Seth Barham Design
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Spartan Wanderer

Ramblings from the road, gear reviews, design trends, and whatever else happens to be on my mind.

5 Stages of Adjustment for Expats in China

Traveling to a new country is a wonderful experience that everyone should enjoy at least once in their life. A change of scenery, a new language, different and interesting cuisine - it’s enough to remind you of how small your corner of the world really is. And once you’ve had your fill of adventure, you can always retreat back to that tiny nook of comfort. 

But what if you decide to stay and, you know, go native? Well, that’s a different beast altogether. It can also be an incredible experience, albeit a very challenging one that can test your limits and core values that you once held dear. Put another way, you can enter Country X and may discover a completely different side of yourself that you never knew existed.

I did, and am still doing, this in China. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn or because seemingly every other expat says this: China is doing this on legendary difficulty. While there are certainly even more extreme countries to live in long-term, China is a place that can make or break you. I’ve seen both outcomes. The latter is not pretty and often quite sad.

There is a well-trodden path to either outcome that I feel like discussing hopes that new expats in China can recognize the fork in the road to either success and a future beyond life in China, or stagnant, alcohol-soaked insanity. 

Stage 1: Honeymoon/Culture Shock

When you travel to a new country for a couple of weeks, everything is new and interesting. Everything is an adventure worthy of your Instagram feed, including things that you will eventually find to be annoying as fuck once the rose-tinted glasses have come off. You are willing to try anything at least once, including fried chicken assholes and blood-letting masquerading as massage. You say “hello” to everyone who shouts “Hello!”, “Nice to meet you!”, and “How old are you!”, astounded by how friendly the locals are.

Everyone wants to talk to you, add you on WeChat, take you out for dinner, and throw down the booze. “Welcome to China!”, you’ll hear from complete strangers. Wow, this place is nothing like the communist gulag hellhole that Western media has led me to believe. You love noodles, but you’ve never had noodles like this. Noodles, all day every day! The freshness of your adventure in the Middle Kingdom is even enough to make diarrhea seem like a minor inconvenience…for now. 

Stage 2: I Think I Know China

About 6 months later, your adventure is still going swimmingly. You’re like a 21st Century Marco Polo! You’ve even been learning quite a bit of Chinese - at least enough to order food, direct your taxis, and locate the nearest toilet as quickly as possible. Your life is a lot easier for it, and the newest batch of green expats think you’re some kind of god when you order their niurou chuanr, wei la (BBQ beef, medium spicy) for them. 

You’ve been learning about face and guanxi, two of the most important aspects of Chinese culture. You even saved your boss’s face in a meeting that seemed to be going south. One of those bitter, salty guys that have been here for 5 years complained that he was given a new class without proper notice and no time to prepare. Shit happens, though, right? You said as much, and because guanxi, your boss will be sure to return the favor later. 

You still haven’t run out of noodles to try and the locals still treat you like a celebrity. It can be a bit annoying and inconvenient sometimes…but what the hell, you’re an ambassador for your country, right? Best continue to put your best foot forward. Maybe once your Chinese improves, you’ll be able to have more in-depth conversations than the whole “Where are you from?” schtick. 

Stage 3: I Don’t Know China

Let’s fast-forward another year. Things were going well enough that you decided to sign another contract at Oxford English (absolutely no relation). It was kind of weird how reluctant your boss was to meet you halfway on the raise you wanted, considering the effort you put into your classes and how often you stuck your neck out for her in front of the other foreign teachers. You’re still a laowai - maybe you really don’t know how guanxi works after all.

A minor setback, especially considering how much your Chinese has improved in a year’s time. You can have short conversations now, but to your frustration, they are still limited to your nationality, how much you earn, and whether you have a girlfriend or not. 

You’ve begun to notice a few health issues popping up here and there. When you get a cold, it seems to take weeks to completely recover. You have random ulcers that pop up in your mouth despite eating a healthy diet. You stare into the wall of smog outside, huddled next to your air purifier. The aftermath of your trips of the toilet became severe enough to limit your selection of restaurants to places you know you won’t get laduzi. 

More and more of the little things have been wearing on you: the homicidal driving, pushing and line-cutting, blatant littering absent of shame, stares and laughter that seems to be more at your expense than friendly curiosity. And if you hear someone say “laowai” or “waiguoren” (foreigner) one more time as if you’re not standing right there, you might just… 

Stage 4: Unbridled Rage

You, in fluent Mandarin: “I want some beef noodles.”

The waitress, in shock: “I…I don’t understand.”

That’s it. Cue any Metallica song. You’ve had enough. Four years - four years you’ve put into learning Chinese. You know how to order beef noodles. Yet, no one in your town seems to comprehend those words leaving the mouth of someone who doesn’t look Chinese. As you slowly look up from your clenching fists, you notice that at least half the restaurant is staring at you. It’s not how unusual it is that bugs you, it’s how normal. People stare at you everywhere you go, you don’t even notice anymore. Until the times you do, and you just want to be anonymous and insignificant again. Just another grain of sand at the beach.

But you can’t be that. For better or for worse, it’s impossible for (most) people in China to treat you as a normal individual. This, despite you having lived there so long that your life experience overlaps with a majority of the mundanities and inconveniences that everyone staring at you with incredulity also deals with on a daily basis. The otherness bothers you the most. 

Let’s not forget that you began the day with no water in your building (for the 5th time this month). This derails your plans to work out, so you reorganize your day around when you have water again. You know why it happens. It’s obvious to everyone in the community (they’ve said as much) that the pipes are old and they suck. The explanation given by community officials is always “they are improving the water system”. Kind of strange they’ve been improving it for the last four years and the same issue comes up on a near weekly basis! You just want someone to admit fault for once, which you’ve long since realized is a forlorn hope.

Initiate lockdown mode. You barricade yourself inside your apartment, cook something that reminds you of home, and crack open an imported beer. Windows closed, air purifiers on, the best and latest TV downloading…streaming, I meant to say streaming. If you don’t look out the window, you might as well be on Spaceship You, hurtling through space.

Stage 5: Stoic Acceptance

After some time, you come to realize that your anger will not change anything, nor is it your place to even try. What they’ve been telling you is actually true. “This is our China.” It is not your country. You can love all there is to love about China, but you will never be accepted as anything other than an outsider. Getting angry will not change this. The best you can hope for is to continue enjoying what’s keeping you there. If you can’t even do that, then it’s possibly time to go home.

You don’t want to go home. So what do you do? You continue to cultivate your friendships, continue learning Chinese, and continue uncovering and unraveling whatever kernels of cultural truths you happen across. You don’t let the occasional anger over the things you can’t change stop you from continuing your life abroad. You’ve made your apartment into a place you’re comfortable spending long periods of time for when your patience does wear thin.

And really, life is far from bad in China. It is nothing like how it is portrayed in Western media. The infrastructure is still catching up with the extraordinary growth the country has experienced in the last 30 years. When it does inconvenience you, you have the unique experience to really appreciate the smaller things that the folks back home have never gone without. On your best days, you barely notice these things. You simply acknowledge them with stoic acceptance. You are as close to a local as you are probably going to get. 

Fork in the Road

For someone who has simultaneously enjoyed and weathered China for at least five or more years, you will eventually stumble down one path or another. Many expats aren’t aware as it’s happening. You will either:

Begin honing your skills, doing side projects, and preparing for a life beyond China, both financially and professionally. 


Descend into alcohol-soaked purgatory until, but not before, something forces you to leave China.

If you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, you will find your way onto the first path without even realizing it. There are a lot of opportunities that tend to pop up here, and you shouldn’t be so quick to refuse them (even if there is some headache involved). While current events are driving up the cost of living a bit, China is still a place where you stand to save a lot of money compared to your friends living in the West. If you play your cards right, you can save and have a CV worth looking at at the end of the day, even as a former English teacher.

If you come to China, do so with clear goals, and not as an escape route from something you’re dealing with back home. I can tell you right now if you’re dealing with something difficult in your life, China is not the place to confront it. The eager bedfellows of complacency, lots of downtime, and cheap vice have consumed many an expat here. You may wake up one day to find that you’ve already wandered several meters down the second path if you’re not taking care of yourself. 

If you are on the easy 20-hours/week teaching schedule, the key is to not use that extra time as an excuse to get complacent. Sure, a few experiments gauging just how lazy you can be around bound to happen from time to time, but that extra 20 hours that most people don’t have is a gift that shouldn’t be squandered. Make the most of it, and your time in China can be an incredible experience that you can look back on as well as a springboard for your future endeavors. 

An update from me…

I hope you enjoy this longwinded dive into what you can expect if you live in China for an extended period of time. I find that I enjoy writing longer form pieces like this than trying to shit out at least 750 words every week. Sometimes, it takes longer than a week to fully form my thoughts and get them on paper (or screen) in a way that I can be happy with. You may have noticed already that I’m more or less posting once every other week now…although sometimes there are longer gaps between posts.

Work and life stuff have made the “post-or-die” on a weekly basis thing untenable for now. My main goal is to use the blog side of my website as an outlet for my thoughts, experiences, and interesting content for my readers. When I have it, I’ll post it - this seems to have better results than straining for content when I really haven’t had a chance to think about it due to a hectic workweek. 

On my off-weeks from Spartan Wanderer, you can catch a post from me over at Passport Beerlandia, where I review beer and spirits local to wherever I happen to be at the time. I’m currently going through all China has to offer one beer at a time so you don’t have to. I’m trying to keep Beerlandia more regular - one review every two weeks and an active Instagram feed - so keep an eye out if I’ve been quiet over here. 

Zai jian!