When is one an old China Hand?

I’m nearing my five-year mark of being in China. I don’t view that as a long time but people I meet increasingly are. It surprises me because I always view “Old China Hands” – the term that’s developed for foreigners that have been here a long time. I used to see the term as something that was meant for people who were at least 10 years into their stay here, people who arrived before Starbucks had its claws into almost every Chinese city.

But I’ve had some people who’ve put into 10 or even almost 20 years here tell me that I’ve got better China coping skills than them. I speak better Mandarin – though I don’t know how you can spend more than 10 years in a country and not pick up the language at least a little bit. I’ve also been told that I know more about the country in general and have seen more of it.

Does that mean that being an “Old China Hand” is really just a term for someone whose adapted to living in China? I tend to think yes. I known of people that have been here a little over a year and speak amazing Mandarin. They’ve even perfected their skills so that they can read Chinese-language magazines such as Caijin.

Those people may not have been living in the country a long time but they’ve probably been off in a second- or third-tier city polishing their Mandarin skills as opposed to being a China country head or an expat housewife living in Beijing, Hong Kong or Shanghai (though I have also met people that fit into those categories who qualify as “Old China Hands”). That to me indicates that they have enough experience to be considered right up there with the greats such as Carl Crow – who even though he didn’t speak any Chinese introduced consumer advertising to China in the first half of the 20th century and knew the country as well as any of the locals.

What about you other laowais out there? What makes an “Old China Hand” for you?