You buying the Angry Expat Ideology?

35 Comments

I was standing on the street corner the other day waiting for a taxi beside a middle-aged foreigner doing the same. This isn’t uncommon, I live in a rather laowai-saturated area of Suzhou. The corner also works as an impromptu parking spot for people looking to dash over to the bakery, or pick up a bit of food from the long line of restaurants.

As we were waiting, in our awkward expat silence, a car pulled up to park. The only open parking spot was directly behind the other foreigner, but he made no attempt to make way for the car. Perhaps he assumed that it could just go around and park in a different location, or that it wasn’t a proper place to park anyway.

In addition to the restaurants and “real bread” bakery, another benefit of my neighborhood is you tend to get a more courteous bunch of locals. It was for this reason, I’m certain, that the car neither honked nor hit the foreigner in front of it, but rather patiently waited for the laowai to come to his senses and get the hell out of the way.

He moved a couple feet, but not enough for the car to reliably get past without hitting him. The driver inched ahead. The man moved another foot. Still not enough room.

I was watching with a bit of a perplexed look on my face when the foreigner turned to me and said, “Why are they all so stupid?” – he must have wrongly assumed I was confused by the Chinese driver’s actions.


Nothing all that alarming, scandalous or surprising about the above story, I admit. However, that blanket labeling and blatant racism stuck with me the entire day. It got me thinking about my own opinions about China and the Chinese. About how those opinions were formed and go on to, in small ways, form the opinions of others.

I’ve heard the type of guy described above referred to as an “angry expat“, a foreigner who – despite choosing to live here – does nothing but complain about China. A laowai who generalizes an entire race of people with sweeping jugements and criticisms.

Hell, at points I’ve probably been called this myself. I’ve certainly bitched and complained about China and some of its occupants. In fact, for a long time I’m certain I earned the title.

But lately I’ve noticed I’m a lot mellower about things than I used to be. I don’t see Chinese as mindless clones droning about their simple lives, I don’t feel that there is an evil dark force in Beijing that maliciously controls and exploits the population for their own beastly gains, and I don’t think “they” are all “so stupid”.

So, what changed? Why did I slowly adopt a somewhat more enlightened attitude about China and its peoples? As much as I would love to think it’s just because I’m such an insightful and conscious person, I don’t believe that has anything to do with it.

I think that my ideology simply shifted.

To most foreigners who move to China, life here is inarguably extremely different than life back home. The people, the culture, the traffic laws, the quality controls, etiquette, language, and so on, are in striking contrast to the way we’ve grown to expect things to work.

Upon arriving, then, we meet other foreigners in our same circumstances. People who have been here longer, who can offer some advice, and who can act as guides to this chaos around us. Perhaps over cheap beers, a few sticks of chuar, or just around the hot water cooler; these folks offer their seasoned opinions and thoughts on life here.

In chapter seven of his brilliant book “Predictably Irrational“, Dan Ariely explains how ownership of something causes us to overvalue it. For example, a house we grew up in and have fond memories of may cause us to price it above market value when selling it. We are not just charging for the item, but also for the loss of that item.

He then goes on to say:

Ownership is not limited to material things. It can also apply to points of view. Once we take ownership of an idea – whether it’s about politics or sports – what do we do? We love it perhaps more than we should. We prize it more that it is worth. And, most frequently, we have trouble letting go of it because we can’t stand the idea of its loss. What are we left with then? An ideology, rigid and unyielding.

I believe this is how “angry expats” are created. I don’t believe the majority of these laowai are walking around back home complaining about everything. Nor do I believe that if they visit an equally as chaotic a place as China they will find everything they can to rant about.

However, when arriving in China, fresh off the boat as it were, they have no real idea of the place, so they pay studious attention to other expats and see what their ideas are. And once that void is filled with new ideas, the new arrival begins to take “ownership” of the ideas, making them harder and harder to reverse.

Now of course China does its part to solidify these views, giving the idea owner plenty of “proof” to help foster their growing ideology. Add to this the exponential effect that co-complaining has, and it’s not difficult to see how easy it is to become bitter and choleric in nature.

Soon you are in the circular problem of having your experience here dictated by this ideology, and the ideology strengthened by your experience here. You’re invested in the ideas, you’ve shared them with others, giving them further credit and value in your mind.

Speaking for myself, this ideology was sparked by the friends and acquaintances I made when I first arrived in China, and grew when, while making new friends and acquaintances, I repeated these ideas.

So, why has my cynicism and criticalness of China lessened over my time here?

Again, tragically, it’s got nothing to do with any sharpness of intelect I may wish to attribute to myself. It is simply that I’ve made new acquaintances – many of whom I’ve never met, and some who don’t know me at all – that have helped expand how I view China and its relationship to me and to the world at large.

Unlike when I first arrived in China as an ESL teacher, now much of my day is spent in a virtual world (I work as a Web designer). I spend hours online, and as such tend to read a lot of blogs, and interact with many people on Twitter from across China, and around the globe.

Because of this I tend to associate, virtually at least, with an exceptionally insightful group of people (here, here and here). And it is them, along with a handful of cool real-life friends, that have helped shift my ideology – helped me buy a new set of ideas.

Of course I still get pissed off at things in China. Situations still crop up to support the stereotypes, and I’m not shy about calling it how I see it. However, I think I’ve moved past that initial mindset that kept me thinking and feeling a certain way about this country long past its usefulness.

I’m sure China will always be littered with angry expats, just as I’m sure they also exist wherever the term “expat” can be applied. But it fills me with a sense of awe that through the dissemination of information and ease of access to ideas, the world, or my world at least, has been made a better and more even-keeled place.

Talk on You buying the Angry Expat Ideology?


35 Comments
  1. For me, a telling sign of what you call “Angry Expat Ideology” has always been a foreigner utterly disconnected from Chinese culture, who, though living here for five-plus years, has refused to learn any Chinese. By permanently placing themselves at a cultural distance from Chinese, it becomes easier to treat them as a nameless Other, like your old expat in the story.

  2. If we’re Western in the East we’re Expats, if we’re Eastern in the West we’re Migrant Workers. Looking into the etymology of the word ‘Expat’ tells a very different story, that’s worth a blog post on it’s own.

    But when he said “Why are they all so stupid?” was he speaking about Chinese, Suzhou’ese’, car drivers? I’ve made similar references but squarely aimed at drivers of black Audis with blacked out windows. A homogenisation of people, but with very different reasoning.

  3. I am missing a reaction to this “angry expat”, something like “I was confused by your ignorance, not the driver’s skills!” at least I would have said s/t like this…

  4. PS, I’m shocked my daily Tweets about what’s for lunch have not gained sufficient traction for me to be added to the list above. I shall now also Tweet breakfast and dinner.

  5. i’ve been the angry expat for the last couple months since moving to a new city in part i think because the new work environment is definitely one of co-complaining. however in the last week or two i’ve been moving in a much better direction about it all and am now looking to extend my stay rather than flee back to the magical land of cheese products. still, in this particular city many of the locals really are a bit more malicious toward foreigners than in first or second tier cities, so a change in locale probably couldn’t hurt my attitude.

  6. I have fallen into the “angry expat” category more often than not in my three year visit, but my reasons were not based on other expats.

    In my first 2 hours in China, I was conned out of about 40USD. In my first 24 hours in China, I was left in an apartment without any local currency, food, drinkable water, or blankets (it was February in Dalian). In my first 3 months in China, my laptop and digital camera were stolen, and even though there was video with a clear picture of the guys face, the local please said they could not and would not do anything about it.

    Since I had very little interaction with other expats in my first year in China, I would have to say that these events, and many others I don’t have the time to write about, have shaped my anger more than anything else.

  7. Nice piece Ryan. Well-written and it definitely makes one think.

    I am fairly certain, if we are honest with ourselves, that we have all assumed the “angry expat” role from time to time. I mean seriously, if one more person tries to shove their way onto the elevator before I can get out the damn door, blood might be spilled!

    That being said, I find I am also mellowing and looking at things with a more enlightened attitude. Like you, the attitude has been fostered by other more enlightened souls that I am fortunate to be associated with. I am making an effort to be less critical and to be more understanding, to “accept” rather than “except”. Of course, it doesn’t always work but I really do try.

    During my time in China, I have often been surprised, even offended, by the average Chinese perception of America and Americans. I do my best to change that perception and from time to time it involves taking a critical look in the mirror. More often than not I realize those perceptions have some basis in reality.

    I recently had a conversation with an expatriate American businessman. He is the General Manager of one of countless joint ventures located here in Liuzhou. His assistant had contacted me to see if I was interested in teaching his Chinese executive staff English. I really wasn’t sure I was interested but our meeting was going well enough, until…

    Until he made a comment about the stupidity of his executive staff and their complete inability or willingness to improve their English. This man, has been in China, off and on, for more than 10 years. HE…doesn’t speak Chinese!

    I know he was offended when I told him I wasn’t sure if his management team needed English training but that I was certain he needed to make an effort to learn Chinese. Sorry, but 10 years living and working in a China and you can’t make time to learn the language?

    Beyond arrogant…

    I have to agree with Matthew, “by permanently placing themselves at a cultural distance from Chinese, it becomes easier to treat them as a nameless Other, like your old expat in the story.” I think Matthew is dead-on, except for one small thing, Ryan said the man was middle-aged, not OLD.

    Written by a middle-aged (not old) laowai in Guangxi…

  8. Agree with Matthew and Expatriate Games, but I would like to add that along with time and a healthy degree of effort to involve oneself comes not just acceptance of but adjustment to one’s surroundings.

    Also, we all have our ‘Bad China Days’, even Chinese people do. The number of times my wife has come home demanding a plane ticket and visa to New Zealand RIGHT NOW! And she grew up here….. But there’s a hell of a difference between having a bad day or finding oneself in a bad work or living environment and being an Angry Expat. But I think all the reasoning into how people become Angry Expats has already been done… Oh, except that many of them display a profound incapacity for introspection. When things go wrong, here in China or perhaps anywhere, you always have to take a step back and reflect on how your own behaviour or attitudes may have contributed to the badness. I know there are so many things I look back on and think, dammit, why did I have to be such a dickhead?

  9. Friday night, Shanghai. First I see a fight between a Chinese jaywalker and a Chinese taxi driver, fists flying, on the floor, having a right go over what had been a trivial matter. Big Bamboo, meet a minor competitor of mine, I’m friendly, he’s not. Like – whats the problem man?
    Then another (!!!!) argument with another expat over a seperate trvial China matter. Jesus whats happening? I just came out for a drink.

    Then later, at another bar, this expat tells me he’s been in China 20 years. When talking to him it’s obvious he hasn’t; he’s lying. When I ask him a couple of testing questions “So you’ll remember FEC” he doesn’t know, then gets REALLY aggresive about it. People are wanting to believe their own hype in China, used to people buying into their b/s, and now they’re getting laid off, property and stocks are collapsing, and their biz is drying up with HO putting them under pressure. Expats generally have been believing their own crap and self importance, been too pampered, spoiled, acting like little kids and when they have to deal with a China downturn they just can’t hack it. Chinese business drying up will see a lot of them leave. Good riddance. There’s far too many low end foreigners in China with a massively exaggerated sense of their own importance.

  10. Avatar of Steven

    It’s all about different cultural notions of space, and how people react to one another. Certainly, in North American and Europe, the driver would have spoken to the pedestrian and asked if he could take the space, or would have driven on to a different vacant space.

    Whereas here – as is normal and acceptable here (and that’s the crucial point) – you can pretty much just beep your horn, or slowly drive towards that person until they budge (as is, again, normal). The “Angry Laowai” clearly didn’t get it, and reacted as only he knows how, thinking of his own cultural circumstances.

    I, too, have mellowed, partly because I’ve pretty much figured these differences, and accepted them (queue jumping, however, is not accepted by me, and is met with a terse “We’re QUEUING here”). And, once you get it, it’s more relaxing and you can indeed mellow. Also, you can use it to your advantage, such as when I ride my mountain bike on the pavement for fun or to take a shortcut, knowing that no-one will complain!

  11. My boss once told me about that girl who spoke English with a heavy Italian accent to a Chinese and eventually was stunned at the fact the Chinese girl couldn’t understand. “Why are they so stupid?”
    Well, you cannot really expect a Chinese to understand Italian English, can you?

    On the other side, I’ve been badly woken up at 9.30 at the weekends by a costruction site on the upper floor, and found myself being the angry expat many times recently.

    One thing sounds weird to me: you say “why has my cynicism and criticalness of China lessened over my time here?”. Well, I found out most of the times it’s the opposite: the more you live in China, the less patient/tolerant you become.

    I guess here’s the difference between someone who came here without prior knowledge of Chinese language/culture and someone who came here of his/her own free will.

  12. Ha ha Steven, you are right!!
    I used to ride my bike in the wrong direction to the Wudaokou market in Beijing to take a shortcut, and nobody ever moaned about that :)

    And of course I enjoy shops being open on Sunday and ’till 11 o’clock pm. I guess what is happening to me it’s the other side of the coin :)

  13. I was an angry Laowai. I got used to some things but I didn’t mellow with time. Just the opposite. At first I used to excuse stupid and selfish behaviour with the ‘this is China, cultural difference, they don’t know better’ etc reasoning. But after a while [and a few trips to Taiwan] I realised that it wasn’t cultural and they did know better and that other Chinese got just as annoyed with the same s##t. I became more ‘why are we putting up with this?’ and eventually left. I didn’t want to turn into a cynical China expat who hates the place or into one of those equally cynical ‘when in Rome …/turn a blind eye’ types.

  14. I have to admit that I’m often an angry expat. Even though I’ve been studying Chinese for 20 years and learning about their culture I found that after moving here that I don’t much like it. Chinese are mostly wonderful when you have a relationship but what bugs me most is the way they behave towards others they don’t know. The rudeness, the willful chaos just drives me crazy. The pollution and crowds don’t help either. I’m mostly looking forward to leaving China next year.

  15. “a foreigner who – despite choosing to live here – does nothing but complain about China.”

    Uh, there’s your problem, buddy. A ton of expats *don’t* choose to be in China, they get transferred here. Sure, they could turn down the transfer, but the career penalties would be too great. So they order KFC and Pizza Hut every day for lunch, and suffer until their 2-3 years in China are over.

    And as far as you “why doesn’t he learn Chinese” types – there are tons of Chinese immigrants in America, legal or otherwise, that don’t speak a word of English and they’ve been there for 20 years. When you’re a busy executive, your time is simply too valuable to waste. Why spend hours (time = money) honing a skill, when you can get a ¥3000/month translator to do it for you? Back home, they call that effective outsourcing. Do what you’re good at, and outsource the rest.

    There needs to be a new blog post, “angry halfpats come to terms with self-hating anger against other foreigners who make much more money and have a better life than us”.

  16. Insightful work, Ryan. I’ve seen quite a few of these (mostly in the foreign neighborhood of Shenzhen).

    I used to get angry at everything while living here. Granted, I’m from New Jersey, so it’s perfectly normal to complain about everything. More recently, it’s come down to complaining about specific things and people–no generalizations.

    And Vern, yes, I am angry at all those laowai who make so much more money than I do and can afford to live and eat better than me.

  17. @Expatriate Games – Sorry if I caused offense.

    @Vern – Immigrants to America who ghettoize themselves — and their children — into a bubble of their own native language annoy the frack out of me, but that’s another issue. I can understand why a busy executive might not take the time to pick up the language, but what I’ve found from personal experience is that the younger, busier executives in the SEZs and metropolitan CDBs often *DO* learn Chinese, while the older ones, with more free time and more seniority, often do not.

    But my critique wasn’t limited to people working in management. I know quite a few foreign teachers who spend their time in China in an anti-China bubble, whose favorite pastime is to roll into the local watering hole and complain about how much they hate China and the Chinese. Are these people too busy making money to connect to the culture? Did their company force them to be here? Hardly.

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  19. @Vern: You make business sound like the Israeli army.

    As with Matthew, my definition of “expat” is by no-means limited to upper management types. In fact, the early influencers of me were all ESL teachers.

    And, by comparison it sounds like you’re saying that the immigrants in America that don’t speak English after two decades are all effectively outsourcing executives? I had no idea.

  20. Ha ha just got a new one:

    (Italian accent)

    “Did you see Pietro?” (heavy Italian accent)

    “Toilet paper???” (confused Chinese who, for obvious reasons, cannot understand Italian – English)

  21. @vern: Nuh. Nope. Absolutely not. What there needs to be is a lot more expats making an honest effort to adapt to their host country.

    And I don’t know about North America, but I met quite a lot of immigrants to New Zealand back in my youth, and almost all of them spoke pretty decent English. The few who didn’t were actively working on improving their English skills. It may well be that the North American situation is different, but I always had trouble believing in the existence of large masses of immigrants willfully ghettoizing themselves, and the few statistics I’ve seen on the issue generally tend to support my view. I could, however, introduce you to a large number of expats, generally “western”, in China who do very actively ghettoize themselves.

    In other words: Us angry halfpats are angry at expats who go out of their way to reinforce negative stereotypes about foreigners, not angry at the fact that some people earn more than us.

  22. I’m sometimes an angry expat, for a different reason. I’m Canadian of Chinese descent, with an upper intermediate level of Mandarin. From experience, it seems that overseas Chinese get the worst treatment of all. Sure, I may not get ripped off as much in local markets, or stared at in small towns, but I frequently come across locals who give me weird looks or criticize me for not being fluent, or being able to understand their accents. If they ask where I’m from and I say Canada, some will argue and say rudely “You look Chinese. You’re Chinese first before you’re Canadian.” It doesn’t help that my partner is white, and everywhere we go I get “oh, you’re THAT kind of Chinese girl” stare, from both locals and expats.

    And I agree with the commenter above who said there are habits that are just plain rudeness rather than cultural. People in Hong Kong and Taiwan are also of Chinese descent, but very few people there blatantly cut people in line, rush into a subway car without letting others off, spit on the ground, etc. Other Chinese find this behavior reprehensible, especially when, for instance, they’re the ones getting shoved as subway passengers storm in.

    I don’t think most Chinese are drones, and many are wonderful once you establish a relationship. But in order to become the developed country that China wants to be, the chaos, rudeness, and behavior towards others (laowai, Chinese-looking laowai, fellow locals who are not friends and family) has to change.

  23. After reading this, I just recall how our Chinese who study or live in the UK were gethering together and complain about the British. (For example the behavior of the Chavs.) And many of my former classmates and friends chose to go back to China the minutes they graduate.

    I guess it is just common when people come to live in a very different culture, to complain about the cultural difference that shocked you is much easier than to adapt ourselves to it.

    Also when you are away from home, you compare the place you live to your sweet home constantly, and it is often the bad/unexpect experience vs. the great home experience. For my own experience, I didn’t start to realise I was not live amoung aliens but same human beings like my Chinese fellows until the third year.

    And China is after all a developing country with super huge under-educated population despite the “Rising China” news story. For your westeners there must be tons of things to be complain about which even our Chinese also found ridiculous or disatisfied about.

    Anyway, no matter which country you came from and where you went, living in a foreign country for more than six months is not easy for anyone. Good luck everyone and have a happier life in China where I can’t wait to go back to in two months.

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  25. I was an angry expat. I lived in China for six years, I speak the language well and about eight months ago I returned to New York. And I feel like I have been going through decompression ever since I returned to the US. Every day I am calmer and more relaxed. And I am in New York! Of course there is the whole culture shock and openness to other cultures thing, and some people arent open. But in the case of China, it is a really hard place. Most Chinese people are in survival mode, their level of emotional and psychological development is something similar to maybe what our great grand parents level might have been after surviving the great war. These people are coming from a terribly cruel fuedal society into a chaotic 50 years of orwellian style communism, with persecution interlaced with starvation not to mention the cultural revolution. Then you have economic reform and everyone is eating at KFC and going to Starbucks and we expect people to act like Westerners with a mentality of openness, exploration, self development, awareness. And the Chinese, meanwhile are more or less in basic survival mode a la Dickensian England or something. The truth is, China is a very very difficult place. It’s not fun. Its not a mysterious Eastern culture. Its a deeply traumatized and confused post feudal post orwellian lawless free for all. So it is understandable that Westerners get pissed, get angry. Because we cant find the China we came to find. So what we need to do is be understanding of China’s trauma and also be true to ourselves and realize, this is a harsh place, with a deeply conflicted and traumatized population that is still struggling for survival. This is not a place to really kick back and have a good time and integrate. It aint France or Italy or even Thailand. I think the right decision, for many of us, after experiencing the place, is to leave. Because it is hard to be happy in a place where even the natives are desperate to get out. So while I agree that foreigners should always try to be open to different cultures that they live in, and they of courese should learn the language, at the same time, you have to keep in mind, China is no Disneyland. And the Chinese are equally as angry and frustrated as the foreigners, perhaps more so.

    • to be honest I think it’s an exageration to say that all Chinese people are desperate to move out. Yes, some are, but I also know many who left to study abroad and then willingly came back, so it obviously isn’t quite that bad.
      Yes, many people are in survival mode in China, but I don’t find that necessarily makes them more unpleasant and less friendly than lots of Westerners who can’t even imagine not having a roof over their head, air-conditioning, their own car etc….

  26. Wow, “too long in China”, you are pretty much the only person on this page, including the original poster that had anything of value to say. I especially love hearing someone other than myself compare modern China to Dickensian England. There’s no better comparison.

  27. After living in China for 11 years I can honestly say that I liked it a lot more when I didn’t understand anything that was being said.
    Now that I speak, read and write excellent Mandarin my eyes have opened to exactly HOW ignorant and unpleasant these people are.
    I’m going back to my country to live with people who don’t shit in the street like dogs.

  28. Wow!!Interesting blog!!I’ve only visited mainland China, when it first opened up in 1980, and I liked the people. I’m not of Chinese descent, I’m Caucasian, but at that time I was married to a man of Chinese ancestry. People stared at us, but smiled and were very curious and friendly. His grandmother and her family seemed very accepting of me.
    I lived in Taipei in 1983, for several months, learning Mandarin and I did some tutoring in English. Those months were some of the happiest of my life. I was almost treated like a celebrity and the people were almost always very polite and always friendly. My husband wanted to return to the States, but I was content to stay for a few years.
    I now live in Hawaii, without the former husband, and I can always tell the people who were raised in very large cities. They are always the rudest, whether Chinese, white or otherwise. After people live in Honolulu and environs for several years, they begin to relax and act like human beings again, learning the much more laid back and friendly local ways.
    In Hawaii, we say, “Live aloha!” In other words, treat other people the way you’d like to be treated and don’t take the s##t at all personally.

  29. I’m so sorry to read this piece. I mean, usually you’re okay.

    But man this really feels like a my-friends-are-better-than-yours plus sissy attitude.
    Come on, people, there is nothing wrong with etnocentrism. It keeps us sane and away from oversensitivity (read: being sissy).

  30. there was interesting point of view of this one who name Vern.
    Vern says:
    November 11, 2008 at 7:03 am
    “a foreigner who – despite choosing to live here – does nothing but complain about China.”

    Uh, there’s your problem, buddy. A ton of expats *don’t* choose to be in China, they get transferred here. Sure, they could turn down the transfer, but the career penalties would be too great. So they order KFC and Pizza Hut every day for lunch, and suffer until their 2-3 years in China are over.
    There needs to be a new blog post, “angry halfpats come to terms with self-hating anger against other foreigners who make much more money and have a better life than us”

    Here is my thoughts for this Vern, since he mentioned about “make much more money”, they could turn down the transfer , cause money isn’t everything, angry everyday is not healthy ? better go home.

  31. That was a defense of the Chinese taxi drivers? Okay. Here’s the thing, many of the shops you go into in China pay crap wages.. so you’re going to get the least educated in the lot working there. These are EXACTLY the people we deal with: waitresses, Chinese tutors, deliverymen, taxi drivers, shopkeepers. You name it. Just like a stoner working at 7-11 back home.

    Expecting stupidity, in certain cases, may be the path to tranquility.

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