Are you in or out?

For­eign­ers in China share whether there is an ‘ex­pat bub­ble’ and how to deal with it

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - FRONT PAGE - By Yin Lu

The “ex­pat bub­ble” is a long-held myth which refers to for­eign­ers liv­ing in a country only mak­ing friends with each other and rarely com­ing out of their com­fort zone to ex­plore the local cul­ture. But to Juli

Bradley, 54, pres­i­dent­dent of local ex­pat or­ga­ni­za­tion the In­ter­na­tional ational New­com­ers’ Net­work (INN), the bub­ble is real.

With grown-up p children who are not in China, the Bradley cou­ple live e in the hip, bustling neigh­bor­hood of San­l­i­tun in a com­pound that ac­com­mo­dates both lo­cals and ex­pats. “We want to ex­pe­ri­ence the city and what it has to offer,” she said.

Many of Bradley’s friends have children and they choose to live in ex­pat-ma­jor­ity neigh­bor­hoods in Shunyi dis­trict, where they can be close to in­ter­na­tional schools and other fa­cil­i­ties which make them feel more like home.

Ac­cord­ing to ex­pats Metropoli­tan talked to, in some of the “ex­pat neigh­bor­hoods,” you can al­most see bub­bles in the air sur­round­ing some for­eign­ers – those who walk around sip­ping their Star­bucks cof­fee and talk about the few ex­pat restaurants and pubs, and refuse to speak Chi­nese.

Nobody would ad­mit that they are inside the bub­ble, the ex­pats told Metropoli­tan, but ev­ery­body is at dif­fer­ent stages of com­ing out of the bub­ble.

Is the bub­ble real?

In choos­ing to stay in or get­ting out of the bub­ble, the job and age play a cru­cial role. For in­stance, Bradley finds it is eas­ier for the younger gen­er­a­tion of ex­pats to min­gle with the local cul­ture through clubbing or karaoke. “They are usu­ally more open and adapt­able.”

But in the end, it all boils down to whether one is in­ter­ested in the local cul­ture and how keen they are to be a part of the cul­ture. The ma­jor­ity of ex­pats are on their way break­ing out­side of the ex­pat bub­ble, Bradley said. “The ma­jor­ity I per­son­ally know came here with the same vi­sion, to see and learn.”

Bradley came to Bei­jing in 2013 when her hus­band took a work as­sign­ment in China.

She re­mem­bers when her hus­band first left Bei­jing on a busi­ness trip, she felt very anx­ious. “How do I get my groceries” and “how do I fig­ure out trans­porta­tion,” she won­dered. “But once I am out there, the rest is fairly simple from there.”

Chi­nese food al­lures ex­pats like the Bradley cou­ple to get out more. “The food here is phe­nom­e­nal and we can never get back to the Chi­nese food we had back home.” They also drive their elec­tric scoot­ers in­stead of a car.

Be­ing out­side of the bub­ble means ns not only get­ting out of the house and min­gling, but also con­trib-on­tribut­ing to and in­ter­act­ing ract­ing with the so­ci­ety and en­joy­ing it. That is what hat INN helps ex­pats with. h. “When“When we first come here, we are all try­ing to find other ex­pats. ats. Because in the be­gin­ning you u are try­ing to stay in your com­fort zone be­fore go­ing out on your own to ex­plore,”xplore,” said Bradley.

Com­plex ter­rain

Bradley thinks that comp com­pared mpara­reded mparedmp ar ed to be­ing an ex­pat in other place­saces such as European coun­tries, China means more ore ex­plor­ing, adapt­ing, and com­pre­hend­ing to getet out of the bub­ble. “It“It takes a while to un­der­stand the e cul­ture and life. In the be­gin­ning, for­eign­ers can’t find Chi­nese peo­ple to answer their many ques­tions so they can learn more about the life and cul­ture bet­ter.” r.”

For ex­pats like Bradley, the chal­lenge lies in mak­ing good Chi­nese friends. She finds that a lot of Chi­nese peo­ple she knows are cu­ri­ous and in­quis­i­tive about for­eign­ers and their life­styles back in their home coun­tries. But she also re­al­izes it is dif­fi­cult to find some Chi­nese peo­ple who want to as­so­ciate with the

out­side world or are very com­fort­able work­ing with the out­side world. “It’s es­pe­cially so for my hus­band. I have met many Chi­nese peo­ple to work with through INN,” she ex­plained. Ac­cord­ing to data by global ex­pat net­work In­terNa­tions, the “ex­pat bub­ble” stereo­type might be out­dated. About 33 per­cent of the sur­veyed ex­pats say they are mostly friends with other ex­pats, and 19 per­cent with mainly lo­cals, while 48 per­cent mix with both. And for those with mostly ex­pat friends, the main rea­sons are cul­tural is­sues (44 per­cent), lan­guage bar­rier (36 per­cent) and hav­ing mostly ex­pat col­leagues (39 per­cent). For 29-year-old French Is­abel Ro­mane, it’s the “ex­pat privileges” that make it harder for ex­pats to even want to come out of the bub­ble. “It’s the English lo­gos and ban­ners on the street, and the free drinks and com­ple­men­tary food you get sim­ply for be­ing a ‘for­eigner’ [that make ex­pats feel priv­i­leged],” she said. Many for­eign­ers in­clud­ing her­self feel they are very wel­come in China. “Even though in big cities like Bei­jing, you don’t get stared at or asked tot pose for photos any more, you still feel very wel­come, be­cause­bec you’ll find the Chi­nese peo­ple want to make friends withw you and are ‘proud’ to have for­eign friends.” Ro­mane had lived in other coun­tries be­fore com­ing tot China in 2016. She feels that the bub­ble is es­pe­cially promi­nentp here. She noted that one of the rea­sons is that there’st a big ex­pat pop­u­la­tion, mak­ing it easy to sur­vive with­out know­ing the lan­guage or hav­ing any local friends. AnotherA is the high de­mand for for­eign em­ploy­ees. “For­eign­ers don’t lose jobs because they can al­ways teach English,En or do ‘mod­el­ing’ jobs,” she added.

BigBiig cc­ity bub­bles

Ac Ac­cord­ing to 26-year-old Amer­i­can Michael Kurtagh, it’s a dif­fer­entdi ifffffff­fer case for in­ter­na­tional stu­dents.

“It “It’s a lot bet­ter since you have class­mates from other coun­tri­esco ount and have a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­ter­act with peo­ple out­side­out­si­dou of the bub­ble. For for­eign­ers work­ing in China it’s a lot ea eas­ier to get stuck in the bub­ble because you might be in an all English-speak­ing en­vi­ron­ment,” he said. Kurtagh ma­jors in eco­nom­ics and has been in China for three years.

“For me I never re­ally was in the bub­ble, from the start I reached out to na­tive Chi­nese and peo­ple from other coun­tries rather than lim­it­ing my­self to Amer­i­can or other West­ern friends,” he said. Like many peo­ple here, Kurtagh be­lieves that it’s im­por­tant to get the real ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing in an­other country, and be­ing inside the bub­ble puts a limit to what ex­pats can see and un­der­stand.

But he does know a num­ber of for­eign­ers who choose to stay inside. Most of them find the cul­tural dif­fer­ences too dif­fi­cult to han­dle, and oth­ers are short-term ex­pats. “Their com­pany or school forced them to come rather than because they have in­ter­ests in the country.”

Kurtagh noted that the bub­ble only forms in big cities. “It’s es­pe­cially easy to get stuck in the bub­ble in big cities like Bei­jing, Shang­hai, and Guangzhou (Guang­dong Prov­ince),” he said. He ex­plained that the big­ger cities have large ex­pat pop­u­la­tions and a lot of restaurants and other ex­pat-friendly fa­cil­i­ties cater­ing to them, while in smaller cities, there sim­ply aren’t enough ex­pats to cre­ate the bub­ble.

Break­ing out

Ex­pats in­ter­viewed by Metropoli­tan have dif­fer­ent views when it comes to whether or not the bub­ble will stay in fu­ture.

Kurtagh thinks it’s in­creas­ingly eas­ier to re­main within the bub­ble, due to the ever grow­ing sup­port sys­tem for ex­pats. “Today it’s in­cred­i­bly easy,” he said, “but 30 years ago, I imag­ine it was much more dif­fi­cult to find for­eign prod­ucts and places that catered to for­eign­ers.”

Oth­ers ar­gue that there’s a grow­ing re­sis­tance against ex­pats stay­ing in the bub­ble. Ro­mane thinks that the laowai privileges will even­tu­ally be gone.

“Ex­pats won’t be for­given merely because they are the ‘cute, ig­no­rant’ laowai any more,” she said. Only hard­work­ing peo­ple with ed­u­ca­tional back­ground and ex­per­tise in the most needed ar­eas can find their place, she added.

In the past few years, many ex­pats have been adapt­ing to the world out­side of the bub­ble while they ex­pe­ri­enced great changes in Chi­nese so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing how mo­bile In­ter­net con­nects peo­ple and the grow­ing econ­omy that of­fers more jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties to for­eign tal­ents.

Many ex­pats find the re­cent de­mo­li­tion and ren­o­va­tion of shops and eater­ies along­side the streets in Bei­jing chang­ing their life greatly. “I feel sad to see some old mar­kets and great lit­tle eater­ies gone,” Bradley said. But the bright side is that such changes push more ex­pats out of their com­fort zone, Bradley said, and new ex­pat-friendly com­mu­ni­ties are form­ing.

Bradley ad­vises to sim­ply take the first step. “If you can just get your­self out­side of the door, the rest of it will be easy. It might sound sim­plis­tic and child-like but just take your­self out­side of the door. Your sur­vival in­stinct will take you fur­ther.”

Photo: Li Hao/GT

Some ex­pats from West­ern coun­tries say that the ex­pat bub­ble is more prom­i­nent in China, due to the big cul­tural gap and the “for­eigner privileges.”

Photo: Li Hao/GT

To break out of the ex­pat bub­ble, peo­ple are ad­vised to learn the lan­guage and make local friends.

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