned is to be forearmed. If your partner suddenly starts taking a lot more time over his appearance, you can start to worry….
15. Familiarity might breed contempt….
We tend to think that the repressed British are hardly a demonstrative bunch. Well compared to the Chinese we are almost French. As a foreigner in China, it is best keep your behaviour as formal as possible, at least until you know someone really well.
I remember on arriving in Shanghai my wife, recognising a close colleague of mine, greeted him with a peck on the cheek. He was dumbfounded and just didn’t know where to look ! Just remember, an overly friendly greeting might make your Chinese friends and colleagues feel uncomfortable and could even cause offence. My advice therefore is go easy on the intimacy !
16. Toilet Habits…
I have been resisting this one for a full 15 points but I’m afraid I can’t hold it any longer, I just have to go…..
The good news is that in most of the cities the crouch variety tolets are now a thing of the past. The bad news is that old habits die hard so you will frequently find foot prints on the toilet seat because those who have “gone” before you have stayed loyal to the traditional approach.
Usually, as in the West, toilets are segregated out individually into stalls to give privacy. In many small restaurants however where space is limited, you should watch out for the very odd practice of putting individual toilets, without privacy partitions, alongside urinals.
Such a set up was to be had at my favourite local Shanghainese restaurant. I still recall the first time I ventured in to the gents there. I unzipped my flies, exhaled that pre torrent relaxing sigh and then nearly jumped out of my skin as I discovered, two feet to my left, a man, mid job, sitting on a toilet. He looked up over his copy of the Shanghai Daily, gave me a strained smile and then went back to his paper. Call me a western snob but I mentally deducted one of its Michelin stars after this experience. Not an Egon Ronay moment I concluded.
17. Join as many clubs and social groups as you can…
The partner who has re-located to China for work will enjoy the society and support of colleagues. The other half, who feels like they have just “tagged along” will often be left feeling lonely and isolated in what at first will feel like a very alien community.
There is however no need for you to feel like a spare part. Quit feeling sorry for yourself and dive in to the extensive social networks of expat clubs and societies that will give you all the support you need. Don’t forget, you are just a search engine away from making a lot of new friends !
18. Westerners dress down. Chinese dress up.
By contrast, our attitude to clothing is more relaxed than that of the Chinese. Outside of work time we generally like to chill out in whatever feels comfortable. Be aware however that the Chinese are more likely to view you as scruffy than see you as somebody who is comfortable in who they are.
As the Chinese were forced to wear a utilitarian Communist uniform for 30 odd years, it is completely understandable that they now revel in the opportunity to show off in their latest ,expensively acquired clothes.
My wife used to complain about the competitive pressure she felt when she dropped the kids off at school in the morning. “All the Chinese women are immaculately coiffured and dressed to the nines ! To drop their kids off at school at 8am for God’s sake ! ”.
“You exaggerate surely…” I replied.
A few weeks later I had the pleasure of dropping the kids off and I could see my wife had not exaggerated in the slightest. As I was leaving the school I noticed that several Xiang Xia Ren, poor immigrant women from the provinces, were doing some light gardening work on the borders. To my astonishment they were wearing evening dresses and high heels !
19. Take some culinary risks !
In Shanghai and indeed in most Chinese cities there is easy access to most Western foods.
Bear in mind however that Chinese food from banquet at the top end, to street vendor at the other, is absolutely delicious. My advice therefore is don’t retreat behind the comfort blanket, but go and explore the culinary scene and take some risks.
To fully enjoy the whole gamut of delights available to you, you’ll need to toughen up however. I must admit I felt more than a little queasy when I discovered a young family at the next table, eating the sliced body of a lobster whilst the head of the lobster, still alive and tethered to a stick, writhed as it looked on….
Similarly, I was little put off queueing at a street vendors when I noticed a young girl disembowelling live frogs with her finger nails, then nonchalantly throwing the disembowelled frogs in to a bucket !
To their credit, the Chinese are far more honest when it comes to food and it is common to see animals, fish and crustaceans, both alive and dead, scattered around the local eateries. As evidenced by this picture of my wife posing alongside a pig’s face at our favourite restaurant in Shanghai !
- “To be rich is Glorious ! “ – Deng Xiao Ping
The capitalist west is far more egalitarian than Communist China. This irony can come as quite a shock to the innocent expat. Be prepared !
In the west we are often embarrassed by the mere mention of money. Why is that ? Does our humility lie in our Christian roots ? I doubt it. In feudal England we were high on religion yet humility clearly wasn’t in abundant supply.
So why do we shy away from displays of wealth whilst the Chinese appear to revel in ostentatious consumption ? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years.
As far as I can see, there are two major reasons. Firstly, we have a democratic tradition, they do not. Democracy, as flawed as it is, has undoubtedly resulted in significant redistributions of wealth. Not only has this given us a more egalitarian culture, but it has also generated an underlying fear amongst the “haves”. A single labourer has the same power at the ballot as a factory owner. The “haves” know only too well that the “have nots” who greatly outnumber them can elect a government who, through taxes, can squeeze the rich till the pips squeak. The “haves” in trepidation ask themselves “how on earth are we to hold on to our advantages “.
Put simply the “haves” quickly learnt that their self preservation lay in not antagonising the large numbers who did not share their advantages. In short, do not flaunt your wealth, appear humble and modest. Keep your heads down and you might get away with it !
By contrast, in China, where the “lucky” poor are eternally represented by a benign Communist government, there is obviously no need for democracy. The consequence ? The “have nots” have virtually zero political power and therefore, the “haves” have little fear of wealth redistribution. Let’s not forget that Communist cadres are through blood and marriage irrevocably intertwined with the commercial elite and therefore the “benign” government in reality represents the “haves” not the “have nots”. Furthermore, with the governments monopoly of the media they can also ensure that the excesses of the party princesses and princelings never sees the light of day. The result ? The elite can feast with impunity ! “Curb our excesses ? Why should we ? Let’s have a ball !”
The other reason for western apparent humility versus Chinese ostentation is due I think to the restraining effect of old money. In our part of the world, in its jealousy of newly acquired wealth, old money seeks to temper the excesses of the nouveau riche. The message resounds, “if you want to join or exclusive club you’d better learn our ancient manners, curb your excesses and for God’s sake stop waving that wad around !” The nouveau riche don’t want to be laughed at, they want to be accepted, so they learn the rules, quieten down and through discretion they eventually acquire club memebership.
In China however there is no ‘old money’. Mao made sure of that. So when one is lucky enough to acquire wealth, who is there to guide you on acceptable behaviour ? Well, no one. There are no blue bloods and consequently the nouveau riche are free and unfettered. What’s the result ? A nation of Harry Enfield ‘Loadsamoneys !’ ? Well, at the risk of sounding judgemental, yes.
We understated western expats can be quite taken aback by the shameless ostentation. The neighbour across the road from us struggled to park all of his cars outside his villa. There was the gleaming Bentley, the Dodge Viper, the silver Mercedes and the the 7series BMW. He had no children. It was just him and his wife yet he felt the need for 4 high end cars to be parked on show outside of his house ! I often admired the Dodge Viper as I parked up my 6 year old Daewoo van and also felt myself lamenting the waste of it all. A top performance sports car in a bumper to bumper traffic metropolis where you’re lucky to hit 30 mph. A little like the sadness you feel on seeing a cheetah pacing a small pen at the the zoo.
My daughter’s friend Aleena lived nearby on the compound. Her mother announced to my wife that they had just bought the house next door to theirs for her husband’s parents. It cost 2 million pounds but they were not happy with it so they were going to knock it down and rebuild it.
She followed this up by telling us that they were going to link the two houses with an underground passageway and later surpassed herself by telling Heather that they were going to build an underground swimming pool ! Heather replied with a “Wow ! You must be really keen about swimming !” to which she replied “Well not really. My husband and I don’t really like swimming but we thought we’d build a pool for Aleena as she likes to swim.
On hearing this tale relayed by my wife a few times I was sceptical to say the least. “It’s just bravado” I’d exclaim. You’ll see. It’s just showing off. Anyway, in the following 6 months we heard no more about this project and I felt sure my scepticism had proved well founded, however, on picking up my daughter Isabel from their house one night, I was invited in for a cup of tea. After admiring the many chandeliered rooms I ventured “So you decided against the pool in the end ?”.
“Oh no, we put in the pool. Do you want to take a look ?”… Aleena’s mother replied.
They had indeed, to my amazement, installed a pool beneath the house. It was 30 metres long and enjoyed changing rooms, a plunge pool and a sauna ! Childlike, unable to contain my excitement, “it’s fantastic !” I exclaimed.
“Yes, it’s a pity” replied Aleena’s mother. “Aleena’s in to tennis and not so interested in swimming now, so we don’t use it….”
When we first arrived back in 2004, there were a few decrepit mansions running along the one end of our compound. I was told that the American ambassador, many years back, had once inhabited one of these. He had, apparently, moved out hurriedly on discovering that he was the victim of surveillance from the nearby government controlled Xi Jiao Guest House.
At some time in 2006 these old decaying mansions were razed and quite quickly replaced by new extravagant estates for the habitation of some of China’s new mega wealthy elite.
Quite fortuitously, my Chinese stepmother knew the mother of a young woman who had just moved in to one of these new ‘chateaux’ and she asked Heather and I whether we’d like to be introduced and to take a look around. It all sounded rather crass and unbecoming. What ? To wander around some strangers house ? Cooing and sighing like some hicks from the sticks ?
“Yes, that would be great Fong” I replied. “How soon can you arrange it ?”.
Their abode had 1,200 sq metre internal floor space and God knows how much external. On arrival I was surprised to see just the one Rolls Royce in the drive. A bit understated I thought… “Oh the other cars are in the underground car park we built..” explained our host, Fu Hua.
Fu Hua was a “self made man” in his late 30’s. He had his fingers in a number of commercial pies. Nothing to specific. I later found out that he had actually inherited 80 plus million from a Taiwanese grandfather but that’s by the by.
On the groundfloor we marvelled at his massive indoor cinema. “It could sit 120 people and show any film he liked”. I couldn’t help thinking this house was a little large side for just himself, his wife and his 8 year old daughter.
He then showed us the kitchen. It was immaculate and had a staff of 5. Very impressive I thought, but 5 staff to feed just 3 people. What if you fancy going out for a chow mein ? What would the staff do then ? Just wait around ? All seems a tad excessive. Our host then asked if we wanted to see the other kitchen. “Other kitchen ?, What do you mean ?”
“You only look at Chinese kitchen. We also have other kitchen. A western kitchen for when we want western food….” Fu Hua explained.
Yes of course. Who in his right mind would only have just the one type of kitchen with one type of kitchen staff ! I felt such a fool. Needless to say, we were shown the ‘western kitchen’ complete with a further 4 full time staff, trained we were told in the skill of producing western cuisine….
The rest of the tour pretty much blurred in to one. After you are shown your 4th or 5th gold and silver chandeliered room complete with ornate Queen Anne furniture you tend to lose focus. Our interest was aroused however when on the 3rd floor we got to tour his 8 year old daughter’s bedroom. Heather was stunned to discover that the girl’s dressing area was bigger than the entire upstairs of our home (which included 4 bedrooms) !
We politely shook hands at completion of the tour and headed home. Our reflections ? Yes, the sheer excess was impressive. However I couldn’t help wondering if Fu Hua and his like, were just the victims of their own vanity. The house did not look comfortable and certainly didn’t feel like a home. Were the super indulgent Chinese, in living their lives to impress others, in reality losing out on a lot of the simpler pleasures that those who live for themselves get to enjoy. Where for example were the relaxed social intimacies ?
My step mother later explained that Fu Hua’s “wife” was not really his wife. His real wife was at their house in Australia with his other children. “So will he divorce her and marry his woman in Shanghai then ?” I asked….
“Oh no. His wife in Sydney is his first wife. Very important. He won’t divorce her ! No. The “wife” in Shanghai is a less important wife……What we call a concubine….”
I couldn’t take it in. So this multiple wife and concubine business that we associate with imperial Chinese dynasties, is still going strong ! It suddenly occurred to me that Fu Hua might have other mansions in other Chinese cities complete with multiple kitchen staffs, further wives and further children. I thought how stressful my one wife and three children could prove. I didn’t envy him.
Another thought struck me hard. Whilst neighbours in my compound were building underground swimming pools for their disinterested daughters or worrying whether they should utilise their western or their Chinese kitchen staff this evening, other Chinese from the provinces were huddled against the cold, trying to get to sleep in cardboard boxes, in Hami Rd, just outside our compound walls.
And another strange thing. The above extreme contrast in fortune can hit the western expat as extremely harsh. Tragic even. However, to the majority of Chinese, it is just one more unremarkable fact of life…..
- Compassion is on the ration – toughen up !
Whilst the expat will be taken aback by the brazen displays of extreme wealth, they will also be shocked by how tough life really is for the majority of Chinese.
I returned from work one evening to find that my wife was quite upset. She told me that she thought that we should employ another ayi (maid) for a few weeks. I told her she must be joking, we weren’t made of money and one maid was certainly more than enough. Anyway, the full story then came out. Our neigbour’s ayi had come around earlier that afternoon and had begged Heather to give her some money so she could buy rice for herself and her baby.
Our Chinese neighbours were very rich, or so they frequently told us. The husband frequently boasted that he was the largest importer of Brazilian timber in to China. I suspected that he was actually the front man for the party and his company must have kicked back big amounts to the communist cadres to achieve such an exalted position. However, his claims were no doubt true. I had seen the numerous pictures at his house, showing my neighbour with the President of Brazil, the Chinese Poliburo member responsible for Trade, etc etc…
Anyway, the story was that he and his family had set off the day before on a 5 week trip to Brazil and they had informed their Ayi, Ru Fen, that they were not taking her with them. They had also informed Ru Fen that as she would not be working for them over the next 5 weeks, then they wouldn’t of course be paying her anything.
Ru Fen’s husband was hundreds of miles away back in here home province of Anhui. In Shanghai it was just her and her 11 month old baby that a friend looked after whilst she was at work. Her pay cut off at zero hours’ notice, she was now desperate, hence her desperate plea for money for rice. Needless to say we did “employ” her for several weeks so she survived intact for her employers return from their Brazilian jolly.
However, what struck my wife and I was how unsentimental, even harsh the Chinese attitude was to Ru Fen’s plight. Almost all Chinese I spoke to, whether well off or poor, were generally unsympathetic to Ru Fen’s predicament. The usual response was “Well if she’s not working for the next 5 weeks then why should her employer pay her !”.
In China, like back in the the west, there is a safety net however this safety net is very limited indeed. For Ru Fen and the millions like her, the realities are very harsh. As a migrant from the provinces, she and her kind are treated almost as an undermeschen in cities like Shanghai . Any state benefits they are entitled to are linked to their Hu-Kou, the household registration that binds them to a particular administrative area, usually the area in which they were born.
The millions of provincial migrants in Shanghai have Hu-Kou (registration) for their home provinces such as Henan, Hubei and Anhui. Consequently, even though they work in Shanghai, they are not entitled to housing, education or any other benefits locally. Therefore if adversity strikes, then there is no safety net for the likes of Ru Fen.
Hu-Kou attempts to tie the Chinese to the place they were born. When they inevitably leave in an attempt to better their lot, the Hu-Kuo system ensures that they become 2nd class citizens in their new home. For this reason, Hu-Kou has often been likened to the Caste system.
The people from the provinces are frequently looked down upon by the Shanghainese. Some contemptuously refer to the regional migrants as the “shownies” which derives from phrase Xiang Woo Nin meaning “country low people” i.e. the people who come from the country to work in Shanghai as servants.
Their lives in Shanghai are typically very tough. These desperate outsiders are of course given the dirty work that the local Shanghainese would rather not do. Paradoxically, these regional migrants invariably appear to be much happier than the locals ! Our own Ayi, Xiao Zhao, once explained to me why. “Here Shanghai people think I am poor because I only earn 2,500 rmb (250 pounds) per month. However, back in Henan I used to own just 300 rmb (30 pounds) per month working hard in a carpet factory. Therefore I am very happy. If my husband and I work maybe 5 years in Shanghai, we can then return to our home town in Henan and be able to build a nice house…”
So, I guess it’s all relative however to the western eye, it all seems very harsh indeed.
A conversation I once had with our first Ayi, Twin Sha (Quin Xia), brought it home to me how tough it must be back there in the provinces. We had been talking about the Chinese Zodiac when Twin Sha said ;
“I am not really a tiger”
“I know that Twin Shah ! It’s just an astrological sign. You are of course really just a human..” I replied
“No. I don’t mean that. I mean that my sign is not really Tiger in Chinese Zodiac….”
“So why do you tell everyone you are ? “
“ Really I am rabbit but my mum said to me, you must pretend you are one year older. You must tell everyone that you were born in year of the tiger….”
“Why did she do that ?”
“Because when I was little my mum and dad go out to work and there is no-one to look after me. My mum has a great idea to get the school to take me a year earlier by telling everyone that I am a year older than I really am. That’s why I tell everyone I am a tiger not a rabbit”.
“Oh I see….. So up until the age you could go to school, did they have to pay someone to look after you ?”
“No, there is no way they could afford to do that !”
“So what did they do ?”
“Well, before they left in the morning, my mum used to tie me to the bed by a length of rope. It was to keep me safe. I was able to move about 2 metres before the rope ran out….” ….. She stopped suddenly. She must have noticed that my jaw had dropped. With effort I returned to my unsurprised, life as normal default demeanour and said ;
“Interesting…. how many hours were you left tied to the bed for ?”
“Maybe 9 hours. Mum left the window not properly locked and the woman next door came home for lunch. She would open the window and push through a bowl of rice for me around 12 o clock….”
To our spoilt western mind set this is all of course so shocking. To Twin Sha and the millions like her it is just another every day run of the mill anecdote that for some reason captivates the sentimental lao wei (foreigner).
Anyway, my advice to the expat coming to China ? You don’t know you’re born so toughen up !
- People back home won’t understand you so keep your experiences to yourself !!
One of the most common mistakes made by expats is to casually relate their China experiences to the folks back home. The reality is that you now belong to a different world that your friends and family won’t easily relate to. Your recollections may even cause offence so think before you speak and at least apply a western filter before sharing your experiences.
In China, the major cities are flooded with immigrants from the poorer provinces, desperate for work. Consequently, labour is cheap and many people employ maids. Once the expat has got over their western sensibilities regarding exploitation, they find that they too soon employ a maid to help out around the house. This domestic help becomes a normal part of your life, a given, and you think little more about it. However, if on a visit back home your wife slips up and says something like “so I left the kids with the maid and went downtown for a night out with the girls…” then you’ll immediately discover that your previously sympathetic audience are now giving you daggers.
It quickly dawns on you that in the more egalitarian western society, such a remark puts you in the same disgusting category as the sweeps who used to force small children up the chimney in Victorian London.
Similarly, driving can be an extremely dangerous activity in China. It is difficult for a foreigner to get a licence and frequently your corporate employer will insert a clause in your contract preventing you from driving. Consequently, many expats employ a driver. However, best never to mention that you employ a driver to people back home. Your friends will invariably think, and depending on the stage of the evening, actually say something like ;
“Oh too precious to drive yourself are we ? Who do you think your are ? Mrs Orphelia Jemima Downton-Abbey ?”
The irony is of course that whilst you won’t be vilified as a class enemy in Communist China, you will in the capitalist west so take my advice and apply that western sensibility filter….
- ‘China – the moral vacuum’
In China, everyone’s response appears to be predicated on what will achieve the greater personal advantage. Truth, or right and wrong doesn’t enter the equation. Expediency rules and this can often come as quite a shock to the naïve expat.
I’m not quite sure why this is the case. Maybe it is because the Communists suppressed religion. My own personal theory is that lying has prospered because people have been trained not to question information. The one thing a one party state fears is that people might start thinking. But how do you stop people thinking ? Well, for starters the state must firmly establish that there is no such thing as opinion. There is just the truth as relayed by the communist controlled media and lies. Lies being anything that disputes the truth as disseminated by the Chinese media.
No arriving at an enlightened state through the collision of opinions in China therefore !
In short they have created a pliant society that unquestionably accepts information at face value. What a fertile ground for deceit. What a perfect environment for liars !
- ‘Travel narrows mind’
You arrive in China with your liberal certainties intact. To discern in favour one culture over another would be arrogant. Diversity is enriching and who doesn’t love that smug feeling of undoubted superiority that travel gives….
Immersion in mainland Chinese culture seems a great idea until you actually try it. After a few months subsumed in a society where nobody says please or thank you, people routinely slam you out of the way in their hurry to get out of the lift, drivers beep furiously and try to run you down if you foolishly think the zebra crossing gives you some sort of right of way, where people cannot tell you the simplest truth because it might result in a loss of faith, where brainwashed atomatons will tell you that it was a great shame that the west did nothing to help the 2004 tsunami victims, where the loud rasping clearing of the throat is inevitably followed by the well directed spit… ……………well, you get the picture….
You may arrive with noble thoughts about the family of man, with a Guardian folded under your left arm. Unfortunately, experience soon corrects you. The family of man is like your own family, it gets on much better when distance separates it. Before you know it, you are a committed cultural imperialist, clinging to the humane comfort blanket that is the expat bubble. You will gather in all western bars, and compete with others as to who has suffered the worst ‘China moment’, who has suffered the most brazen rudeness, who came closest to finally losing it and decking someone.
So, be warned. To have an open mind is a wonderful thing however if your mind is truly open, you might not like what you discover….
25 It’s a bigger move for your kids than it is for you !
The adult has context. The posting to China is just another chapter in a long list of chapters. There was a before and there will be an after. To young children however who have very little experience to look back on, the expat adventure can quite easily come to feel like the whole book. The entirety of their experience. Not an exciting transient adventure but an overwhelming new life.
So it was with my daughter, Isabel who arrived with us in Shanghai when she had just turned 3. We had wrongly assumed that a young child’s world was her parents and so long as she was with us, she would be happy. Wrong.
It wasn’t long before Isabel was showing signs of a growing insecurity. She increasingly clung to her Mum and started to wet herself regularly. I never realised that such young children had a real feeling of national identity. However, quite comically, it became clear that Isabel feared that she was losing hers. My wife Heather had complimented Isabel on her Chinese a few times only for Isabel to maintain steadfastly that she didn’t speak any Chinese.
I once came home from work to find Isabel having a fierce slanging match in Chinese, with the Ayi (maid). I asked her what it was all about ;
“Qing Hui said that I had to put my socks on in my bedroom but I told her that they were my socks, and if I wanted to put them on the settee, watching tele, then I could if I wanted. Then Qing Hui said that I had to do what she said and I said no…..”
At which point I interrupted her and said “I thought you couldn’t speak Chinese ?” to which she replied …”Of course I don’t speak Chinese Daddy. You know that. I’m English !!!”.
There followed several similar episodes where Isabel interrupted at the restaurant to order the ice cream in Chinese, where she had a row with several Ayis (maids) in the playground in Chinese, apparently telling them that she looked nothing like Cinderella like they said because she had brown hair, not blond…. On each occasion after being complicated on her Chinese, she would deny any ability to speak the language and state categorically that she was English !
In time Isabel settled down and a more happy, contented demeanour returned. She realised that her identity was secure and this new, seemingly overwhelming environment was not really a serious threat to her and her identity. I was pleased and relieved to see my little girl happy again, though rather selfishly, I came to lament the disappearance of her comic ‘little Englander ‘ routine. Selfish I know, but I sometimes wish my little patriot could have developed the act a little further. How cute it would have been if my little toddler could have maybe added the lines ..” dem Gairmans…dey bombed our chip shop in the war….”
So, if you are going to China with young children then please take a little time to try and see it from their perspective. An adventure for the well rounded adult may prove an ordeal for the child.
- Don’t buy a house and live near the airport !
Some people hate the China experience and long for the day when they can get away. Others are seduced and want to stay forever ! If you are of the latter category then all well and good, at least you have enjoyed China and what it has to offer.
However, some words of advice. Don’t let your heart rule your head. China is a one party state, power is arbitrary and concentrated in the hands of people, not in institutions or laws. There is no free press and no accountability or transparency.
In short don’t take risks with your liberty or your capital. My last piece of advice therefore is “Don’t buy a house and live near the airport ! “