All Expats in China are Crazy

There are many mental illnesses that afflict us, but clearly all of us in China are crazy. From the high school kid just off the plane who thinks he’s a China expert, to the people who have been living here twenty-five years and can no longer differentiate appropriate from offensive, something is wrong with all of us. I’m not sure if it has something to do with toxic adhesives in our toothpaste, the fumes that we breathe everyday, or a slow deterioration of the brain from repeating things thousands of times to no effect (“Maidan. Maidan. Jiezhang! Jiezhang! Fuwuyuan! Xiaojie! Money! Take my money!!”). At some point we lose all sense of living in a society. This is the primary reason that China’s expatriate community is essentially Lord of the Flies: Asia Edition. I’m pretty sure I’m 15 pounds away from being Piggy in this equation.

And so I present my Idiot’s Guide to Lord of the Flies: Asia Edition:

There are four basic categories of expatriates living here, all of whom are equally insane. Keep in mind these are not mutually exclusive, and I like to think I only fit into, let’s say half of them, but there’s probably four types of crazy in me.

One group is the foreigner who has just arrived trying to escape from something. It might be getting away after a failed marriage, or it might be the fear of being stuck in a cubicle in San Diego for the next thirty years, or in one horribly extreme case, an attempt to avoid Interpol. I’ll focus on the second of these examples or the “escaping Kansas” type as I call them (although getting out of NYC is equally appropriate). The Escaping Kansas people come to China because regular life is boring. Things has just become dull at home, and they need a drastic shake-up.

The advantage to coming to China is that, say what you will, things are not dull. The country is in a state of perpetual motion and confusion. Even the legal system is so complex and arbitrary that one American came out here for a local firm, wasn’t paid, and without a normal channel to air his grievances started a blog about it (this is worth a look). That’s right, a lawyer started a blog to get back at the firm he was still working for. Does this happen anywhere other than China? Or what about the story about locals in Henan eating dinosaur bones? Again, these situations are China-specific, and there’s never a dull moment.

Another point of appeal is the “big shot phenomenon”, although this is particularly prevalent in cities with smaller laowai populations. When you go outside, people stare, you’re immediately interesting, and you can get away with a lot. As I mentioned before, any Chinese language is considered amazing. Expectations are low, and we do our best to meet them.

When I first got to China an American friend of mine was a teacher who had previously lived in Mexico where he had earned his college degree. Yet the more I got to know about him, the more it seemed like something was a bit odd about his story. His Spanish was conversational, but not good enough to write university-level essays. When I asked him about it he told me that the teachers were really nice and cut him slack. However, later I realized he has only been in Mexico for 14 months, at which point he confided that he had never gone to college and had lied on his resume. He was a good teacher and I’m not sure a degree is necessarily required for the job we had, so if the story ended there, I could let it slide as a peculiar indiscretion.

However, after living in China for a little while longer he came to the conclusion that he could get away with pretty much anything. So he told me about a scheme he had to get an honorary PhD from our Chinese University. The idea was that if he could prove he had a ‘PhD’ then the college degree would become a moot point. I guess he thought that celebrities who get honorary diplomas actually list them on their resumes. For example, Drew Carrey, in addition to being a heavy-set, Cleveland-based funny man, also holds a PhD from Cleveland State U. In what you ask? Nothing in particular. But he probably puts it on his resume. [update: By coincidence shortly after this article it was announced that Carey will be taking over for Bob Barker on the Price is Right]

This is just one example of the insanity of expats in China. Monday I will go through the other categories, kind of like the rings of hell. Just remember if you’re living out here you probably fit into at least of or two of these categories so try not to make fun of others too much, because something in China turns us completely nuts in hurry.

[update: Here are the second and third installments of the series]

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2 Responses to All Expats in China are Crazy

  1. Maybe if you move to the U.S. or Mexico you will get better

  2. SZILVIA says:


    Maybe it is too late and you already are in Harbin but if not my advise is not to move here. I had to came here as my husband got a job in Harbin. Where should i start? If you speak the language than you will manage somehow, if you find a job than you wont get dead bored beacuse there is nothing in here at all. Not a single park where you can go for a long stroll and air your head, not anyone whom you could converse in English with and so on and on… It is a massive city in a realatively good condition but as a foreign life is not as good as it would in Shanghai or Hong Kong.

    If you are here email me please about your experience in Harbin.

    Good luck Szilvia

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