All 入乡but no 随俗

(I quick note on a post I wrote recently.  A nice short article by Evan Osnos is linked here.  He ever so briefly mentions  what I had recently spoken of as regards Chinese attitudes towards their country's policies.  I think it's worth a read and far shorter than I what I usually write, though he may put ink to paper more frequently than perhaps I do.)

This is one of the oldest, most well known sayings in China.   One can say it is not even Chinese actually.   The Western version was created by St Ambrose in the 4th century.    He was a pious dude.  When it filtered into China I cannot say.  But am I the only one to find it ironic that a society dominated by the Han would have such a proverb to begin with?   Thus common sense dictates it was brought into China from abroad.  

It is instinct to wish to revert to one’s own culture and habits when overseas.  It is almost a defensive mechanism.  If one does not have friends within the guest culture what else is one to do?  Rather, it makes perfect sense to “bond” with a fellow countryman from your own native land.

Our own willingness to assimilate is reflected in our lifestyle when overseas.   When I go to China (as opposed to living in China), I find myself frequently going to McDonald’s for breakfast, while jetlag lasts.  An American breakfast.   Or when living in China I find that my body every few weeks or so simply needs “Western Food”.     But the desire for Western food comes more from my soul than any steady stomach pangs.  As such I can only “act Chinese” for so long.   My body dictates a culinary dive back into my own culture, but after a few hours I am better for it.   A warm glow covers my face and I am tranquil.

But what of the Chinese abroad?

I gave a hint of what I thought of the ability of Chinese in America to assimilate quite some time ago.   Primarily addressing their own culinary habits overseas.

Too put it bluntly, Chinese just don’t “swing”. 

To this day I’ve yet to see a Chinese family in a Mexican restaurant.    Or in a popular Italian eatery just down the street.

I’m guessing all Asian’s make up maybe 10-15% of our extended neighborhood.    Yet there really only ever to be found in a “not too bad” Sichuan place several miles from here.   It’s the closest “nearest” decent Chinese around.  

I’m not mad.  And I’m not disgusted.  Don’t get me wrong.  As I’ve matured it’s become more of an observation really.    But I won’t lie;  for the first several years after my return from both China and Tokyo it was frustrating after all the effort I’d spent trying to “fit in”, to see the local Chinese here not attempting to do the same.  

One can argue that no country or culture should be so self serving to look down upon another, but when it comes to assimilation I need to disagree.   If Westerners were really as opposed to assimilation as Chinese(or East Asians really) wouldn’t there be an “American town” in Shanghai?  Or Beijing?   With American waiters and menus?  Bar Street doesn’t count.   Fortunately I’ve lived in both cities.   And yeah, those cities are pretty damn Westernized, but there are no sections of either city remotely close to a Chinatown in America.   

And maybe that’s Americas fault.

Americas vaunted reputation for tolerance of other nations cultures make it politically incorrect to keep any one culture “down.”    Don’t believe me?  Aren’t Syrian refugees coming soon to many an American neighborhood?    (and what will they do?  I guarantee you they won’t be hanging out at the local bowling alley anytime soon)

Americans in this regard I think are often the opposite of Chinese.   When in China they almost always want to “show off” how many Chinese friends they have, or how rarely they need to be around their fellow Yankee Brethren.   Being seen at the window of a hole in the wall China restaurant with chopsticks in hand is “soooo cool.”

(And if you are a member of the media it’s even cooler being seen with a dissident.  Don’t forget to name drop on twitter!)

My time in China isn’t what it used to be.   I’ve slowed down.  I consciously feel the need to stay HERE.  Kids take over.   I gotta help out.  Simple as that.    Still, as I write this one still hears of all the “expats” that have left.  Two things about that:  don’t live where it’s so fucking polluted.   Two?  Don’t make “leaving China” sound like such a big deal.  

People like “us” never “leave” China.   Rather, we just decide to “live” somewhere else.  Trust me when I say I got “China” coming out of my ears everyday.

As I’ve said before somewhere, for every expat that thinks himself important enough to write an article informing us all about his leaving China, there are many more that just roll their eyes at all the drama, and carry on.

Still there are options: 

No family?  No kids?  Your own business?  Well than get your ass to Shenzhen(or Zhuhai, or Zhongshan) and party on! 

I mean, what moron is gonna put himself in the unhappy situation of having to stick it out?  Everyone knows a laowai shouldn’t have a family in China.   Because if you do, guess what?  You’re stuck there now!  And then what are you?  Just another laowai bitching on Reddit.

“Sticking it out” in China has become less of a badge of honor and more of a reflection(if married with kids) of how selfish many people are.   I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown out of the need to have a pissing contest with every laowai around.  

But I have digressed in a very big way. 

I just find that the ratio of Americans in China compared to Chinese in America that are simply more comfortable floating within their host country much, much higher.  
Are there meltdowns?  Of course.

I knew an Australian lady in her 40’s when I was a student in Hangzhou that simply had a nervous breakdown.   She just started crying and couldn’t stop.   I knew a Yale graduate that cried in China his first day in country.   But these are all 90’s stories.   China had nothing than.    Are these failures to assimilate or just simply culture shock issues?  The latter is obvious.   He assimilated quite nicely afterwards.

But when you are older, and with a Chinese family to boot, and can’t learn Chinese AND have your own business other stresses boil to the surface that quite frankly failure to assimilate only exacerbates. 
I knew one such guy in Shenzhen.  Pretty wife.  A son.  Nice apartment.  In short he had it all.   He had the money to both finance his wife’s business  and find time to party in Vegas with hookers.   Than one day he started babbling to his Baoan in English.    He wouldn’t stop.  They had to call his wife.  His demeanor completely changed.   He just couldn’t take living in China anymore.   But is that China’s fault or his?   In my business any serious player has to spend a fair amount of time in China.  Relationships depend upon it.    But he chose to live there and maybe that was his mental undoing.

My point is the failure to assimilate goes both ways.

My China Wife(fucking thanks to me thank you all very much) is still amazed at how unassimilated her friends are.   Or Chinese people in general.   95% of the time she is the only Asian in any restaurant we go to.   In a way this has really helped her to understand her own people.   

Let me stop here:  I hate chicken feet.  Does that make me unassimilated?  Of course not.  I don’t do cow’s tongue….does that make me a Pilgrim?  I don’t think so.  But Chinese can go to a Mexican restaurant and pass on the burrito but still get an enchilada right?

I close with a couple of stories and an observation.

When I was in graduate school my Chinese professor tasked me with “language exchange”.   I figured out where this chick lived, the wife of a PhD student and asked her to meet me at a certain well known spot.  To her credit she knew where it was.   We talked for awhile and I learned she had been in this university town for more than few years, but to my great surprise she had never actually been inside this very popular university hangout.   She only lived a few blocks away.

This place served simple university cuisine, ala chili dogs and lemonade.   Actually its specialty was chili dogs.   I don’t know why I asked a question with an obvious answer, but I guess in hindsight I really didn’t know what I didn’t know.

“What do you think of Chili dogs”?

“I don’t know”, she said in her shaky English voice, “I’ve never had one”.  

Sensing how embarrassed she may be, I eased off and trying to keep the conversation going, I threw her a question aimed to build up her confidence.

“What do you think of lemonade”?

With another straight face she responded with a “I’ve never tried it”.

This time I simply wasn’t able to hide my expression.   Embarrassed or not she deserved the look on my face.   Living a block from a popular hangout, never haven once entered let alone tried the most basic of American cuisine was beyond baffling.    It was reflective not of any ignorance but in my view a certain arrogance typical of someone that didn’t seem it important to have even a nanosecond worth of intellectual curiosity as regards the local cuisine.  

After all a chili dog in America is kinda like “Peking Duck” in Beijing, right?

I lived in Tokyo for several boring years.   But my first year there I met a Fujian couple that was pretty helpful to China Wife and I.  Cool people.   I really wanted to thank them for their gratitude.   So I did what most gaijin would do…and I took them to a foreign restaurant! 

Not Chinese mind you.  But an Italian place popular with the Japanese.   My Japanese readers may know the place.  It is in Ikebukuro near Shinjuku.   The Keihin Tohoku line.  It may still be there.  But a fantastic bowl of pasta was 2000 yen.   Around $20 today.  I was quite impressed with how “international” Tokyo was in the 90’s compared to Shanghai.    And I thought nothing of bringing our new found Chinese friends there as well.  I simply assumed they’d be happy to have good Italian food in the middle of Tokyo.

I can still recall the look of disgust on the Chinese female Fujianese’ face when her bowl of pasta arrived.  Chalk it up to a lesson learned on my part.  I was simply stunned that someone having lived in Japan as long as they had simply had never tasted Italian pasta……even stranger to myself was they had absolutely no inkling how to eat the pasta. 

Chastened…lesson learned.  China Wife than beat me up afterwards as well. 

What is my observation?

My observation is that in general, the Chinese just aren’t impressed with foreign culture.  Especially with American culture.   They used to think American cities all had 100 story buildings, and new gleaming airports and subways.   They thought we all had German cars and each house had a swimming pool. 

So why should the Chinese be impressed with a Chili Dog?

When one does not meet expectations Contempt follows.   And that is where we stand now.   In my view, the Chinese are more sure of themselves, confident of their position in this world and as a result just less intellectually curious of Us as they used to be.  So why assimilate?  Why?


  1. Why was living in Tokyo boring to you?

  2. Great question lets talk about it.
    Japan was boring for me for one simple reason: My personality just wasn't a good fit. I find the Japanese too indirect. Yes means Maybe. I just couldn't handle it.

    Perhaps I should simply say Japan wasn't my cup of tea. I hated my job, where I taught English like everybody else, and I couldn't wait to get out. I saw no future there for me. I lived in a Gaijin House, patiently working to pay off my student loans, trying to learn some Nihongoh along the way. My wife loved the place and if she hadn't hooked up with me, she probably would've married a Japanese dude and considered herself happy.

    China by far was and is simply a better fit for me. In China, I know where I stand, and in Japan I never did.

    Maybe if Japanese wasn't 100 x more difficult than CHinese it would've been easier to take.


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