Account of a Third Culture Kid: The Bubble of Expat Privilege in China

A word association game. International school: Expats. Diverse. Ever-Changing. Open-minded?

Exposure to different cultures undoubtedly makes one more tolerant. I, for one, witnessed a friend who came from a heavy Catholic background become accepting of the LGBTQ+ community after having gone to my school. So, yes, I would agree with the claim that international school communities are relatively open-minded: they aren’t as clique-y, bullying isn’t very common, and they generally offer a great education. The international schools I attended in China had in-school Chinese New Year celebrations and Mandarin classes offered in the curriculums as an effort to incorporate Chinese culture in students’ daily lives.

However, there were a few disturbing elements in these communities that I believe made them implicitly isolating. Many of my expat peers who have grown up in China can still barely give addresses to taxi drivers, get their way around the subway, and order food in restaurants -- unless they point at the pictures on the menu. This is in no way shape or form a criticism of their own linguistic skills, but more so an instance of what I find to be a perplexing phenomenon.

I don’t think most expat communities are truly immersed in their host countries, which is understandable; it is a natural instinct to want to fit in with the familiar. When one is already cocooned in a social circle that was molded for them, the idea of getting out of their comfort zone can seem hard to fathom.

In my experience, there definitely seemed to be systematic (and maybe even subconscious) negligence coming from expat communities towards Chinese culture. Bubbles, such as circles that are bonded based solely on the members’ home country, are very detached from local lives. It is honestly impressive how well western culture has been integrated in China: there are Christian churches, western restaurants -- very expensive in comparison to Chinese ones -- and entire American neighborhoods built in huge compounds. There are entire industries built around the expat lifestyle; Shanghai has a foreign population that surpasses 175,000, a number that has almost quadrupled itself since 2000.

Many expats don’t get involved locally because they don’t have to. They are privileged enough to have the ability to live in comfortable ignorance. They can spend 50 RMB (6.38€) on a dish without flinching or knowing that this amount of money is enough for a meal of three in a Chinese household. They can survive in the country without learning any Mandarin -- after all, English is universal.

This is where I felt the social divide coming in. I hated that almost always seemed like it was up to the locals to cater to us. Why couldn’t we, for once, mingle in a culture other than ours? I’m not entirely sure whether being part-Chinese put me in a better place to understand the value of cultural awareness, but I’ve always known that the danger of this separated lifestyle is its impact on one’s sense of touch. The morally fragile base of expat culture dates from centuries. Although things in Chin were completely different before the Cultural Revolution, it is evident through accounts such as Hemingway’s visit there that there often was minimal effort coming from foreigners to accustom to the country’s circumstances.The author spent his trip “drinking heavily, attending horse races at Happy Valley and, per firsthand accounts, allegedly introducing the Bloody Mary to Hong Kong”.

Staying isolated makes it unbelievably easy for one to ignore current events and social issues around them. Dozens of my peers had no idea who the Chinese president was (his name is Xi Jinping, by the way).

Expat culture reinforces a social divide that ranges from cultural misunderstandings, to a gross sentiment of western superiority and the idea that another culture will never compare one’s own. This creates an uneasy atmosphere in the host country because its efforts to understand expats and western culture isn’t reciprocated.

The “real” Shanghai lifestyle has its own charms: scooters and bikes, street foods and local restaurants, Shanghainese neighborhoods and markets, the list goes on. There is more to the city than its impressive commercial streets and nightlife.

I urge anyone who’s living in a new country to avoid getting stuck in an expat bubble.  Instead of trying to find your home country in a new one, step out and embrace an unfamiliar culture. Go out there, leave your prejudice behind, and learn the language! Take in every opportunity there is to learn: it only makes someone become a better person.

By: Irène Schrader 

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