We’ve all seen them, and chances are we’ve all been them at one point or another. A quick walk to the nearest Starbucks or Metro in China, and you will notice that expats come in all shapes, sizes, and dispositions. In general, most of the laowais living here in the Middle Kingdom are fantastic people trying to make the most of their experiences. However, we all have our down points.

I have noticed in strangers, friends, and yes, even myself, seven habits that I think make you a very ineffective expat. My rookie year in China is nearing a close, so I plan on making a New Year’s resolution of sorts to break these bad habits that I know I have, and I sure to not be alone in them.

Habit #1
Comparisons

“It’s not like this back home”
“In [insert home country back home] it’s like….”

If you’ve never heard this whine then you must not be talking to many foreigners, and if you’ve never said this then you must not talk to anyone period. For a number of people nothing here can ever be as good as it is back home, wherever that may be.

Obviously, the coffee here is not going to be as good as it is in the West. Clearly the Chinese are not experts at making hamburgers and french fries. The public transport is very clearly going to be much, much more crowded here than back home. Yes, the streets are probably dirtier here than a street in the suburbs.

These are the charms that keep China interesting, and very different from home. You will not be able to get a cup of tea back home like you can here, no Western chain will be able to satisfy your fried rice cravings, and just where are you going to spit when you have to back home?

I will never claim to be innocent of this ugly habit, but there has to be a time and place where you need to accept China for what it is, a wildly different place. While some things are better at home, there are definitely things that are better here. It is important to try to keep that in context, especially when you are experiencing the worst this nation has to offer.

Habit #2
Counting Down

“Thank God, only six more months until I go home!”
“What’s the point in learning the language if I’ll only be here for two years?”

It’s very natural to be excited to get home (only thirteen days for me!!!!), but that excitement should really not consume you. Being obsessed with going home is a logical extension of Habit #1.

There are always going to be great things to look forward to in the future, but if you take a look around there are probably some pretty great things to look forward to right now.

Rarely is it ever healthy to live for the future, as it often lets your present fly by.

Habit #3
Getting Stuck in a Rut

“Let’s meet at the usual Starbucks”
“It’s [Insert Day of the week] are you going to [Insert usual location for said day of the week]”

Be careful not to fall into the exact same habits as before by clurr
Be careful not to fall into the exact same habits as before by clurr

Ready to go out for dinner? Well be sure to go to the same place you went to last week since you know the food is “safe”. Of course, the fact that the staff speak English helps since you are in the mood for an “easy” dinner experience. Afterward be sure to go to the nearby Starbucks for the taste of home. Oh, and don’t forget to pick up some groceries from the nearby market to pick up some peanut butter and Western cereal.

Sounds familiar? Lord knows it has for me on many, many nights.

Humans are by our very nature creatures of habit. However, it is really, really easy to go too far on that one, especially when you live in a foreign country. While there is certainly no harm in a little routine and structure, there is certainly a line to be drawn. If you’re not careful you’ll end up in the same habits that you were trying to escape from back home.

Habit #4
Obsessive Traveling

“I have three days off, I think I’ll head to Thailand”
“I’ve seen all of China, time to explore a new country”

Oh lord am I ever guilty of this one.

Part of the joy of living in China is the proximity to such dream destinations as Thailand and Cambodia. This coupled with the frequent holidays often afforded to expats seems to lead to a mass exodus of the country whenever there is any sort of break.

I was very, very guilty of this one during my first six months in the country. I was lucky enough to have a week off in October, two weeks off at Christmas, and two weeks off for the Lunar New Year (I’m a teacher what can I say?) during those five total weeks I went to Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, with a brief stop-over in Hong Kong for one of those trips. That’s right, with five weeks off I spent no time in Mainland China. Granted, I had previously visited the “main sites” such as Beijing, Xi’an, and Guilin, but clearly it is not right to say that I have done China.

This is definitely the attitude of several people who have been here, even for a short amount of time. However, upon even an ounce of reflection, you should realize that of all countries in the world China is probably the most difficult to fully do. China has the largest population in the world, the third or fourth largest land area (depending on who you ask), and the longest uninterrupted history (depending on who you ask) making it a very hard place to fully see, and an even harder place to understand. If someone has only been to New York and Washington, they would never be able to rightly claim to say that they have seen all of the United States, so why is it ok to make that claim after you have seen Beijing and Xi’an?

By all means use your time to travel, and makes those trips to some of the fantastic places Asia has to offer, but don’t forget the one that you live in. It’s certainly worth looking at.

In case you are curious, I spent my most recent holiday in Xinjiang and plan to go to Sichuan and Yunnan during the summer, lessons learned.

Easy to enjoy, easy to abuse by taylorandayumi
Easy to enjoy, easy to abuse by taylorandayumi

Habit #5
Increased Alcohol Consumption

“A litre of beer costs less than a dollar!”
“Liange pijiu”

Clearly the most dangerous of the seven habits listed here. Given the incredibly low prices on alcohol, coupled with the equally low existence of liquor laws can lead to an increased consumption of alcohol.

To make matters worse is the problem of boredom. In a recent edition of Business Week, they ranked the 20 Worst Places to Work, and 5 cities in China were on the list, including my current location. On all five Chinese cities one of the concerns listed was a lack of cultural and recreational facilities. Regardless of whether you feel that the report was accurate or not, this shows that there is at least the perception that there is nothing to do as an expat in China. If people have nothing to do, or feel that they have nothing to do, then alcohol becomes an obvious source of recreation.

The consequences of this can be too vast to mention on a site like this, if you know anyone who is abusing alcohol please, please seek help from someone more qualified as anyone on this blog.

On a lighter side, I personally have not come anywhere close to having to make 12 difficult steps, but having additional beers with dinner has certainly increased my waist line far more than would be ideal.

Habit #6
Decadence

“Don’t worry about spilling anything, the ayi will clean it”
“I don’t cook anymore, eating out is so cheap”

It’s pretty easy to see just how cheap China is.

It’s also easy to see that so many expat packages include accommodation, annual airfare, and health care. This leaves your money to be, well your money.

It’s also pretty easy to see that there are so many inexpensive luxuries ranging from ayis to cheap DVDs to delivery on anything to spend some of your disposable income.

What’s difficult is knowing when and where to stop. Life here can get very infantile if you have someone clean up for you, deliver your food for you, and you can get whatever you want by pointing at it. In many ways living in China can be like being five years old all over again.

While this is part of the attraction for a lot of people, I hope that you ask yourself what you think of the people who have that sort of a lifestyle back home.

Habit #7
Know it All

“I understand China”

Compared to some of your family and friends back home you may be an expert on all things Chinese. However, the reality of it is that at the end of the day you are not.

China has a very ancient and idiosyncratic culture, history, and language. These three things and intricately connected, and I think that it is difficult if not impossible to fully understand one of the three without understanding all of them.

So how do you get to understand any of these things? The only idea I can really come up with is trial and error, with a heavy emphasis on the error side of things. It is not very realistic to be able to think that you will be able to fully “get” this country, especially in as short of a time frame as one or two years.

A simple look through the comments and yes even some of the posts (including me, I fully admit) and it is not hard to see the Know-it-Alls out in full force. It is so easy to get caught up in the knowledge of the world that you do earn, but very difficult to know when to put a cap on it. But when it doubt, realize that you probably don’t get it and may never will.

So that just about does it for me, anyone have any ideas for any more habits? Lord knows there are more…

Discussion

84
  1. That’s a pretty good list. I don’t think the excessive travel is such a bad habit–it is a perk of having a lot of holidays (probably the best part of having a university job).

    I’m definitely guilty of number 3, though my usual places didn’t speak English–they just made the effort to understand our Chinese, even if what we said wasn’t correct.

  2. “The public transport is very clearly going to be much, much more crowded here then back home. Yes, the streets are probably dirtier here then a street in the suburbs.”

    You often use the word “then” when you mean “than”

  3. Profile photo of Glen

    @Chinamatt I mostly mean excessive travel outside of China. There is certinaly a lot see within the border of the Middle Kingdom, which a lot of people no doubt leave out.

    @Shuo thanks for the compliment!! I think some days I make a better teacher than others 🙂

    @Lee Brown not anymore 🙂 Thanks for the editing, Ryan must be late on that!!!

  4. Here are some other bad habits:

    * Generally, we don’t use public transport (exceptions are expats in Shanghai and Beijing).
    * If we smoke, we smoke ridiculously more here and find it impossible to quit.
    * Some of us (you know who you are) who would never be with a prostitute in the West have indulged in their services in China — and indulged often.
    * Among English teachers, the work ethic may decline to the point of obscenity and we blame any failures on our part on the Chinese we work with.
    * Though we live in China, we may detest eating Chinese food and go out of our way to eat Western food despite it coming at a premium.
    * Some of us, especially older manager-types, live in a foreigners-only bubble and don’t ever bother learning Chinese because that’s what our English-speaking Chinese assistant/girlfriend/wife is for, nor do we mingle with the people or take time to appreciate the culture.

  5. Hi Glen

    What a great list and so fun to read.

    I believe your list is so true for all expats where ever they live, and not just to expats in China.

    Speaking from my own experience, I am quilty of a few habits.

    Have a safe trip home

    Sharon

  6. Excellent post! While there are certainly times when anyone, expat or native, is under stress and wants to take the path of least resistance (familiar restaurant, alcohol, letting someone else clean it up), if it’s your way of life you are certainly not making the most of your expat experience.

  7. WTF, I’m having look at the Hardest Hardship Posts list you’ve linked: Guangzhou comes in 13th, without mentioning all of the second tiers cities in China expats are working their asses off (Chongqing, Chengdu, Wuhan etc). Living in Guangzhou, compared to these felt like heaven.
    I’m not trying to stand out as the hardcore China kid here, but be realistic, cities like Guangzhou or Shenzhen can provide you with lives much better than the ones you could ever dream of at home.

  8. Great list. I’m certainly guilty of numbers 2,3, and 4. 4 I’m OK with. I came to China to travel, and travel is what I’m going to do, dern it! I think your generalizations are funny and reflective. I can see at least one of these numbers in each of my fellow teachers here in Xi’an. Cheers!

  9. ok so i admit im at starbucks twice a week, but in my defence i work in the basement of said starbucks in a neighbourhood hardly able to support a starbucks to begin with. you’d have to walk 15 minutes to find anything else to eat, and even then only KFC. but i use public transportation almost exclusively so i think it balances out.

    fortunately i’ve kept up a good work ethic specifically so i don’t end up getting fired from my first job back in the states for not taking it even a little seriously.

  10. Habit #8 – Rationalization

    We’re all guilty of this one… rationalizing how much money we spend by converting to our home currency. “Oh cool, so this is only like $5. Everything here is so cheap!!” Even though we’re earning our home dollar, we live here and are not just travelers. So in the long run, it doesn’t make sense (cents?) to think in your own currency.

  11. Great read, Glen. I have been guilty of each and every one of these bad habits during my stay in China; most are unavoidable. However, it is important to keep them in mind for the reasons you stated.

    I’m particularly pleased you mentioned excessive travel, as this is a habit that isn’t discussed often enough. Being an expat is wonderful not only for the opportunity to visit a foreign country but also to live there and soak up the culture. Establishing a daily rhythm, forming friendships and relationships with locals, and allowing the culture to seep into you are all important, in my book.

    Sometimes, though, you just got to hit the beach somewhere 🙂

    Oh- one final point. The Business Week article is pretty lame.

  12. To second what Kellen wrote, some of us fall into a rut because of circumstances, some of us fall into a rut because we choose to do so. I work fulltime which means during my work days the rut of going to the same local restaurants each time is dictated by the need to stay close to my school. On the other hand, if you’re a student or a part-time worker and find yourself in a rut, it’s probably because you’ve not really taken the time to explore the options available to you.

    This was a great list, by-the-way, Glen, thanks for writing.

  13. Geez, I turn my back on the site for a day and there’s a flurry of activity – teach me to try and balance moving with work and a virtual social life.

    Great list Glen. #6 is the one I’m most loathe to fall into. Despite living in a neighborhood where virtually everyone I know has an ayi, I just hands down refuse… I’m not obsessively clean (and that helps), but there’s something fundamentally bothersome about needing someone to clean up after me.

    Granted, there are exceptions (always exceptions), but convenience by sacrificing what should just be a basic habit and ability of any human seems a step too far.

    @Elvina: I think I disagree, but maybe it’s because I work in such a variety of currencies that none of it means anything to me. I have two places I could live – China and Canada – and so by comparing the costs between the two it gives me a baseline to help decide economically what is the best choice.

    I see your point, and perhaps it works on nicknacks and such, but I’m thinking more along the line of housing – renting and purchasing. As mentioned, I’m moving this week and stressing about getting the perfect deal for an apartment is easily diffused when put into the perspective that I couldn’t get a place half the size in my armpit of a hometown for close to that price.

    I think the only time you would truly do well to stop converting is if you made a Chinese salary and had to live like an average local — otherwise, it’s sort of irrelevant.

  14. I’m not sure ‘rut’ is the right word, and a difference can be made between ‘rut’ and ‘routine’. The latter, while not ideal, is still largely benign. The former isn’t.

    I bring this up because Kunming has a number of foreigners who have most decidedly fell into a full-blown rut. This goes far beyond hanging out at the same pub to a life crisis in which one has been blown totally off-course by the temptations of a relaxed lifestyle and low cost of living.

  15. I agree with all of the comments above. Very good list, Glen.

    The only problem I have with lists like these, however, is that they are tailored to the larger cities in China. Obviously the reason for this is that most foreigners who come to China find themselves in one of these cities, but there are a few of us who couldn’t fall into some of these traps even if we wanted to.

    I wish I could visit a Starbucks…and my wife sure would love the help of an ayi.

  16. ‘I hope that you ask yourself what you think of the people who have that sort of a lifestyle back home.’

    Like I wrote in my response post: What would I think? Well, I think kudos to them for attaining such a high standard of living.

    I’m an expat because I enjoy the lifestyle. It is the way I live.

    I’ve been at this for quite some time. My parents were expats when I was growing up. I’ve done the same and more. And maybe a part of the difference here is that I have no intention of going back?

    Oh, btw, I absolutely LOVE having maids.

    Maids are the closest most women get to having wives 😉

  17. @Yokie: That really goes as a general habit, right? Though I suppose many of them would.

    @Catharine: Wow, not going to touch that one.

  18. I really like this list, and am completely with Josh on this one. I want a Starbucks. Heck, I want other foreigners who actually speak English! I have gone to McDonalds, but certainly not as a routine of any kind. My only rut/routine is baozi every morning I wake up on time to get them from the cafeteria. I have done a handful of these if not this trip on the last one, and I have to try the obsessive traveling next time 🙂

    Habit #10: Using the words mafan 麻烦, to describe the behavior of well intentioned but often awkward attempts to help or make friends with us by random Chinese strangers. As a woman, I found myself doing it a lot until I finally got that none of these people are actually bothering me, and if they were… I needed to let them know.

  19. great list!
    the know-it-all habit (number 7) is the one that probably annoys me most (either when the card is used by others or by myself). made me thought of a fantastic quote:

    “There is no such thing as a Western ‘expert’ on China, only varying degrees of ignorance” – Sir Alan Donald (UK Ambassador to China 1988–1991)

  20. Matt – affordable isn’t the question. I’m looking for “available”. I’m sure they’re around here somewhere, but for the past three years I haven’t been able to find them!

    I’ve heard that most foreigners in Urumqi and Shihezi have them, but (believe it or not) I don’t even know any Chinese people who have ayi’s in my small city. Sadly, this means I have to do the dishes every once in a while 🙁

  21. @Josh Starbucks was merely used as an example because it is rather ubiquitous all over the world and an easy place to go when you are stuck in a rut, especially if you are a little sick for the comforts of the west. It could be easily replaced by any sort of habit forming place, Western or otherwise.

    I know that there are differences between routines and ruts, but the line is very, very hard to define, and chances are if you are in a rut, you’ll know.

    @Ryan (and others) an ayi was also just an example of some qualities of Western decadence over here. Other good examples include always going to eat at a restaurant (yes, I’m looking at you and I on that one Ryan :)) taking a taxi everywhere or just overspending on things that you probably don’t need.

    @Catherine don’t you think that there is something a tad soul-sucking about being able to through your money around so much? I mean if you can’t clean or walk anywhere, and always go out for big meals, don’t you feel like something is lacking? Maybe it is just my own personal outlook of life, but I really feel like there is something to be gained by having to struggle a bit.

    @Yokie there is a different between giving advice and orders, this was intended as the former.

  22. ‘don’t you think that there is something a tad soul-sucking about being able to through your money around so much?’

    This very same comment gets batted about on the Thai forums.

    Those that don’t have money, protesting against those that do.

    As for your struggling theory, I’ve been there done that. And to tell you the truth it wasn’t all that grand.

    So you go ahead and struggle through your life and I’ll enjoy mine 😀

  23. Pingback: Women Learning Thai… and some men too ;-) » Habits of Highly Effective Expats

  24. I think both of you are missing a very important point: you’re not talking about “expats”…you’re talking about “expats who are now living in a poorer country than the one they came from”. It’s an important distinction, especially for those who have moved from the east out west.

    Sure, Catherine, enjoy your life and spending all the “hard earned” money we make. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think Glen meant that we should all try to live in poverty despite our abnormally large paychecks. Rather, it’s the people who pretend that they deserve these large paychecks and the lifestyle that comes with them. And no, I’m not pointing at you because I don’t even know you.

    We are no different and probably don’t work as hard as some of the people who serve us as “rich expats”, and to do so – stealing Glen’s nice catch phrase – would be the trait of a highly ineffective “rich expat”.

  25. You are right. You don’t know me and you don’t know anything of my life.

    For instance, without someone taking care of a few chores, I couldn’t work the sometimes 12 and 14 hour days I do. And that includes weekends.

    So do I deserve the money coming in? Absolutely. It took years of hard work, years of making the right decisions, to get to this stage in my life. It would be ridiculus pretending otherwise.

    Like I said in my post: Life is too short to waste doing what you don’t want to do, while avoiding what you do what to do. So go! Do! Live your life to the fullest! After all, it is your life.

    I just happen to enjoy working is all.

    That is why making sweeping assumptions and ‘rules’ for expats does not work. You can’t possibly know their circumstances.

    And one could easily say that I would be highly ineffective expat if I did not take advantage of the available amenities on offer.

  26. @ catherine : I’m all behind you girl!

    c’mon guys, stop being freekin martyrs….if one can afford help around the house, why not. Its not being elitist, its valuing your time for other pursuits – be it monetary, cultural or recreational.

    You’d think you’d already been assimilated, and by that I mean the local habit of not really appreciating or knowing the “time value of money”.

    @ josh

    “Rather, it’s the people who pretend that they deserve these large paychecks and the lifestyle that comes with them. ”

    that should be Habit # 8 – Expat on Expat envy…..people in the end get exactly what they deserve…curling up and seething in envy does you no good –

  27. Re. Ayi’s and western decadence observed in the expat community-

    I once had this argument with my economist friends, and an econ professor back in college in the US. My friend was telling me that there was absolutely no inherent problem with hiring someone to clean for you. The professor reasoned that the only reason you would choose to not hire someone to do your cleaning was to teach children self reliance by doing chores. That in hiring someone you free up your own time which is more valuable to you than the money that you are spending to have a person help you. Perfect economic reasoning.

    I strongly disagree with them to this day.

    Now this is something that I see as a difference in values. To me it is my mess, which makes it my responsibility. If it were causing me stress, I would perhaps hire someone to help me (I would pay them what I would expect to be paid for the same service, I strongly believe that some of these workers are underpaid for the jobs they do.) I know there are many people at home who feel very differently about the issue, and even more here in China (I often hear demeaning remarks about people who are in the service industry, and I loved picking up the soda bottle in front of the driver of a car who carelessly tossed out his window while siting in his car waiting for someone.) Personal responsibility is something very important to me. I do not want to make someone else’s life more difficult because of my personal choices. If I have a mess in my room it is my choice, and my responsibility. When I came into my room and found it to be covered in that elegant sticky pollution film, I went and got the bucket of hot water and bleach, because it was now my room, and I was the one who wanted it clean.

    Catherine, I can understand where you are coming from. I hope that one day if I need help to clean my own house that I will be able to find someone who I trust and will gladly pay them as I would hope to be paid for doing a similar job.

    Josh, I also can see where you are coming from.
    John it is certainly not “expat envy”. I am probably one of the lowest paid people on the forum, being a teacher in my first term, and I am beyond comfortable with my money. If I had to leave tomorrow (if I we actually paid what my company owes me) I would leave with a few thousand US in pocket (I save). I am only envious of my friends in Shanghai, because they enjoy their jobs more not because they have bigger pockets. However, I have some huge complications with the fact that my salary is almost double the salary of the teachers I work side by side with (which I think is what Josh is talking about). Admitted I have more classes than many of them, and am dealing with a whole different set or circumstances, but I am constantly trying to figure out some way to not feel guilty about having this advantage handed to me because I am from another country (I know there would be little to no advantage for my friends if they were to find a job teaching in the US). I would personally be unable to live a lavish lifestyle because I know the way my co-workers live, and I would feel eternally guilty for it. I am all for putting money back into the local economy, but I choose to spend money on my friends, and travel instead of personal extravagance (not that there is anything wrong with the other, I am just explaining why I could not make that choice).

  28. @cupritte I’d suggest you ask your local colleagues and peers how many of them have aiyi’s or their parents cleaning up their mess…you’d be surprised how many men in China cant iron a shirt let alone fold one…

    I work in an office of 40 and I dont know one colleague that doesnt have hired help or their parents looking after their home affairs….its China

  29. John – That’s right. The maid culture is heavily engrained out here.

    And while it is not exactly unknown in the West, we certainly are not responsible for the maid culture.

    When I lived on Borneo, my maid’s family back in the Philippines had maids (plural).

    She was living and working in Borneo because she could make more money as a maid than as a school teacher in the Philippines.

    Her kids went to good schools on the money she made working for me all those years. I was also good for any loans she needed back home (banks were out of reach and the Philippines has a terrible loan shark system).

    One of my best friends was from Manila and it burned her butt that her maid from the Philippines had a degree and she didn’t 🙂

    The local Borneo families I knew had an average of six maids and two drivers.

    Most of the people I knew without maids were Westerners (new arrivals) and we’d all take bets at how long they’d last without. And with the humidity and the heat, they did not last long.

    All of my Singaporean friends in Singapore and elsewhere in SE Asia have maids.

    When I was living in Japan as a tyke, we had one who did the ironing, one for the house, and one to take care of us kids full-time.

    When we left Japan, the maid who took care of us cried because she didn’t have any future prospects for work. The Japanese economy was rough at the time and her concerns were serious.

    Some Westerners are concerned about Asians being at the poverty level, but then they somehow don’t understand that these very same people depend on being able to work too.

    But (some) Westerners, especially those new to the expat scene, seem to have a guilt complex when it comes to having help in house.

    Granted, if you only have a small room, there is no real point. But I’m not talking small, temporary accommodation here. I am talking the average home.

    To free up their time for work or leisure, these very same Westerners may just pay an accountant to do their taxes, or put their kids in daycare, sometimes they will pay the neighbourhood kid do their lawn or run errands, and they might even take their cars to get detailed.

    But then they get all scandalised about getting someone to help around the house? Do a little ironing? Mop a few floors? Shine the silver? It boggles the mind. Truly it does.

    (great to see you here John)

    cupritte – I agree, trust is a huge issue when it comes to maids (or anyone you give that level of access into your private life). For me, it took awhile each time, but I focused on getting someone who respected me for respecting them (and if you know Asia, you’ll know what I mean).

  30. Profile photo of Glen

    @josh, thanks for the support brothah! And yes, you are absolutely right these types of list are generalized for those of us in larger or second tier cities. I do apologize that it may not suit your specific situation. To be honest, I don’t feel at all qualified in commenting about your life in small town Xinjiang, since I imagine it’s rather different than my life in second-tier Jiangsu.

    @john while I know nothing about your job or lifestyle, I know that here in China that expats get paid far more than their local counterparts. The teacher’s at my school (including me) get paid *significantly* more than our local counterparts, which leads to a certain amount of decadence. The locals, who are just as qualified performing the same job as I do do not have the same lavish lifestyles as my expat colleagues do. I never see any of them out at the same expensive restaurants that I see other people at all the time, and I doubt that they use an ayi nearly as often.

    And, just because everyone does it that certainly does not make it right at all. I understand that the hired help culture is huge in Asia, but it still makes living here very infantile. I mean my rent, utilities, and transportation to work are all included in my package. Surely I can do something to take care of myself.

    Also, to claim that Josh is seething in envy is rather small on your part. If you have ever taken the time to read his site (deservedly named one of the best blogs in China) you would see that he’s not jealous of any of our lifestyles. He’s just commenting on some of the differences between his experiences and those of a “typical” expat.

    @cupritte I couldn’t possibly be anymore in agreement with you on this one! That’s my exact point. See the last paragraph 🙂

    @Catherine since you seem to like quoting so much, here is one for you:

    “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Gertrude, scene ii, Hamlet

    If you are so up in offended by this then maybe you could be harbouring some sort of deep seeded guilt, methinks.

    I understand that you work a lot. I understand that everyone else gets hired help. I understand that you do not like to cook, clean, or pay bills. I get that, really I do. But face it, you don’t do those things because you can’t be bothered. It is out of your own laziness that you spend your extra money on hired help. To justify it as “helping the economy” or “freeing up more time for leisure” is a tad pretentious. If you had the motivation to clean up after yourself then you would find the time.

    There is nothing wrong with being lazy, lord knows I am. If you came over to my apartment you would see that I am in dire need of someone to clean up, because Lord knows I don’t get around to it often enough. But the point is that I can freely admit my own faults on this one, which is something that you seem unable to do here.

    I understand that there are always exceptions to any rule, and this was clearly meant as a general swath, which definitely does not cover everyone. If you personally do not feel that you are being decadent in your lifestyle then that makes no difference in my life. However, if you have to come out and rationalize it, then maybe you need to look in the mirror a bit.

    Also, do you not see that having such well educated hired help is a problem? Clearly these people with high degrees could be doing something with their knowledge to help their community. If they have decided to pursue a career servicing expats then perhaps that should tell you that foreigners are being a tad too generous with their money on things that they don’t need (i.e. being decadent) creating this economic pull for obviously overqualified people in the first place.

    Lastly, thanks for taking my satirical title and turning it into a satire yourself, I didn’t know I was so popular for that 🙂

  31. I was wondering how long it would take for this ayi debate to get to the “but we’re helping them, we’re keeping them employed. They should be thanking us for it!” level.

    Granted, I’ve met some scam-savvy ayis to which the following doesn’t apply, however:

    I think the question comes down to whether or not you’d endure the expense of a maid back home where wages are (at least marginally) more level? The reason many expats don’t have maids back home is because it is a rather dear expense.

    Not to get too ethical here, as I really have no high horse to sit on, but shouldn’t it at least be considered why it is we can afford maids in Asia?

    I don’t know many expats that are making hugely larger salaries than they would in their own country, but when compared to the cost of living it explodes.

    So, the question is are the maids getting paid what they’re worth, or are they being exploited due to the socio-economic situation of their country? We’re not talking “worth” in relation to skill-set/education level, as that simply doesn’t apply in a country with effectively no minimum wage and few poverty reduction programs. This is about worth as a human being – which I think cupritte nailed above.

    Ultimately I guess that’s a moral question for everyone to answer themselves and how much micro-social responsibility they’re interested in taking on.

    I think it simply comes down to whether or not you would do the same job for that amount of money. That doesn’t have to make or break whether or not you hire a maid, but it pretty clearly will illustrate if you feel they’re paid what they’re worth. If you wouldn’t and you’re still thinking you’re the one doing them a favour because without your help the plain rice they eat for every meal would be no rice at all, you’re fooling yourself.

  32. @glen this is a great site and your post was good. but just humour me all for a sec.

    ladies and gentlemen: having an aiyi is not a freekin moral/ethical issue. economics plain and simple. where the supply curve hits the demand one we get a price. It is a SERVICE!! for gods sake.

    “I do not want to make someone else’s life more difficult because of my personal choices…”

    Cripes , oh pleeeeeeese…

    boiling it down to “I’ll clean up my own mess” is way simplistic (and I highly doubt anyone who has kids and can afford an aiyi in China is going without cause they want to “teach their kids a lesson”). If we are going to follow this moral high ground what about growing and cooking your own food…I mean heck we cant have farmers and cooks doing THAT work for us because we dont …” want to make someone else’s life more difficult because of my personal choices…”

    “But face it, you don’t do those things because you can’t be bothered. It is out of your own laziness that you spend your extra money on hired help.”

    Glen , I dont know you, and I dont know Catherine, but that is pretty presumptuous on your part dont you think. I’d speculate Catherine has a family, and if you dont have a couple kids, I’d bet you 100kuai within a month if you are still living in China you’d have full-time help.

    “Also, to claim that Josh is seething in envy is rather small on your part. If you have ever taken the time to read his site (deservedly named one of the best blogs in China) you would see that he’s not jealous of any of our lifestyles.”

    ok my bad, I admit it, and if I had made it personal, it was not the intention.

  33. @john
    “If we are going to follow this moral high ground what about growing and cooking your own food…”

    Sorry, but that made me laugh out loud. My students think I am crazy because when they ask about my hobbies, that’s my reply. The process of food, cooking and growing my own. There’s just something that makes food taste so much better when you watched it grow, then you prepare it yourself, plus being able to share fresh foods with friends is awesome. Perhaps I am simply too altruistic for a classical economist to understand. My thought is I would rather donate the money I would pay to a maid to an Human Service organization to help prevent poverty, than choose to let “the market” work for me by paying for a service that I really do feel is my responsibility. That way I use the money to try to cause the same effect without making someone do my dirty work.

    And the only economic argument needed to reply regarding keeping people employed with these types of jobs, is Bastiat’s broken window fallacy.

    @ Ryan I completely agree. You did a really good job at elaborating on why I have even more difficulty with the concept of hired help in this country than I do at home.

  34. Glen, First off, you are baby-bottom new at being an expat.

    I know because your info says that you’ve been an Asian expat from August 2008 to the present.

    http://www.lostlaowai.com/blog/author/Glen/

    Not even one year. And no, your expat time in Scotland does not count in Asia.

    And while I find your ideals admirable, in a ‘I was once like that’ way sort of way, they are not practical for real life out here. They do not reflect the reality of the real world outside of the West.

    Those living in the west (for the most part) are lucky. In their spoilt lives, they have the ease to make all sorts of decisions based on right or wrong, ethics, morals, etc…

    But for the rest of the world? The rest of the world does not have your luxury. Some do not have even have access to what we from the West feel are the basics: Clean water, free education, food, clothing, uncorrupt governments and more.

    And even so, just like you, they have responsibilities. Their responsibilities force them to be creative – forget Starbucks – in a way you might even fear.

    A quote from Glen in my comments: “Also, do you not see that having such well educated hired help is a problem? Clearly these people with high degrees could be doing something with their knowledge to help their community. If they have decided to pursue a career servicing expats then perhaps that should tell you that foreigners are being a tad too generous with their money on things that they don’t need (i.e. being decadent) creating this economic pull for obviously overqualified people in the first place.”

    http://womenlearnthai.com/index.php/the-habits-of-highly-effective-expats

    We were discussing the Philippians at the time. From your statement, I’m assuming that you do not know anything about the county or how it even works.

    In the Philippians, if you cannot find the money to pay for your child to go a decent school, then your child has a high chance of not making it. And I don’t mean Ivy league. I mean basic education. And I don’t mean a basic Western education.

    http://www.exampleessays.com/viewpaper/81478.html
    http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2009-06/15/content_11547420.htm

    And in my reponses to you I was pretty clear:

    –>> She was living and working in Borneo because she could make more money as a maid than as a school teacher in the Philippines.

    –>> Her kids went to good schools on the money she made working for me all those years. I was also good for any loans she needed back home (banks were out of reach and the Philippines has a terrible loan shark system).

    There is more on the subject but you’ll have to read it here —>> http://womenlearnthai.com/index.php/the-habits-of-highly-effective-expats

    It does not take an educated person to figure out rather quickly that for the whole family or country to succeed, the children need to come first. Especially in a corrupt country where qualified people are forced to work in lesser positions elsewhere.

    Filipinos are smart and they are industrious. But their country is one of growing poverty. Even in their economic growth, the poverty levels grew. And while they do not have the luxury that you have (lucky you, yeah?) what they do have is their families. And amongst their families are their children – the next generation of the Philippians.

    The Filipino mothers and fathers feel the dire need to go overseas to make a better life for their children. Wouldn’t you?

    And, a no brainer here, with the International financial crisis, there is a developing crisis in the Philippians. A county that depends on being able to export their workers in order to bring money home to the whole country. From what I’ve read, 10% of the working class are overseas…

    Another direct quote from Glen: If you are so up in offended by this then maybe you could be harbouring some sort of deep seeded guilt, methinks.

    Not in the least. I first came on board for the fun of it. Then, when I saw that it was a mere repeat of the ‘rich Western newcomer bringing their very idealistic Western lives to Asia’ bit, well, well.

    John, you are either a seasoned expat or a well travelled man of the world. I thank you for putting your experiences forward. Logic twined with experience is difficult to dispute. Gawd, I’m hoping that it is…

    Glen – I’ll do you the honour of repeating comments at my site too…

  35. Ryan, you said:

    ‘So, the question is are the maids getting paid what they’re worth, or are they being exploited due to the socio-economic situation of their country? We’re not talking “worth” in relation to skill-set/education level, as that simply doesn’t apply in a country with effectively no minimum wage and few poverty reduction programs. This is about worth as a human being – which I think cupritte nailed above.”

    You cannot compare wages in one country with the wages of another. It’s all competition, supply and demand.

    And this notion of equality is utopian nonsense.

    If suddenly everyone in China (or wherever you are) got a pay rise, there would be massive inflation.

    OR what if ONLY the maids got a pay rise? Isn’t that what you are suggesting? Just so that maids are not being exploited by expats?

    If so, then all teachers would suddenly want to work as maids. And only to expats.

    And that is why expats going into other countries are very careful NOT to inflate the existing positions.

    Because even though we as expats often pay over the odds (and the locals expect it), we are sensitive to local economics. Or should be.

  36. @cupritte: ok I’m saying this in complete jest and I’m sure you’ll appreciate the irony here: but next thing you’re going to tell me is you spin your own yarn and tailor your own clothes…….where do you find the time?

  37. Pace cupritte, I just don’t understand why anyone has a problem with hired help here. We pay for such services all the time. Why do you think a service industry exists?

    In China, I work 40 hours a week at my main job. I do regular work outside of my job, so in a given week I might do 50 hours of work. Soon, I will begin applying to graduate school programs which will only make me busier. Add in the need to exercise and the need to maintain some semblance of a social life, and there just aren’t a lot of other hours left in the day.

    I can cook and I enjoy doing it. I can also clean my house, fix the odd thing, and work on my bicycle. But in China it just makes economic sense to hire people to do these things for me, simply because I consider it a better allocation of my time and money.

    I challenge you to find one Chinese person who finds the idea of you hiring an ayi objectionable. Most Chinese families that have attained a certain degree of affluence have ayis, as well, simply because having one makes sense given their situation.

    So my advice is…if you feel guilty about having an ayi, about eating dinner out every night, about getting your shoes shined for two kuai, and about any of the other perks of life here, get over it.

  38. @cupritte: ok I’m saying this in complete jest : next thing you’re going to tell me is you spin your own yarn and tailor your own clothes…….where do you find the time?

    Bastiat’s window: if you made every aiyi redundant tomorrow you’d have revolution not seen since , 1949 , dare I say 1850….hum could be a good thing, mind you CCP wouldnt be too happy.

  39. You cannot compare wages in one country with the wages of another. It’s all competition, supply and demand.

    You absolutely can, at least by relative wages. It’s not a comparison between whether your maid make dollar for dollar the same wage as a maid back in Europe or N. America, it is a question of does your made have the same quality of life for the same job. And, if not, are you helping or hurting that person by exploiting the fact that they are willing to clean up after you to feed their family.

    Again, let me restate that I have no high horse here. By entering this conversation I fully admit that the arguments I’m presenting are as much against my lifestyle as against anyone else’s – but I debate with myself offline, so why not online as well.

    In fact, it is very likely I will need an ayi (for the Thai-based folks visiting this thread – “ayi” is Chinese for “auntie” and is an affectionate and common way to refer to a “maid”) inside of the next year.

    Whether I get a maid or not, and whether or not I find a means to justify something I’m obviously conflicted about, doesn’t prevent me from considering the context in which I am living.

    I really don’t agree with hiding behind that capitalistic bullshit answer of “supply and demand”. Saying it’s simple economics is exactly that, simple.

    Utopia, nonsense or not, is at least worth idealizing over. “Supply and demand” is a beautiful thing in an egalitarian society — but we don’t live in that utopia. We live in a world where there are classes, and that class structure is largely reinforced by those higher up on the class tree taking advantage of those on the lower rungs.

    Supply and demand is economic natural selection – and there is nothing crueler and more heartless than natural selection. I’m not saying I have the solution to it, I most certainly don’t, but I’m also not going to use it as a veil to hide my hedonism behind.

    @Matt: Would you kill a man in China if there wasn’t a law against it? Where we are matters nothing, who we are shouldn’t change based on the country we are living in.

  40. @Ryan: Where we are does matter. For many, such as Catherine and Matt, hiring an ayi makes sound economic sense. For many, working as an ayi makes sound economic sense. You are right to point out the fundamental economic inequalities rampant around most of the world, and you’re right that we should work to reduce inequality, but there is nothing immoral about hiring an ayi.

    I would say that the only place morality actually enters this equation is in one’s attitude. Many filipina maids suffer horrific abuse at the hands of their employers, and that, clearly, is wrong. There are plenty of people, such as Catherine (judging by her comments) and Matt (cos I know him in the real world and he’s a decent bloke) who treat their ayis with the same basic respect they would expect to be treated with.

    “Would you kill a man in China if there wasn’t a law against it?”

    That, sir, is utterly absurd. You are comparing something that is and has always been considered morally wrong in basically every culture that has ever existed with an economic choice. That’s not apples and oranges, it’s apples and Big Macs.

    Oh, and people everywhere throughout history have employed domestic staff. Egalitarianism, even in New Zealand, is in reality a very recent phenomenon (well, New Zealand is a very recent phenomenon, but read Katherine Mansfield and you’ll see references to domestic staff in Wellington households).

  41. “Habit #1
    Comparisons

    “It’s not like this back home”
    “In [insert home country back home] it’s like….”

    ’nuff said

  42. Wow A-yi revolution. Now that would be interesting. But that was not my point was it. I was simply stating that you can not tell me that in my choice to not hire an A-yi I am putting these people at a detriment. You are right it is a service, that many people choose to pay for (to me it may not be a fair price, but that is clearly a whole different issue.) I understand the curve of supply and demand, and I know that I provide a service that I am paid for and I have to pay for goods and services including clothing and food (I understand the basic concepts of an economic society, although I don’t understand this “communist” one.) I am simply explaining why I would have difficulty making the choice myself to bring in hired help. I am not criticizing those who make it. So sorry, but I won’t just get over my personal moral concept of taking responsibility for the messes that I make (and others too), and I hope that I never do.

  43. I should have phrased it slightly less brusquely, but my point is that you’re going to do things differently in China simply because your situation here is slightly different.

    Most of us live in China because we have a higher standard of living than we could attain in our home countries. As a result, we find ourselves in the financial position to hire maids, eat in restaurants daily, and take taxis everywhere.

    When we go back home, we find that we’re unable to do these things. Most people I think handle this transition seamlessly. I’m afraid I don’t see the danger of relying on a maid in China just because your financial position elsewhere wouldn’t permit it.

    I’m with Catherine. There are a lot of perks to being a laowai in China, including things people haven’t mentioned such as flattering attention from attractive women. Just enjoy them!

  44. Just to weigh in on the whole Ayi issue, for me it’s as simple as not being comfortable having someone pick up after me. For a short time when I was a kid we had a cleaner come once a week to vacuum and whatnot because we were all in school and my parents were working long days, so it made sense. But even then I personally thought it was a little uncomfortable to have someone else doing that, and more important just downright annoying when her relocation of my stuff hit my OCD.

    Back in the states my friend’s mom was an ‘ayi’ as her main source of income. More than once I went along and helped or outright worked in her place w/ my friend if there was some external issue, so I’ve been on both sides of it. I have no moral quandary with the concept. I just personally am not comfortable having one.

  45. @ Matt

    Thank you for clarifying. I think I get what you are saying. I guess that the difference for me is because I am so stingy in practically every aspect of my life I could afford help in both countries. I choose to not use that service in both countries. (Although if they kill mice I would so hire one now, because I saw one in my room last night eep! Darn living in the boys dormitory!)

  46. Pingback: Beggars, Expat Habits, Netizen Revolution, Jackson, & Parkour | CNReviews

  47. @ Ryan: the assumption that you make it is a question of does your made have the same quality of life for the same job. is very wrong. Many jobs in China won’t get you even close to the same standard of living of that job in other countries, even from a relative point of view. Substitute “standard of living” with “respect” and the assumption is still valid: you’re dealing with a certain set of conditions that make it impossible for comparison.
    We’re talking practical things, better stay on the pragmatic side, even running the risk of coming off a tiny bit cynical.

    @ cupritte: I think everybody here feels being cast in a bad light by your being overly responsible for you messes. Paying for a little help won’t send you to hell, or kill the planet. You can’t always take everything that seriously.

  48. ‘There are plenty of people, such as Catherine (judging by her comments) and Matt (cos I know him in the real world and he’s a decent bloke) who treat their ayis with the same basic respect they would expect to be treated with.’

    Some in my group had a ‘giving back’ attitude (but not all).

    Edith was with me for 5 years. Towards the end of that time, when there was a downtime at work and she was not watching her son, I taught her how to use a computer.

    She had a bookkeeping background, so when she got over her fear of the computer I hired a guy to train her on MYOB (Mind Your Own Business – bookkeeping software).

    When I left, she left too. With her computer skills and bookkeeping knowledge, she opened a computer store in her hometown.

    As I said, I was not alone in this. There were plenty of expats who found ways to give back.

    And it goes on here in Thailand too. Expats are paying for their maid’s kids to go to school, donating books to the schools, whatever they can. Giving money is iffy as sometimes it does not go where intended, so we do have to be clever with what we do.

  49. That’s not apples and oranges, it’s apples and Big Macs.

    The Apple Big Mac, I’m sure that’s going to be at the next MacWorld. 😉

    “Oh, and people everywhere throughout history have employed domestic staff. Egalitarianism, even in New Zealand, is in reality a very recent phenomenon.”

    I’m not really sure what you’re saying. Are you saying because we, as a race, have always done something, it should continue? Not just that it should continue, but that because we’ve always done it that lends evidence to it being ethically ok? No, that couldn’t have been your meaning. 🙂

    I do agree though, a lot of it comes down to respect – and respect can fill a lot of gaps between wages. Much of the reason I was stirred comment on this thread was Catherine’s comments (here and on her site) that had an entirely matriarchal and classist tone to them.

    Now I completely understand that this is the Internet and inferring tones from a comment or post is a dangerous slope to slide, and Catharine if I’ve got you wrong, I’m totally sorry. I’ve read a few of your posts now and some are down right excellent. But something irks me about the comments on this topic and how they seem to paint a rather saintly image of the benevolent masteremployer.

  50. Ryan, Agreed. The internet is a terrible place to communicate.

    ‘But something irks me about the comments on this topic and how they seem to paint a rather saintly image of the benevolent masteremployer.’

    Edith would be laughing her head off if she read this (I’ll have to send it over to her actually).

    SHE ran my household. She was in control. She was also the one who put limits on our relationship. And I imagine most maids are similar in small households.

    Warning: some longtime expats reading this are going to be shaking their heads because I did not follow ‘the rules’ of employing staff… I did not keep my distance. But like not everyone is suited to have staff, the rest of us who are have to find where we fit. To discover how it works for us. And for me, I felt that the old-fashioned colonial way was outdated.

    In several comments back I mentioned that I fired maids who did not respect me respecting them. This is because some felt that if you treated them like real people then it was ‘you’ who was inferior. Odd, I know. I tried to understand it but because it did not fit who I was, I sidestepped the situation to find someone who fit me. So yes, I do break some of the rules.

    And as it made no sense to me, I was always wanted to cross that line.

    But Edith kept enforcing her version of it, again and again.

    Shortly after being hired, she came up pregnant. It was shocking to the other expats who said, ‘send her back!’

    It seemed ridicules to me then and sounds even more so now. I had a big house with a small house in the back for a maid. The maid’s accommodation was complete with kitchen and carport. And besides, it was her private life, so what difference did it make to me?

    Ok, I’m cheating. I knew what an amazing person she was. In that short time, I knew that she could handle whatever, and that she would not take advantage of the situation.

    And if I had any problem with Edith at all, it was all down to her working too hard.

    My house was so big that the family lived upstairs. The huge downstairs stayed empty except for the events I had to have (high profile business, hence the big house). And I did NOT need all the floors up and down cleaned every day, but it took several years to get Edith to get over it. To make her see sense. She was as stubborn as I am.

    And even though I offered to take care of her baby, John Russel, when she was really busy, or sick or needed to be out, only once was I given the pleasure. Once in four years.

    Btw – John is named after my dad, but only because the name fit a religious title.

    You see, that was her ‘line’. And she had lots of lines.

    She went along with my insistence that she was NOT call me ‘Mam’ (all the maids called their employers Mam out there and I hated it).

    And there were many other things she would not allow.

    She refused to sit down at lunch with me, even on her birthday. She refused to go for a coffee when we were out grocery shopping. It went on and on. Edith was in control.

    She is a wonderful women and I miss her very much. Not because I want my house cleaned but because she was great to be around. And because I learned a lot from her. And because she was so very strong and handling so much in her life so beautifully.

    Ah… For those who have not read the post on my site, there is something I should have mentioned here. Since I no longer have a large house, I have someone come in for about four hours a week. That’s it. The rest of the time I do the dishes, the laundry, the cooking, the shopping, the kitty litter (the maid never does the kitty litter as I feel that it is one thing too far… and sometimes I wished I never put that rule in place :-). And with all of that, I do feel that the protests seem to be a bit ott.

    And guess what. My present maid and I get along great too. I was warned that I should NOT be greng jai to a maid, but to heck with all of that. But, I’ll be writing on my site about all of that and more (it was already scheduled, way before this).

    Bottom line – I found out where I fit in Asia. I am not totally absorbed into the culture. It is not possible. But I am aware of what works for me.

    (Ryan… I got to see your blog last night. Nice. I’m in the industry too. I no longer take paying clients, but I do donate my time to helping out the industry).

  51. Wait, when you employ a maid isn’t there an unspoken assumption that it’s because your time is too valuable to spend cleaning up after yourself? Which means of course that the maid’s time is not as valuable as yours, therefore you are putting yourself on a higher rung than your maid, consciously or not. I find it quite abhorrent.

    Nobody needs a maid. Can’t handle the housework? Your house is either too big, you have been inconsiderate enough to the world’s resources to have had too many children, or you’re just bone idle. Or some combination of the above.

    People have the time to watch tv or browse the internet and make comments in these forums, but suddenly there’s not enough time in the day to pick up their own dirty socks. Oh boo hoo i work 50 hour weeks and have to work out and go drink beer occassionally, where on earth am I going to find the time to do some laundry or scrub the toilet? The weekend! The evenings! I forced my mother to pick up after me when I was a toddler. Guess what – I grew up. Clearly the world accommodates a lot of people who haven’t.

    And this applies to people all over the world, the ‘we’re expats’ thing is just an excuse perpetuated by pathetic expats who think they’re magically entitled because their money is suddenly worth more.

    Oh, and please do excuse my vitriol, I just find it oils the wheels of discussion no end.

  52. @Ryan: “I’m not really sure what you’re saying. Are you saying because we, as a race, have always done something, it should continue?”

    No, you’re reading too much into it. Clearly there are things we should stop doing, like burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow (cos there won’t be a tomorrow at the rate we’re going), or killing people (I mean, by means other than the combustion of fossil fuels, which I’ve already ranted against). All I’m saying is that the hiring of domestic staff (maids, ayis, butlers, whatever) is something that has happened throughout history just about everywhere in some form or another, that it’s neither moral nor immoral, purely economic, no different from the hiring of tutors.

    But actually, we’re pretty much agreed on the attitude thing, do unto others and all that. I just found your comparison with murder way over the top. That’s all.

  53. one man’s decadence is another man’s convenience

    mcrant – go clean your toilet and whatever else fills yer boots and rattles yer chain. oh and congratulations on your 50 hour work week and beer drinking and working out. glad to see you could fit the laundry in there as well

    China has people that will do it for a price, and I will pay that right price – and yes, treat them with respect – frankly I’d rather spend 4 hours with my kids Saturday afternoon going for a swim or something vs. doing laundry

    yer right nobody “needs” a maid…….but lots of people “want” one (or more) and can afford it. it is a “service” with a “market”. You’d think we were debating indentured slavery here

  54. Some very interesting views in this discussion 🙂

    I had an ayi when I was living in Beijing – loved it! She was fantastic, and there was nothing better than coming home on Friday afternoon to a spotless house.

    At present I don’t have an ayi (for whatever reason I am not sure) but I clean my own house and do so often however this doesn’t mean it is something I enjoy. It also doesn’t mean I won’t have an ayi again in the future. Am I lazy as my name suggests? Maybe! Would I ever work as a cleaner? Sure if the circumstance demanded it. (I worked part time as a cleaner to earn some extra cash many, many years ago)

    Seems there is a strong focus on whether or not it is ok for expats to have an ayi however I am not sure anyone has considered Chinese who have ayis. My ayi in Beijing was also working for a one of my local friends – sure, she was a well paid professional who could afford it but by the same token she was single and could have easily looked after herself. It is not just those earning a high income. A friend in Wuhan had a baby and her mother sent a woman from the village to live with her and be a full time ayi. My friend and her husband were both teachers living on campus and both received the usual poor wage that Chinese teachers receive.

    This is not a justification for having an ayi but surely it is a matter of individual choice? Our perception or idea of whether it is morally right or not is also a matter of individual choice.

    Oh, and btw – love the list, definitely good for a laugh!

  55. Mr McRant,

    I’m not even sure where to start. There’s a little something called a complex society in which people specialize in certain tasks in order to maximize mutual gain. Is it abhorrent that sometimes we pay people to cook meals for us in restaurants?

    This is what is abhorrent- that people forget that what an ayi does is nothing but a service. It isn’t slave labor. It isn’t prostitution. There’s no coercion involved. I found my cleaning lady when she offered to clean my house after encountering her at a friend’s place. Boy, real exploitative!

    I realize that some of you find the idea of someone else looking after your house undesirable. That’s fine. But I resent the implication that those of us who do hire people to help our house are somehow capitalist pigs exploiting poor peasants who would otherwise be doing something more “productive” with their time.

    Frankly, there’s a rather unpleasant odor emanating from some of the comments here; that somehow cleaning house is a hardship position for those that do it, that in a perfect society nobody would have to clean other people’s houses.

    Well, get over it. Because that attitude is frankly ridiculous.

  56. Incidentally, I asked my cleaning lady about her thoughts on this matter, and her reply was:

    ‘Why would a foreigner be so cheap as to not have one?’

    Funny, and I do think she has a point.

  57. Profile photo of Glen

    *sigh* Once more, I appear to have created a monster.

    IF you have read all the way down to Comment #67 then you may have forgotten exactly what I said in the beginning which was as follows:

    It’s pretty easy to see just how cheap China is.

    It’s also easy to see that so many expat packages include accommodation, annual airfare, and health care. This leaves your money to be, well your money.

    It’s also pretty easy to see that there are so many inexpensive luxuries ranging from ayis to cheap DVDs to delivery on anything to spend some of your disposable income.

    What’s difficult is knowing when and where to stop. Life here can get very infantile if you have someone clean up for you, deliver your food for you, and you can get whatever you want by pointing at it. In many ways living in China can be like being five years old all over again.

    While this is part of the attraction for a lot of people, I hope that you ask yourself what you think of the people who have that sort of a lifestyle back home.

    The ayi thing was merely mentioned as an example of rich expat decadence that takes place here in China, and I assume in many other places around the world. Since this country is so insanely cheap it is very easy to get what you want when you want it with little effort on your part.

    I do not in any way think that having an ayi is an amoral act. It is however a decadent act. Miriam-Webster defines “decadent” as:

    characterized by or appealing to self-indulgence

    Having someone clean up after you, cook for you, and pay your bills is self-indulgent, no matter how you slice it. I don’t think that it is necessarily immoral (assuming that you treat them with respect) but it is a decadent act. If you noticed I don’t think that any of those seven habits make you necessarily evil, although Habit #5 could be if taken too far.

    I’m just saying that they are bad habits, akin to biting your nails or spending too much time on-line. These bad habits are things that I would like to break, and I imagine that a lot of people out there should try as well. This is purely in the interest of self-improvement, and not in the interest of saving us all from our dirty sinful ways.

    I don’t have a problem with the concept of hired hands, but I do think that it is a touch self-indulgent and a great deal lazy. I know that I am both of those things on a frequent basis so I would be a giant hypocrite to chastise others for those habits. However, what I do have a problem with is all of the moral justification that goes on with being a saviour for all of your hired help and the talk of “helping the economy”. If you want to have hired help fine, but please, PLEASE spare us all of the bizarre justification of it. It really does not make any sense what so ever, and makes you very guilty of Habit #7.

    I think that John said it best a few comments ago when he said:

    yer right nobody “needs” a maid…….but lots of people “want” one (or more) and can afford it.

    If you don’t need one but get one because you want one, how is that not self-indulgent? While it’s hardly despicable, it certainly is decadent.

  58. I dont “need” to eat at McDonalds or drink a Yanjing, but I “want” to. I’d hardly call either of those “self-indulgent”.

    And Glen pls stop assuming people are “lazy” if they have hired help, I put in the long hours like a lot of us here and have 2 kids to look after. I’d speculate many of the “anti-aiyi” brigade are singles living on their own with whole heck of a lot of time to navel gaze and maybe feel guilty that someone else is doing their laundry.

    Unfortuantely I dont have that “self-indulgent” luxury (some days I do miss it) and as I stated before paying someone 20 RMB to come in load up the machine and watch it spin and then hang the clothes (yes I take them down usually and even do my own ironing) is a bargain as that’s a half day I get to spend with the little guys – call it self-indulgent and lazy if you want, I call it spending my time and money wisely.

  59. The assumption that people who use such services around the house are “lazy” is, in my impression, totally false. The vast majority of people I know who use maids, cooks, or other kinds of service in China are people who are putting in 70 hour/wk workloads a week and could use a little time to play with their kids or take the spouse on a date.

    Also, be real careful with the word “exploit”, its pretty loaded. And the people who use the word tend to forget that every thing we do that deals with other people is exploitation. I exploit a bunch of workers at a grocery store because I’m too damn lazy to set up a bunch of supply chains for fruit, meat, and poptarts to ship straight to my house. I exploit a bunch of British reporters at BBC because I’m too lazy to go out and learn more about Michael Jackson and Iran myself. I exploit engineers, seamstresses, nutritionists, and mechanics to design and build the clothes, foods, appliances, and other trinkets that I use everyday because I’m too lazy to just sit down and figure out how to do it myself. Besides, they’re all exploiting me because they’re not only doing something they know how to do well, but they’re getting PAID. I even exploit a bunch of posters at Lostlaowai because I’m too damn lazy to think up a back-and-forth inner dialogue about a sensitive issue in my head. We are all exploiting each other’s skill sets, schedules, and life circumstances and being exploited in turn. Every thing we do is self-indolgent and exploitive, and there’s nothing immoral about that. Okay, down from my Ayn Rand soapbox…

  60. Well put, Chip, and I’d like to go further- hiring an ayi is justifiable even if you don’t work 60 hours a week, even if you don’t have a large house, or a family, or anything else. If you want someone to come over and clean your house, and you can afford her price, then hire her guilt free.

  61. Profile photo of Ericka

    I’d expand “know it all” to include wannabes. You know the people who forget they are actually white and pretend to be Asian. I had a really annoying classmate in Japan like that.
    Or you add one for assimilated – those people who’ve been in China way too long and no longer act foreign.

    Your list reminds me of those online personality quizes, but you didn’t ask questions before you showed the answers.

  62. I must be odd because I don’t have any of those habits or any of the ones Matthew Stinson mentions either.

    For example, food. I’ve been in asia (mainly china and india) two years and never once had any western food. It just doesn’t bother me enough. That’s the main reason, but also, as a visitor, I kind of feel that its better to just do what the locals do rather than allow my likes to help change their environment. Just expand their economy a little but keep it looking the same way as it used to.

    Also I’m vegetarian so I have a fairly limited range of options, but it really doesnt bother me.

    I’ve only ever taken taxis when moving large amounts of stuff. I don’t understand why people take taxis when public transport is there to be used. Its more social! Ask people directions, when to get off etc. Great chinese practice! OK, there are other reasons to use a taxi but I think a lot of people are a bit too quick to jump into one…

  63. You’re not odd, Mark, you just don’t have those bad habits. There’s a clear line between people who enjoy China and enjoy interacting with Chinese people and people who try to avoid as much “China” as possible. The longer you’re here — I’ve been here 5.4 years — the more you see this distinction. Similarly, there are a significant number of people for whom China is an excuse to discard Western morality and adopt extremely bad “Chinese habits” — littering (“because somebody will pick it up, that’s their job”), whoring, binge smoking and drinking — while also getting into the loud and pushy foreigner DYKWIA habit that makes the average Lost Laowai reader cringe.

    It’s curious how this entire conversation turned to the subject of the morality of domestic help without anyone really focusing on the other reason people hire ayis — China is much, much dirtier than Western countries. One of my good friends is a neat-freak but puts in 50 hour days but still needs an ayi to keep the dust level down. I’ve never had an ayi myself but at my last apartment the dust level was uncontrollable even with my girlfriend and I cleaning several hours a week. My new apartment is smaller and more manageable, thankfully — but it takes me as many hours to keep it clean each week as it did to keep my house in America clean each month!

    To emphasize a point I think Chris Waugh was trying to make, having an ayi in itself isn’t moral or immoral, it’s whether you treat her and other 老百姓 with respect that matters most.

  64. Yeah, I read that Dubai article before. So many expats have left Dubai now; I wonder how much middle and upper-class expats paid attention to the fate of lower-class migrants when they were there.

  65. I’m not sure how accurate 3 is, people fall into a “rut” everywhere, no matter if its China or “back home”. There is also something said for being a regular and supporting the small restaurants near where you live. Its one thing if the place you go to regularly is a McDonalds, its quite another if its a local spot.

    I also disagree with 4, come on, any Chinese with just a little bit of money will leave the country at any chance they get, especially during the pain in the ass tourism periods like National Day and after completing their familial duties at Spring Festival.

    Most people who exhibit 1 or 2 are people that came to China and it didn’t live up to what they expected or they had a really bad experience, they don’t want to be expats. For others, its understandable having not been home for a year or more that they’d want to go back and see their friends or family.

    The only one that I think is dead on is 5, its definitely a problem and I’ve seen people who come over and drink morning, noon, and night.

  66. argh, the white guilt in this discussion is killing me.

    nothing’s wrong with hiring someone to clean your house so long as you pay the going wage. you’re not actively exploiting anyone by giving them a job, provided you pay a decent salary compared to what someone else will pay them. chances are the average maid in china thinks she’s ripping you off, because you’re paying her twice what any chinese person would pay.

    and you’re not morally better off because you “choose to clean up for yourself” rather than paying someone else to do it. maybe you’re more frugal, or feel more guilty that foreigners here are paid more money to do less work than the local help, but it doesn’t make you a better person. get off your high horse.

    as for behaviors, the only one that’s really detrimental is the fengwai who bitches about everything, from chinese people to other foreigners, and just repeats the same garbage over and over. those are the ones nobody wants to be around, the people with the superiority complex because they “know so much” about china. wtf if you don’t like it here, go home, eh?

  67. Pingback: Giving Thanks To China | Lost Laowai China Blog

  68. Hey Glen – great article!!
    Before I arrived in China I considered myself an adaptable and experienced traveler and expat, but living here is a lot more challenging than anywhere else I’ve been or lived. My two months so far have been somewhat of a struggle, and your article really hit home for me. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so please correct me if I’m wrong, but here is what I got from your ideas:

    These actions are not necessarily bad or evil in of themselves, but as HABITS they can become detrimental to your experience in this country and possibly to your actual being. People get SO touchy when they think they are being judged…rest assured friends, I think this article was simply pointing out some potential dangers for expats to watch out for. They were also some things I was just beginning to notice and identify in myself, so even if not everyone can identify I thank Glen for pointing them out for my own sake.

    Now my own two cents on some things that seem to be facing some controversy on the message board:

    #3 The Rut: Every other country I’ve traveled in I really try to act like a local: go where they go, eat where they eat, make friends with locals, etc. I personally did not come here to surround myself with English speakers and familiar settings. If you did then that’s fine and falling into this habit shouldn’t really be any concern of yours. Anyway, I realized it’s much more difficult to do this here than other places when I noticed myself drawn to certain “comfort spots,” either Western establishments or places I can go and point at things and not have to communicate much. Guess what – my Mandarin is not getting any better from doing this, and I’m not trying many fun new things. I don’t feel bad for going to Starbucks sometimes, but am gradually realizing that I might need to venture far, far out of my comfort zone before I can really enjoy the “real” China.

    #6 – has this one been exhausted yet? Eh I don’t care, here it goes…
    I don’t think Glenn was criticizing EVERYONE who chooses to indulge a bit here. I think we all do it, and we all do it in different ways. Personally I like to indulge in expensive Starbucks coffee. I don’t NEED coffee but it sure makes me a lot happier when I drink it. I don’t NEED to own every season of Scrubs on dvd, but it makes me laugh so I do. People don’t NEED help around the house, it is a luxury (all negative connotations aside), but they are busy and I’m sure it makes life so much easier. Number 6 was just a reminder that MODERATION IS KEY. It’s easy for us to become accustomed to luxury and decadence to the point of dependence. I have a feeling that upon my distant future return to the US I will feel quite resentful of having to pay twenty bucks for a dvd. It sounds like those of you who do have hired help are genuinely appreciative and respectful to said workers (I loved Ryan’s “respect can fill a lot of gaps between wages” – beautifully said), as well as still being capable of doing things by yourself, which is awesome! Just be wary. I think most of us would agree that money doesn’t buy happiness, but there is just so much cool cheap stuff to buy here, you have to be careful not to get confused.

    Finally, a little post-university idealism:
    People, seriously, take a moment to realize something: being born Western means that, through no action or deed of our own, almost all of us were born wealthier and with more opportunities than most of the world. Like it or not, that is a reality. I’m NOT telling you to feel guilty, clearly no one has control of where they were born. I’m just saying. True, some of us have worked very hard and achieved a lot for ourselves. But comparatively speaking we have a undeserved advantage over many people. Recognize that. Think about it. Do something, or do nothing about it, but at least see it. One thing that shocks me here is how long and hard people work everyday – more than me in most cases, and I feel like I’m a very hard worker. Are they less deserving of drinking delicious expensive coffee than I am? No. Absolutely not. Just because we will never live in a perfect world where everyone can do the job they want to be doing and live in the degree of luxury they choose does not mean we shouldn’t try.

    I may not feel guilt but I do feel extremely sad that there are migrant kids here who are barely getting a decent education. If you’re ok with throwing your money around while that is happening right in front of you then fine. It’s not wrong to take care of yourself and enjoy life. But I think that one of the most important lessons of living abroad should be as huge eye opener to how most of the rest of the world is, and perhaps an encouragement to use our advantages to somehow help our fellow humans.

  69. Nice post soledad.

    You hit the nail on the head with the “huge eye opener” comment, but I would add that its a huge eye-opener in far more ways than how much poorer people are and how much fewer opportunities they have.

    Here in Dalian, most of my 20-something-year-old chinese friends are doing (I think) typical jobs and spending typical amounts of money (for Dalian, maybe not the rest of China). Most of them earn less than 1000RMB/mth and pay about 200-300RMB/mth on accommodation. They have enough money for food and generally have no worries where their next meals will come from. Health is a different matter. If they suddenly need to buy expensive medicines then they probably can’t afford it. Maybe a relative could help them out in such a situation, maybe not.

    So most people I meet have most of their basic needs met. The problem is more about opportunities. For example, how to get out of a dead-end job or how to attract a husband/wife when they do not earn enough to help pay for somewhere to live together.

    But despite all of this, such people generally maintain a level of cheerfulness I do not see back home in the west. Indeed, when I go to more upmarket cafes (chinese-style) here in Dalian where the clientele are much richer than average, it strikes me how much more miserable they are. If most people in China were like the people in those cafes then I probably wouldn’t want to be in China at all. Indeed the waitresses in those cafes look miserable too, I guess because of the way the customers talk to them.

    When I see locals or foreigners splashing the cash around, it doesn’t bother me at all. It more reminds me of how I don’t want to be, which is a good thing. I just hope that when we “use our advantages to somehow help our fellow humans” we do it for their benefit and not to make them like we are, which IMHO in most cases would be a step backwards.

  70. Profile photo of Glen

    I’m not going to lie, when I saw that I received two more comments on this post I cringed. So thank you both to Mark and soledad for your constructive comments!!!

    @soledad — I think that you summarized Habit #6 better than I ever could with “I think most of us would agree that money doesn’t buy happiness, but there is just so much cool cheap stuff to buy here, you have to be careful not to get confused.”

    That’s exactly what I meant!!! I don’t think that it’s evil to spend too much on things you don’t need, but it’s probably one of those things that you should try to avoid, that’s what a bad habit is. I spend a lot of time on the computer and I shouldn’t. That doesn’t mean that I’m a terrible person, it just means that I have a bad habit.

    @Mark — I agree, it is terrifying when you think of the wage gap between expats and locals in this country. However, you did raise a good point that we often ignore, the locals seem a heck of a lot happier than we are.

    Makes you wonder where our priorities are, doesn’t it?

  71. Pingback: 3 Bad Habits I’ve picked up while living in China | Pausa Monk

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