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Friday, January 27, 2012

Our Love/Hate Relationship With Living In China

Among anyone who has spent an extended length of time in China exists a strange love/hate relationship with the country they're living in.

After the initial adjustment, you begin to get comfortable, and once you're comfortable where you're living, you completely forget that you're living in a foreign country and your family is thousands of miles away, but every once in a while, something happens that makes you completely want to erase all trace of China (or whatever country) for the day or however long.

I was reading this book a couple of nights ago, Fried Eggs with Chopsticks,


and Polly was talking about the difficulties of travelling in non-touristy China with virtually no knowledge of Chinese, and upon arriving at her hotel, she says something to the effect of, "For one wonderful moment, everything Chinese beyond my hotel window disappeared and all was forgotten."

Before then, she was talking about some wonderful experiences she was having, and that although she was having some difficulties, it was obvious that she was having a great time.

So, why was it so wonderful that everything Chinese was forgotten? Weren't you having a great time until just then?

Well, yeah, but sometimes you just have to get away from all that Chinese stuff. China is a big, wonderful, diverse, and fantastically fun place to live and travel in, and it is wonderful to see so many new things, but you can only handle so much new stuff at a time. Sometimes you have to sit alone and take a break. It definitely happened to me - when you're in a totally new place with a new language, your whole brain has to kick in to absorb and keep pace with everything you're seeing, and it's exhausting. 

That's one part of it - the less important part, I think. Another part of it is that sometimes you can't help but get really mad at China - every once in a while, you'll really, really want a sandwich, and then, upon not being able to have one, burst out with remarkable intensity: 


and then want to blockade yourself in your room to escape the Chinese-y, non-sandwich-y world around you. It happens to many China people, I've noticed, but I'm sure it happens to everyone who's been abroad, I'm sure. It happened to me every now and then, but I didn't really think about it at length until I read that part of the book.

It happens with more serious things too. We learn about all the injustice that happens to the people around us in China - the homes are seized by the government without consent with little or no compensation to the owners, the Hukou system's unfairness that makes it really hard/impossible for people to be able to legally move and work in another city or province, the consequences of the One Child Policy, and many other things that make us think:

"How can I love a country so much, when it is capable of such terrible things?"

This is a question that bothers a lot of "old China hands", and some of them end up washing their hands of China, saying they've "lost their respect" of China after seeing it close up and being part of....less than savory circumstances. There are a lot of others who see the same inadequacies and faults, but in spite of all of it, still persist in their love for China. 

 Here is an interview with a guy that has some pretty harsh things to say about China after living there. 

Here is a link to a blog that I frequent that reflects the continuing love for China after leaving. 

China seems to bring out the best and worst in people who go there - it's a great, big, and very foreign country that forces people to look poverty, excess, consumerism, tradition and the loss of tradition, and much more right in the face, and it changes people forever, for better or for worse. 

(Left - this looks like one of the slums in northern Beijing, but I'm not sure. Below - 上下九路 - “Up Down 9 Road" in Guangzhou. I've been to both places, and they both reflect China's multiple cultural personalities)
America has the same kinds of problems - a growing disparity between the rich and poor, an education system that doesn't work well, and more, but the problems are much more obvious and much more pressing in China, and I think that some foreigners get so turned off by China is having to face these harsh realities every day, but not having the means to do anything about it beyond helping a few of their friends. It may not be the reason they split with China, but I'm sure it might be a factor. 

On the one hand, old "China Hands" love China and its people, but on the other hand, sometimes we hate China and its people. The Chinese can be wonderful and open and hospitable, but on the other hand, they can be closed off, arrogant, racist, and aggressively ignorant of many things. The Chinese government makes life for foreigners pretty easy, but lets its people fall through the cracks, particularly in the rural areas.

Why do people who've lived in China get these sharply divergent feelings about China and its people when the situations are not terribly different from their own country? People and governments everywhere can be hypocrites, right? It's just that they're more evident in China, right? We went to a place that we thought would be great, but it turns out that not all that glimmers is gold. 

(You're seeing the word "China" a lot in this post, but it can probably be replaced with any country you yourself may have spent time in. I'm not picking on China's government or anything, I'm really not. I guess I am still giving China the benefit of the doubt, when others more experienced than me have had it.)

Did the traveler think moving and living a few thousand miles from home might help make a difference in the world? Would (s)he confront and tackle all the world’s societal problems, put their personal demons to rest, and find their own little paradise?

Who knows? But I think it's all part of an even more profound longing, a greater journey: How can I get away from pain, from hypocrisy, from inequality? Where can I find a place of happiness, of true rest, of peace?

I guess we’re all looking for that perfect place - that place where we can live out a fulfilling life that has its challenges, but not too many or too difficult. Where we can be appreciated and loved by all we meet. Where there is true rest and peace. That disappointment that comes is born by not finding it where we thought it had to be. If we cared enough and wanted to find it bad enough, then it had to exist where we were going, right?

Will we ever find it? Who knows.....

"It's very beautiful over there." - the last words of Thomas Edison

"I go to seek a Great Perhaps." - the last words of François Rabelais

“Damn it, how will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” - the (debated) last words of Simon Bolivar

“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor...such is my idea of happiness.” Leo Tolstoy - Family Happiness and Other Stories

(The above art is from

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  1. You make it sound as though no one could ever have a bad opinion of China because there are ordinary nice people there. But I'm sure that was true of many countries that did bad things before too.

    Isn't it irrelevent? Saying you met nice people is usually not what anyone would contest as the problem if they hold reservations about China.

    A government ruling the people that dictates all the politics and actions as a nation that reflects upon those people is if anyhting a bigger factor of importance to most of us that will never be going to China because that is what affects us. (I went to china once and am happy i won't be going back)

    To quote and point out:

    'If I assumed that, I'd assume that China is a totalitarian, money-obsessed, backwards, freedom-repressing, child-killing, mess that is becoming more and more powerful by the minute.

    Well, while some crazies would argue that that EXACTLY what is happening, they probably haven't been there and seen the ordinary people of China, which is what really makes up a country.'

    Everything you said the crazies would say is about government and politics. (mostly) You meeting nice people is pretty irrelevent of all those points and doesn't detract from some things that were entirely true. The government does have a development at all costs motive, thus the money-obssesed. It is freedom represisng and baby killing in fact.

    You should clairfy before you call people crazy then list things that in vague refrence sound entirely true even to those far from ignorant.

    1. I'm really sorry to read such a negative reply.....I didn't call anyone crazy anywhere in the post, and the quote you used is also nowhere in the post. Those are from another post, and you're right - I shouldn't call people crazy, and I've changed the language of the post and added some clarifications. You were totally right to point that out.

      I said repeatedly in the post that I wasn't picking on China - it's true in every country! I agree with you on that point! I'm not saying that that bad stuff doesn't happen - it does. I do have a bad opinion of China's government. I don't like it. I don't like it at all!

      Yeah, the bad stuff about China does mostly come from their government and politics. But I think it's pretty easy to separate the government from the people, because I've not met a single person yet who approves of what their government is doing - even my friends who are IN the Party don't like what's going on!! The bad stuff being done in China is done by the top .0001 percent who are in the government, and the rest of the 1.3 billion people are disgusted by it.

      I think that the attitude/conduct of the government rarely reflects the sentiments of the average people - even somewhere like North Korea, possibly the most hated country on Earth. We have no idea what the North Korean people themselves are like - we know all about their government, but I think the looking at their government won't tell us about what the ordinary people are like. Same with Spain, or America, Iceland - you name it. Whatever country.

      My opinions are shifting and evolving with every day that I spend here. Maybe I'm still too much of an optimist. But in my humble opinion, the average people truly represent a country and a culture, not the government, especially if a vast majority of the people don't approve of what the government is doing.

      Yes, there are forced abortions in China, yes, the citizens are repressed in their freedom. But there is so much more to China than that, at least in my opinion.

      What I should have said was, "If I assumed that, I'd assume that China is NOTHING BUT a totalitarian, money-obsessed...." Two words makes a lot of difference!

      It's not all bad. As far as daily life is concerned, between me and the Chinese people that I know, life is pretty good - even though they're from these poor, poor, undeveloped areas of Gansu, they manage to find good in their lives.

      Maybe I'm still just too much of an optimist when it comes to these things, they're just my personal opinion. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy your time here :(

  2. Indeed, you can truly be in love with China and hate it at the same time. But in the end, you just love this country that has so much to offer! Hope you're having a good time in China.


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