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10 types of China expats E-mail
City Life - Blogs & Columns
Written by David A. Dayton
As a foreigner here in China, today I’ve decided to (over)generalize my experiences with other foreigners and have a little fun with those of us that are of the paler persuasion.

When I first arrived in China my wife and I walked down the Bund in Shanghai and there were almost no other foreigners there! We were mobbed by Chinese people dying to speak English and touch my hairy arms and my wife’s blond hair. Everyone wanted to take pictures with us (of course they didn’t have any cameras, they wanted to use mine—don’t ask me how I was going to get the photos to them). We couldn’t find any shops selling bottled water or Cokes and the domestic flight was a prop-plane with seats that weren’t bolted down. That was my first day in China. Wow! Talk about overwhelming.

Since then I’ve had the opportunity to work all over China and meets hundreds of foreigners of various abilities, education and attitudes. Generally, the people I meet are good ambassadors for their home countries—kind (if not a little impatient), generous (if not a little condescending), and typically good salt-of-the-earth kind of folks. I will admit, though, I have often been shocked at how little they know about China or how few speak Chinese. It’s always impressive to me to see someone who is both good at what s/he does and fluent in Chinese. And even more impressive to find a foreign spouse and kids that can speak Chinese too.

Now, before you send me hate email and call me a racist pig, you need to know that I readily admit that at least 7 of these are/were me at some point in time in the last 10 years. People learn and life changes us all. Just because someone is a Pollyanna today doesn’t mean they won’t be a McCarthy Holdover next month.

So here it is. My totally biased analysis of foreigners in China. Feel free to add to the list. 

1. The Clintonite

Don’t ask, don’t tell. This guy has typically been here a couple years but doesn’t speak any Chinese. He visits factories twice a year and willingly believes it’s this clean all the time. Reads the social compliance reports and accepts that all is well. It’s much easier to not question the other 364 days of the year or talk with all the subcontractors that supply the one factory that submits to the social compliance inspection. Typically he knows that he’ll get what he asks for and so just doesn’t ask. AKA The Floydian—Comfortably Numb, if he’s Republican.

2. The McCarthy Holdover

Red Scared. Still sees anything “red” as a threat. Can’t get over the army’s involvement in the Chinese Govt. See’s the economy as feeding the military for it’s eminent take over of Taiwan (and then Korea, Japan, Hawaii, etc..). Still talks incessantly about the Cultural Revolution, Mao, Chicoms, Tiananmen ’89 and Tommy Huang. Typically can’t distinguish between Chinese and any other Asian. Could be a guest on King of the Hill (“Are you Chinese or Japanese?”).

3. The Pollyanna

Don’t you just love China!? “Look at the growth! Look at the opportunities! Just step over that body laying there, no problem. Look at the development. The Chinese will be the biggest (insert any industry here) in the world in just 10 years!” If he lives in China he’s a Taoist “convert” who practices fengshui learned from Wikipedia. Responds to anyone that says anything bad about China with: “Oh, yeah! And your government doesn’t do that too?!” Has never been outside of the big cities on the East Coast. Most books written about China in the last 10 years fit into this category. If he’s a frequent business traveler he buys the pro-China books in the Hong Kong Airport and purports to have great guanxi.

4. The English Teacher

Unteachable; great photo album. Thinks he’s The Pro because he’s taught in three cities in his one year in China. Can obviously out debate anyone that disagrees with him since he only communicates with folks speaking Pidgin English—self confirmation of his Pro status. Often a “North American” (i.e. a Canadian) who hates the fact that Chinese people only want to learn “American” (i.e. US) accents. Teaches on the side, but is really a full time backpacker that expects to turn his experiences into big money in import-export “as soon as he learns Chinese.”

5. The Pessimist

Hate is a core value. Nothing works and every problem is confirmation that China is going to hell in a hand basket. Everything is better somewhere else and everyone knows he hates it here (but he won’t leave). Differs from The Leftover in that he can be a newly arrived professional, a spouse or even an Overseas Chinese. Talks about the Chinese like they aren’t all around and can’t understand English. Thinks that guanxi is the root of all evil.

6. The Fam

What, me speak Chinese? For all intents and purposes, the families of most expats in China still live in the West. They live in a private villa in a gated community, shop at the import stores exclusively, travel back to their home country at least as often as to other provinces or cities in China. Knows all the TV schedules for home TV programming and are Slingbox devotees. They only interact with Chinese in English and then only with maids, the nanny, the driver, the pizza dude and the security guards.

7. The Native

been there, done that. Chinese spouse, speaks Chinese, has been here for years (and will be here for years more). In-laws live with him in a Chinese community/complex. Typically a cross between The Pessimist and The Pro. Acutely aware of the fact that he will never be Chinese but has also been away from his home country for long enough that he doesn’t quite fit in there either. Has never seen the new orange/green ten-dollar bills in the US. Fantasizes about “home cooking” and “the way it was back home.”

8. The Tourist

Loves the scenery, hates the bathrooms. Loves the people, hates the bones in the food. Still thinks the bar girls really do think he’s cute. Loves the fact that he can cut 20% off the starting prices of knock offs in the markets. Can’t quite figure out why anyone still calls China a “Developing Country.” Is sometimes here on 10-day trips to “check up” on his Chinese manufacturer—spends most of the trip eating, shopping and golfing.

9. The Left-Over

Probably came as a Tourist and is now an English Teacher. Loves wallowing in the underground economy of Yunnan. Hates the Chinese, hates China, hates Chinese food and hates his own job. Speaks barely enough Chinese to order beer, get taxis and impress tourists. Has a Chinese ex-wife (or two) and a current girlfriend half his age. Used to live in Thailand but the black market there is too expensive nowadays. Usually found in bars, complaining. Likely to have legal issues back in his home country that prevent him from returning.

10. The Pro

Fluent in Chinese and works as a professional in Shanghai, Hong Kong or Beijing. Would be a native except for The Fam are all Westerners. Has a degree from Thunderbird and has been in China since graduation. Lives on an “expat package” that could support a small Chinese village.

David A. Dayton is the CEO of Silk Road International (SRI), an U.S.-owned and managed international procurement agency based in China. Click here to visit SRI's Website.

Our valuable Editor David A. Dayton has been with us since Monday, 02 November 2009.

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+4 #10 Raphael 2010-08-19 16:39
This article should be called "10 types of Americans in China".
It's obviously too much America centered. Koreans and Japanese make up most of the expat community in china...
It's also very "male centered", but as I male I did not mind. ;-)
+3 #9 Hanssen 2010-05-28 23:17
1. The Closet Depressive

By day this expat is cheery as a spring flower; at home, alone, when the windows and doors are shut, she stares at the floor in the corner. She always turns a smiling face to you, not because she is trying to fake happiness, but more because she doesn't want to bring you into her depression. The closet depressive runs from sincerity, lies to herself about her situation until she actually convinces herself - albeit temporarily - of an international bliss.

2. The Drifter

He decided to take a year abroad because it "looked like a good option at the time." The drifter is your friend, but he is everyone's friend as well, because he is secretly searching for meaning, and wondering if he can find it with you, or with the person next to you.

3. The Escapee

The escapee wasn't necessarily living a crumbling life in the poor corner of town before shipping off. Usually the escapee was just bored. He longs for something unusual and different.

4. The Enduring Expat wife

She had no particular desire to come to China, she just followed her husband (and his fat expat package) here. She enjoys Pringles and mushroom soup. While her husband leaves for work each day, she remains at home, caring for the children, inventing games out of scrap paper and broken crayons, chasing the children in circles at the park, etc. She gets by each day on inspirational quotes.

5. The Bridge Builder

By increasing the understanding between cultures, the bridge builder seeks to increase empathy, understanding, and therefore bring about "world peace." This bridger would ultimately like to work for the foreign service, to be one who interprets cultural expressions or actions and shapes them into articulate signals.

6. The Actual Expat

His remains, he has decided, shall not be repatriated in that godforsaken western country, but shall find their eternal rest in a country that, despite its drawbacks, he has come to feel is his home.
+1 #8 John 2010-03-13 12:12
I'm still trying to figure out where I fit
+1 #7 Hermann 2010-03-06 04:47
Udo: yeah i have seen it too. but this is an eternal subject in china (and thailand, vietnam, and god knows where), ever since i know. it looks like those guys are using those (not very "clean" girls, yep...) but at the end THEY will eat those guys for breakfast. I have seen it many times in shanghai and guangzhou :-D. is disgusting and immoral, i agree. But this will never change as long as you can find human beings solely driven by their animal instincts on the face of the earth.
+1 #6 Udo 2010-02-06 00:12
Nice article, I agree widely. Think, the are more cathegories, but mainly you got it!
Lacks these obnoxious guys you mostly find in Shenzhen and Shanghai, 60 years and older, a Rolex and, of course, a golden naecklace, accompanied by not less then 2 girls, loud like a boar in its stable. Disgusting!
+1 #5 Boomercn 2009-11-21 12:06
Nice article! I would like to add "The-know-all-but-know-nothing's"
Damn, lots of locals fall into this category too *lol*.
+1 #4 ND 2009-11-17 05:40
Hello 'True',thanks for your comment. I am the Founder of ND and i must tell you that I thought twice when publishing your comment. However we appreciate and encourage honest, direct and clear opinions on ND. We do not censor and talk pink flower language at all costs like so many others! But please control your words a little next time. David is one of our best contributors and we are proud of having him aboard and even if I believe he can handle your comment very very well, i want to make clear that our contributors are no subject to personal attacks. He might be a north american but not of the kind you think of. I think his articles say all about him! Please be careful in choosing your words and never use the F****-word again. You have European friends you said, so be aware that ND is operated by Continental West Europeans (no english ones) and we do not like the F*** word and other terms so much. it is not civilized :-). Thanks and looking forward for further comments of ya! :-)
+1 #3 true 2009-11-17 05:27
i am a so called "foreigner" in china (*lol* I live in this country for 13 years now) and i can not stand other foreigners (most of them). I prefer to exchange views with Europeans, they really seem to have a different and more open mindset rather than anglosaxons. especially north americans (not all ok? i appreciate the author of this article, to my knowledge he is from north-america?) and english are f***** ridiculous here! They really have small brains, a little horizon but biiiig mouths and arrogance. they know nothing but want to talk about everything! **** ***** *****.
+1 #2 Lixu 2009-11-15 23:00
excellent story,nice. i am chinese and a few of chinese expats abroad act the same way. not so much in their host countries,they are very silent abroad and mind their own business but when they come back to china they do...and with a big mouth
+1 #1 Andreas 2009-11-09 10:49
Excellent article! All those expat types are so true...Haven't we been (or still are) some of them? ;-)

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