The Art of Leaving China

Posted on November 28th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Will Moss at Imagethief has a funny, poignant post announcing his departure from China after eight years. I particularly liked this part:

For an increasingly cosmopolitan and globally interconnected country, China isn’t really a place encourages foreigners to settle down. In fact, it goes out of its way to keep us at arm’s length. I should make a collage out of eight years of temporary residence certificates arranged around the confession I had to sign for registering my son’s birth with the police a few weeks late. Economic migrants bleed across the borders in search of something better, and perhaps some Vietnamese mail-order brides wind up here for the long haul, but in general foreigners don’t immigrate to China. We just visit, sometimes for a very long time.

Will raises an interesting question- why don’t more foreigners immigrate to China? Policy, of course, plays a large role. Here is a partial explanation from a Brookings Institute study:

The Chinese government is inexperienced in the administration of international migrants and falls short in its laws and policies relevant to transnational immigration. This is especially true with respect to the granting of “eligible status” to immigrants, which is still under strict policy control. There is a very limited quota of Chinese “green cards,” or permanent residence permits for foreign citizens, and applications for such permits are usually influenced by politics: they are primarily issued for “international friends” of the Communist Party instead of for international immigrants. Current immigration policy also tends to encourage accepting immigrants who are highly educated and can work in high-tech or bring large investments with them, as China already possesses abundant labor resources.

But Will’s piece- as well as similar articles by Mark Kitto and Charlie Custer- are getting at another question- why do expats decide to leave China after a lengthy stay? Why not just settle in the country permanently? As Will says, hardly anyone stays forever; even Sidney Rittenberg left. But he also adds:

We leave. That’s what we do. But just because leaving China is normal doesn’t mean something isn’t going on. Among my friends there has been a tangible change in mood in the last couple of years. A sense of excitement about being here that endured for many years has in many cases given way to a sense of weariness or indifference. The most common reaction when I tell people my company is moving me back to California is, “you’re so lucky!”

I’ve noticed a similar pattern with my own group of expat friends from China. Most of us came when we were fresh out of school, living frugally and happily with only English-teaching jobs to tie us down. But as the years passed, our roots in China deepened. We found careers and relationships and bought books and furniture and took trips around the country by air, rail, and bicyle. We learned the language and met the locals and ate the food and drank the beer and accumulated a fine list of “China stories” to entertain our family and friends back home.

As long as our lives were simple, China was perfect; it was inexpensive, exciting, challenging, and full of opportunities. But with life’s progression came complications. Friends who started small businesses complained endlessly of government interference, unscrupulous partners, and lousy employees. Friends who started families worried about air pollution and food safety regulations. Some of us looked at high-level career opportunities in the country and found them curiously lacking; whatever happened to the China of limitless possibility that we had told our friends back home about?

Then there was the question of assimilation. The Chinese are wonderfully hospitable people, but, as Mark Kitto says, you can never be one of them. Did I want to spend the rest of my life in a country where I would always be regarded as an outsider, no matter what I did about it? I recalled living in Italy as a college student and finding, after six months or so, that my identity as an American had become irrelevant. I was just a friend, a roommate, a classmate. In China I never got to that point, even after six years, and I realized toward the end of my stay there that I never would.

And so I left. The circumstances weren’t terribly dramatic. I had been accepted into a grad school program and felt it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Some of my other friends left around the same time, too. Others stayed. Eventually, I imagine that just about all of them- almost to the very last one- will find their way home.

But, like Will says, it means nothing at all. Occasionally I get e-mails from readers who are contemplating moving to China to teach. I’ve encouraged each and every one, without exception, to go. China remains an amazing place to live, even if, ultimately, your stay will simply be a very long visit.