You buying the Angry Expat Ideology?

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.