The plight of a Chinese living in the 'expat bubble'

Olivia Wang
Challenge yourself further by learning the language, as communication is intrinsic to the expression of culture.
Olivia Wang

“I don’t remember how to say that. Hold on,” I complain in Chinese to my ayi as I pull up Baidu Translate, an App I unfortunately have to rely on during conversations nowadays. She makes fun of me: a Chinese woman who can barely hold a conversation in Mandarin. I wait for the technology to save me, frustrated at myself for having to struggle over some of the most basic Chinese terms that sit at the tip of my tongue.

I moved from the US to Shanghai at the age of one, and — believe it or not — Mandarin used to be my first language. I probably peaked at the age of six, while I was attending a local Chinese kindergarten. But as soon as my parents enrolled me in an international school, everyone around me spoke English constantly, and I eventually adapted, too.

Ever since then, 45 minutes of Chinese class on school days and minimal conversation in Mandarin at home have been my main methods of practicing the language, hence my lack of proficiency.

Attending international school immersed me into Shanghai’s “expat bubble,” a very accurate term referring to foreigners who live in a country and mostly make friends with each other, rarely coming out of their comfort zone to explore the native culture.

This bubble has in part formed due to the great number of expats who inhabit this city, but to an even greater degree, the prominent expat community exists because Shanghai caters so much to English speakers. With almost everything in Mandarin having an English translation (street signs, restaurant menus, or WeChat) and with an abundance of locals who are ready to switch to English, most foreigners can live comfortably within a Westernized subculture, never having to make a serious effort to learn the local language, make local friends, or assimilate into an unfamiliar environment like most migrants around the world have to.

While most foreigners can get away with their lack of familiarity with Chinese culture, life as a Chinese expat can be a bit more complicated. I am ethnically Chinese, and my stereotypical almond eyes, black hair, and atypically darker skin will prompt locals to start conversations with me in Mandarin. However, confused by my classic laowai (foreigner) accent, awkward pauses and abrupt English phrases, they usually follow up with “where are you from?”

People expect a single answer, but that is not easy for me. I was born in the US, but raised in Shanghai, so I consider China my home. Having grown up in the expat bubble, however, I feel more American than I do Chinese. Regardless of how I try to clarify, the listener is often still confused about my identity.

The confusion continues today. When my American classmates (I attend a boarding school in the US now) ask me to inform them about “my culture,” expecting enlightening facts about Chinese people, history, and norms, I can’t give them much more than superficial, textbook information. I used to make excuses for my cluelessness, blaming my parents and the international school curriculum, but the truth is that they are not responsible for being out of touch with Chinese culture. The real culprit is me, for I failed to pop the bubble and immerse myself into a culture that could help define my identity.

Regardless if you are just a tourist here for a couple of days, an expat now acknowledging the bubble’s existence, or a curious citizen of the world like me who feels out of touch with her roots, it all comes down to choice: Do you really want to learn more about this country, its culture, history and values?

It is easy to see that it is neither too late nor too difficult to learn about Chinese culture, as long as you make the effort.

Start by reading, whether it be Chinese newspapers, travel blogs or literature. These texts (even if in a translated format) will give you a glimpse into the mind and life of Chinese people.

Challenge yourself further by learning the language, as communication is intrinsic to the expression of culture.

And when you finally begin to understand what influences Chinese people’s views, values, hopes, worries and fears, you gain an accurate perspective of where they come from — maybe even where you are from.

The author is an intern at Shanghai Daily.

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