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4.1 - 'This is China': Barriers to Belonging

Before exploring the expatriate desire for place further, it is useful to un-derstand the cultural, linguistic, economic and legal factors restricting ex-patriate emplacement within Shanghai. These barriers are revealed through an examination of expatriate attitudes to, and interactions with, the Chinese Other.

Before I even arrived in Shanghai, I was confronted with a situation which gave me a taste for just how fundamentally alien and frustrating China can

sometimes seem to expatriates. I had been invited to present a paper on my Masters research at the Shanghai International Conference of Social Sciences (Foote 2011) and had brought forward my intended arrival date in Shanghai by a month to accommodate this. However, something about the invitation letter made me suspicious, so before I paid my registration fee, I emailed a New Zealand academic who was listed as being a mem-ber of the organisational committee on the conference's website. He emailed me back and told me that although he remembered agreeing to be a part of the committee some months before, he had heard nothing about it since. Now very concerned about the legitimacy of this confer-ence, I emailed my contacts at Shanghai International Studies University to ask for their opinion. David Henry, a postpat academic from the United States, replied with three words "Welcome to China." In the following months I also heard this sentiment, which is often colloquially phrased as TIC, or "This is China", from a number of expatriates. For me, it became both a statement of resignation, an acknowledgement that I had limited control over those aspects of life in China which fell outside my comfort zone, and a celebration of my own new found identity as an expatriate. By implicitly recognising that, as an expatriate, I made a choice to live in Shanghai, and by dismissing any difficulties I might face as largely trivial, I framed myself as someone who has the necessary “intestinal fortitude”, in both senses, to stay there. I made this distinction in regard to myself, in part, because of the way I heard the phrase used by others, as a method of subtly distancing the speaker from someone making a complaint - the hardened postpat on one side of the equation and the newcomer destined for burn-out on the other. As Sean phrased it,

I think as an expat you have to be less judg-mental. Because there's so many things you can't agree with and if you obsess on them they're going to overcome you…overtake you.

I've seen it a million times and then three months later you see them, they're burnt out, they're alcoholic, and they're leaving for the airport.

It was through narratives like Sean's that the notion of TIC, and the implied mental toughness which goes with it, were often used by expatriates as a

marker of identity and a way of claiming ownership of place Not just “This is China”, then, but also "I live here. If you don't like it you can leave".

This is also often the sense in which TIC is used in expatriate blogs and online media. One blogger who lives in Ningbo explained the phrase to readers like this:

when faced by impenetrable bureaucracy and the culture of the group...Old China Hands, tell us that there are occasional experi-ences...when you must shrug and say – This is China – and move on.

(trailingspouseinChina 2012)

A forum user based in Pudong echoed trailingspouseinChina's definition of TIC, in their response to another thread on the topic.

I think TIC is a great phrase...There is so much here that cannot be explained, cannot be changed... 'This is China' means it's just the way it is. You can't change it, so you either take it or leave it, accept it or leave.

(chineseexpatpudong 2011)

The phrase "this is China" implicitly recognises these factors as outside expatriate control, and, because of this, TIC is not only used by expatriates as an act of emplacement within China but can also be seen as an act of Othering directed against Chinese culture. By emphasising difference and eliding similarity, even the positive enactments of the TIC attitude quoted above suggest that, for some expatriates, at least, the gulf between West-ern and Chinese culture is seen as unbridgeable. In Shanghai's expatriate online media, TIC is frequently used in an explicitly dismissive or derogat-ory manner. In a thread which began as a list of observations entitled "You know you are in China when...", one forum user had this to say,

We know how much effort [Chinese] people like to make... (Show up on time, leave late, whine about it; but never start, never follow through, do a half-assed job and NEVER take personal accountability, because excuses are always an option). The interface with non-Han is defined by difference, not similarity...You are foreign, and foreign is lesser, and that is self-evident, now appreciate my largesse by speaking with you, and give me what's in your pocket

because life has unfairly bestowed the wrong race with wealth and now justice will prevail TIC - where psychological dysfunction is called culture.

(Shinbone 2011)

Shinbone clearly fails to recognise that the interface between Han and non-Han is reflexive and negotiated and that by dismissing Chinese cul-ture as "psychological dysfunction" he is constructing an identity for himself which is also based on difference.

Having recognised that they were valuable within China because of their difference, many of the postpats I met framed reconciling those differences between Western and Chinese culture as, not only impossible but also undesirable. They were defiantly comfortable in their Otherness, advising newcomers "You can't be Chinese"50and viewing with suspicion those who tried. I sometimes heard stories, usually told as cautionary tales, about expats who lit off for the interior and “went native”. On one occasion, during Kiwi Drinks, a male postpat told me this story about a former acquaintance, “He really wanted to be Chinese. The next thing I heard he’d found himself a Chinese wife and was farming somewhere in rural Shaanxi province.” The same person went on to tell me about a young expat male who had interviewed for a job with his business.

He told me he tried not to spend much time with other Westerners. He lived in an apart-ment with an elderly Chinese man, and spent most of his time with him because he said he found him ‘intellectually fascinating’. I asked him, ‘how Chinese do you think you are?’ and he said, ‘Oh, only about half.’ Only about half?!

You're not Chinese at all.

Expatriates who would like to assimilate, however, continue to face signi-ficant barriers to legal and cultural integration. As we have seen, immigration is usefully viewed as a rite of passage, but one which may, in the case of Shanghai's expatriates at least, actually be impossible to com-plete. China's immigration law has historically left very little space for

50. Or, as Elaine phrased it on p 34, "you're never going to blend in."

those who wish to make the country their permanent home. A permanent residents visa does exist but, while a 2015 policy change was intended to make this visa simpler to get, the lack of transparency and consistency surrounding the application process has meant that only a tiny minority of even long-term expatriates are motivated to pursue the so-called Chinese green card.

Indeed, immigration policy changed so frequently and was so inconsist-ently enforced during my fieldwork that most expatriates relied heavily on their employers to handle the visa application process for them. This was also a site of significant stress for Shanghai's expatriates. The constantly shifting policy landscape and the fact that local Chinese staff rarely stayed in the visa specialist position for long, meant that those tasked with visa renewal were often only marginally more well informed about the applica-tion process than the expatriates themselves. This, combined with the tendency of some employers to try and bend visa rules when it suited them as well as the more fluid and negotiated bureaucratic culture of China more generally, gave the legal space occupied by Shanghai's expat-riates a highly contested, and, therefore liminal feel.

Moreover, contemporary Chinese definitions of national identity are in most cases still linked to a racialised conception of Han identity, based on narratives of "biological descent, physical appearance, and congenital inheritance” (Dikötter 1994, p. 404). Farrer quotes one Chinese academic as having told him that, "For most Chinese it is impossible to imagine a foreigner ever becoming Chinese" (2010a, p 1217). This racialised under-standing of Chineseness also characterised the reasons given by several of the interview participants for their own lack of integration. In attributing her place in Chinese society to an inability to "blend in" (p 34), Elaine iden-tifies her phenotype as a central and unalterable aspect of her difference.

Ben also pointed to phenotype as a barrier to integration, It's certainly hard, because you can't look at someone in America and immediately know whether they're American, but you assume everyone you see is American because Amer-ica has very diverse people that live there.

Whereas if you look at me you immediately know that I'm not Chinese.

For expatriates whose children were born in China, have grown up there, or will do so, these barriers to belonging often take on an additional signi-ficance. Bettina discussed the potential effect on her own children during our interview,

Okay, let's say, instead of moving to China I moved with my young children to Australia and we lived there all the time. Eventually, you would consider my children Australians. They would consider themselves Australian. Born overseas, but Australian. It doesn't matter how long we live in China or how well the children read and write the language and how well you can speak. They'll never turn into Chinese, right? Not just for the physical features. They'll just not be considering Chinese because it's like oil and water we can be next to each other but we don't really mix…deeply.

As I argued earlier, "whiteness" is often linked in the Chinese cultural ima-gination to foreignness and to the West. In Xinjiang province, in north-Western China, however, phenotypical divisions between foreigners and Chinese citizens are much less clear cut. A "white" Australian friend of Fei's was sometimes asked, while cycling through rural China, if he was Chinese and, even in Shanghai, I frequently saw Uyghur street hawkers who were phenotypically indistinguishable from the Western expatriates they were trying to sell to. On the other hand, as one expatriate pointed out to me, "Uyghurs are not really seen as Chinese by Han either, are they?"

The notion of hyphenated identity, evoked by several of the interview parti-cipants, reflect a Western understanding of multicultural nationhood not shared by many Han Chinese. China lacks the history of mass migration from outside which characterised the development of multiculturalism in most Western nations, and until recently internal migration was also tightly controlled. This meant that, prior to reform, China's fifty-five official minor-ity ethnicities were geographically as well as socially marginal figures for the majority of local Chinese, and, despite the growing visibility of some of these minorities in large cities like Shanghai, that marginality remains (He

2005; Fong & Spickard 1994). The same is true for recent migrants from outside China, and, although expatriate marginality is usually softened by privilege in Shanghai it is also often complicated by it. With very few exceptions,51 expatriates were overwhelmingly drawn from countries where they were part of the majority, the centre against which multicultural diversity was defined. By coming to China, they placed themselves on the other side of that dialectic. The statement "you can't be Chinese" is, there-fore, probably best viewed as a reaction against this unaccustomed, permanent but uneasy liminality and not only as an expression of the frus-trated desire to assimilate culturally or be allowed to assimilated legally.

Sean's assertion that expatriate complaints were often counterproductive reflects a common point of view among postpats. During her interview, Harriet explained why she and her peers found the frequent complaints of some expatriates annoying,

If you just vent about how much you hate China, pretty quickly somebody in my core group who have been here a long time is going to say, "Why are you here?" or, "What do you want to do about it?" or "What can we do about it?" "Shut Up." You're making it about China"

Because schlocking it off on to the fact you're in China is getting further away from the solution.

Like Harriet, Susan described the majority of expatriate complaints as counterproductive, “I get so sick of listening to other expats bitching about the spitting, the noise and the honking. It’s not as if any of us has to be here. Everyone who is here made a choice to come.” This notion that expatriate is by definition a self-selected identity also came up at one of the Bumps and Babes seminars on air pollution. Having patiently respon-ded to a large number of very similarly worrespon-ded questions, along the lines of, "How can I best protect my child from pollution?", the American-born paediatrician who was taking the seminar told her audience, "If you're

51. I met several African-Americans for example, as well as a small handful of Maori and Pacifica expatriates. I touched on how their experience of expatriation differs to that of phenotypically white Westerners earlier in this chapter. Regrettably a more in-depth analysis of those differences is beyond the scope of this research.

genuinely concerned about it, perhaps you should leave China. At least, you have a choice. Most Chinese people have no choice at all."

Expatriates bring to China an understanding of mannered behaviour rooted in their own cultural norms and are acculturated to regard violations of these norms as rude, unclean or even uncivilised. Public spitting, push-ing in line, anxieties about bargainpush-ing, shoutpush-ing and even the unhurried saunter of local Chinese pedestrians were common topics of complaint for newly arrived and corporate expatriates. Air pollution, food safety issues, and lack of personal space also constitute very visible differences between the social geography of Shanghai and the experience of living in most Western countries. In contrast to those postpats whose cosmopolitan attitudes towards cultural difference represent a claim of urban citizenship in Shanghai, the corporate and newly-arrived expatriates I encountered were typically much more vocal about those differences, often with little regard for who might be listening.

During a dinner with an English-speaking local Chinese friend, Twila and Sally, both recently arrived, short-term expats, started having a conversa-tion about Shanghai Metro etiquette. "I hate it when they just start pushing on before everyone's off the train," Twila told us. “When people don't wait to let me off I’ve just started pushing back,” Sally replied, "The other day I had to shove about five people back out onto the platform just to get off the train." Twila continued, “I don't understand Chinese people some-times. I was on the metro the other day, and I got up to give a little old lady my seat. Some guy with a kid just pushed in and took it. I was really angry.” I’m not sure how Melody, our Chinese friend felt about this. She didn’t say much and I felt distinctly uncomfortable for her. I found myself defending the man with the baby, or even Melody by proxy, saying “I get the feeling children are the cultural priority here." Suddenly it struck me that this was a conversation from which Melody was effectively excluded and that what we were doing was essentially the same as talking about her as if she was not there.

I brought this story up with another expatriate acquaintance, an academic from America who had been in China for many years. In response he told

me a story about a former colleague of his who became well-known for a similar disregard for the feelings of his Chinese coworkers:

he used to come into our offices... in those days we Westerners each shared an office with a Chinese colleague, and he’d say something to them like, 'No offence but,' before turning to me and saying something awful about 'Chinese People.' My Chinese colleague came up to me after one of these and asked me, "Does he think just because I speak English I'm not Chinese?’

Cultural differences are also magnified and complicated in Shanghai due to the city's exceptional size. Overt public spitting, while not as taboo in China as it is in the West, is certainly considered indelicate by many local Chinese. Despite this, it was not unusual for me to see several, often quite ostentatious, acts of public expectoration on the twenty-minute walk from my apartment to Jiangsu Rd Metro Station during the morning rush hour. Public spitting was also a common topic of complaint for newly-arrived and corporate expatriates, many of whom characterised it, and other acts considered rude or odd in the West, as representative of the Chinese culture or people as a whole. The fact that I typically walked past at least five hundred local Chinese on the journey to Jiangsu Lu, however, suggests that the spitting I observed may have been the exception rather than the rule, and is as likely to have been an expression of individual agency or a minority norm. Moreover, much of the behaviour which newly-arrived and corporate expatriates often described as rude or annoying was also seen by the wealthier local Chinese I spoke to as uncultured and attributed by them to peasants. The frustration expressed by expatriates at aspects of local Chinese behaviour is therefore often also an issue of class. Those doing the spitting were usually not censured by local Chinese onlookers and, because these incidents confirm existing Oriental-ist understandings of Chinese culture, the popularity of cultural explanations among newly arrived and corporate expatriates is understandable.

Shanghai's large population also means that, even if expatriates actively avoid the local Chinese population, some degree of contact is difficult to

avoid. Even those expatriates who lived in gated compounds in Pudong or Hongqiao - popularly considered to be among the least well-integrated expatriates in the city - interact with China on some level, if only through their driver, their Ayi, or their building maintenance man. Revealingly, when I asked the focus group of trailing spouses, all of whom lived in expatriate compounds in Pudong, what things they disliked about living in China, interactions with domestic staff and service people were among the most common areas of complaint. Katie, a serial expatriate, who had worked in Germany and Japan, explained how her discomfort at having service staff conflicted with her sense of who she was as a person:

for me, it's a bit of trust when the Ayi is cleaning my house and maybe it's just me, but I've never had a helper in my house. When she's upstairs and I'm downstairs helping with homework, although, I don't have diamonds all over my room it's just somebody in my house and do I trust them? I'm trying not to be that way because she's never done anything. It's been something I've never experienced because I'm a very trusting person and I feel I have a lack of trust in China.

In my view, the mistrust Katie describes, and the related feelings of guilt reflect her own awareness of the gap in wealth and opportunity between her and her Ayi or driver. Given her presentation of self as a well trav-elled, open-minded, trusting person, it seems unlikely that her distrust is the product of racial or ethnic stereotypes but is instead a projection of class. Katie is worried about theft, not because she or her family have too much - no "diamonds all over the room" - but, implicitly, because her Ayi has so little. In her response to Katie, Anais, a trailing spouse from France, also expressed an awareness of this gap in wealth and opportun-ity between her and her Ayi:

for example, my Ayi. It was not easy for her when she started in my home - with all the fur-niture, we have two children, we have a dog, we have a lot of food. For her, it's very sur-prising, and perhaps she would like to have the same, or not, I don't know.

When I first arrived I also found the presence of our Ayi in my home deeply unsettling. She spoke no English, and before I met Fei I had no way to