A Different Perspective in China

Perspective is important in virtually all aspects of life. On the topic of expat life in China, many of us have our own expectations and perceptions on what that should mean.

To my young son, taking away a beloved toy can seem like the absolute end of the world, sparking the most forlorn expression and tears of grief…and yet as an adult, it is easy to see just how small a thing that actually is. Unfortunately, some expats in China seem to still think like my son. Everything that they don’t like is grounds for extensive complaints and condemnation of China, and the Chinese people. One of my favorite examples of this was, when talking with a group of expats about job opportunities in China, one of them complained—without any awareness of the irony—that “Chinese people are taking too many of our jobs.”

Allow me to begin with two clarifications. First, there are situations in China that are simply unreasonable, even when put in perspective. The new regulations for work visas would be an example, not just because they are needlessly complex, but because they were made without due consultation with the countries where the visas are to be issued, resulting in a situation where some of the requirements to get a visa can be extremely difficult to fulfill, or take far too long. And second, yes, living in China can be and often is more difficult or inconvenient than it is in your own country.

But it is that second part which requires perspective. We are foreigners in this country. It isn’t really accurate to compare our lives as foreigners here, to our lives as native citizens of our own country. Instead, a better comparison would be between the difficulties we face as foreigners here, and the difficulties that foreigners in our own countries face.

Foreigners are put on a pedestal. We are treated special just because we have a different skin color, or are from a different country.

Consider the situation of teachers in China. Some foreign teachers here complain about increasing regulations and restrictions on teachers. Yet in most cases, the requirements and standards for foreigners in our own countries who want to be teachers are much higher. In China, for most English teaching jobs, you only need a bachelor’s degree (in any subject); and often a TESL certificate. In Canada, and most other Western nations, a foreign teacher needs to have a teaching certificate in addition to a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject; they have to take an English exam to prove an adequate level of English; and often there are even more requirements.

Or consider racism and discrimination. For all that foreigners get stared at and talked about, we face relatively little discrimination, and certainly have very few concerns about violence or threats directed towards us. In 25 years in China, I can only think of twice that I’ve had Chinese angrily tell me, “Foreigner, go home!”; yet in Western countries, xenophobia is on the rise, with anti-immigration movements that demonize foreigners.

And then there’s the fact that there is also positive discrimination here. In many ways, foreigners are put on a pedestal. We are treated special just because we have a different skin color, or are from a different country. A classic example of this is the overweight, out-of-shape middle-aged man who, in his own country wouldn’t be able to get a woman to look twice at him…yet in China, he’s able to get an attractive, young woman as his girlfriend.

In truth, I think that is part of the problem. We are used to being treated as special. “I’m a foreigner, so I should get a high-level executive position, with an attractive expat salary.” Yeah, that was true in the past. In fact, when I first came to China in 1993, the only qualification you needed for many executive positions was A) be Caucasian and B) speak some Chinese. I had a German friend who helped another foreigner in the market one day, by helping him translate what he was saying. The person he was helping was so impressed with his Chinese, that he hired him on the spot. Within three months, he became a senior regional manager for a foreign software company, despite being only 24 years old and having no previous work experience.

Despite the problems and difficulties that we face as expats in China, we’ve also been kind of spoiled. But that is changing. Twenty years ago, foreigners had their pick of jobs because there weren’t enough Chinese with the necessary skills and experience. Today, foreigners are being pushed out of the job market as Chinese not only become able to do the same jobs, but to do it for less pay. And yes, that makes life harder for many of us. It has impacted me, and many of my friends. But it is also not only reasonable, but inevitable. There are still a great many opportunities in China.

Category Op-Ed