China always wins

Here I am.  A businessmen.  I have spent since 2005 approx 50-60% of my time in China each year.  Sometimes I go for 2 months nonstop.  Until recently I had an apartment.  Then I decided to not renew the lease.   I wanted the flexibility of a hotel.   My rare, fancy 2 year visa, after many renewals, has now gone the way of the dinosaur, and I find I’m now back on the traditional one year multiple re-entry.   I am amused when companies fret about their workers having “an authorized residence permit”.  I haven’t had one in over twenty years.   I expect I will never have another.   For those of us that live and work near Hong Kong what’s the point?  But more about this below.

My wife, her friends….they all judge my level of success by the frequency I travel to China.   China, much more than America, is a nation where one’s status is driven by “achievement”.   

“What tall building have we built today?  How fast are our supercomputers”?

So it is also the status of an individual that is judged likewise by what he or she has achieved in life.   If you haven’t achieved much, your status is low.  And so on.   Therefore the pressure to feign achievement is immense.  The qualities of the person in China are not as important as what he or she has achieved.   Who you gave an extra hongbao to, what environmental laws you broke, none of that is examined.  As I've said countless times, it’s about the result in China, not the journey.

“Should I go to China just to give my wife face? “   I ponder the question. 

Think about that for a moment.  Is that not a stupid question?  Must I really get on a plane to impress my wife’s friends now?  To mimic my 8 year old…..”Seriously”?

Well, maybe I should back up a bit.  Maybe I should explain why I am even asking this question.  Going to China is often a no brainer.  It is a way to get away from the wife.(often at her request) A way to keep things fresh, if you will.   One can club every night.  (Booze it up!)  Pick up chicks.(yeah!)

And overpay for Starbucks coffee.   And use a VPN. 

But I hesitate.  Whenever a month goes by without my taking the door to door 20+ hour trip to China, I find it harder and harder to return to the Source of My Prosperity.     
You see….I’d rather stay in America. 

I guess I’ve grown up a bit.  Matured even.   But leaving this place to return to China is becoming an increasingly mentally difficult thing for me to do.   My wife be damned, I’d rather stay here.  In my 5000 sq foot house….with my pool…and the river….near the mountains….in the clean, clean air.  I find I do not miss the stress of wondering what is in my food.    Or of how hot it will be today.   Shenzhen has a heat index of 104, while today it may break 75 here where I live.  
I like the drive to the river where I bike ten miles a day, the early morning mist still thick above its surface, and the ducks on the bank.   I can do things here I cannot do in China…I can drive with the windows down!   No one honks at me. 

I find that over time logic gains an edge over my libido.  I find myself asking,

“Does it really make sense for me to go back to China”?

“Can’t my staff handle it”?

When I return to China my health undergoes many changes:

I lose weight.

Not fond of beer…I drink alcohol by the gallon.

I am surrounded by cigarette smoke.

I find it very hard to maintain an exercise routine(I sure as hell don’t bike)

Sleep is nil.   It takes me abt a week to make it to the 6 hrs a night level.

Egg whites?  In China?  Good grief.  (blueberries?  Hah!)

Am I the only one that thinks it’s suicidal to eat fish caught in Chinese waters?

Pollution, believe it or not, isn’t that bad.   Yes, my American city has abt one third of Shenzhen’s pollution level, but we aren’t in North China.  Coal usage is at a minimum.  (But what of the soil and water pollution? Things not so easily defined….or seen )When in China I long for the rain.  Because the rain will wipe away the grime.  Even Shenzhen has grime.  And it does.  For a day, maybe two. 

Still , I find more and more it just isn’t logical for me to return to the Heavenly Kingdom.   If maturity is listening to your head, than maybe foolishness is listening to your heart.   So I keep coming back.

So I ponder the question:  “For how much longer can I do this?”

And my answer always is:

“I don’t know”.  

This is a life changing decision for me.  I am a Sinophile.  I breathe China.  But I wonder if I breathe it too much?   Aren’t there other things in LIFE?  But as I grow older I find I have other interests, too.   I don’t want to be like the others that find their careers have become so enmeshed within China that they simply can no longer leave, for fear of becoming irrelevant.    Children’s health be damned.   In China they are somebody.  In their own country they are not.   

I remember more than a few gaijin(laowai) in Japan that for all practical purposes were stuck there, teaching English.  I briefly taught English in Tokyo before and after I got married.  My wife was a Japanese major and I had student debt.   I hated every waking moment I spent in Japan.  I hated the fact that learning Japanese was much, much more difficult than learning Mandarin.  That one could never get a straight answer out of the Japanese(contrast that with the very American, very direct style of speaking in China). 

I hated Japan so much, that at the wise old age of 25 I nearly got an ulcer.  I couldn’t take the trains anymore, or the stupid English lessons.  But I saw many a gaijin there, their time having passed them by, long since irrelevant in the West, still holding onto the threads of their teaching certificates. 

China doesn’t appreciate me.  And I freely admit here that if it did, I might feel differently.  If China loved me back, maybe I would not write this.  My wife’s parents all have permanent residency in the States’, but as for me and my children, our status in China is the same as that of a tourist.   When living in Hong Kong, I had the right to permanent residency after 7 years.   When living in Japan I found I could stay for a 3 year block of time before renewing my residency permit. 

Yet in the ancestral home of my own children, we need to apply for a visa just like everybody else, on an annual basis.  We have no special status, and I guess that bugs me.   Nothing more brings that home than the wait at customs after the long, long flight.   

I remember a few years ago my wife and I were on our way to Hong Kong from Shenzhen.  With her American passport in hand, customs asked her if she was a naturalized American citizen.  She said yes.  Then they started peppering her with questions as to when she had arrived in China, via which airport, etc.  They took her to a small room.   They verified her information, than let her go. (Chinese PR, another oxymoron) 

I listen to a podcast.  It’s a China oriented podcast.   While at times quite nice listening to, I find it is frequently nothing more than a pissing contest between hosts.  Each trying to outdo the other as to which new book on China they’ve read, or which personality they’ve recently mingled with.   Or which facet of Chinese History blah, blah, blah.  Those guys are stuck.  In China.  Forever.  With their PhD’s.  They’ve built something relevant.  I learn from them.  Congratulations.  But they can’t go back.  In a way I feel sorry for them.   It reminds me of the gaijin in Japan.   All I can hope is they aren’t renters.  

I don’t want to be like them.  Like that.  I want it both.  The China nights and the American Summer Mornings.  In America I don’t even need an alarm clock.  The birds wake me up every morning at 6:30am.  In China it would be a jackhammer, or a taxi honking…or a city bus with the noise of a jetliner taking off.   I don’t want that life.  But can I still make the money I make?  No, I cannot.  So I must return.  

China always wins.


  1. (I deleted this by mistake, so am reposting as anonymous by default...sorry Urashima Joe abt that)

    Urashima Joe has left a new comment on your post "China always wins":

    (deleted previous post because of no edit function).

    Your Gaijin reader here. My Chinese partner and I both majored in Japanese, went to a grad school in Japan, and here we are now in Tokyo suffering for it. I can see how it can be a fun place if you have a decent job and some money, but there are not many smiles to see about on a weekday. We will try and get out to Australia (my home) within a few years once she has completed her OJT and got some qualifications.

    I can sympathize with that fear of being stuck to somewhere you no longer want to be. I guess this is a risk we all take when we specialize, but it is an even bigger deal when it comes to specializing in a country. The danger with Japan though is that those gaijin you speak of maybe can't turn a buck with any particular "skill" outside of Japan, because they are actually illiterate (in Japanese). Myself, I at least have the comfort of knowing I don't have to physically be here, but can translate, write or teach back home. The danger is not so much the staying too long, so much as the staying too long without a plan, without building a skill base, or educating yourself. I'm learning Mandarin now (easier learning a foreign language the second time around). Definitely feels safer to diversify a bit.


  2. Indeed...staying too long without a plan is a dangerous business. I see many, many Americans doing this in China. The exotica is overwhelming, ie America can be a boring place to live. China is fun when you are single. But who stays single for long? I don't think any of us planned on getting married when we first went to China. At least Japan has the JET program, which I'd def recommend to anyone looking for a quick adventure overseas.

  3. Dear Francis,
    Hope you are fine! I really reading your blog - I was the one that lived in china for one year in 2012 with my bf - and actually i sent a message to you in the past few months, maybe u didnt read it. We are travelling to Guangzhou and Shenzhen end of august and I would like to ask you for some piece of advice. Can you give me your email so that i could contact you? i asked u before but forgot to take a note.. KR, D.


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