Even when expats return to their home countries, they take a piece of the East with them
His name is Rasmus Daniel Taun and he’s a “Chinaholic.” Or at least he was for the past five and a half years until a job opportunity
called him back home to Copenhagen, Denmark. In less than a week, he decided to quit his addiction to China, but that does not mean that he has had enough of it. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
“I left when I was still happy about being in China,” Taun said. “It was a good time to leave.”
Quitting his life in Beijing meant no more last-minute WeChat messages to grab dinner spontaneously, but scheduling meetings with friends days or weeks in advance. It also meant buying an apartment and creating a “normal Danish life.”
This was not something that came easily to Taun, whose “adventurous side” took the upper hand when he went from being an international student to a freelance photographer in Shanghai to a marketing professional in Beijing.
“It’s been really tough to move back,” he said. “It’s hard to describe. Nothing really changes back in Denmark. But you feel like you’ve experienced so much and then you just drop back into the same old routine.”
Never home again
According to local government data cited by the South China Morning Post, 65,000 foreign residents were living in Beijing in 2015. But that is not a stable number. The stream of international students, foreign workers and longterm backpackers flows in two directions as people are moving in and out of the country. While media reports often write about what attracts expats to China and how they go on about their lives here, they rarely follow up on what happens to them once they move back home.
Therefore, Metropolitan talked to a number of expats to trace back their sentiment toward their time in China, how it impacted them and how well they re-adapted in their home countries.
Lamiya Safarova moved back to Azerbaijan almost a year ago and says she still experiences reverse culture shock.
After studying and working as an English teacher in China for three years, she has gotten used to the convenience of internet services and mobile payments China has to offer.
“The other day my electricity went out at home. If I were in Beijing, I would use Alipay to recharge my electricity, and it would be back on in two seconds. But here, it took me hours of calling people and trying to get them to tell me why,” she said. “I was telling myself, ‘Why did I ever leave China?’ I miss it every day.”
On the other hand, she does not regret leaving China. The comfortable lifestyle was also one of the reasons that made her leave in the first place.
“It has gotten way too convenient for me. I wanted to get a little bit out of my comfort zone again,” she said.
Other reasons were the fact that she got more health conscious, valuing outdoor exercise and organic food, but saw that those needs were compromised by the air and food quality in Beijing.
What she values most about being home again is her social network of friends and family and being able to speak her mother tongue.
“Sometimes it’s good to feel like you belong,” she said.
But for her, Azerbaijan still does not feel 100 percent like home. “Once you have moved to another place, you never feel at home again.”
Old world, new eyes
For economics student Charles Robert, home is clearly in Brussels, Belgium.
He came to China for an exchange semester at Beihang University. In a matter of months, he experienced
culture shock twice.
The first time was when he arrived in Beijing. The biggest issue he had was with privacy, which started with sharing his room in the dormitory.
“There are a lot of people everywhere all the time,” he said.
He also did not like the constant change.
“Classes and exams were changing all the time, and shops were opening and closing without notice,” he said. However, he started to miss the
positive aspects of his Beijing life as soon as he stepped foot on European ground. “I was a bit depressed because for a week I was still living like I did in China – going out for dinner every day. After a week, I realized that my wallet was crying, and I couldn’t maintain the same standard of living,” he said. Abdelhak Benikhlef said he felt “homesick” after he returned to his home in Algeria. He lived in Beijing for two years where he studied and worked at the Chinese Academy of Space Technology. In his free time, he played soccer and supported the Beijing soccer team. “I left Beijing in July 2016, and now I live in my memories. I can’t forget Beijing,” he said. Even though he prefers Algerian food, weather and being with his family, he carries the things he learned from the Chinese “about handling money, hard work and respect for family” with him. “A foreigner in China is treated as a guest,” he said. After having been “the foreigner” for a long time, former expatriate Taun now pays special attention to the way foreign residents are treated in his own country. “To be more open around new people is a skill I somehow learned in China,” he said. Taun, therefore, recommends that everyone should spend a few years abroad. “It makes you see the world with new eyes.”
Confessions of former China expats about their China journey, re-integration and what “home” means to them.
Main and left: Many former expats underestimate the time it takes to re-adapt to their home country after having lived in China. Right: Benikhlef on the Great Wall Benikhlef at the Beijing Sinobo Guoan football club