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5.0 - Defining the Bubble

The notion of an "expatriate bubble" has been used extensively in the liter-ature (Fechter 2007a; Butcher 2010; Jacob 2003; Haslberger and Brewster 2007; Marx 2001). It is also a term that is used by expatriates themselves and occurs frequently in expatriate media. Expatriates com-monly used it to discuss the physical and cultural spaces they inhabited, either comparing life in Shanghai with life in their home countries, compar-ing their lives with the lives of local Chinese, or uscompar-ing the spatial metaphor of the bubble to compare their own emplacement in China with that of less well-integrated expatriates. In this Chapter, I explore how these different constructions of the expatriate bubble are used by expatriates and by scholars. I also discuss its importance and attempt to link it to the ideas of expatriate liminality developed in the previous chapter.

Although many of the expatriates I talked to framed themselves in opposi-tion to the stereotypical image of the Western expatriate, very few disputed the notion that there were Westerners living very privileged lives in Shang-hai, isolated behind the walls of a compound, while engaging only with the host culture through their workplaces, through Western-friendly "local" res-taurants or as a tourist. As we have seen, postpats commonly used the example of less well-integrated expatriates to narrate their own comparat-ive emplacement - reinforcing the stereotype while presenting themselves as exceptions to it. In reality, even for those expatriates who were the most insulated from the local Chinese context, some level of economic, personal or professional integration with the host culture was unavoidable.

On the other hand, like most transmigrants, Western expatriates faced cul-tural, legal and economic barriers to integration that were specific to the local context.

Dual or hyphenated identities are common in the public discourse of many Western countries and are available to transmigrants within those coun-tries as markers for new transnational identities. It would be an oversimplification to frame these identity categories as legitimising transmigrant difference, or to argue that they negate the barriers faced by

transmigrants to the West. As Derrida points out “the silence of that hyphen does not pacify or appease anything” (1998, p 11). It does, how-ever, provide transmigrants with a political and cultural space within which to perform their difference or to challenge barriers to integration. To borrow a phrase from Obododimma Oha, those with hyphenated identities

“live on the hyphen…between lives, cultures, languages, spaces, ideolo-gies, etc.” (2005, p 259). While this may “suggest a destabilisation and an ambivalence” to Oha (2005, p 259), the hyphen also defines and legitim-ises a space within which transmigrant and minority populations can then locate themselves. These liminal multicultural spaces do not exist in the same way within Chinese discourses of national identity. Western multi-cultural discourse creates and legitimates a space for migrants within the West, but because no such space exists in China, expatriates must create one for themselves. I am conscious that I need to be careful not to con-flate the experience of migrants from the developing world to the developed world64with the experience of expatriation. Nor do I want to be interpreted as suggesting that migrants to the West have it easier than expatriates overall, merely that migrants to the West are participants in discourses of nationhood and national identity whereas expatriates are excluded from those discourses. Except in rare and probably highly context dependent cases, expatriates China’s Western transmigrants -seldom move beyond the category of foreigner, of laowai, or of outsider in the eyes of local Chinese.

On the other hand, most expatriates did not seem that interested in claim-ing a hyphenated Western-Chinese identity. The phrase "You can't be Chinese" usually carried a double meaning; communicating both a warn-ing - it's impossible to become Chinese - and an imperative - "don't try too hard to become Chinese." Those expatriates who did "go native" often became the subject of cautionary tales or jokes and were generally viewed with suspicion. The absence, within local Chinese culture, of a culturally

64. I recognise that the terminology of development tends to position “different cultures on different temporal scales: Europeans race ahead and [everyone else] is caught in a time-warp” (Armbrusterp 2010, p 1240). The terms developed and developing are used here purely because they are widely recognised cover terms.

defined space for resident foreigners and the reluctance of most expatri-ates to "become Chinese" meant that Westerners who chose to live in Shanghai were forced to define their own cultural spaces. They invented new identity labels for themselves, appropriating the local Chinese word laowai, and using English words like expat or Westerner to define a liminal space for themselves between China and the West.

Fechter refers to these social and cultural spaces as bubbles of Western-ness or “bubble[s] of EuropeanWestern-ness” (2007a, p 28). In her ethnography of Western expatriates in Singapore, Melissa Butcher, too, uses the notion of a bubble, describing it as “a comfort zone consisting of the familiar, shared meaning and in particular friends, language and humour” (2010, p 27).

She goes on to argue that “Western bubbles”, like those she documents in Singapore, are a conspicuous feature of many large Asian cities (2010, p 34). Both Fechter and Butcher see these bubbles as negotiated and per-meable spaces that are set apart from, but necessarily connected to, the local cultural context (Fechter 2007a; Butcher 2010). The academic liter-ature on intercultural management, on the other hand, often uses the term

“expatriate bubble” to refer to a zone of permanent alienation. The bubble is seen as a maladaption - a reaction to culture shock - which a “culturally sensitive and therefore efficient global manager” should be able to avoid (Jacob 2003, p 13; cf. Halsberger and Brewster 2007, p 387; Marx 2001, p 67).

The prevalence of “the bubble” metaphor in blogs and opinion pieces writ-ten by expatriates based in a diverse range of cultural and political contexts (Harvey 2012; Thompson 2013; Zinger 2013) suggests that it has significance beyond the few contexts in which it has been documented by researchers. Predictably, given the globalised nature of the expatriate labour force, the notion of an expatriate bubble was also commonly dis-cussed among Shanghai's expatriate population. Before moving on to examine how these bubbles are manifested within the physical geography of Shanghai itself, it therefore seems appropriate to consider how the term was used in Shanghai's expat media and to examine to what extent inter-view participants felt the term applied to them.

Shanghai’s expatriates often evoked the notion of an "expat bubble" to refer both to their separation from local Chinese and as a recognition of their own relative privilege. In a blog post entitled The Expat Bubble, the male head of a corporate expatriate family, living in the upmarket Jinqiao district of Shanghai, writes,

If you slurred to your taxi driver while out drinking in downtown Shanghai...and woke up in Jinqaio you would have thought that he put you on an aeroplane [sic] back to Wichita, Kansas. Many like to say that..you are in the 'bubble', protected from the extremes that China has to offer.

(Baba 2012) Ruby Gee, a Chinese American columnist for Shanghai Expat, echoes a common claim, that some expatriates never escape this bubble. She argues that for these expatriates, “Chinese faces – they're just there, to serve you at overpriced bar venues, to gape at you on the subway, and to hassle you on the streets to buy their junk” (2012). Gee points to language and cultural barriers that make it more difficult for non-Chinese expatriates to engage deeply with the “real China”. She then goes on to suggest a one-day itinerary of activities which she claims “will open the eyes of many expats who have never stopped to consciously observe Chinese society firsthand” (2012). Far from dissolving the expatriate bubble this narrative reinforces it, promoting a temporary, deliberate engagement with the local cultural context and framing China as the exotic object of a Western touristic gaze. The activities Gee suggests -buying bing65 from a street vendor, having lunch at a blue collar noodle bar or watching old people do tai-chi in the park (2012) - are all deliberately ordinary. Even in upmarket, suburban Jinqiao, perhaps Shanghai’s best-known expatriate ghetto, there are working class neighbourhoods where Gee’s itinerary is lived by local Chinese every day.

In contrast, the wealthier postpats I encountered tended to live a less separate, but still suburban existence, living in renovated townhouses in

65. Chinese savoury pancake.

the former French Concession or spacious, modern apartments in upmarket "local compounds". Less well-off expatriates usually lived in smaller two room apartments in blocky, crumbling, 1980s era apartment buildings or in shared, larger apartments. Often these apartments were also renovated and furnished, by the landlord or by the expatriates themselves, to suit Western tastes. Although they continued to patronise expatriate bars, supermarkets and restaurants,66 most postpats also regularly shopped and ate in the same places as their local Chinese friends and neighbours, not for the experience but because the quality was good and the price was competitive.

In an opinion piece for CNN travel, Shanghai postpat Edward Falzon writes,

I've lived in Shanghai for almost four years now, and... I really love it here. But many of my expat friends are still living in a bubble that is a serious departure from what one might call “true”

Shanghai. For us, RMB 50 is a cheap cocktail. For a local, that's dinner for four... but the best wontons I've eaten in Shanghai...aren't from a Bund or Xintiandi restaurant... they're RMB 16 and conveniently located 100 metres from my Luwan apartment.67

(2011) Falzon distances himself from his less well-integrated friends, who he alleges "live in a bubble", only to include himself within that bubble with the sentence that follows. By drawing an equivalence between the price an expatriate pays for something and the proximity of his/her China experience to an imagined "'true' Shanghai", Falzon conflates class divisions with cultural ones. This again reciprocates the link drawn by several of the interview participants between poverty and cultural authenticity. It is also suggestive of a common preoccupation for

66. The popularity and importance of expatriate restaurants, bars and supermarkets in the construction of expatriate bubbles is examined in Chapter 8 (pp 224-263) 67. 50 RMB is around NZ$9. 16 RMB is close to NZ$33.

Shanghai’s expatriates, amongst whom the difference between the "local price" and the more expensive "expat price" was frequently discussed.

Falzon uses his ability and willingness to cross this line to distinguish himself from less well-integrated expatriates. In this respect, his local knowledge is an enactment of a locally emplaced, but still explicitly Western, transnational identity. Falzon concludes the article with an instruction to his readers that "the Bubble must be deflated", not abandoned, cautioning them that emulating local Chinese too closely might be interpreted as condescension rather than a genuine attempt to integrate (2011).

During our interview, Ben, a lawyer also framed the bubble as both a cultural and class-based division:

On the one hand, yes we want to have our US breakfast cereal and things like that but on the other hand, it's ridiculously expensive to buy those things. If you're living in a bubble this is a very expensive place to live. But if you can get out of the bubble and pay Chinese prices for things then it's very economical. We usually talk about it, choosing which aspects of your life are going to be in the bubble. I get my hair cut at a very local place, because why pay more than ten kuai for a haircut, especially for me. Whereas my wife gets her hair cut squarely in the bubble and pays more here than she did in Washington... and the guy does a better job. I lived in Nanjing back when there was no bubble and it’s a lot of fun living the non-bubble life if you have the time and the patience. I would love to take my family, like for a year and live in a third tier city in China. My wife, I'm sure, would be totally up for the idea. The kids would get used to it. The question is how do you get off that work hamster wheel and be able to do it.

Ben's description of the expatriate bubble as a hard-to-escape and at times unwelcome economic division between himself and local Chinese illustrates a common perspective amongst corporate and newly arrived expatriates. I often heard expatriates claim that Shanghai was one of the most expensive expatriate cities in Asia or even in the world, and while

some imported foods, like breakfast cereals, for which there is still only a limited market in China, remain expensive, there is a growing market for many Western products - coffee most notably68 but ice cream and Western-style fast-food restaurants like Burger King and McDonald's are also increasingly popular. There is also a concerted and active effort by Western food importers and restaurateurs to capitalise on the Chinese association between the West and cosmopolitan sophistication, promoting wine, cheese and other Western "prestige" items as emblematic of those values.69 Consequently, many Western cuisines and ingredients can now often be found at, or even below, their Western equivalent price. Of course, as Falzon points out, there is always a cheaper local option. However, this again reflects the economic divisions in the city, as well as the cultural divisions between expatriates and local Chinese.

Ben pointed to Shanghai's International Schools as a key manifestation of the expatriate bubble, pointing out that local Chinese are excluded from enrolling in them by law. However, his suggestion that even quite wealthy local Chinese executives might struggle to bear the financial costs of sending their children to an International School70 is somewhat contradicted by the growth and increasing stratification of the private education sector in China (Deng 1997; Hannum & Park 2012; Lin 1999).

Bettina, a stay at home mother also linked expatriate integration with the

68. As of June 2013 Starbucks had 2008 locations in Shanghai or roughly one for every 10,000 residents (Starbucks China 2013). For comparison, Auckland, New Zealand has one Starbucks for every 100,000 residents (Starbucks NZ 2013).

69. In many cases this involves, literally teaching local Chinese consumers how to appreciate the product. There is a notorious advertisement which plays on video screens in the back of Shanghai's taxis, featuring Debra Melburg, the "Master of Wine" offering advice on wine appreciation in florid and boozy, subtitled English. I met one English expatriate whose job it was to travel around China delivering wine appreciation seminars for a French wine company. Cheese is also promoted in this way. While shopping in the Xintiandi Mall, I happened upon a well-attended seminar put on by an Italian cheese importer, educating Chinese consumers how to eat cheese, how to pair it with wine and so on.

70. Which, for corporate expatriates, are still often borne by their employers, as part of their expatriate package.

education choices she and her husband made for their children, It varies a lot I think. There's a lot of people that just come in to grab the money and go and they're not really interested very much in the culture. There are some people, they integrate more than others. I’ve known of people, ah, Americans who send their children to the Chinese local schools. I think I stand somewhere in the middle, my children have always gone to bilingual schools. They go to a local school with an international stream and they're learning how to write and all that. But would I say that they're perfectly integrated? No. The Chinese believe that there's no way you can learn Chinese like they do. Doesn't matter that you've always lived here, had a Chinese Ayi, always done bilingual education, so I think that's probably as far as we will go. I would never be happy living in a Chinese compound because there would be a few things about the habits of the Chinese that would bother me on a daily basis. I do love to explore but I need to go back to a place that feels comfortable and safe.

Bettina's reference to the cultural barriers to integration faced by her children, despite their age-level fluency in Chinese, again reinforces the idea that, for most expatriates, the bubble is not just a space which they choose for themselves. Bettina makes it clear that her bubble fulfils a personal need for comfort and security. However, according to her, it was also shaped and contained by the liminal space within which local Chinese locate the foreign Other.

Like Bettina and Ben, Christy saw her children's education as a key factor in the formation of her bubble,

Lots of us meet people through our kids and none of them are in Chinese local schools, so the people that we meet are necessarily foreigners and they do activities with other foreigners and so, if you don't make an attempt, things just move you in that direction. Yeah, I think we all are in a bubble. More so than in other countries I mean I never felt in a bubble in Italy or..ah, the US, or in Germany, or in France, because it's a lot easier to speak the language and the cultures are so much more similar, so I think here we're necessarily in a

bubble. But I guess you can choose how big or small your bubble is and there are things that you can do to make that bubble less artificial and less constraining. The bubble feels safe and to a certain extent, I find that challenging and think what kind of a poor, wimp are you that you need to come back to Shanghai and go, "oh my goodness. I can go to Starbucks or take my kids to that public toilet and I know it's not going to be completely horrifying" and, um... if I want to stay here another three to five years, which we do. I need the bubble. Otherwise, Ben will come home and find me banging my head against the wall.

Christy described her bubble as a cultural and social safety net, a space to retreat from China into. She not only located Western spaces within this bubble but also incorporated local spaces, such as public bathrooms, that she knew to be Western-friendly. Additionally, she implied that her bubble was fluid and negotiated, changing size depending on choice and circumstance.

Harriet, a freelance writer, also framed the size of her bubble as dependent on context, portraying it as vulnerable to rupture and occasionally requiring repair.

Maybe I just feel it more here but I definitely feel that I do live in a bubble more just in a sense of class. I'm by no means wealthy, or have a savings account or anything, but, I have friends who do and if I was in a state of emergency I have a handful of people that would be very willing to help me, and that's a kind of bubble. Occasionally that gets punctured and broken down, and I...I welcome that, and then sometimes I really don't want it to be, and I repair the tear in my bubble. I define the bubble idea as - firstly it's a mental place that I've built and maintained and then can always go to, that is, maybe even more closed off from the outside than it maybe would be in the West. It starts there and then my apartment, yeah…my desk. Shut the window. If I want it to be dark I can make it dark, or whatever, to help facilitate going into my mind. But writing friends abroad, reading about the US and Europe. Just being able to leave here mentally. Even if I can't afford to, or can't, time-wise or money-wise,

physically leave. Mentally I can always leave.

Unconsciously echoing Bucholtz & Hall's definition of Identity as "social positioning of self and other" (2005, p 486), Harriet described her bubble as an internal mental boundary, protecting her from unwanted outside influence. She frames this boundary as a pre-existing facet of her personality, which had been foregrounded and exaggerated by the experience of living in China. In addition, Harriet described her bubble as a social space, defined primarily by her "wolf pack", the fictive family she outlined in Section 2.2 (pp 43-48).

Angela, a postpat entrepreneur, also linked the exclusive, tightly bound nature of her fictive family with the persistence of her own bubble,

I slightly live in a bubble. I realise I haven't looked at the news for a week. I hate looking online, I want the paper in my hand. It frustrates me, actually, sometimes. Yeah, I suppose it's the proactive thing. It just happens without you knowing it, but, I've just realised that I don't even know what events go on in Shanghai anymore. I used to always be like there's this new thing here or there's this or that. Unless I'm cooking at it I don't know about it. Last weekend I had the first weekend off in ages so, I'm exhausted by those things and I miss the social aspect of doing that. But, therefore, the bubble thing is frustrating because sometimes it feels like it's quite hard to get out of it and to move on and to meet different friends or to have a weekend away to somewhere that you haven't been before.

For Angela, the bubble is not only a social or a cultural space. It is also defined by an absence of information, or more accurately by the unaccus-tomed inaccessibility of information within China. The mediasphere in Shanghai is perhaps even more pervasive than in some Western cities, with news coverage broadcast on TVs in the metro and with news-stands every few blocks in most commercial areas. However, because these sources are all in Chinese those expatriates who do not speak or read putonghua fluently - almost certainly a sizeable majority - are excluded from participating in the discourse. English-language media do exist of course, but they tend to be very self-referential, focusing on the expatriate