I had already thought about writing a list of what I have learned as an expatriate in Asian lands, but I believe there is no better opportunity for that than now, considering October is the month that I personally celebrate my first arrival here and it is the 72nd anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 2021. I tried to illustrate the list with some stories that brought me these lessons, but I ended up getting carried away.
I arrived at the beginning of one of the biggest holidays in China (there’s a post about the Chinese holidays if you’re curious). It was a little confusing, but great at the same time because it gave me a few days to adapt and get started on unpacking. It was a long trip. I left Goiania in the morning and made a stopover in Sao Paulo, where I saw my cousins, uncles and still had time to go to my aunt’s house for a farewell ( 🙂 ). I boarded at night, stopped in South Africa, and arrived in China at dawn the next day. As I arrived in Beijing, my boss was waiting for me. I tried my best to make a good impression and said “Ni Hao.” She laughed and replied: “Nobody speaks Ni Hao here.” And that’s how began my story filled with love and hate, ups and downs in China.
Later that night, we got into the car and drove 146km towards Tianjin. I couldn’t see anything from the capital because the airport is far from the city and there is direct access to the highway but arriving in Tianjin (where I would live), I couldn’t help but notice the city lights. They were all predominantly red LED signs of Chinese characters on almost every building or on top of skyscrapers. Coming from a country with recurrent energy crises, I remember being charmed by the city. It didn’t take long to discover that this wasn’t something special about one city, but China as a whole, from the most popular streets to the most deserted ones.
I lived in the North of China, a city with over 10 million people and still, people would walk by and point at me or take pictures without asking—for a split second you could understand why celebrities get angry when they’re not working and people want to take a picture. But I didn’t understand the reason for so much curiosity. They commented on my big eyes, my white skin, and wanted to touch my hair. I was very surprised, even more, because the most curious ones didn’t speak English and they looked, poked their colleagues, and pointed at me, some parents even made their children stop what they were doing to look at me and laugh.
When André arrived, it was the same thing, he was bothered at first, sometimes he didn’t want to stay in one place because he realized they were taking pictures or filming, but then he got used to it. Later, when they asked to take a picture, he would be more flexible and sometimes even pose for it.
In big cities like Xi’an, Guangzhou, Shanghai they don’t have the same behavior. There are many foreigners there and everything gets easier, which doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Once, I was in Beijing with another Brazilian, we were in Tiananmen Square, in front of the Forbidden City. When she was visiting, I went with her. She had a Brazilian flag on her bag, and we stayed there for about 10 minutes posing for photos with groups of Chinese who saw two Brazilians, holding their national flag and they couldn’t resist the temptation to ask to take a picture with us.
In Guiyang, when I moved again to China, the profession of “white monkey” was still popular, it’s when the company hires foreigners just to act in an event, take a picture pretending to be part of the company to create a status for it. Bars and restaurants on opening night did the same, foreigners didn’t pay, but the flashes were the price for being there. Today, this doesn’t happen so often, the same goes for the curious looks I used to get, or maybe with time I just learned to ignore such situations.
2. Food, more than a meal
“There is a Chinese joke that says a foreigner came to China to learn more about the cuisine here, years have passed, and he is still in Sichuan.”
This is to illustrate the love and pride the Chinese have for its cuisine and its vast variety. So, if you tell a Chinese that you want to visit somewhere in China, the first thing he will recommend to you is which dishes, delicacies, and sweets you need to try in that city. At airports and train stations, what you see most are Chinese with bags filled with goodies from the region they visited to give as a souvenir to family and friends.
If any Chinese ask you out, you’ll definitely end up stopping somewhere to eat and it’s considered an offense if you refuse, and that’s how I ate pig’s brain, a hundred-year-old egg, duck’s head, black bean pie, etc. (NO, to the disappointment of many, I was never offered any insect, dog or mouse to eat here. I tried scorpion, but I was with the Brazilian I mentioned earlier, and there were only tourists buying insects, for sure they’re just making money off us).
My freshman year in China, I spent most of my time in isolation, and my boss’s mother would always invite me to dinner at her house or in restaurants. She loved it because of all the foreigners she met, I was the only one who ate everything. She would add food to my plate and I never complained, she made my Peking duck roll and I felt at home because the Brazilian culture has a bit of that too, but my boss was dying of shame and apologizing because she knew that such habit is not well regarded in many cultures.
3. Traveling, exploring, learning
It was early February 2013 and Chinese New Year was approaching, I had already spent Christmas and New Year alone at home, and it wasn’t easy to deal with homesickness. I was still terrified of getting lost on the streets, my Chinese wasn’t progressing as I expected and very few people could speak English, at least in the places I used to go, but I couldn’t keep hoping for a miracle. On New Year’s morning, I got up before sunrise, took the subway to the train station, and bought my ticket to Beijing. I spent the day exploring the city, went to a park where several performances were taking place simultaneously. Red predominated in all directions. It was a good day despite not having found anything to eat except fast food, despite getting lost and finding myself many times, I survived. I managed to communicate enough to get home exhausted, hungry, but happy to have learned a little more about Chinese culture and to have been able to explore the city on my own.
I spent my free time looking for places I wanted to visit that would be in my budget, and so, for work or leisure reasons, I had the opportunity to visit some cities in China that all were important in some way. I still went to Beijing three times before finishing my first year (it was only 20 minutes by bullet train), and even though I avoid visiting the same city more than once because there are still many on my list, I still want to go back to the capital at least one more time because André hasn’t been there.
Xi’an has a special place in my heart, I spent less than 48 hours, but it was intense and filled with emotions. I was supposed to go and meet a Chinese friend, but the day before I boarded, he sent a text saying he wouldn’t be there and that a cousin of his would be my guide. He had even helped me with the hotel reservation and said that the room cost 3 dollars with a beer as a courtesy. I didn’t know what to expect and anxiety started devouring me.
Once again, I left home before sunrise, arrived in Xi’an, and took a bus from the airport to the central part of the city. It was raining when I met THE cousin an hour after our meeting time, and only then did we start exploring the city. The weather was already better and very hot, of course, the first stop was a restaurant where we had a donkey sandwich. The Chinese cousin was very attentive, and her brother even joined us later as we continued our pleasant day. In the end, I learned that city is S-P-E-C-T-A-C-U-L-A-R.
We walked all day, visited the main sights of the ancient city (Xi’an was the capital of China for some dynasties) and there was still time for souvenirs. A little before nightfall, as it was very hot, we went to the market to walk through the frozen food area (a typical thing some Brazilians like to do), and after watching the light show that was famous in the city, they took me to where I was going to spend the night. The hostel was really nice, clean, and organized. The guy at the bar (I was entitled to a beer) didn’t stop talking about soccer with me (he was using the little English he had, and I was trying to use the Mandarin I had learned) because I was wearing my soccer team’s shirt and he loved the sport.
The next day, I met up again with the cousin and her brother who took me for a traditional breakfast in Xi’an (a small restaurant, very simple, but with sensational taste), then we went to visit the Terracotta army. Her father drove us there, as it was far from the city. We arrived early and had to wait for the gates to be opened, it was very hot, but I was eager for the opportunity to see with my own eyes what I had only seen in the history books, in fact, it was on the cover of one of my history books. It was a surreal experience. That day I still had time to go to her house, visit one more park and return to Tianjin knowing that I would never forget that trip.
4. Keeping up appearances, disguising the evidence
To paraphrase Chitãozinho and Xororó (famous Brazilian musicians), one of the most delicate cultural issues and one that probably bothers foreigners the most is “losing face.” The Chinese find it difficult to accept a mistake, the boss is always right, and it is not polite to point out the faults of a person, company, or really anything around here.
“Face” here can be translated into reputation or social status, in that matter, when parents have their children learn musical instruments, foreign languages, arts, dance, etc., they are not just thinking about what’s best for their children. They use it as a way to show their purchasing power and try to gain a better reputation.
Single women over 30 are considered leftovers (it has changed little by little), the family and the woman lose reputation for not having a good marriage before. And when I say good marriage, I’m talking about a business itself. The Chinese bourgeoisie only marries if it is financially worthwhile. Families get involved in marriage, and usually, both will have relationships outside of marriage and it was all a formality to unite the two fortunes, and everyone knows it.
The examples mentioned above hardly affect expatriates, just as I don’t understand certain customs here, I’m sure they wouldn’t understand many of our customs. I remember that since my first weeks in China my biggest disappointment was in the frustrated attempts to communicate that ended up in laughter, or in the photos taken surreptitiously and accompanied by embarrassing laughter, and worst of all when I reported such situations to a Chinese who understood English, he laughed too.
For years I fumed, I couldn’t understand what was so funny until finally a light (I don’t remember who the angel was) told me that laughter was their way of masking the fact that they lose or lost their “reputation.” Curiosity, difficulty in communicating, or even solidarity with a fellow countryman caused the laughter that irritated me so much.
5. Knowing when it’s time to speak Chinese
One of the reasons I was isolated my first year in China was because I feared that if I found an expatriate community I would communicate in English and would not take the time to learn the local language. I took 4 Chinese lessons a week, studied at home, and still very little was absorbed. It took me three, I said three, not one, not two, but three weeks to be able to order a hot black coffee 😦 and the tones didn’t seem to make sense (it still doesn’t to be honest). I learned the basics, “how much does it cost?”, “I want this,” “I don’t want that,” so I could survive.
The day I went to visit Beijing I discovered the importance of the few words I had learned. My friend wanted to buy a water bottle and asked for it in English, the seller promptly answered 10 RMB. I heard that, I looked at him, and said in Chinese that it was expensive, and I asked again how much it cost. We ended up paying 4 RMB. The exchange rate between the dollar and the renminbi (Chinese currency) is 1 to 6, so 10 RMB is still cheap for an American.
On the other hand, already in Guiyang knowing a little better the language, I assessed the situation and my mood when speaking mandarin, especially with a taxi driver. If you speak in Chinese, within five minutes he already wants to know how much you earn and your marital status. And if you are single, he wants to find you a suitor. But for me, the most interesting case was with the police.
Every foreigner, when arriving in the country, has a period of 24 hours to register with the police. Those who are tourists, the hotel is responsible, but in the case of residents, it is necessary to go there.
The first time I went to the police station, a Chinese employee of my company came with me, we stayed there for an hour. The officers wanted to know everything about my life, it was more than clear that most questions were not necessary for the issued document. When I questioned my colleague about the relevance of so many questions, her embarrassed laugh for assuming it was just curiosity was inevitable.
Every time you leave the country and come back you have to report it to the police. The company was once again going to send an employee to accompany me after I returned from Hong Kong, but I asked to go alone. I arrived there with the previous paper, pointed, explained what I needed, and any question they asked I smiled and said I didn’t understand, even for the questions I did, in ten minutes I was released and with the document I needed. I’m not proud, but I like my privacy, or at least have the right to decide what I want to share, after all, I’m writing a personal blog.
6. Become part of a community
Living far from your home country is not the glamor that everyone expects. There are special and amazing moments that you know you would never have the same opportunity if you hadn’t become an expatriate, but there are times when you feel ready to buy your ticket back and there’s nothing left but to sleep cuddling your pillow after spending the night crying.
Making friends, Chinese or foreign is essential. In 2014, during the World Cup games in Brazil, there was only one game that Brazilians decided to watch together, and up until that point I had only met two compatriots in Tianjin. I regret not having tried to meet other foreigners before, for sure my stay would have been different, but it was too late.
In Guiyang, it was much easier to meet people, I worked with twelve foreigners and my learning became multicultural. We were from different parts of the world (South Africa, Ghana, England, Russia, Poland, United States, Chile, France, and Brazil) and when a cultural issue was raised, we ended up learning how each culture understood the situation or celebrated a holiday.
I ended up meeting more people at birthdays, parties, and pubs that foreigners frequented, and not that I’m a super sociable person, but it was great to know that there were people here who shared my frustrations and recognized the opportunities that China had provided us.
I certainly learned a lot more than six things in China and that’s why this is Part 1. I already have the next six, but this post is already much longer than I thought. I hope you have enjoyed it.
Proofreader – Liz C. Jacquinot