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.

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Steven has recently embraced the cathartic nature of blogging and twittering in place of talking to himself on public transport, religion, and daydreaming. Who said technology was unhealthy?

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  1. I get that question a lot too – though a slight adjustment to it now that I’m married. Now I get the “when will you leave?” question a lot – I think everyone assumes that we’ll eventually be heading back West (or East, as the case may be).

    To be fair, the first question the peeps from back home ask me is “so, you staying there forever then?”

  2. I probably get the question as much from folks back home as here. To be fair, I’m in no way committed to China long-term, so I figure it’s a legit question.

    There’s a certain amount of experience behind the question, though: When my students ask, it’s because the last foreign teacher was here a year or two, same with the one before him, most likely. We’re a transient bunch.

    Then again, every time someone I know decides to go home and “get a real job,” as they inevitably say, it feels a bit dreary, like someone’s giving up the struggle. I don’t know what to make of it all.

  3. Quick addendum: I walked home with a student right after posting the above comment. First question out of her mouth: How long will you stay in China?

    China is funny like that.

  4. Indeed, Ryan and Chris, I get the question from my own family too. not sure if it is asked with an element of surprise, fear, or in an entirely neutral way!

  5. As a teacher I have been teaching not to ask these questions. The one I hate the most is, “Do you like China?”

    The Chinese do seem to think that we are “Guests” but nothing else. I think their thing is how would anyone from rich countries such as ours want to stay here forever.

    Even with their emmense sense of pride, they know the money is not here and they are all addicted to the idea of making money, not personal fulfillment through travel and leisure.

    Our ideas are romantic, but not practical to them.

  6. hi,i got ur blog accidently, and i bookmarked it,since i found it’s interestin. im a chinese ,n expatin in another country. the question iv been asked the most is: r u goin back or stayin in here? i always answer: i havent decided. (what i trurly mean is: none of ur business.) i guess they just want to start a conversation with me,but not sure which kinda stuff im into. what would u say if u wanted to talk to a person but u dont quite know him?

  7. “what would u say if u wanted to talk to a person but u dont quite know him?”…

    well, asking about significant and slightly scary events in the not-too-distant future is a rather unsettling way of starting a conversation! so it’s no wonder that i – and yourself, and many others – give vague or false answers, for convenience’s sake.

    being british, talk about the weather, then religion, then beer; though not necessarily in that order.

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