So InterNations, the largest expat network online, recently polled 14,300 expats in every country. Turns out China, ranked incredibly high in expat satisfaction. (Third behind the USA and Malta). Three out of four expats said they were satisfied with their pay, and there was room to grow in China.
The poll also turned up another interesting fact: That expats don’t feel like they fit into China, and many don’t have local friends. Only a third of respondents say they have local friends and the majority say they socialize only with other expats.
The first result, that China ranked third in the world for expat satisfaction, surprised me. The second result, that expats don’t feel like they fit in, does not.
Because as an expat that is clearly comfortable in China, other expats will often come to me for advice.
“How do you have so many Chinese friends?”
“What is so fun about living in China, I’m so bored?”
“How do you find so many activities to do?”
Or, I hear a lot of disparaging remarks.
“Why do you have Chinese friends? Chinese people are so fake.”
“People only want to use me to practice their English, they’re not real friends.”
“Chinese people don’t like me.”
“I don’t like Chinese people.”
(Yes, all of these things have been said to me, with regularity, in the past six years.)
I react to all these statements and questions with varying degrees of outrage. Sometimes I get it, I understand. Other times I want to smack the person for being so ignorant.
So let’s take the outrageous ones first. “I don’t like Chinese people,” or “Chinese people don’t like me.”
*smack, smack smack*
I mean, come on. When you label an entire population of 1.6 BILLION as unlikable it says a whole lot more about you and your terrible attitude than China and it’s people. Don’t be so friggin ignorant. The personalities in China is as vast and varied as any other country, including your home country. Maybe you don’t like fashionistas, but live in Shanghai so you see them often. That’s fine. Maybe you don’t like spoiled rich kids, but teach them everyday. That’s fine too. But don’t just take the people you see the most everyday because of your life situation and extrapolate. Hate the rich people? Fine, how about talking to the woman that cooks your noodles at the local restaurant? Or how about the guy that cuts your hair? Anyway, you’re stupid. Stop being stupid.
“Why do you have Chinese friends? Chinese people are so fake.” Or, “People only want to use me to practice their English, they’re not real friends.”
This I get. Being a westerner in China, especially a white one, is a bit of an exotic creature in China. People want to be your friends for many reasons besides your personality. They want to show off how cool and international they are. They want to practice their English with a native speaker, they want to get you involved in their business so they can charge higher rates, or they are girls looking to meet foreign guy. All of those things that have to do with your passport and nationality and not at all with your personality.
And I hate this. I really do. But after a few months in China you figure out who is real and who isn’t. And the fake friends are pretty easy to avoid. It gets to a point where you know even before words are spoken. The guy that openly (or secretly) takes pictures of you before asking a stilted “where are you from?” doesn’t really care about you. Or the giggling group of girls that looks at you with stars in their eyes aren’t real friends. They might invite you out or show you the locals sights but they are interested in you for your foreignness. And these kinds of people approach you a lot. So it can be tiring.
But when you hear a lady on a bus shouting into her phone and you catch the eye of a girl and both roll your eyes at this ridiculous lady and then smile at each other, then you two could be friends. Or the waitress at your regular restaurant that asks if you like badminton because you are carrying a racket. “I like badminton too,” she says back. You two could be friends.
You hone your bullshit meter very quickly in China, but sadly it seems like some expats decide that closing off all potential friendships is easier than figuring out who is real and who is fake. Maybe it is easier. But it’s a whole lot more boring.
So how do expats make friends? Especially ones that don’t speak Chinese? (The language was listed as the largest barrier in the InterNations survey.) Well, you have to get out of the expat bubble. I think in some cities, like Beijing and Shanghai that can be tough. Foreigners live in expat communities, work with expats and go to western restaurants and bars owned and visited by expats. Even in smaller, less famous cities like Hangzhou and Xiamen, it’s easy to get sucked into the familiar places with English on the menu and foreign waiters.
But easy can be boring. And you’re in China dammit! Time to make the most of your time. So get out. I find activities are the easiest way to make like-minded friends. Even smaller cities have branches of the Hash House Harriers, TED discussion groups, Chinese corners (where local people chat with foreigners in Chinese), sports teams and a myriad of other activities that foreigners can participate. Look on a local expat site to find the events in your city.
And if you think you live in a small city with absolutely nothing for expats, then ask other expats. People are usually involved in a lot of things that have WeChat groups, but not on the internet. Or maybe they have some cool Chinese friends and you can tag along and meet new people. Or, if worst comes to worse, find “The egg,” and talk to them. (An Egg is a foreigner that acts Chinese–white on the outside, yellow on the inside and every city, even the teeny, tiny ones have at least one. They are the ones that speak fluent Chinese, only have Chinese friends and haven’t touched western food in years. They are probably also a bit of a dick, but they will know people to befriend.)
Basically, if you go looking for friends, rather than people finding you, you will likely meet people you truly get along with, ones that like you back in return. If you are not willing to look, saying it is too hard, or too much of a bother, clinging to the belief that “NO Chinese person likes me,” then fine. Enjoy your lonely life.
Making friends, even in another country, is something that can be done. It might take a bit more work then in a country that speaks your native language. But it can be done, and quite easily. And it is so, so, so worth it.