Monday, August 20, 2007

The Expat Ladder

My announcement that I am about to pass the 5-year mark for residence in Beijing (and I've just signed a two-year extension on the lease on my apartment, so I'm not quitting any time soon) prompts some reflections on the patterns of expat life here.

Why is it that so many of my friends are also 5-year vets (or just about to become so)?

Well, as time goes on, you naturally tend to gravitate towards people with similar outlook and interests to yourself, and you are more likely to find this in people who also view their commitment to China (to Beijing) as an open-ended or "long-term" thing. The friends you make early on may be forced on you by Fate - teaching colleagues, neighbours, the first people you talk to in a bar. Gradually these are replaced, as you encounter people with whom you feel a deeper spiritual affinity. Or they just leave; most people do leave after a year or two or three. So, (for the past two or three years) the only people around me who I recognise from my early days here are, like me, of approximately 5-year vintage.

Of course, I do know a few people who've been around here even longer than that. And some who are more recent arrivals. But.... well, there is a pecking order to expat life, a strict ladder of seniority. I still feel comparatively lost and inexperienced here, still a little intimidated by those who substantially pre-date me. It is likewise a little difficult not to become occasionally a little patronising towards - or just bored, irritated by - the puppyish enthusiasms and the staggering naivety of some of the more recent arrivals.

And people of this 'younger generation', of course, often feel slightly awkward around us, slightly in awe of us - the 5-year guys! It's crazy, but it does happen. My pal The Choirboy commented the other day that we've reached the stage of actually being a little embarrassed by how long we've been here and will often fudge or fib about it: "Er, well..... I've been here..... quite a while now..... yes, well over.... a year."

Yes, I've done that myself. Most often, I think, it's prompted by a desire to not be socially exclusionary, to avoid the risk of younger acquaintances/more recent arrivals lapsing into reverentiality. Then again, it's often also partly born of humility, a recognition that 5 years is nothing and that we are still regarded with amused disdain by many of the real veterans here. Ah yes, and then there's the element of shame, the discomfiting realisation that after this long, perhaps we really should have made something of our lives - and found a way to move on, to escape. But that..... is a topic for another post.

So, anyway........

The Ladder

1) Less than 18 months...... Not even really on the ladder at all; not unless you have a definite commitment to stay longer. You're just a 'transient' - little better than a holidaymaker. Most people come here to take a Chinese language course and/or to try their hand at English teaching; and they stay for a year or 18 months, perhaps 2 years or so at most. This doesn't count - you're nothing, not on the social map at all.

2) 18 months to 5 years: Newbie. Wide-eyed and (mostly) optimistic, we earn some slight respect for forging through our 2nd year and hanging in for another and another, but..... basically, we know nothing, and are still largely excluded from more established expat circles.

3) 5-10 years: Medium-termer. It's impressive, but it's still not quite real 'veteran' status.

4) 10-15 years: Veteran. OK, now you've earned your chops, but.... you're still some way short of the pinnacle.

5) 15 years + : 'Old China hand'. Now, there might be some debate about this. Some might be willing to confer this status after only 10 or 12 years. Others insist that it should really be reserved for those who were here pre-1989. But this is the accolade we all aspire to.

6) 50 years + : Assimilated. Yes, if you spend your whole life here - and kiss arse enough with the CCP - you may just possibly be granted 'permanent residence'; and, in really exceptional circumstances, even Chinese citizenship. And a few really old hands are accorded the honour of being viewed as 'almost Chinese'.


Anonymous said...

hmmm. gets me thinking about where I fit into all of this. Especially as many of my closest friends here are planning a mass exodus for job transfers, grad school and other, very soon.

I'm not unfamiliar with transient cities, transient friendships, afterall, much of Boston, NYC and DC is like this, too. But, still, your post gets me thinking about it, in the here and now in China context.

Froog said...

Yep, sorry, T, but I had always had you pegged for a 'transient'. You came here to see what it was like; but whatever it was like, however good it was, you were never going to stay forever, were you? Or even for as much as 3 or 4 years, probably?

I'd love you to prove me wrong..... but basically, people either come here "to look around, sample the experience", or they come "long-term". There may be some people who change their minds about this over time, but I think with most people you can pretty much tell from the outset.

Anonymous said...

Well, the simple answer is I don't have a return ticket or return date. (Hence, my "forever" or "indefinite" answer when asked how long I plan to stay.)

Then, again, I don't have anything stopping me from moving on to another city/country, either.

I can see myself as a career expat, but whether that career will last 5 years (or 3 or 4) in China or not remains to be seen.