Category Archives: American expats

Adaptation

Mike was floundering after several months back in the US. It wasn’t that he wanted to throw in the towel and move back to China, per se. But something wasn’t clicking; something about his new life didn’t “take.” An important part of him had missed the flight from Chengdu.

He walked aimlessly around the capital of Indiana, as exotic-seeming to him now as the sloppy villages of rural China or the Beijing subway at rush hour, choked with black-haired humanity. Mike had left the US as a kid, for all intents and purposes – a dumbass with a diploma – and had spent most of his twenties in Asia. Coming back home now, he felt immeasurably older, more seasoned, and also more detached, a stranger in America, like an anthropologist studying the folkways of a remote Papuan tribe.

It was the little things: Everyone drank their water cold here, even in winter. Like the Chinese, he found it bizarre. Americans treated business cards with a nonchalance bordering on contempt. It was harder to send money to people – nobody used WeChat Wallet here. Tipping and being asked for donations all the time. A major difference: Large white people everywhere, hot white women commonplace. His people. The Chinese were again a minority, albeit a significant and growing one.

Mike felt vaguely dazed all the time. Unable or maybe just unwilling to shed his Chinese life, to “move on.” He still talked to his expat friends in China every day. He posted photos and funny memes on his WeChat account so cute girls on the other side of the planet would “heart” them. He ordered the occasional batch of dress shirts from his tailor in Chengdu – sent her the money and had the shirts shipped to his apartment in Indianapolis. Received visitors from China, girls he fucked. Hell, he was still chasing Chinese girls *here*, or perhaps more accurately, they were chasing him. What was it about him that they found so fascinating? In any case, he had come back to the US to fuck white chicks, not East Asians, and he was failing even at that simple task.

His moral standards had collapsed in Asia; there was no question about that. Even the degenerate moral climate of post-modern America seemed prudish and uptight compared to China. Or maybe it was just easier to get laid over there. Everyone was more easygoing, less coked up on stress. American girls were much nicer than he had remembered, but he was always turned off by them in the office. They reminded him of schoolmarms. Few things in this world were more boner-killing than an attractive woman spitting out phrases like “implementation specialist” and “success-based team” briskly and without irony.

Mike felt constantly outsmarted and outclassed by his hard-working Midwestern colleagues. His inadequacies gnawed at him, but that was not his immediate problem. His immediate problem was his job. He was overwhelmed on a daily basis by his job, the hideous and unrelenting pointlessness of it. Layer upon layer of mindless process that withered the human spirit. He was bad (slow, error-prone) at the tedious stuff, and the rest of it, the parts that required “soft skills,” made him want to sell all his possessions and go on a vision quest.

He had to persist, though. If he went back to Asia he would never be hired by anyone again, ever. Destitution would await him. He would have to go on food stamps; a slow spiral of despair, alcoholism, and petty crime would ensue; he would ultimately be murdered in a back alley. No, he had to stay in the US. More than that, he had to stay useful to his company long enough to save up some money, get a side business going with a reliable income stream, before the machines took his job. That was his quest, and it gave some semblance of a purpose and structure to his life.

Mike flew to New York and met a couple of American friends he had known in China. They both worked for the same consulting firm, which had relocated them back to the US, several months apart. He couldn’t believe how happy they were. They gushed about their new jobs, how exciting it was to be back, all the cultural adaptations they had to make, which bemused them. They joked about how chaotic things were back in China, the kids pissing and crapping in the streets. The toxic air and the tap water you couldn’t drink, even if you boiled it.

“I always drank boiled water,” said Mike. “I had one of those kettles.”

“No, that doesn’t work,” said Joe, who had brought his Chinese-American wife and three kids back to New York. “You’re just heating up the heavy metals in the water. You’re drinking hot pollution. In fact, you’re concentrating the pollutants because a lot of the actual water evaporates.”

“Fuck.” Mike felt reasonably healthy, though, after all those years of drinking lead and cadmium by the gallon. Or did he? Maybe that explained his malaise, his persistent mental fog.

Joe had become a full-blown China-hater before he escaped. The other friend, Sandra, spoke fluent Mandarin and was much more ambivalent about the superiority of Anglo-American culture. Nevertheless, Mike had never seen her so excited. Normally cool and reserved, she laughed with delight at their China anecdotes and rambled on about her fancy new position in New York. She gestured extravagantly as she spoke, tossing her blonde hair. She was getting married in a few months.

Mike’s heart went out to them both. Joe and Sandra had lived abroad longer than he had, and they had moved back successfully. They were happy and well-adjusted. Mike was not. But had he ever been?

No doubt Mike had left a lot of loose ends in China. His transition back was “unresolved,” like the end of the Korean War. It was about as far from a clean break as humanly possible; but then again, that was classic Mike – he was the still the same dumbass kid who had refused to attend his own college graduation ceremony. Stubborn, myopic, and fixated on the past. Nothing ever, ever changed.

He wasn’t suffering reverse culture shock. The problem wasn’t America; the problem was him.

I can see how that would be disorienting

It’s weird coming back to the late-imperial dystopia of America, especially if you’ve been overseas for as long as Thomas Fuller has:

AFTER more than 27 years abroad, mostly as a foreign correspondent in Asia covering civil unrest and poverty, I wander the streets of this city, my new home, like an enchanted tourist.

The people who share sidewalks with me must wonder why I sometimes laugh out loud. The advertisements for sustainably grown marijuana on the sides of San Francisco buses. (“That’s cannabis, the California way.”) The comfort dogs on public transport and the woman who brought her dog to the Easter Sunday service. Blindingly white teeth. The burrito that was so huge it felt as if it would break my wrist. Police officers covered in tattoos.

[…]

I spend hours in supermarket aisles. Organic ice cream sandwiches! Vegan shoes! A “Bluetooth compatible” electric toothbrush!

The America of 2016 is so much more specialized than the one I left in 1988. It almost seems that we have created needs so that we can cater to them.

I stop and stare at the giant trucks in San Francisco designed for the specific purpose of shredding and hauling documents. What a luxury as a society to produce tons of confidential documents and then deploy specialized trucks to destroy them. I knew yoga was big in California and ditto for cannabis. But it was still a surprise to discover “ganja yoga.”

[…]

Greater Bangkok, a sprawling metropolis with more than 10 million people, has 1,300 homeless people, a survey this year found.

San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as many homeless people.

The special loopiness of San Francisco, I would imagine, only heightened the contrast with Asia. The author seems to have taken it well — bemusement is a powerful mindset.

Home sweet home

Hessler on coming back from China

Insightful essay by Peter Hessler, author and formerly The New Yorker‘s China correspondent, on the complex process of moving home:

The first thing I learned while living abroad is that if you’re lost you have to ask for directions. The last thing I learned is that it’s possible to ship a hundred and forty-three boxes from Beijing across the Pacific Ocean without a final destination. I’ve never been good at planning ahead, and this quality became worse after years in China, where everybody seems to live in the moment. And in a country like that it’s easy to find a moving agent who’s willing to improvise. He went by the English name Wayne, and he wore his hair long, the way Chinese artists often do. When we arranged the contract, Wayne asked my wife, Leslie, if she had any idea where we were going. “It will be a small town, probably in Colorado,” she said. “But we haven’t decided which one.”

“Can you decide within the next few weeks?”

“I think so.”

Wayne explained that the shipping container would be on the ocean for much of a month, and there the address wouldn’t matter. But after it arrived in the U.S. the American partner would need to know where to deliver it by truck. That was Wayne’s deadline: we had to find a home in less than five weeks.

[…]

Neither of us had much experience as adults in the United States. I had left after college, to attend graduate school in England, and then I travelled to China; before I knew it I had been gone for a decade and a half. I had never held an American job, or owned an American house, or even rented an American apartment. The last time I bought a car, I filled it with leaded gas. My parents still lived in the Missouri town where I grew up, but otherwise nothing tied me to any particular part of the country. Leslie [Hessler’s wife] had even fewer American roots: she had been born and brought up in New York, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and she had made her career as a writer in Shanghai and Beijing.

That was 2010. America must not have offered what Hessler was looking for, because he moved to Cairo with his family the following year, and is apparently still there.

“That was such a wonderful time”

Hellish pit of despair: Shenzhen in 2010

A Chinese-American woman, traumatized by her 19 months in Shenzhen, flees back to the US. Five years later, she revisits the southern Chinese city and finds it wasn’t necessarily the hellish pit of despair she had remembered:

I had spent the years since I left China processing the experience and learning to accept my Chinese-American heritage. In trying to distance myself from my own dark chapter, I had not kept up with my local friends. I anxiously wondered if their lives today were as full of despair as they had been five years ago.

After several fumbling attempts to contact my old friends through email and text messages, I finally discovered that most powerful of communication tools in China: WeChat. My phone chirped with emojis and excited exclamations for days as we made plans to meet on a Saturday in the middle of May this year.

During that reunion I experienced something I had almost never felt when I lived in Shenzhen: joy. Our friends weren’t, as I remembered them to be, victims of vast, unfeeling forces. Instead they were empowered actors, charting their own destinies to find a purpose and hope we didn’t know was possible just five years ago.