Whenever I journey home for a visit, I’m certain that I push the limits of friendship and familial bonds with my constant weaseling of “in China…” into far too many conversations.

Out for dinner, I may casually mention how much cheaper dinning in China is. Walking down the street, I’ll drop a remark about how clean and uncrowded it is, and how no one is j-walking or spitting. And god forbid that some well-intentioned family member order “Chinese” take-out.

The China Daily Show has a hilarious piece entitled “Returned expat ‘won’t shut up about China'” which mocks something I’m sure many a laowai is guilty of being affected by: China Bore Syndrome.

“Jim was fine before he left,” neighbour Herb Winkleman, 43, told China Daily Show. “We used to talk about local politics, whether the Browns have a chance this year, that kind of thing. Now it’s all about yuan appreciation, China’s human rights violations and authentic Henanese cuisine. It’s too much.”

“My son had a ‘Free Tibet’ poster in our garage window. No big deal,” said local resident Ted Fisher. “Frankly, I don’t think Steve even knows where Tibet is. But as soon as Jim saw it, he was all, ‘Well, what about the feudal economy before China invaded? Then Jim was like, yeah, you’re right, the dilution of local customs through Han ethnic migration and Communist education policy is totally wrong.

“Jim wondered whether Steve had considered if the economic benefits and rise in living standards outweighed some of the more egregious tactics employed by officials and pondered whether Steve thought the Party was now taking a more enlightened tone towards some of the criticism aimed at Tibetan governance. Steve said it was just a poster.”

After a night out with friends, or a family dinner, I always feel a pang of annoyance at myself from absent-mindedly falling into the trap of being “that guy”. However, I wonder if this kind of verbal exchange isn’t a lot more common than I think, but that usually its juxtaposition isn’t as contrasted as when the source is an expatriate. What I mean is, if I’m visiting friends in one city and I’m from another city, I wouldn’t hesitate to relate our dining experience to another restaurant or similar past experience.

Likewise, I’m certain that when visiting large metropolitan areas, small-town kids like me regularly make mention of the smog and traffic and vice versa with urbanites commenting how “quaint” and boring small towns are. My thinking is that unlike these solely domestic conversations, when dropping China into a conversation, you can’t help but sound like you’re doing it intentionally, when very likely it is more just a consequence of your experience.

The challenge comes when you are put to the choice of either coming across as a China braggart or being disingenuous and consciously holding your tongue so as to avoid the label of the former. By our nature we are comparative animals, we define everything in our environment by its relation to something else, so I don’t feel as though it’s reasonable to expect ourselves not to draw these analogous lines between our lives in and out of China. But how much is too much?

I think a need for caution comes in when those comparisons become patronizing, but admittedly the whole ordeal is a slippery slope. I doubt many of us set out to intentionally come off as a pompous know-it-all bragging about their global exploits, and in turn boring the pants off all that listen through sideways glances and rolled eyes. The answer, I imagine, is to balance “China this… China that…” conversations with genuine interest in what has happened at home since you left, and comparisons that favour the world in which your friends and family live.

What do you think? How do you avoid being affected with China Bore Syndrome when you return home? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.

“China Bore Syndrome” coined by Todd Finlay. H/T to Aimee Barnes.


  1. Oh yes, I have this problem for sure. I talk about China all the time if I can get away with it. For a while I worked in a restaurant and would converse with any customers I heard speaking putonghua to the best of my ability. I do think it’s hard not to, though – and your mention of “smaller-scale” instances of it is true as well. When I went to school in Florida, I frequently made comparisons to my Chicago hometown and earned myself the nickname “Chicago” as a result. Unlike my current China commentary, however, the Chicago commentary didn’t garner irritation or disinterest in my friends.

    I think the difference is that most Americans can conceptualize something like Chicago or Detroit or Utah or New Mexico. We’re well-steeped in our own national identity, varied as it is, and as such, can pretty much get an idea (stereotypical or not) of what other places within our borders are like. People seem less inclined to make the assumption about other countries (though, to be fair, they’re also less inclined to hear and learn about other countries, too). It only seems intentional to them because they don’t have the frame of reference.

    Anyway, it makes for a bit of a lonely return, I’ve found. I’ve been back for over a year now and I’m still finding myself making comparisons, if only in my head, to the way my life was in China.

  2. I definitely think it has more to do with the simple art of conversation than with China, per se. When I lived in China I would talk to Chinese people about California or the US; conversely whenever I was home I’d rabbit on to people about China. Now, I live in New York and tell friends and family from back home about how great New York is, and I tell New Yorkers how great California is. Perhaps it relates to the human need to distinguish ourselves as unique; and in my case having been a person who has lived in many places seems to be my “USP”, as trite of an expression that is.

  3. yeah, that’s a tough one. before i moved here i would see friends who were living in south america leaving each other messages in spanish on facebook and i would think, come on, get over yourselves. speak english; we all know you’re cool but nobody knows what you’re talking about.

    and yet, my friends do seem interested to hear some stuff about china when i go home. i think an important part is to choose a starting point that people can understand. don’t just start out assuming they know who deng xiaoping is and what the four tones are. start from someplace reasonable and try to tell stories that don’t dweel in the technicalities.

    also, it helps to have friends that care even a little about what is happening outside the giant golden bubble that is the u.s. (assuming you’re american; i wonder if this is a distinctly american problem?)

  4. We knew when we moved back to the U.S, we would need to keep the comparison and stories to a minimum. Friends and family cannot relate to your life back in China. Is it envy? Or do they simply not care?
    You have changed, they have not.

  5. “Returned expat ‘won’t shut up about China’”

    LOL.. I catch myself doing this all the time, and I can feel the annoyance in my family and friends… I JUST CANT HELP IT.. I have been on the ‘dark side of the moon’ for ages!!

    If you were a lawyer and everything you said was about the latest case, yeah, people would get sick of talking to you! If you have funny stories (we all do), spit it out. Other than that, try to contain yourself with your sociological ramblings. If someone asks, go crazy. I guess try to avoid ‘bringing up China’ as much as possible, because you start to sound like a broken record.

    PS. I’m Canadian, from British Columbia, now living in Shanghai.

  6. Needs to be unique aside (a lot of baggage there I suppose), I think it just falls to our basic frame of reference. When we talk with friends, we usually discuss the latest news, movies we’ve seen, jokes we’ve heard, etc. Of course, after a year or two in China, our entire frame is Chinese, so OF COURSE we’re talking about China. It fades as new experiences and stories become available.

    I’m moving back to China after a 3-year hiatus, and I know I’ll go into withdrawal for Craig Ferguson and Jon Stewart. But in a few months I won’t think of them, and I’ll be peppering my blog with comments about ‘Beijing isn’t as good as it was in 1999’ or ‘can you believe how much 家常豆腐 costs these days?’

  7. Yes, I am/was affected as well. But it fades away after a couple of days :-). Great article Ryan! How can I get ya to write an article for ND some day? 😀

    • How do you avoid being affected with China Bore Syndrome when you return home?

      Easy: I just keep it for myself and don’t even mention the word “China” back at home. Because noone is interested to listen to it. :-D.

  8. China is a garbage dump, after five years I was glad to get outta there. The food maybe cheaper, but is normally cooked and stored in unsanitary conditions, the products are cheaper, but most couldn’t even pass muster to make it into Wal-Mart back home and the people are dirty buggers.

  9. Great article! I suffer from the same syndrome and have only recently come to the puzzling realization that friends and family almost never ask me anything about China (other than “Why do you go there?”). So now that this has dawned on me, I make comparisons in my mind and keep my boring yapper tightly closed… except to answer that single aforementioned question. That’s when I jump up from the sofa, launch into my 20-minute lecture, pull out my pocket projector, and sing them to sleep with “Richard’s China Monologue!”

  10. So sick of hearing about expats in China. My god. I’m an expat but I rarely talk about it anymore.

    It’s not that great anymore. In five years most losers in China will go home.

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