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What Makes Expats Stay in China?


Reality in China is tough.

  • Old ladies pinch my upper arms while saying, "你真胖 (nǐ zhēn pàng)!”  - “You're very fat!”
  • Taxi drivers find out I’m American and comment that it must be nice to be so rich.
  • Parents of my son's classmates tell me that I should get a real job and help support my family.
  • Said six-year-old son's teacher calls me into her office to yell at me for his “low” midterm exam score of 92%.
  • I had to make the decision to homeschool my daughter because the cost of kindergarten has tripled in the four years since her brother was first enrolled.

These situations, when experienced repeatedly, are enough to make me want to hop on the nearest computer and book a one-way ticket back to America.

So why am I still here nearly 10 years after getting my first Chinese visa?

It's a question I ask myself at least once a day.

But my answer, and that of every other expat who has stayed here long-term, is complex.

There's no one-size-fits-all description for us; we all come from different backgrounds, have varied career goals and unique family situations.

And what country is perfect?

None that I know of.

It's far more beneficial to look at all the positives about expat life in China.

I asked several long-term expats why they continue to stay in China, despite all the drawbacks, and the most common answers fell into these categories:

Opening your eyes to a new way of life

Beijing resident of nearly ten years, Mike Luetke, says he stays in China because "there is so much to explore and learn. I enjoy getting to know the geography through travel, history through listening to stories, and language through daily life."  

Australian Tracy Driscoll, who's been in China for 19 years says, "I think the energy of Beijing and the great things about life here outweigh the downside.

“Beijing has become a very international and cosmopolitan city, there’s just something dynamic about it."

Mike also says that he finds Chinese people to be kind, humble, and welcoming.

"It's so easy to make friends to play sports or attend events with," he adds.

See also: 10 urban myths about Chinese people 

An important point on my "pros and cons for staying in China" list is that living here gives my kids the opportunity to develop their language skills and live in a multicultural environment.

I want them to have a strong reading and writing foundation so that it sticks with them long after they leave.

And, even though their 奶奶 (nǎi nai)  thinks otherwise, I want my kids to know that there's more than one way to live your life.

Tracy feels the same: "My girls get exposure to a way of life that would never be possible in Australia.  They speak two languages fluently, they are becoming global citizens, and this is an amazing experience for us and them."

Eating delicious food (even veggies) every day

Authentic Chinese food is amazing. I'm quite partial to 川菜 (chuān cài)  - Sichuan dishes with spicy red peppers and mouth numbing 花椒 (huā jiāo)  – Sichuan peppers.

Others find the hearty dishes of 东北 (dōng běi) - Northeast China satisfying to their taste buds.

Not only are there countless ways in which the Chinese cook ordinary vegetables, but the results actually taste good!

Who knew you could cook eggplant in more than two ways? Mushrooms and spinach? Yes, please!

It's also great that kids are encouraged to eat the same foods as adults do.

Don't expect to find a kid's menu at a true Chinese restaurant.

When I took my kids to America, people were surprised that they ate foods other than chicken nuggets, applesauce, and mac 'n cheese.

Sticking close to your family

A number of expats, specifically those married to Chinese citizens, stay here long-term because their partner's family and work is here.

It appears that this is mostly true for Western women in relationships with Chinese men.

Read more about What to Expect When Dating a Chinese Guy.

In a number of these relationships, the men don't speak much, or any, English which makes it much simpler to just stay in a familiar environment.

Also men, especially those who are an only son or only child, are culturally obligated to care for their parents as they age.

This is easier to do when Mom and Dad are just a few apartments away.

Rent-a-foreigner, and other job opportunities

For a non-Chinese person with a background in education and a clear speaking voice, English teaching jobs abound.

There are even companies that rent out foreigners to businesses who want to give the impression that they are a multinational company, or that foreigners live in their new housing developments.  

But being the token foreign English teacher isn't the only job that exists.

Former New Yorker Jess Meider has been a part of the Beijing music scene since 1997.

She's seen it, and the city, evolve like few other expats and loves to sing with her band at various venues and events around the country. 

Seeing the need for quality English education, 24-year resident Jennifer Sachs, also from the United States, has opened her own school.

Other expats freelance and do consulting work with both Chinese and foreign companies.

There are even reports which say about a quarter of expats in China earn over $300,000 per year.

Tracy Driscoll works with a diverse group of people on a daily basis and says, "I love my work and this amazing market and economy we are playing in."

While there will always be things to get you down, Jennifer sums it up nicely when she says, "I find for the most part that if I wake up on the 'right side of the bed' and stay positive, my experiences here are positive."

Having a positive and open mindset is essential.

Final thoughts

I try to remember that a lot of people I meet have no experience outside of their own culture.

Those ladies that comment on my weight don’t realize that talking negatively about another person’s weight is a huge no-no in Western culture.

So I just walk away, while silently vowing to step up my workout routine.

And those potentially-toxic foods we choose to pass up, we'll enjoy that much more the next time we get to eat them from my sister’s garden in the States.

Until then, I’ll enjoy as much 红烧茄子 (hóng shāo qié zi) - braised eggplant and other Chinese specialties that haven’t made it Westward for as long as I can.

Check out how it feels to finally leave China after 6 years here.

So what do you think? Are all of us expats crazy for living over here? Or are you ready to come join in on our adventure?