Becoming A Dinosaur in China

There are a ton of those “You know you’ve been in China too long when…” lists out there. You know the ones I’m talking about. This one is better.


“…when you think nothing of spitting in public”

“…when you roll up your shirt half way over your belly in hot weather”

I passed that point a long, long, long, long time ago. Those who’ve been in China 12, 18 or 24 years (I’m hitting that mark this year!) have entirely different perspectives and attitudes…the attitude of the expat who’s been in China for an insanely long period of time.

For example, let’s say that you meet someone who opens the conversation with,
“So, how long have you been in China?” Your answer may be two days, or two weeks, or two months, or two years…or even ten years. Then you ask them the same question…and with a superior smile, they say,

“Oh, I came here in 1996, I’ve been here 20 years.” They didn’t ask you out of any real interest in how long you’ve been here…they just want to make you aware that however long you’ve been here, they’ve been here longer. And the great thing is, this can’t really backfire…if it happens that the other person has been here an insanely long time, too, then they become best buddies, sharing war stories that intentionally exclude everyone else around them, because nobody else could possibly understand what they’ve been through. For you, five years may seem like quite an accomplishment, making you an experienced China veteran; but to them, you’re still a newbie.

Another thing they love to do is sit quietly listening to others tell stories about China…but again, it’s not out of any real interest in what other people are saying; instead, they are just waiting for the appropriate point to jump in and say something like, “Oh, that’s nothing compared to what it was like when I came to China in 1996”, and them launch into an extended narrative of various things they went through ‘back in the day.’ Have you ever noticed that when you get two Canadians together, the conversation almost inevitably turns into a competition over who’s experienced the coldest weather? (“I was in minus 45 degrees, with a minus 55 wind chill factor”). Well, those who’ve been here an insanely long time likewise have an almost irresistible compulsion to show that whatever you’ve been through in China, they’ve been through worse (and in all fairness, they almost certainly have).

Time after time, they’ve seen expats come in, say how much they love China…and then hit the wall and disappear.

Newbies remark at everything in China. “Look at that guy with the pigs on the back of his motorcycle! Are they alive?” Those who are veterans, will make a show of pointing out how ‘normal’ such things have become to them, and reacting quite casually. But those who’ve been here an insanely long time won’t even notice it; when it’s pointed out to them, they’ll react in genuine surprise that you even commented on this, pretty much as if you’d commented that the sky is blue. They’ve seen far crazier shit than that…and if you give them a chance, they’ll tell you all about it.

However, one thing that expats who’ve been here an insanely long time tend to avoid are discussions about ‘the future of China’. Yeah, they’ve got opinions, but they’ve made predictions before, and been proven wrong. And they’ve listened to everyone else making predictions and seen those predictions proven wrong time and time again. For the most part, they tend to have the attitude that if you think you can predict what’s going to happen in China, that only proves how little you actually know about China. Whatever prediction you are making, they’ve heard it all before. Generally, they take such predictions just a tiny bit more seriously than they do the latest predictions from some American televangelist about Jesus returning on July 18.

One quick and easy way for you to identify if the person you’re talking with has been in China an insanely long time (other than asking them outright) is to say something about how much you love China, and how you want to stay here for the rest of your life. If you’ve been in China less than five years, and say something like this, they’ll more than likely be entirely unable to restrain a condescending and/or pitying smile. Time after time, they’ve seen expats come in, say how much they love China…and then hit the wall and disappear. They take it about as seriously as a high school girl declaring her undying love for the pop singer of the moment. After you’ve passed the five-year mark, if you still feel that way, then let’s talk!

Perhaps the most common defining characteristic of the person who’s been in China for an insanely long time is that they are absolutely addicted to change, to unpredictability, to new experiences. The things that frustrate so many other expats about China are like heroin to them. When they return to their home countries, their number one complaint is how slow and boring life is there, about how nothing ever happens. Their attitude towards difficulties or problems in China tends to be, “This sucks…but it’s gonna’ make a great story!” Every time they hear other expats bitching about the problems they’re facing and how much better things are in their own country, they probably won’t show much sympathy…they’ve been through much worse, and not just survived, but thrived.