Cul­tural limbo

Af­ter liv­ing in China for years, some ex­pats feel they do not fit in at home or abroad

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - FRONT PAGE - By Liu Meng

When 48-year-old Amer­i­can Daniel Mal­don­ado went back to visit his home­town in New York City, he did not feel re­lief from home­sick­ness. In­stead, he suf­fered from a long­ing for China – “miss­ing China syn­drome.”

“I missed Chi­nese food and needed to con­stantly go to China Town. It is not the same food, but it is the same taste,” said Mal­don­ado, who has been a col­lege teacher in China for eight years.

For Mal­don­ado, hav­ing a Chi­nese wife has sped up his as­sim­i­la­tion into Chi­nese so­ci­ety. But he has not been as mes­mer­ized by lo­cal cul­ture as he ex­pected, and he is still a laowai, a word whose mean­ing he does not like.

“In New York, when I get pissed off, I raise my voice, and New York­ers don’t care. But in China, Chi­nese peo­ple look at me,” he said. “I “I have al­ways felt alien­ated ed and be­tween two worlds.” Re­cently, a com­edy video ti­tled No

body dy cares that you lived in Asia re­leased on video-shar­ing video- shar­ing web­site bili­ on Jan­u­ary nuary 15, has be­come pop­u­lar. In an ironic nic and ex­ag­ger­ated way, it fea­tures two o Amer­i­can men who re­turned to New ew York from China.

In the five-minute-long fi­fi­fi­five- minute- long video, one man an said to the other that he is hav­ing trou­ble ou­ble “com­ing back” and even re­sorted to see­ing a ther­a­pist about it. They both felt t that New York is nice, but they just miss iss feel­ing unique in China.

They were shar­ing their sad­ness when hen two Chi­nese girls walked past. They hey ex­cit­edly fol­lowed the girls, try­ing to show off their Chi­nese in front of them em to at­tract the girls’ at­ten­tion. In the end, d, when the girls com­pli­mented the two Amer­i­cans say­ing, “Your Chi­nese is good,” they fi­nally re­trieved the “unique feel­ing” they de­sired and even burst into tears in each other’s arms.

China’s fast eco­nomic growth and plethora of job op­por­tu­ni­ties keep at­tract­ing for­eign work­ers to the coun­try. Al­though they are fi­nan­cially se­cure, some of them have found that they are get­ting con­fused about their iden­tity. Like Mal­don­ado and the guys in the video, many ex­pats get stuck in a cul­tural limbo. Liv­ing here for years, they can­not iden­tify with Chi­nese peo­ple. But at the same time, they feel they can no longer fit in with their own cul­ture. Met­ro­pol­i­tan talked with sev­eral ex­pats who share their sen­ti­men­tal nos­tal­gia and ways to bet­ter blend into the lo­cal cul­ture.

Caught in be­tween

Liv­ing in Bei­jing for 10 years, David, an Amer­i­can who works as a man­age­ment con­sul­tant, said he is equally ap­pre­hen­sive about whether he can eas­ily fit back into his own cul­ture.

China has changed some of his per­spec­tives, for ex­am­ple, the value at­tached to the fam­ily.

“The con­cept of fam­ily does not mean only par­ents, spouses or chil­dren. It ex­tends to grand­par­ents, in-laws and much more. This has such a big im­pres­sion on me that I would per­haps not fit into the very nu­clear fam­ily con­cept in the US,” he said.

With poor Chi­nese skills, David of­ten en­coun­ters cross-cul­tural con­flicts and prob­lems. At work, his Chi­nese col­leagues and even ex­ter­nal agen­cies do not re­ply to his emails or mes­sages if the an­swer is a “no.”

“To me, it means they are ig­nor­ing me. But in their mind, it is a po­lite way to avoid con­fronta­tion,” he ex­plained.

In meet­ings where David is the only for­eigner, his col­leagues lis­ten to his sug­ges­tions with­out any re­ac­tion. They lis­ten ex­pres­sion­lessly and hardly act on his rec­om­men­da­tions. He said that over a pe­riod of time, it be­comes frus­trat­ing and of­ten forces him to re­main quiet.

David said he also seems to be los­ing his sense of hu­mor and wit in China. He has for­got­ten how to laugh loudly at lu­di­crous jokes or im­press oth­ers with his sense of hu­mor as he did in his home coun­try. His col­leagues just do not ap­pre­ci­ate or per­haps un­der­stand his jokes.

“I guess hu­mor is per­ceived dif­fer­ently here. I have to con­trol my­self in China,” he said.

“I find fifind my­self keep­ing my feet in two boats at the same time, the Chi­nese cul­ture on one side and my coun­try on the other. I some­times feel I am half-Chi­nese and half-Westerner. half- Westerner. I have been trans­formed.” Mal­don­ado agreed with David. He said that some­times he does not feel en­tirely ac­cepted by Chi­nese so­ci­ety. But whether he is ac­cepted or not, he does his best to eat in Chi­nese, think in Chi­nese and feel in Chi­nese.

“Now I find my­self in sports root­ing for China over the US. I think it means I’m proud and fi­nally adapt­ing,” he said.

Not quite Chi­nese

“If some­one wants to adapt to the cul­ture of any other coun­try, he or she has to sac­ri­fice a lot of things from his or her own cul­ture,” said Fazal Ilahi, a 24-yearold Pak­istani who is in his sec­ond year of study­ing Chi­nese at Bei­jing Lan­guage and Cul­tural Univer­sity.

Ilahi said he spent al­most 22 years adapt­ing to his own cul­ture, and it is very dif­fi­cult dif­fif­fif­fi­cult for him to adapt to an­other cul­ture in just two years.

“When you adapt to any cul­ture, or you try to fit fi­fit into a so­ci­ety that is to­tally dif­fer­ent from your own, you will try to es­cape from your roots, and in the end, you for­get who you are and where you are from. And when peo­ple re­turn to their so­ci­eties, they face a lot of prob­lems to set­tle them­selves,” he said.

Ilahi be­lieves that lan­guage learn­ing plays an im­por­tant role in caus­ing ex­pats to feel con­fused about their iden­tity. Lan­guage learn­ing af­fects afff­fects your mind, your think­ing style and your ap­proach to life, he said.

“Ev­ery year thou­sands and thou­sands of stu­dents come to China to learn the Chi­nese lan­guage. When they learn the lan­guage, this di­rectly af­fects afffffff­fects their

mind,” m he ex­plained.

On the on­line con­ver­sa­tion c fo­rum Red­dit, a for­eigner named Blaze Miskulin, posted a com­ment un­der the topic of cul­tural limbo, say­ing that as a sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can, he feels that Amer­i­cans do not ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing in a cul­tural limbo as much as those from other coun­tries.

He said, “Over the years, I’ve talked with and be­come friends with a fair num­ber of im­mi­grants (to the US) from all over the world, and the feel­ings they ex­press seem to be the same. They re­mem­ber where they came from. They’re proud of where they came from. They hold on to many as­pects of their cul­ture, but they are ‘ ‘Amer­i­can’ Amer­i­can’ or ‘Cana­dian.’ ‘ Cana­dian.’ A for­eigner could live in China for 50 years, and I don’t think they’d ever be ‘Chi­nese.’”

David said he could not agree with the com­ment more. He said that it might be eas­ier to fit fi­fit into a coun­try that has di­verse cul­tures.

“The US is a boil­ing pot for difff­fer- dif­fer­ent cul­tures whereas China opened up to for­eign cul­tures just a few decades back,” he said.

“I per­son­ally think that it would be im­pos­si­ble for an Amer­i­can or a Westerner to fully im­bibe Chi­nese cul­ture in the true sense. It is a mat­ter of an in­ter­na­tional mind­set that is flex­i­ble flflex­i­ble and broad-based ver­sus the Chi­nese mind­set, which is deeply rooted in tra­di­tional cul­tural val­ues.”

Feel­ing less and less nos­tal­gic

David said his long stay in China is owed a lot to his adapt­abil­ity to Chi­nese cul­ture. He has worked in sev­eral Chi­nese com­pa­nies, has a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the lo­cals, and has been a part of their fes­tiv­i­ties, baiju (Chi­nese white liquor) par­ties and other cul­tural events.

But in his opin­ion, this adapt­abil­ity is more for sur­vival than chang­ing his psy­che or the way he thinks.

“I love China and Chi­nese cul­ture, but there is some­thing of the West­ern world in me, which won’t leave me so eas­ily,” said David. ““One One half of me is lost in the China years. I even started look­ing like a white Chi­nese with blonde hair. I don’t be­long any­where. Some­times China at­tracts me, some­times I feel like run­ning away.”

Nowa­days, David prefers to go with the flow. He is not sure about his next step, to stay in China or re­turn to his home coun­try. Josh Bern­stein, an Amer­i­can who has been in China for more than 12 years and mar­ried to a Chi­nese woman, is now in Bei­jing with his fam­ily. He said in terms of his own and Chi­nese cul­ture, he feels he fits into both and the key lies in his ef­forts in try­ing to blend in with Chi­nese cul­ture as much as pos­si­ble. He said that it helps for for­eign­ers to read and watch doc­u­men­taries about China and Chi­nese cul­ture be­fore com­ing to China and that when they come, they should try to make friends with Chi­nese peo­ple. “I “I stud­ied about China be­fore com­ing. I have a Chi­nese fam­ily and hope to stay in China long-term. long- term. I al­ways try to learn and take part in all dif­fer­ent parts of Chi­nese life and cul­ture,” said Bern­stein. Mal­don­ado is more re­laxed to­ward his cul­tural nos­tal­gia. Be­ing mar­ried to a Chi­nese woman for eight years, he has felt that the longer one lives in one sin­gle place, the longer one adapts to it.

“There’s a point when you have to ‘man-up’ and say, ei­ther I let the nos­tal­gia bother me or I ig­nore it. I choose to ig­nore such feel­ings be­cause I get a greater sat­is­fac­tion of love from the peo­ple around me. I learn some­thing in this coun­try al­most ev­ery day,” he said, adding that learn­ing the lan­guage, fall­ing in love with a Chi­nese woman or man, and trav­el­ing around the coun­try can all help one feel more cul­tur­ally ac­cepted.

Ilahi is also op­ti­mistic about fit­ting in bet­ter with the Chi­nese cul­ture. He said that the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has started a lot of projects to pro­mote Chi­nese cul­ture.

“The big ex­am­ple is the Belt and Road ini­tia­tive. The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment is do­ing their job very well, which will open a new era to show­case the Chi­nese cul­ture to the world,” he said.

“Chi­nese so­ci­ety is chang­ing lit­tle by lit­tle. The more China be­comes a plu­ral so­ci­ety, for­eign­ers [if [ if they are open-minded] open- minded] will feel nos­tal­gic less and less,” said Mal­don­ado.

Photo: VCG

Many ex­pats say they get stuck in a cul­tural limbo af­ter work­ing and liv­ing in China for years.

Photo: IC

Some ex­pats say that learn­ing Chi­nese, mak­ing friends or fall­ing in love with lo­cals and trav­el­ing around the coun­try can help for­eign­ers feel less and less nos­tal­gic.

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