China Business

Expat Stress

expat stress

This post is by Morgan Dolan, who studied in China and now works there. Morgan majored in Anthropology.

For anyone who has been abroad in China the catcalls of “laowai” are an inescapable part of life. There is not a day that goes by where the average expat is not reminded in some way that they are in fact an alien. It may be through the language, the nuances of inter-personal communication or the veils of business and bureaucracy. But there is no getting away from one’s foreignness in China.  Numerous years nor countless business ventures can make that ever go away.

The thing is that having children point at you as you walk down the street actually gets to you. When strangers take the time to comment on the whiteness of your skin or the bushiness of your beard, it acts as a stress to your system. It is one of the key things that makes working abroad difficult. Like stress contributes to a heart-attack, this type of stress contributes to mounting professional problems for expats in China.

Minority stress, as it’s called, has physical consequences. In a study of dominant and non-dominant macaques, researchers found that the dominant macaques in the troop lived years longer than the non-dominant monkeys. When their bodies were autopsied, the arteries of the dominant monkeys were clear as a whistle, while the non-dominant monkeys had arteries that looked like sewer pipes filled with nearly 50% sludge (Unnatural Consequences, 2008).

This stress invades business because it compounds all the other problems that one can run into. Making things that are just par for the course of doing business in China (bureaucracy, slow downs around Chinese New Year, difficult negotiations) seem all the more dire. Chronic stress can turn into irritability and headaches. What negotiation or trip to a government bureau is made better by either of those two things?

I’ve seen business negotiations between Chinese and International sides go sour to the point where the expatriate team is ready to throw in the towel because they are positive the Chinese partners are impossible to deal with. I’ve also seen expats get tired of the difficulties in communicating with their staff and read to strangle someone after dealing with a government bureaucracy. Big companies seem to account for all this by, among other things, offering generous vacation time to their expat staff based in China. But smaller companies and individuals usually get none of this. Anyone who has spent time in China knows a handful of “burn-out” expats who talk of little else but leaving.

Solutions to minority stress management begin with acknowledging its existence. Anticipating employee burnout and building a structure to deal with it will minimize the damage. On the small scale, individuals in China can increase their effectiveness at tackling problems by incorporating healthy habits of general stress management. These include: taking time to blow off steam, getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising. So often these fall by the wayside in the face of strict deadlines, long hours and highly social dinners.

Expat stress in China is real and accounting for the effect that one’s foreignness can have on well-being is a no-brainer. Anything less is the equivalent of going to China and expecting it to be the same as back home. As anyone reading who reads this blog knows, that is the first ingredient for failure.

35 responses to “Expat Stress”

  1. No one catcalls “laowai” or comments on my complexion here in Shanghai. Get real. The most difficult and intractable part of daily life for this foreigner living in China is dealing with other foreigners and their superior attitude.

    • “Laowai” is certainly not uncommon in Beijing. Perhaps not a catcall, but I certainly have felt like a circus animal at times in China with kids pointing and laughing. (Admittedly unlikely to happen in commercial areas and places with lots of foreigners.) But, the main frustration is that as a non-Chinese, I can never be Chinese, or practice law in China (ie. arguing cases in Court) or be treated the same as Chinese legally or within society. I am fully cognizant of the many, many benefits of being a foreigner in China. Sometimes though it is frustrating as hell. In contrast, it is very feasible (although difficult) for Chinese to become, say, American.

    • Shashibiya… no one cat calls Laowai in Shanghai? That’s about as far separated from reality as someone can get. If you understood Shanghai dialect, you’d’d have a very different idea about what they think and say here in Shanghai. I’ve been in Shanghai since 1995 and I have heard far, far, far worst things than “laowai”

    • I’ve been all over China, and it’s the same everywhere. The “laowai” label is definitely thrown around in a very nonchalant way.

  2. Very helpful. I’ve always felt like an outsider here and the stress does get to me. The fact that I am an African-American and live in a second tier makes things worse. I do not think the expats living in Shanghai or Beijing can understand what it is like for us in the second and third tier cities. I think it’s great you are bringing this to everyone’s attention.

  3. I can relate to the sentiments expressed. During my 3 years in China, I
    accepted I would always be considered an outsider, that my way of
    thinking would differ from the Chinese, that I was a guest in the
    country and should express no opinion on Chinese politics, religion or
    culture. I treated everyone with respect, tried to learn the language
    and when I heard the word “laowai” or ‘waiguoren’ I was not offended. I
    know that what the Chinese people thought of me was a reflection of
    themselves and not of me.
    Above all, patience, tolerance and acceptance provided the foundations for my stress-free time in China.

    • A rebuttal to Morgan Dolan from an Unstressed Expat in China…
      Let’s face it, China is on the other side of the world from America. It’s culture is far different from ours. It’s people are indoctrinated, from childhood, with many, many traditional beliefs that are opposite to ours. Even though it’s major cities look similar to ours, complete with Walmart and KFC, it’s people are really different.
      The Chinese live in a very competitive, survival society. Most Chinese you will meet, are much more stressed out than you are. And they will envy you, perhaps even feel a bit inferior to you, and yearn to learn more about you and your background. The only real exceptions to this are the super smart students who have studied abroad. And most of those scholars would have stayed away and never returned, because of the freedom they had a chance to experience for the first time in their lives. But family obligations and demands brought them home, again to China.
      Most Chinese have no concept of freedom. Their parents and grandparents beat then into compliance, often brutally, from birth. They are forced to learn to write thousands of Chinese characters when they are still very young so that they can read the language. Can you imagine, memorizing characters is like memorizing numbers in a phone book, and most students memorize at least 6,000 before they ever go on to middle school. This is because reading, for them, is so essential. It is the only real form of communication they have, because of all the many different subcultures and dialects. Express an interest in any city dweller and they will tell you amazing stories about hardship and survival. Go to the country and you will experience it first hand.
      We, on the other hand, come from an identity society. Loving care is usually showered upon us from birth. Even American dogs and cats are well cared for. We usually have it so easy that we can never relate to the stories told by the Chinese about starving and being grateful for a handful of rice.
      China is an amazing country! Just like any other country you visit, and you can experience it as stressful and foreign. Or you can experience it as an adventure full of excitement and interesting new things to learn about. With a little practice, you can control how you feel because you can choose the thought that makes you feel good or bad. You can be an optimist and feel thrilled, or be a pessimist and feel worried, in any given moment.
      Yes, the Chinese are tricky and untrustworthy in many ways. They are all born to haggle in a survival society. But, they can be warm wonderful, devoted friends, as well. I am an American, married to a fantastic, super smart Chinese wife, from a poor village. She is extremely unlike my previous wife, deceased, who was American. Yet she is the light and joy of my life, and I appreciate her completely. I have been to 105 countries, 22 with her, and I have lived in China for ten years. My life is an adventure, and I love the Chinese people, different as they are.
      My perspective is very different from Morgan’s because I have a Masters in Psychology rather than Anthropology. His article is valuable and gives us important observations. I simply want to remind you, that if you are dealing with the Chinese you need to lighten up, get plenty of sleep, and be ready for anything. In the final analysis, if you aren’t having fun you are doing it wrong.
      I have read and enjoyed the China Law Blog, since it’s beginning, and honestly I have never found better advise on doing business in China. Thank you Dan!

      • “Most Chinese have no concept of freedom. Their parents and grandparents beat then into compliance, often brutally, from birth.”
        I am not so sure about this. It seems to present freedom as something tangible, or at least western. Anyone Chinese above the age of 27 or so will have seen fantastic changes in their life, and have a great deal of freedom, especially in comparison to the past.
        Beatings administered to children, often brutally and starting at birth? I am certain that there are a great many Chinese who are showered with loving care from birth.

  4. Ive spent most of my life living as an Expat in Asia and the biggest thing I notice is the unwillingness of people to try and integrate into society. I always respect and honor the traditions and culture of where I am at. I try and minimize my westerness by dressing and acting as local as possible. Learning enough of the language to be functional. I see so many Expats that attach themselves to the Expat circle of life that exists in most countries, never immersing themselves in the culture of thier new country.

  5. It has been quite enlightening [if not ‘enwhitening’] to be in China. It may come close [the degree of closeness is quite arguable] to being black in the United States. Except in the US the racism [colorism, if you will] is far more pervasive, and hate-filled and omnipresent. In China weeks go by without me being reminded of my foreignness while in the US racism happens everyday in every way towit: Richard Sherman as thug [the NFL has been ‘thuggish’ since it decided to play their games two days after JFK was murdered. The racism and ‘superiorism’ voiced by many white Euro-American [usually Anglo i.e. English, American, Australian] foreigners is both more offensive, and much more malignant, than the “oh wow mommy! laowai” of Chinese kids or the rather benign, by American race discourse standards, comments or eyebrow-raisings of adult Chinese. And I second Paul S’s observation that Africans [American or otherwise] are disliked, or at the very least ‘disvalued’ due to their color though not, [I think but could be wrong] hated in the way US Confederates do, but not being African I won’t defend my observation as anything other than my personal read of another’s prejudice.

  6. I have owned and operated a small factory in a third tier city for over five years and so the points Morgan raises are highly relevant to me here. It helps that I work with my wife, but she is Japanese and so when the anti-Japanese sabre rattling occurs, as it does regularly, we feel even more alien. At those times we feel like German Jews in about 1936. But it is important to keep it all in perspective. There are a couple of points I would like to add that might help those in our position.
    It is important to look for the positives, and there are plenty. Also, while the stress of dealing with 180 degree policy shifts or arbitrary decisions by individual bureaucrats that negatively impact one’s business is real, it is important to keep this in perspective. There is always a way forward.
    For us, the hardest thing we have had to deal with was the start-up phase as the GFC unfolded, and that might have been anywhere. The cultural stuff and the unpredictable nature of the investment environment made things much tougher for sure, but when things are going well, China is not so bad. We are not macaques and we are not at the bottom of the pecking order, to borrow another biological analogy. We have the ability to rationalise our situation. We can make choices about our attitude to what happens to us, even if we have less control than we would like. In our case we are able to escape to Shanghai, which is a fantastic city and a great place to unwind. We also enjoy the rapidly improving living environment (okay, except for the pollution) around us. We now have a decent gym, a few Western coffee shops, bars and better shopping centres too, so we can see that things are on the up and up. I can now buy cheese, butter and real coffee. That helps.
    While it is hard to make real friends here, an effort to do so is important. There are some sophisticated locals with foreign experience who are equally starved of worldly company. I swap books with one guy who can talk intelligently on any subject.
    If you are a confident driver at home with plenty of experience, and if you don’t live in a major city with a good transport system, it helps too to have a licence. We could not manage without it. I drive 50,000kms a year and most is not discretionary when running a business. If I had to rely on a driver I would go nuts, not to mention ending up dead. The roads are dangerous, but not as dangerous as they need to be and half of that is you.
    Also, if you are going to be here for any length of time, learn the language. It is not all that hard when it is coming at you all day every day. The hardest part is making a start. Learn characters by looking at them and asking questions, it is not a matter of locking oneself up in a room with a bunch of books. You are in an immersion situation, so use it. I am by no means fluent because I have no time to study formally, but being able to communicate at a basic level changes everything.

  7. What Paul S. said.
    Timely. For all of Shanghai’s sophistication, the level of rude behavior directed at foreigners is unreal. I suspect those who scoff at this post limit their interactions with Chinese severely, and likely don’t speak much Chinese. During my time in China there were countless times that I truly regretted understanding what I heard in public, or among coworkers who didn’t realize that I understood what was being said.
    Also, the more “foreign” you are – a darker skinned Indian or African especially – the worse the comments, to put it very mildly. Perhaps expats who ferry from western hangout #1 to western hangout #2 by taxi won’t get exposed much, but taking the subway and bus on a daily basis (as I did for nearly three years) in Shanghai can be exhausting. One good thing: Shanghai is well beyond catcalls of “laowai” and there is a lot less staring in much of Shanghai. Beyond that though, Shanghai and Ningbo or Hefei aren’t much different in some regards.
    I am a “China guy”. When other expats wanted to call on someone who “got it”, I was their source. I lived, ate, studied and absorbed the language and culture like my life depended on it, and I fell in love with Shanghai the way romantics fall in love with Paris; madly, deeply. Despite all that, I left in anger (twice) and when I reflect, my many, many positive memories must be balanced with the toll of expat stress.

    • Well said, sadly that rudeness is intensifying on a daily basis. Disdain and outright hostility are becoming more and more prevalent here. I’ve never feared for my safety in all my years here but there’s been a marked change since the Olympics in 08′ and the nationalist chip placed on the population’s collective shoulder is not a good thing.

  8. Shashibiya… no one cat calls Laowai in Shanghai? That’s about as far separated from reality as someone can get. If you understood Shanghai dialect, you’d’d have a very different idea about what they think and say here in Shanghai. I’ve been in Shanghai since 1995 and I have heard far, far, far worst things than “laowai”

  9. I grew up in Hong Kong and spent a year in Bangkok as an adult. The catcalls in Bangkok were much worse than in Hong Kong, but maybe it had something to do with the fact that I lived there pre-handover. Thanks for this post. I really appreciate a recognition that it can be hard to deal with.

  10. Spent 14 years as an expat in 5 countries. 7 of those years were in Shanghai. Some expats, unfortunately, are thin skinned and have an unpleasant expat experience. Some other expats are arrogant and give expats in general a bad name. Better, I think, to appreciate and enjoy the differences from the home country and be thick skinned when it comes to the inevitable insults. For an interesting alternative view on how one might approach being a successful expat, read Chin-Ning Chu’s “Thick Face, Black Heart”.

  11. An insidiuous influence that increases tensions and makes life harder for expats is the CCP’s persistent use of the “victim” narrative to build support: eg. the idea that the Party saved China from the evil foreigners, and that foreigners are still trying to dupe China and so the nation must be constantly on guard to beat the threat. These sentiments are expressed most prominently in the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, but I have seen them appear in a range of encounters with locals, including many smart Chinese guys who should know better but still buy into the propaganda. While inherently evil, this meme appears to be extraordinarily effective in helping promote party support and stability. Symbolizing the importance the CCP places in the victim narrative, note that Xi Jinping’s first act as Party Secretary was to cut the ribbon at the new “100 years of humiliation” exhibit at the National Museum, attended by the full politburo. With more misunderstanding, doubt, and suspicion, we expats are inevitably under more stress, but at the same time, our work in buiding bridges and seeking common ground has become even more essential.

  12. As the only Jewish Cowboy Texan who speaks Mandarin in the world I only have to go as far as Chinatown in Houston to get cat-called and stared at.
    I will not visit a restaraunt for years, only to return with everyone remembering exactly who I am. That is the benefit of being an alien in your own country.
    I find my trips to China rather refreshing, and the few times I have lived there the only thing that haunts me is a lack of turkey bacon…
    As so many brilliant commentors have suggested – keep a good sense of humor, remember that you are in China, and take the stress with stride.
    Recal the too often over quoted Chinese saying, “读万卷书不如行万里路” {It is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books}.

  13. my God, i cant believe what a bunch of sissies the guys here are… that is already stressful to you? as an asian, im telling you.. you haven’t seen anything yet.. besides laowai is a neutral term.. unless they call you “white trash”, believe you me, there is no reason to be stressed.. its funny that this is already stressing you out.. a 10 year-old kid could probably hold it in better than you

    • “as an Asian sums it all up for you.” All it takes for you is to keep your mouth closed and blend in… Sissy? I’ve been here 19 years mate. Ain’t nothin’ sissy about that….

      • Sure there aint nothing sissy about living in a foreign place for 19 years. I couldnt bear living in europe for 3 months. But to find such petty things as stressful? I dont know about that. Thats world class sissy to me. Makes me wonder how one handles REAL stressful situations like losing ones job or losing a loved one or not being able to pay mortgage etc

  14. It’s perfectly innocent for young kids to be curious about foreigners. Same for people from small villages/towns. I understand it can occasionally be frustrating but that comes with the territory in China. You’ll have a much greater impact on the world if you attempt to behave diplomatically than to get upset about it (easier said than done–it does take practice).
    I only really get annoyed when supposedly well-educated and “worldly” types get flummoxed by foreignness. It would be one thing if they demonstrated a real intellectual curiosity about someone’s different cultural background (as I try to when I am in a foreign country) but when supposed “elites” are flabbergasted that a foreigner can use chopsticks, drink tea, or speak some Chinese, it can be pretty exhausting. It’s amazing that some people can travel the world or be educated abroad yet still maintain such a narrow world view, but unfortunately that is a universal human characteristic and not strictly Chinese. Don’t be that guy.

    • Exactly. I call myself a laowai when I talk to kids who are staring at me in fascination. If you think that laowai is a serious insult in China then you don’t know enough bad words in Chinese.
      I’m bothered by the well-educated types who seem very polite and would never call someone a laowai, but who lie through their teeth so that they can get something — usually money — out of the laowai. Talk is cheap in China — follow the money if you want to know who’s really naughty or nice.

  15. Culture stress, as I prefer to call it, brings out the worst in people. A real psychological crisis happens when people aren’t ready to deal with who they are when the worst comes out. They start dreaming of being home. They also begin needing someone to blame for how edgy and jerkish they’ve been…the obvious target of blame is the Chinese culture and system.

  16. Now you know how Aboriginals feel in Australia; Mexicans in the USA; Palestinians in Israel; Native Americans in Canada, or how about the alienation most Asians feel in many Anglo countries?; How about the treatment Blacks receive in White countries; It doesn’t feel good to be a ‘minority’ anywhere, does it?

  17. The racism in America, Australia, Israel, Eastern Europe, Latin America, England and Russia–make the racism in China seem very tame, in comparison.

    • surely my Asianlibertarian friend you jest…I’ve never seen a more racist society than China so racist in fact it’s referred to as Xenophobic.

      • I think we all need to make the distinction between three terms: 1) racist; 2) bigoted; and 3) ignorant.
        Chinese in America could be accused of racism, because they should know better. But within China, most people are ignorant of foreign culture, and therefore bigoted – not racist.
        When you live in a 96% ethnically identical nation you are likely not going to be very culturally aware or sensitive.
        As for Asianlibertarian; I proudly voted for a man to be president who I thought would do a good job – that man was black. Me and the majority of my countrymen did so without considering his complexion. Now, while I wouldn’t vote for him again, I am still proud that I live in the only nation in the world that has a white majority that would elect a darker skinned person with an African name. We all need to keep things strongly in perspective.
        I love America, and part of its beauty is the fact that anyone can become an American. We are the least racist society on earth.

    • China is incredibly racist for your information, not so much against whites this is true, but blacks, arabs and other asians are suffering very badly from racism in China, I know a guy who is constantly called “Black devil” by Chinese people, many Chinese also look down to him thinking he’s poor although he’s running a very successful business here and is likely making more money than 95% of the Chinese people in China. Without talking about the “kill the africans” days in Guangzhou or the Filipinas in Hong-Kong being treated worse than blacks during the slavery.
      So yeah, there is racism in Western countries, but nothing comparable with China, and at least in the West there are legal ways for the people suffering from racism to defend themselves, now try to go to court against a Chinese because he is harassing you on a daily basis since years just because you’re a foreigner, the judge with laugh very hard.

  18. In my experience, SH is a very different expat experience than Beijing, which has fewer expats and is generally less “Western friendly” in terms of amenities, you’re prone to more “laowais” and “waiguorens.” “Catcalls” are an exaggeration of what happens in neighborhoods of 1st-tier cities where the vast majority of expats spend most of their time–2nd and 3rd tier cities, and in suburban and rural BJ, SH, GZ, SZ etc it is a different story as folks there have not had as much exposure to foreigners.
    The article above is a bit distressing as with a bit more time–as Anthony says, with greater immersion in the language, people, and places of this country– I believe Morgan could come around from a sense of “minority stress” to greater empowerment as an expat here. Understood on the linguistic implications on repeatedly being reminded of your identity as an outsider in a foreign place, but that trauma’s not happening each time you pick up a newspaper or watch TV? Personally, I have been in situations, speaking Chinese in restaurants or government offices, having people turn around and surprisingly exclaim “laowai!” with a big smile on their face, a kind of visual high-five (so I interpret it), sometimes followed up by a “lihai,” “that’s pretty fierce.” Is this winding-me-up-style flattery or genuine respect and appreciation? Probably a bit of both–it’s usually obvious when it’s more wind-up than appreciation, and I think we’re all, especially on “China days,” quick to forget that China does not have the market cornered on patronizing jerkwads.
    One final thought: living here with my fiancee, we have had a lot of conversations about the very different experience living as a “lady-wai” than a “guy-wai” (copyright meenanke 2014). There are, in general, difficulties associated with traveling for ladies that dudes simply don’t have to deal with, and I think there is additional stressors being a “lady-wai” above and beyond those dealt with by the fellas. Would be interested to hear what other readers think?

  19. I’m a ‘Black’ British female living in Hong Kong. I can’t really comment
    on China but It’s pretty evident I ‘stand out’ more than ‘white male’
    foreigners. Granted I do receive looks which is expected and does not
    bother me now. I came to the realisation that seeing different
    ethnicities in their hometown is something to look at. Of course people
    are going to look at what is different, it happens everywhere. Some
    glance while others stare.
    On a whole I found most Asian’s to busy
    doing there own thing to be concerned with my complexion. In regards to
    conversation some are just frustrated that they cannot speak English
    well enough to communicate with you. Some people should stop having a
    pity party and just take it for what it is. Every country has negatives and positives.

  20. Wow! I’ve been in Japan for 6 years now, and he wouldn’t cut it here if hes stressed about little kids pointing at him – I’m curious how he deals with such prejudice attitudes. Kids are looking and pointing because you look different, so you should look back at them and smile, or make them laugh -give them a good impression for the expats who know how to enjoy the time, so when those same kids see us, they don’t think we are like that weird sad guy they saw before. hahaha geez.
    What I’ve heard from most people I’ve talked to who have experienced living in both countries (Japan vs. China) is that Japan is much cleaner, and Chinese people are much easier to approach, or even more likely to approach you. Living abroad is what you make of it, and I look forward to my move there for a change in culture. I’m more turned-off by my experiences with the clickish/snobby circles of Westerners at the bars, acting like they run that shit. Id much rather associate with my Japanese pals. I chill with some expats here and there, but many of them seem pretty prickish if you ask me. And how these guys who look like they suffered daily wedgies in the high school lavatory, come here and end up with these super-hot chicks- total mystery! Whatever the case is, its all about what you make of it; adapt or go home.

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