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2.1 - Friends from Distant Quarters

Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?

(Confucius & Legge 1971, p 137)

Interview participants were asked a number of questions relating to social network formation. What follows is an examination of their responses, in which commonalities, both between individuals and across the cohort as a whole, are highlighted.

Although Shanghai is a city of 23 million people and the Western expatri-ate population has grown significantly in the last ten years, several expatriates I talked to compared expatriate Shanghai to a village or a small town. Sean, the managing director of a China Advisory Business, went so far as to describe it this way:

This is a small town. This is totally an integrity based environment, as, y'know, again, I'm sure it is everywhere. But, here it's even more acute because you make one mistake around here and everyone knows it. Especially in the cir-cles I move in. Everyone knows it, and we know it very quickly.20

I frequently ran into people I knew unexpectedly at bars, at expatriate events or in the streets, and because of this, I too often found myself think-ing of Shanghai's Western expatriate population as a sthink-ingle highly interconnected, discrete and bounded community. It is not uncommon to hear longer-term postpats claim that they know every Westerner who has been in Shanghai for more than a certain number of years. In these

cir-20. Except where noted, quotes attributed to expatriates are drawn from qualitative interview. Quotes attributed to contexts other than interview have been reconstructed from field-notes.

cumstances, I would often ask if they knew one of the other long-term postpats I'd met. Nearly always their answer was a slightly disgruntled no.

I wasn't immune from this either and occasionally caught myself assuming that two expatriates with shared interests, shared nationality or even shared sexuality, could be expected to know one another, only to ask and inevitably find out I was wrong.

Of course, the opposite also occurred. For example, I first met Sarah at an expat event, in her capacity as outreach manager for Lifeline Shanghai (LLS). I had already met, and would later also interview Angus, the Chair-man of LLS and Marissa, his wife. Angus and Marissa both knew Scott, who was the Chairman of the local expatriate rugby club, the Hairy Crabs, with which Angus was heavily involved. Much later I found a story Sarah had written in a volume of short fiction published by HAL Publishing, an independent "postpat publishing house" run by some of my friends.

The fact that Sarah and I never encountered each other socially during my first year of fieldwork surprised me and is suggestive of a tendency common to Shanghai's expatriates, who, despite possessing an unusually large network of casual acquaintances, typically spent almost all their leis-ure time with a small exclusive group of close friends. Harriet, a freelance writer, called her closest friends the wolf-pack, describing them as,

a core group. There's a…I don't know…a pri-oritisation of each other, and almost needing permission to bring in new members. Which is quite secular compared to the more sort of open tribal experience in the US. The types of situations you've been - and the threat of them as well - cause a certain bond that wouldn't exist without that and Shanghai presents myriad ways and fears that make that happen very quickly. Almost for survival., like being very sick with the worst flu I've ever had in my life. I couldn't even get out of bed and calling a friend, who came and saved me. Carried me into the hospital, y'know? It's just something that makes you bond, as well as forgive for future conflicts. You also really value some of those friends, because of how long you've known them and the frequency with which friends leave. So those that are here for five years like me are up on a rung of importance

because most of them from back then have dropped off long ago. For my first year here I didn't have a group and then one formed, and this was quite international. There were two French, an American, a Swedish guy, a Cana-dian and then some British that came in and out and a couple of Taiwanese ladies that were also part of it. It had that feeling of, if you don't speak Chinese somebody can speak Chinese, or if you don't know about this law then some-body knows, if you need help with English I can help you with that. Like, 'I'm writing a resume I need help with English,' and then I'd be like, 'I can't speak Chinese and I got in a car acci-dent.' No questions asked, immediate assistance. Knowing someone and having this, 'Hey, I just met you tonight, you're cool, but if you need anything you can call.' Then a lot of people moved away, finished jobs, got sick of Shanghai, hated it, whatever. That first one was the most painful I think, as that fell apart. Then feeling a sense of bonding with those that were left even more, and really feeling at the mercy of that.

Comparing them explicitly with friendships in the West, Harriet attributed a greater instrumentality to her closest Shanghai friendships. The relation-ship she describes, in which the "myriad fears and ways" faced by expatriates both inspire and necessitate stronger networks of support, echoes a perspective common among postpats.

Harriet made the connection between "the frequency with which friends leave" and her cautiousness in forming new relationships very explicitly when we first met, warning me that her early years in Shanghai had made her wary of "investing too much" in social ties with short-term expatriates, due to the inevitable social disruption when they left again. I noticed this caution in other postpats. Whenever I met longer-term postpats they were always friendly and supportive, but in a non-committal way, wary of, and sometimes overtly resistant to my attempts to move beyond casual acquaintanceship. Some of this is certainly attributable to my role as a researcher. On the other hand, newly-arrived expatriates generally did not exhibit the same reserve and were often extremely happy to include me in their social lives.

I asked Sean what effect the high turnover in Shanghai's Western expatri-ate population had on his choice of friends. He observed that,

it doesn't make me wary, because of my per-sonality. But, it makes other people wary and I know that. I think certainly, some days you need to get away and not be in China. You need to surround yourself with friends that are, y'know, unconditional friends, and I tend to think you jell a lot faster in this environment. It was more acute fifteen years ago than it is now.

Fifteen years ago you'd run into expats and they were very extreme by nature. Everyone was looking for something, running from some-thing. Half of them were nuts. You meet a lot of very extreme individuals. You tend to bond a bit quicker because you don't have your family to fall back on. You don't have your three school mates. You don't have those structures.

So you build your own, and I find that really exciting. They become your family. You have to share everything with them because you've got no one else to share it with. I think because of that you force yourself into some very close relationships, y'know? The irony of that is, having lived here fifteen years, I've been through, probably, three to five cycles of that, where there's a group of very tight mates and none of them are here any more. They all went away, and then there's another group.

So, it's very transient, and you have to get used to that.

In contrast, Ben, a lawyer from the United States who had been in Shang-hai a year, suggested transitoriness as one reason why ShangShang-hai's expatriates were actually encouraged to meet new people:

Thought about it a lot and I think there’s some specific Shanghai things, different from say Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, you have multi-gen-erational families. Peoples tenure here tends to be short. I mean there are people who have been here for more than ten years, but I would say it's quite unusual to be here more than ten years. To be here more than twenty... we only know one family that's been here for more than twenty years. I think that's quite an unusual thing, and I would say the average is like three to five years. So there's a constant turnover. I look at our law firm. The people that went to Hong Kong that's where they're going to live,

whereas here most American companies, it's still considered a short-term rotational assign-ment and not a lifetime assignassign-ment.

Angela, a small business owner, also highlighted the transitoriness of Shanghai's expatriate population as significant:

Yeah, definitely. They become like family and then they leave. At the beginning, I made some really good friends and they happened to be here for about two, three years and I wasn't cautious about them. I was just like, let's be friends with everybody, and actually, I was lucky, y'know? All the guys are still here and all the girls have left. I miss them quite a lot.

After every single year, people leave. A little kind of cage goes over your heart and you go, 'I don't want to go through this again.' It's actu-ally reactu-ally upsetting. I've got more friends leaving this summer and in October two of my really good friends are going to leave. As a consequence, I don't meet so many friends anymore. But, also, I think when you have a relationship with someone it can be incredibly intense because you rely on that person for a lot of things. If I was back home I'd very easily go and see my family or at least have them around to be like, 'stop being so ridiculous and get on with it,' So, yeah, I think it can be much more intense and you can get close to people quickly, but, at the same time you can also lose friends really quickly.

In conversation. Olivia, an art dealer from the UK, likened discouraging the attentions of a particularly persistent newcomer to fending off unwelcome romantic interest:

I met her at a party, and she seemed really lonely, so I gave her my cell phone number. We went out drinking one time, but then she wouldn't stop texting me. I just had to start ignoring her in the end. I mean she was nice and I felt guilty about it, but I just don't need any more friends at the moment. It was like getting rid of a stalker.

Harriet, also speaking informally, expanded on what she saw as the unusual openness and helpfulness of expatriates toward other Westerners:

You might have someone walk up to you, like at a party, and ask, 'Can you recommend a gynaecologist that speaks English,' and I'd say, 'Well I haven't been to one myself but I know someone who has. Let me just call her.' That would just never happen at a party in America.

Siebe, who I shared an apartment with during my first year in Shanghai, mentioned both his own caution when meeting new people and the contra-dictory openness of many expatriates toward other Westerners:

The very first time, of course, you know some people are moving and that leaves an empty space down there, so you try to fill it up again, but what you don't expect is that this happens every six months, right, and that's something I was not well prepared for. So yes in choosing friends you have those selective criteria, like,

"Okay, you're a student. You're leaving in three months. It's been nice to spend some time with you. But, that's enough." You need a network here that you can count on in case something would happen or in case of need. That being said, when it comes to friends I don't think it's more important to have friends than it is to have friends anywhere else in the world. I just think it is important to have friends and that's it.

It's very, very easy to make friends here, because the foreign crowd will look for each other and Chinese people who are open to for-eigners, to welcome forfor-eigners, are almost dying to become a friend. So, it is easier. However, it is not as easy as in your hometown to have something sustainable, for the very simple reason that most of these rela-tions here in Shanghai are based on the short-term perspective. So, of course, it's easy to meet people and it's very easy to go out and to be friends, but it is not that easy to develop the friendship and to take it to another level and to build something deep and strong, because it takes time and this is a hub where people come and go.

This tension, between the need to make friends and the fear of losing them, came up frequently in my discussions with expatriates. Catherine, who is a stay-a- home-parent married to a Chinese citizen, compared her experience of making friends in China with going away to school:

I think one thing that happens here is you can quite often make very firm friendships. Maybe because everybody is starting from zero. It's a bit like going to boarding school or something together, and then when those people leave it can be a kind of sense of loss, so I guess if you were in a bubble and you had made these kind of friendships and those people move-on there can be all sorts of questions about identity and it can become quite difficult being here. Each time a really good friend leaves and you go through that sense of loss I kind of think to myself for a few days, I don't want to do this again, but then you do because that's life.

Ingrid, an investment advisor who had only been in China a short time when I interviewed her, also saw her friend making process in Shanghai as unusual:

I feel that here in Shanghai, you may some-times feel a connection that's more fundamental and simple than in other areas.

So, with some of my German friends, it's simply because we're all in the same boat. We all got here about the same time. We're kind of each other's life rafts in all of this, y'know? They're the people with which I can say, "What the hell's up with this? How do I do this? Why can't I do that? It took me two hours to buy a bottle of milk today." It's a very simple kind of connection. Some of the friends I have here, in a different context, we may never be friends.

That's not to say that somehow I'm less matched to the friends I have here than I would be at home. But, in New Zealand, um, factors such as profession, age, gender, other back-ground factors would be proportionately stronger and, therefore, would form blocks in me running into these kinds of people, y'know?

Here, relatively speaking, those blocks are kind of eroded and so in many ways it's a nice thing that I'm meeting people and connecting and befriending people that I would not have as many natural opportunities to connect with at home.

Faustine, another stay-at-home-parent, explained that for her there was a distinction between these early connections, who she referred to as "train-ers," and the friends she made later:

Here, when you arrive, friendships or social contacts are made very quickly because people need each other. You need someone to, ah…to discover, to adapt. It's like trainers at the beginning. Um, for me, I've been lucky. I found someone, who trained me for the Shang-hai life and for the new life here. Then you can build real friendships with people. You like the same things and everything, and then you build the friendships, Here, all the people who are already here are already trained by someone else so they need…they know what you need to feel good. So it's like, to be helpful to each other. First it's helping each other and then we build friendship.

Elaine, a postpat who self-identifies as a taitai,21 described similar differ-ences between her choice of friends in China and her choice of friends back in the US. However, she attributed the difference specifically to the Chinese cultural context:

Walking down a Shanghai street you're never going to blend in. You're never part of the cul-ture. Y'know I was in Europe over the summer last year and I was in France, people spoke to me in French, I was, y'know, in Amsterdam and people spoke to me in Dutch. Like, I could have blended in and that's never going to be the case in China, ever. So when you have friends regardless of whether they're Western or Chinese, it's important for me to be able to talk to them about that and have them under-stand. That's why I think my friends…the friends that I have in Shanghai are completely different and unique to friends I would have had in the US. It's because they're going through the same things. They're quick friendships in Shanghai and sometimes they're short and sweet. I mean, people leave after two or three years. Being here for 10 years I've seen quite a few friends leave, but I've made quite a few friends.

21. As mentioned in the introduction, taitai is a Chinese word meaning wife, which is used colloquially by expatriates to refer to female trailing spouses.

Conversely, Katie, a teacher at an international school and veteran of sev-eral expatriate assignments, observed that unusual friendships were not a feature unique to expatriate Shanghai in her experience,

Being my third international assignment, I think you will meet many, many people along the way, and often you're kind of stuck together.

Whether you like this person or not, or you have the same interests or not, you're just in the same neighborhood or you're in the same playgroup. You're friends with them, and I've found everywhere I've moved I've met a couple of people that I'll always keep in contact -where the families meet for vacations and things like that.

The sense of heightened instrumentality, attributed by expatriates to the connections they made in Shanghai, was frequently linked to practical as well as emotional concerns. Miller, a web content editor from the US, had an experience which demonstrates the utility, even the necessity, of these networks of support.

This is Miller's tale, told to me during a true Shanghai stories workshop that I co-hosted with the expatriate writers group HAL Publishing:

Miller - The first thing I remember is the traffic light, and it's blinking red, green, red, green, but it's in the middle of the intersection on the ground. It's laid out and there's shattered glass everywhere. I see the girl who I was seeing at the time sitting on a stoop outside of a conve-nience store. She's got a jacket over her, and there's someone sitting next to her. So I went into the convenience store and I bought two bottles of water, and I gave her another bottle of water. I'd been seeing her for maybe a week and a half or two weeks, and I said, "I'm sorry, what's your name again?" I knew something was wrong, but I didn't quite have it in…in my thought capacity at the time. I just knew that something bad had happened. So I called Bjorn, and he said, "Hey, Miller, you guys, ah…you guys coming back or some-thing?" '"Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah." He said,

"Okay, you guys know how to get here?" "Yes?" and he hung up, and I knew that somehow, something had not gone right in that conversation. So, I called him back, and said,

"Bjorn, I think something happened." He said,