“How long will you stay?”

An ex-pat can expect to field a great variety of questions in their host country, and here in China the questions follow a similar pattern of curiosity. Random characters that we run into every day – taxi-drivers, shop-assistants, etc. – tend to ask the most banal questions, such as “can you use chopsticks?” and “where are you from?”.

More insightful queries tend to come from primary school-kids, acquaintances, and locals that I talk to on MSN or Skype, such as “why are you so hairy?”, and “how long will you stay?” Both those questions stump me every time.

Let’s ignore the contentious matter of hairiness, and tackle the thorny issue of “how long will you stay?” I was asked this just the other day whilst chatting on MSN with a girl in nearby Yangzhou, and it dawned on me that I had been asked this same question – no exaggeration here – dozens and dozens of times before, during the course of my (thus far) four-year residence in China.

It also dawned on me that my answers to this question have been various, multitudinous, and have gradually evolved, too. No longer is my answer the carefree “at the end of my contract, I guess”, and no longer do I say “maybe one or two years more”, and instead I begin a mini-essay on looking into buying property and contemplate staying for the medium-term. Whatever I actually mean by that; can’t say that I’m even sure myself.

Surely many other ex-pats have come to see their plans and intentions evolve over time, whether because of a relationship or their career. And surely many others see the uncertainty of making such proclamations in a country which has never before experienced or accepted immigration of any kind.

If I were to meet a foreigner of my age in the UK – let’s call him Hamoun, 28 years old, from Iran, but now working in London – who appeared similarly settled with a girlfriend and an apartment, I would not ask him “how long will you stay?”; well, not if I didn’t want to cause offense and risk starting a scuffle. And, if he were hairy, I would not ask him why he was so hairy, either. But I’m not complaining: this is a new cultural phenomenon for China, so curiosity and misunderstandings are inevitable, at this stage.