Thursday, November 27, 2008

Expat Frustration in China

China is a frustrating place.

There i said it. Everyone is thinking it. You know you are too.

I would like to first state that I love China. I was born here and have been living here for more than 2 years. I have family here and a lot of friends too. I feel a incredible pride of being Chinese in the current state in the world as well as understand the burden of its history. I really do understand. It's in me.

As much as I enjoy living here, I have found China to be an incredibly frustrating place to live. People from the outside would make general arguments for this fact... ie. the water is dirty or the air is polluted, but the real frustration comes from all of the little things. These little things cant be seen or even understood by someone who hasnt lived in China. It builds up slowly until one day, you know you have to just get out of here.

When one first moves to China, everything is new and exciting. It can even initially be fun and interesting as something that is embrassed. However, given the right amount of time, these things become less fun/interesting. It's ok to laugh it off for a little bit of time, but after actually living with it everyday.... things change. Of course all of these little things can be properly explained and put into context of cultural difference, social development, a large population, ect. As a visitor in any new country, one has to accept the local society and its customs. However, that doesnt make day-to-day life easier.

So what are these little things? Here's a list:

1. The inability to just relax. The sheer number of people in China makes it so that is are people EVERYWHERE. I have never been anywhere where it was just me and no one else - where I can take a deep breath and get away from it all. 就不能安静下来. Even in places like your own apartment, the bathroom or anywhere else private, there are tons of ambiant noise caused by all of the people.

2.The horrible service. Although the general service is improving, it still lacks a huge amount to a solid benchmark. Examples include:
  • Waiting for hours in line at the bank where there is only 1 teller serving dozens of people
  • Any small mistake on any form will mean redoing that form
  • The amount of BS paperwork and incovenient transaction materials for just about any service including banking, general utilities, phone, ect.
  • Really long waits for any service at restaurants where a question or request can be left unanswered for more than 15 minutes
  • Some employees telling you the wrong thing while managers tell you the right thing
  • Basic lack of common sense where the idea that the "customer is right" doesnt exist
  • General inefficency
3. Lack of common courtesy by (not all) people. This issue depends on city and location, but it definitely happens just about everywhere. It is worst in a place like Shenzhen where there is a large migrant community. Although not all people are so bad, the small percentage of 1.3 billion is a lot. Some examples are:
  • Spitting on the street to spitting on the floor indoors and even airport terminals
  • Blatent littering when trash cans are close by (I've found myself picking up after other people)
  • Smoking in McDonald's or other non-smoking places
  • Not waiting in line for anything and pushing your way through to the front
  • Really loud disturbing conversations in restaurants or on cell phones
4. Life threatening transportation. With more and more cars on the roads everyday, the streets are not only more conjested but even more dangerous. Some basics are:
  • Taxi drivers swirving left and right in and out of traffic
  • Drivers sometime ignoring red lights or going in the wrong way on a street
  • Cars parked waiting for someone along the side of the road that blocks off traffic for
  • People standing in the street for buses
  • Jaywalking on really busy 8-lane intersections
  • People dragging carts along the street filled with random stuff.
5. For people not of Chinese decent, they get stared at all the time and approached with hi's, hello's and impromptu conversations. That's cool for a while but it gets annoying too.

All of these isses and problems all combine after a certain amount of time to build up incredible frustration in just about everyone I know. Good people become the epitome of the "ugly American" with this built up in their system.

I was talking to a friend of mine who is the nicest girl you would ever meet. She told me a story of how she just flipped out at a taxi driver after he said he couldnt take her to her destination becuase he was about to go off duty and had to return the car. She felt horrible afterwards and felt bad for the taxi driver who was only doing his job. That didnt prevent her from venting out yelling at him. That's something I would never expect from her.

Even my mom agrees. She has lived 60% of her life in China and 40% in the US. She comes back on business trips every year and loves it for a while. However, she would never be able to live here for an extended amount of time anymore.

I've seen myself become increasingly frustrated over time as well. After a while, you just cant help it but to be chippy douche to people, even friends. It's just one of those things. Maybe this is why all of the Chinese rich people are moving out to places where there are less people.

The only remedy is to get out of China for a while and go on vacation. The key is to get back to a place where these small things dont exist, or that they exist but are interpreted by a tourist mindset of acceptance, not a constant annoyance. Thank goodness Shenzhen, is so close to Hong Kong, Macau and SE Asia. A couple of days on the Thailand beaches really does wonders. Bali, here I come.


Josh said...

That's what's so beautiful about the Spring Festival here...I can't wait to get away for a week or two!

As for Thailand, I just read in the news today that there's some anti-government stuff going on that has gone so far as to shut down all air traffic coming and going. My wife and I were hoping to make a quick trip there soon, but it looks like we might be diverted to the Philippines.

GiGi said...

most of those little things you talked about are the cause of my frustration, as a local, as well.

i gave up on my car-purchasing plan. as u said, beijing's life threatening transportation stopped me from buying a suicidal weapon.

Kay Bratt said...

Amen to your list! We lived in China for almost five years and I know exactly how you feel. When we left in 2007, I felt like if I didn't leave right away, my family would see me on CNN as the foreigner that finally flipped out and hurt a lot of people. Lol.

But I will say, now that we have been home for over a year....we are ready to go back to China.

hkorbust said...

This post reminds me of all the reasons why I left Beijing for Hong Kong - thank you!

Having said HK still has hoards of people (Note: worse than any place in Zhongguo Dalu), an inability to relax, neurotic service, and life threatening traffic (not quite to the same level).


Mike said...

hong kong also has the undeniable sense that everyone must wear name brands at all times. That's just incredibly annoying (in my opinion).

smithsan said...

Landing in China can be either a rewarding, learning experience in this eastern land of adventurous promise or a frustrating, chaotic, experience in an Oriental morass. The choice of this experience lies partly with the teacher and mostly with a bizarre combination of factors that go by various names such as luck, destiny and yes, even karma.

hkorbust said...

I'm with you on the brand names, Mike.

One upside - The lines of people outside Louis Vuitton and Armani mean that the better value shops are less crowded!

Renaud said...

It is very true... But, from my observations, probably better in SZ (in the center anyway) than in most other places in China.
In everyday life, the worst is people speaking loud. And in relationships, it's the lack of options in life (i.e. the expectations placed on young adults by their family).
Anyway, I've been away for 2 weeks and I already miss China...

Jesse said...

I've found myself becoming rather frustrated lately as well. A lot of day trips and random exploration lately has helped regain my initial sense of wonder with the place. You are right that getting away really does help, and when I come back, I always feel happy to be in Shenzhen.

Bluebirdmezzo said...

I feel like that in New York sometimes, but to a much lesser degree. When I moved back from Boston after 4 years of college, the first 3 months I really felt I could flip any minute. It's like a caged animal can become much more aggressive, reduced living space can have that effect on people too. In China there is seemed to be no/little escape, but you can find small towns and mountains off the beaten path that give you the wonder of nature and a place to relax.

Jason Yu said...

Have you read the book: enclosed city? Those who are outside of China would love to come and see; those who live inside may want to leave...

There is no paradise in anywhere though. It is just trade-off in some way.

As both a local and expatriate photographer in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, I have complicated and mixed feeling about the city and the country too.