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?


  1. I’d have to agree with you, it’s more about how well they’ve adapted to living in China. My brother teases me about how much I’ve “gone native” (note I haven’t been here that long) I guess as a Chinese American no one will ever say I’m an old China hand. 🙂

    One way I tend to judge is if the foreigner has been in China long enough to know that there are no sweeping generalizations that can be made about Chinese people. The “old china hands” tend to just raise an eyebrow and keep their mouth shut when talking to people who think they know everything there is to know about China. I like that.

  2. As Chinkerfly said, the “old China hand” doesn’t make a broad generalization about China.

    They will usually share their secret knowledge of a DVD shop or cheap veggie market, but will keep their mouths shut when a newbie announces “I got this DVD for only $2!”

    When the Old China Hand speaks Chinese, his/her Mandarin isn’t the toneless “How boo how?” of a beginner. (Black freaking magic in my opinion!)

    It also helps if you aren’t making a huge foreign salary… if you’re rollling in pinkies, it’s too easy to live in the Western bubble.

  3. 33 years of speaking Mandarin, 4 years formal Chinese studies in the 70’s, able to speak Yue Yu as well, 26 years in Greater China…. and yet, I do live in a house (sorta deserve that after all those years of apartment living) have kids who went to international schools (expat bubble?), have 2 dogs and a cat, and my own small business. Guess I am pretty well adapted 😉

    and I know many other 50 somethings like me.. yep.. definitely a Lao Zhongguo tong!! with the emphasis on Lao 😀

  4. Haha, I agree regarding the calming of “broad generalizations” – definitely shows you’ve reached a maturity in any place (I’m hoping I’ll get there one day).

    Ditto proper tones. 😉

    I think Terry’s got the right idea. There’s certainly a balance to be struck – you don’t need to live like a local to understand the country.

    I dare say that locals wouldn’t live like locals if they could, and there’s little chance they’d say they don’t understand the “real” China after finding a cushy life.

    So, I think (to me) an OCH is someone who, despite having considerably more opportunity and mobility than the locals, chooses to stay in China for a love of the country – with all its boils and scars.

  5. Yeah- I think you’re on your way to becoming a 中国通 as soon as you wince when you hear someone complain about having a bad China day.

  6. Honestly, the “Old China Hand” thing is old to me, the concept of being a 中国通 15 or 20 years ago, which was the greatest compliment any foreigner could get back then, now its sort of lost its meaning and only is used in a jokish sense, right? Sort of like “comrade”…At least that’s my feeling…

  7. The Old China Hands Archive defines an Old China Hand as

    According to A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale, (Macmillan, 1989), this term has been in use since approximately 1910 and is applied to “One who has spent many years in China in the commercial or civil service, or as a missionary.”

    But that seems to be more in the sense [Old China] [Hand] (i.e., pre-revolutionary China). I don’t think the term today has quite the same cachet as it might’ve done even if it’s perfectly legitimate to use it.

    I guess that now I’m in my sixth year in China, I qualify as an Old China Hand of a sort. Minimally, I suppose, we know the country and understand it, the people, and their ways; and we’ve shown some degree of commitment to the place. After that, you then have differing degrees of social and linguistic integration.

  8. “Old China hand” … the quoted Paul Beale entry is fine but terse …to be a real one it has to get into your blood, your soul.
    Read some of the books by Emily Hahn eg, “China to me” …gosh, she was a real one back in the 30’s and 40’s …and what a gal!!!

    PS. she uses that term in this book.

    • I am reading China to Me at the moment after reading her book, The Soong sisters. I love everything about her writing: style, content, humore, and she gives the reader wonderful images and conversations that I think are hard to find equal….as far as I have read.

  9. John,

    I just googled/wikied Emily Hahn and want to read her book and Ken Cuthberson’s bio of her. What a gal!! is right! Am wondering if anyone has copies in Beijing. can e-mail me on tienruay at yahoo.com if you have any suggestions. Thanks, Terry

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