While living abroad, if you’re making an effort to learn the language and about the culture, it’s ok to occasionally visit the expat bubble. I even recommend it to maintain your sanity and increase your endurance: a reprieve from the inevitable daily annoyances of living in China, or any other developing country.
I may have sounded a bit fanatical in my previous posts in this series. When I first moved to China, I probably was a bit of a zealot about immersing myself in the language and culture. But after becoming conversant in the language, and getting a feel for the culture, I realized I needed to find a balance. I was past the honeymoon phase and needed some space. That’s where the expat bubble came in.
I haven’t ever really lived in the expat bubble, so for me, rather than having to escape from it, I found it was my escape. If you’re only living abroad for 3–6 months — in China, or some other developing country — you should probably stay out of the bubble and soak up as much of the culture and language as you can.
But, if you’re going to be abroad for a while, you’ll need to make regular visits to the land of foreigners to maintain your sanity. If you don’t, one day, rather suddenly — you’ll have a meltdown. It might happen right after the thousandth time someone cuts in front of you in line, or maybe it’ll happen after you get nearly run over again, or it could happen after you have spent four hours in a Chinese bureau leading to no tangible results — one day, you’ll just hit the wall. While frequent escape won’t prevent the meltdown, it will help make it less severe.
Here are some ways to inoculate yourself.
Find places that feel right
I remember watching “Cheers” while I was growing up. Every time they yelled “Norm,” it would reinforce the stereotypical image of a neighborhood bar. I like having a place like that in China, even though mine isn’t a neighborhood bar and they don’t yell “Sameer” when I walk in (though it would be really cool if they did).
My Cheers is my neighborhood Wagas: a sandwich chain with good coffee and a relaxing atmosphere. I can go to Wagas for a sandwich and a coffee, and spend the afternoon working there without being bothered. It’s not all that unique, but it’s my little foreign corner, is only a 10 minute walk from my apartment, and offers civility in a frequently aggravating place.
If you’re living in Beijing or Shanghai, you should be able to find your little relaxing venue pretty easily. Just keep your eyes open, or check out websites like City Weekend and search for places that feel right. If you live in a second- or third-tier city, you might be able to find a place that fits. But you may also need to visit Shanghai or Beijing occasionally so you can get your fill of a big city and recharge.
Make friends with long term foreign residents
In a previous post, I wrote about making friends with the locals so you can practice your newly acquired language skills and can learn more about the culture. Making friends with locals doesn’t mean you should spit at any foreigner who strikes up a conversation with you (unless you’re a camel, in which case spitting is just your thing). Making friends with other foreigners can offer an important reprieve from the madness of living in a developing country. Since they have similar experiences, you’ll often find they identify with your frustrations better than friends at home who don’t quite understand your exasperation, even if they offer sympathy.
I have also learned a lot from other foreigners living in China — both from new arrivals and long-term residents. The simple fact that they are living abroad makes them exceptionally interesting (except me, I’m terribly boring). So get out and become friends with other foreigners, and go visit the expat bubble with them. And while you’re out, enjoy reflecting on living abroad. Make sure to vent some of those frustrations as well, to guard against the meltdowns.
Try to find a balance
Yes, you should be fanatical about embedding yourself in the local culture when you first arrive. It’s important to gain momentum early. But you don’t have to stay tense about it forever. After a while, you can make occasional visits to the expat bubble to relax and enjoy a taste of home.
So if you’ve just spent the day struggling with a Chinese Bureau as you try to resolve a visa issue, or if you’ve spent a frustrating day at the bank trying to wire money from China to the US (I’d rather stick a screwdriver up my nose, personally), take a trip to your favorite foreign restaurant or bar and enjoy the service and the company. You can even order in English if it makes you feel better — it might allow you to suspend reality for a bit, and sometimes that’s all it takes to regain your strength.
This is the last post in the “Getting the most out of living abroad” series. Read about getting the most out of it in the first post, tips on learning Chinese in the second post, and going native in the third post.
Do you have other ways you are getting the most out of living abroad, or other tips for averting a meltdown? Leave your thoughts in the “What do you think” section below. And while you’re at it, why don’t you enter your email address at the top of the sidebar to sign up for email updates so you don’t miss any future posts?