The Veteran Sensation

Last Friday I went with Brad to a bar called Mural. It’s really popular on Friday nights, especially among the expat community. It has a comfy loungey interior, and, perhaps more importantly, it has a 100rmb ($12.50 US) deal for open bar until 2am.

The bar was probably something like 80% expats. Most of them were looking to kick off the weekend in drunken splendor. It had been a while since I’d been in that kind of atmosphere.

I’ve been in Shanghai for close to a year now, and I’ve got exactly two expat friends in Shanghai. One of them is my co-worker and one of them I knew before the move. I’m long overdue to make a few more expat friends here. It’s no secret that I have no love for Shanghai’s high-rolling China-oblivious expat crowd, but it would be ridiculous to prejudge or label such a large group of diverse people, and there’s no sense in rejecting one form of prejudice in favor of its flipside. It was time to get to know some new people.

I soon discovered a pattern, though. Most of the expats at Mural were young English teachers fresh out of college who had been in China for less than a year. Many were almost ready to go home. When they learned that I had been in China for over four years, the tone of the conversation would shift. I was “experienced,” I “knew Chinese,” I “understood China.” I didn’t make any of these claims. The people I talked to projected this impression.

I suddenly felt like a high school senior at a freshman party. I wore my four years in China like a letter jacket.

I’m not sure how I feel about all that. It was just an odd sensation.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I’ve only been here two years, but I know exactly the feeling you’re talking about. I usually enjoy helping the newcomers, but sometimes I can’t handle the naivete and holier-than-thou “I want to experience the real China” attitude. When I’m in one of those moods I try to avoid them, and luckily they’re easy to spot, wandering around in wide-eyed wonder, fresh-faced and oblivious.

  2. Well, I am not in China, but Taiwan for 5 years. When I am in such environment with other expats they also said the same things to me…I can imagine how you feel….

  3. Almost as lame as the “Hello, How do you love the Chinese people” from the Chinese crowd?

    Happy Veterans Day.

  4. Waaaa! Four years in China! Can you use chopsticks?

  5. The mirror image of this: a good portion of the Chinese who come to study in the US for years on end live in a sort of Chinese bubble. They know no Americans, never want to speak English, and sit in their rooms watching Chinese VCDs all day while trying to concoct a decent hot pot. That’s a large generalization, but I’ve met quite a few of those people here.

  6. Maybe you should make an entry regarding the proper attitude/perspective to have when moving to China for the first time. I’m planning to make the leap next Fall (although I’m not fresh out of college). I would like to come over with my eyes as wide open as possible.

  7. Hehe, and Chinese students in New Zealand too, they live in Chinese flats, shop at Chinese supermarkets, and speak Chinese all the time. Then the day before their assignment is due they come to me and say “AiyA! Kaili, can you help me with my assignment?” and hand me a USB drive full of documents that are made up of sentences full of English words and Chinese grammar because they haven’t actually learnt any more English here!

    It’s just a comfort zone thing. Especially for those who are just 18 or 19, leaving home for the first time, in a totally alien environment. The funny thing is, there are these companies that recruit them in China who are supposed to look after them here — but I’ve never seen anyone from one of these companies after they’ve taken their cut of the uni fees! The students’ parents believe that university in New Zealand is going to be as strict as in China (i.e. curfews, dorms etc), and have no idea that their babies are out drinking, gambling, driving fast cars, and contributing 90% of New Zealand’s abortion cases (actual statistic).

  8. I know exactly what Kaili and ÍÐµÄ are talking about. I immigrated to Canada 10 years ago. Instead of moving into Toronto or Vancouver, where there are huge Chinese communities there, my parents chose to settle down in a small town 2 hours drive away from Toronto. It was hard, especially during the first 2 years. That was when I realized that the English I’d learned in Hong Kong wasn’t good enough. Eventually, I survived. I even went to university and got a degree in English Literature. Two years ago, I moved to Toronto. There I met a lot of Chinese and a lot of them were curious in how I survived living in a town where I couldn’t watch Chinese TV, where there was no Chinese malls, and where there was only a very small number of Chinese immigrants (There are Chinese living in my hometown, but most of them have been in Canada for years). This year I moved back to my hometown and I’m glad that I’ve made this decision.

  9. Gin,

    Would you believe I didn’t know it was Veterans Day when I posted that? Crazy coincidence…

  10. ÍеÄ,

    Yeah, I’ve seen that phenomenon too. It has led me to believe that for all their hard work and success as immigrants all over the world, the Chinese are really not that good at adapting to different cultures. The fact that they rarely eat local cuisine when living in foreign lands is testament to that.

  11. Stuart,

    The “proper attitude”? I’m afraid it’s not that simple.

    People come to China for different reasons. I’m here for the long haul, but who am I to lecture to someone who just wants to come to China for a year of “adventure” and doesn’t want to be bothered by the language?

  12. Whats wrong with trying to make a decent hot pot? 😀

    Anyways John, I don’t think sticking to their original cuisine is neccessarily a mark of unwillingness on the part of the Chinese to assimilate. I’m not sure if this is verifiable or not, but I’ve heard that food is essentially the last custom that immigrants give up. Just look at the popularity of immigrant foods in New York and how even after so many generations the descendants of immigrants still eat foods from the old world.

  13. John,

    You are so Chinese now I kinds guessed it. So at the last minute I scrapped the final line of “here is your four-year wreath.

    “Chinese are really not that good at adapting to different cultures.” True enough. Even in China proper, anything foreign would have to be painfully assimilated. We touched upon this slightly when talking about the fate of foreign words in Chinese.

    Food is a different beast. There aren’t too many good cuisines out there for them (I’m kidding of course actually this may have a genetic reason); “they rarely eat local cuisine when living in foreign lands” except maybe pizza. Long after a 4-year tour of duty in Texas, my wife and I are still hooked on Tex-Mex.

  14. I think Chinese food survives so long because its the best damn cuisine in the world!!!

    [I must make a rather pointed exception of Chicken Feet]

  15. Stuart,

    I always advise people to read “The Great Chan Continent” by Spence.

    Also try to use “some people” instead of “they”.


    They spit on the street.
    Some people spit on the street.


    I have had people become angry with me when I don’t tell them exactly how long I have been here. An angry person is sometimes better than the normal questions. I also feel similarly about many people in Shanghai. Keep looking though. There are some really great pockets of people that would make you the freshman. And isn’t that great?

  16. John,

    There was a typo in my post of 10:28 AM: the end of the first sentence should read ….kinda guessed it.


    Chicken feet!!! Chichen feet??? That’s the greatest dish. If you just conceptually cannot accept it, well, the Cantonese had a glossed over name for it: Feng Jiao(zhao) = Phoenix’s Paw! If you don’t like the blandness, soy sauce or hot pepper dipping would cure that. Seriously though, all Chinese don’t like it either. However, it’s true the glutinous edible part you gnaw off of them is wonderfully healthy stuff, good for your heart, skin, etc. You get glutin from chicken and pig feet, pig ears and tail, headcheese, and any riblets. The fact that chicken wings (anyone from Buffalo, NY?) became a very popular American fast food entry probably has to do with, besides taste, the glutinous substance at the wingtips. Ask your doctor or nutritionist about the benefit of animal glutin.

  17. The above sponsored by Gin, i.e. Glutin Ingesting Nations, fine prints omitted.

  18. I think Jing has a good point that food is probably one of the last steps of assimilation; two years out here, and I still love picking up a block of extra sharp cheddar (and I’m not down with chicken feet… yet). But I think Angela and Kaili and ÍÐµÄ point to a bigger picture on Chinese assimilation (or lack thereof)… the language, the communities, the VCDs and the shops. They build, essentially, ghettos. I haven’t been to Shanghai, and only spent a week in Beijing, but I get the impression foreigners here don’t make “Little Europes” or anything of the sort. The closest they seem to get is a bar district – nothing on the order of a Chinatown in the U.S. where you can get everything and more often than not find work within a bubble of your home language and culture. I think it’s the insular communities that suggest poor assimilation. Another thing is westerners tend to glop into larger groups in China; I regularly find myself in a group made of an Irishman, a Kiwi, an Aussie, a Belgian, a German, a Japanese… yes, English is a common language, but for many it’s a second, third or eighth. Has anyone heard of various westerners in a country like China or Saudi Arabia not grouping in multiethnic clumps?

  19. I don’t think the issue can be explained away simply, in black and white. Yes we all see overseas Chinese congregate and hang on to their traditions (more so than westerners in China) but many factors contribute to this observation. Let me name just two.

    First, it is a number’s game. When a few people gather and practice something alternative, they are not noticed. They remain unnoticed for a certain period. When the number of such people and/or the length of the practice accumulate to a critical mass, they get noticed. This Chinatown game has been played for how long? And by how many? And that is in comparison to Westerners in Shanghai for the last how many years? I’d love to compare (A) with (B) below as an example: (A) the ratio of the number of Chinese students in Kaili’s observation to the total number of the uni student body, and (B) the ratio of Western workers to Shanghai’s total population. In any society, there is variety. People who dehave with the mainstream do not show in the “Chinatwon” statistics, me being one not shown there for a while. When ÍÐµÄ started by saying “the mirror image” to John’s situation I immediately anticipated (wrongly) that he was going to describe me, or the me that did not have more than 2-3 Chinese friends, did not go to Chinese karaoakes, and did not have a Chinatown near me to shop. Then I moved to a city where there is a very convenient Chinatown so the shopping has changed. There are all sorts of behavioral patterns, among Chinese here, and among westerners there. The observation that many westerners party with different countries of origin can be used by me to support that, yeah, none of the groups have reached it’s own critical mass.

    Secondly, there were circumstances that centuries ago helped bring about the Chinatown tradition, not the least of which was economical conditions. But I’d like to call your attention to the political ones. At least in North America, the first Chinese were coolies (there’s a loanword), no that’s too glorifying a term, they were slaves. Unlike black slaves that scattered on individual plantations, the Chinese slaves were concentrated arround mines or railway tracks. And for the longest time Chinese, no matter how well to do, had no rights to naturalization or voting in America. That only changed recently. Sigh. When John sits with his friends at the bar, they bitch about the language, the bureaucracy, the racial discrimination, the green card, the terrible Chinese habits, the home country politics, the different places in town, and on and on. Welcome to the future USAtown.

  20. Dave, both Tianmu in Taipei and much of Pudong in Shanghai (not to mention Hong Kong) are pretty close to ghetthoized expat-landias. Moreover in Taiwan, I’ve noticed some banding of the whiteys. Many South Africans definitely keep to themselves (speaking Afrikaans instead of English while they’re at it) and there are some hard-core Canadian cliques as well.

  21. The Westerners I ran into in Beijing tended to hang together pretty much exclusively. They’d try to fool themselves into thinking they’d assimilated because there would be several Chinese around–Chinese that liked to hang around foreigners that is. But it wasn’t at all an authentic Chinese environment. Pretty much all of the ‘hip’ hangouts in Beijing fit that description, and not just in the deservedly maligned Sanlitun.

    As far as Chinese not eating Western food int he US ,why should they? Let’s call a spade a spade–compared to most Chinese food, US food is unpalatable slop. Except down in Louisiana of course.

  22. Oh my, what a bummer. I invented the word “dehave” which is the mirror image of “behave.”

    So long as I’m posting again, let me say this to Kaili. When the future NZtown takes shape in Shanghai or Beijing, you can buy me a nice lamb dish of some kind. And in return I will treat you to an extravaganza of chicken feet because by then you would have come to love it, or it might’ve gained worldly recognition as an anti-aging remedy.

  23. Gin,

    By “mirror image” I didn’t mean the mirror image of someone like John. I meant the mirror image of the American ex-pats he was describing. In any case, you are right that there is a lot of variety and it is easy to generalize and oversimplify. However, read MITBBS, and meet lots of F1 students here, and you will meet a lot of those people that I described. I see your point on critical mass, but I think there is more to it than that. If we really wanted to generalize, I think we could say people decide to leave the US for much different reasons in general than the reasons people leave China. American ex-pats tend to fall into two categories: people like John, and wide-eyed college kids looking for adventure for a year. I haven’t met any Chinese ex-pats in either of those categories. (I’m sure they exist, I just don’t think they are typical). Anyway, that is oversimplified, but I think there is something to that…

  24. I always try to hide the actuall length of my stay here in China. Don’t want too many favors and it’s my pitiful attempt at humility cause once the ooo-ing and aaa-ing starts I’m putty in their friggin complimentary-though-ignorant hands.

  25. Regarding Prince Roy’s comments…
    He is so right that alot of American food sucks and the only stuff I yearn for is southern soulfood or non-American…. but that’s when I go… why don’t more Chinese in the states notice all the good ethnic cuisine out there. Japanese, Korean, Indian, Mexican, Italian, I mean damn…. that food kicks ass and it’s everywhere in the states.

  26. The only “American” foods I even know of are hamburgers and hot dogs — and hamburgers were invented in Germany. So when people attack American cuisine, they are attacking something that doesn’t really exist. It is more accurate to say American cuisine is the result of modifications (Americanization) of ethnic foods brought to the US by immigrant groups. I’m American, and I’ve spent most of my life eating Italian food (a slightly-Americanized version of it). If by American food you mean McDonald’s, sure, that is crap that I hate, but that is a pretty narrow definition of American food.

  27. Personally, In general, I think American cuisine gets vastly underrated (not talking about fast food) and Chinese cuisine gets vastly over-rated. I like them both equally.

    Chinese students often go abroad from peer pressure and/or parental pressure. Many are not really self-motivated. They experience their first taste of freedom and go wild. Just like American college students do. It is normal. The average American who goes to China is self motivated. There usually doesn’t exist any peer or parental pressure to bring a foreigner to China.

  28. Com’on, stop mystifying things. What make people want to sail across the oceans? Opportunitie$, curiosity, and adventure. Take those three and mix them in different proportions, and you have the motivations for all, Chinese or Americans or any other. It’s the same mix that propels man into outter space or down into the nano-world.

  29. Hamburgers were NOT invented in Germany. They were invented at a World’s Fair in the US. A vendor compressed some of the ground meat that he was serving so that people could more easily make a sandwich from the flat meat patty. He NAMED it for the city in his native country.

  30. Tim,

    Don’t say that so authoritatively. At best, you could say that its origins are in doubt:


    Just as one example: I think plenty of Americans become ex-pats because they are simply sick of the US for various reasons. I don’t think many Chinese would ever give that as a reason for going abroad…

  31. ÍеÄ,

    I guess to get away could be another category, which I had lumped into curiosity (you know, it’s so fucked up here, I wonder how better China is, it can’t be worse). Plenty of Chinese went abroad for this kind of reasons, too. In the past people got away because the country was so dirt poor, weak, and hopeless. Nowadays, the piss-offs could be divorce, repeated failures, population density, lack of satisfying jobs, lack of creative atmosphere, hatred of the corrupted superiors, gangs, fucked up policies, money thirsty society or capitalists, betrayal of Mao’s thoughts, oppression of religion, pampering to westerners¡­. Many think as long as I get out of this old land I’d be ok and America is the land of opportunity where I can survive even by washing dishes in China town.

  32. ÍеÄ

    Oh really?

    No Chinese people are sick of only being able to have one child, reading censored newspapers or dealing with corruption?

    Are you joking?

    Many people might not give that reason but is that because they don’t feel that way?

  33. Da Xiangchang Says: November 13, 2004 at 12:04 pm

    In my humble opinion, the best food in the world is either in LA or New York. This is due to the same reason the best-looking women are in LA or New York also: the variety. While you might get infinitesimally better Chinese food in China–a highly debatable point–you ain’t going to get the other cuisines. LA and New York just have a variety of food that cannot be rivaled anywhere else in the world.

    As for the Chinese being “unassimilated” in America, I have to agree to some extent. However, I don’t think this is a problem since the Chinese generally:
    1) Have stable, full-time jobs.
    2) Pay their taxes.
    3) Don’t cause crime.
    4) Value education.
    Thus, who gives a crap if they don’t like eating Big Macs?!

    As for the status of being a veteran, John, I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I admire the fact that you stuck it out for so long. On the other hand, I hope you know what you’re doing. I might be cynical, but most laowais in China aren’t there for the cultural exchange or helping the Chinese, but rather to 1) feel important (vis-a-vis the poor Chinese), 2) not work hard and get paid well (again, vis-a-vis the poor Chinese), and 3) get women who wouldn’t give them the time of day back home. Eventually, however, a realization will sink in (i.e., they can’t stay in China forever) and the fall back to reality (the anonymity and no-broads life in their home country) will be hard and very, very painful. So, John, either you go ALL THE WAY (say in China forever) or start thinking of your future (find a longterm stable AMERICAN job in China). Just my unsolicited 2 cents.

  34. Tim & Gin,

    Since I can’t read people’s minds, I generally go by what they say. In any case, I didn’t say no Chinese leave China because they are sick of it there. Obviously, there are a million reasons people leave any country. I said I don’t think many Chinese would give that as a reason. Back to the main issue: do Americans go abroad for generally the same reasons as Chinese go abroad? I don’t think so. I don’t think most American ex-pats leave the US for economic reasons, the one child policy, censored newspapers, or corruption, etc. When I lived in Europe, I knew no American ex-pat who moved there because they thought Europe was a wonderland where everyone gets rich.

  35. Interesting comments, but I think there is a common assumption being made that is not accurate. Assimiliation generally does not happen instantaneously, and if one looks at third or fourth generation Japanese and Chinese Americans, one will see that quite often they are assimilulated, are really Americans just like the European generated Americans. Likewise, if one looks at the Europeans that came to the US earlier, one quite often sees gettos; ie, Italians, Jews, Poles, Germans, Russians lived in their own communities. By the third or fourth generation the “old neighborhoods” began to disappear and new ones came into being. I thin Gin’s observation is very accurate, but I would just modify it by taking into account the length of time, measured in generations, of the immigrant population.

  36. Let’s call a spade a spade–compared to most
    Chinese food, US food is unpalatable slop.
    Except down in Louisiana of course.

    Amen. Although, being from Louisiana, I can’t stomach most of non-seafood Chinese food. Too much oil to my butter-loving self and not nearly enough merliton. (Amusingly, when I was a student I ended up associating only with those from either Louisiana or Haiti. I can completely understand the Chinese students who do the same.)

  37. I know I’m a few days behind, but I must confess that New Zealanders form their own ghetto in London too — possibly the only place in the world we have them… apparently they serve cold beer in the pubs there. I’ve heard it’s because the Brits are infamously hard to make friends with. So, applying that to our situation, I must say the Chinese are host to a huge range of discriminations in Western countries due to a lot of cultural misunderstanding, and a basic desire of mono-cultural societies for everyone to assimilate into their way of doing things (NZ and Australia are reknowned for their monoculturalism, like China and Japan!).

    It’s basic human nature right? I’ve found in China that I am looked upon as an object for entertainment rather than a person — people like to touch my hair, comment about my looks, my Chinese, my habits etc, but not actually befriend me. Not saying that I haven’t made several really good Chinese friends that get past all that. But it’s the same everywhere. We can’t accept difference very easily. That’s why its great to travel outside your own culture and actually try to live in another — as it seems many on this blog have done! Doesn’t it make you super-sensitive to the outsiders in your community? I must say, after my first few weeks of dejected loneliness in a small town near Chengdu, I was delighted when anybody stopped to talk to me as a person, helped me find stuff etc. Now, back in NZ, I spend heaps of time driving Chinese students around to show them stuff.

    What I’m saying is, we can get a bit carried away with noting each other’s coping methods for culture shock — but what it boils down to is that it is hard to adapt to a new place and people cope the best they can. I especially agree with the anonymous comment that talked about Chinese students being made to go overseas, they aren’t there because they want a cultural experience, they are there to get a degree and go home.

    Gin, the day that there is a Kiwi ghetto in Shanghai or Beijing I will definitely shout you a whole leg roast of lamb and eat a whole plate of Chicken Feet (despite the fact it would take me all day since I just can’t master the bone-cleaning skills of the Chinese). I’m confident that it won’t happen anytime soon!

    Disclaimer: it’s not the taste or the concept of Chicken feet that bothers me, it’s my complete inability to actually consume them in anything resembling decent table-manners (Chinese or Kiwi).

  38. …but I must confess that New Zealanders form their own ghetto in London too — possibly the only place in the world we have them… apparently they serve cold beer in the pubs there. I’ve heard it’s because the Brits are infamously hard to make friends with.

    And I must confess that Irish folks form their own ghetto in the UK (oops, scrap UK) the US too — a hard-faught place called boston… apparently they serve cold beer in the pubs there. I’ve heard it’s because the Brits are infamously hard to make homies with.

    it’s not the taste or the concept of Chicken feet that bothers me, it’s my complete inability to actually consume them in anything resembling decent table-manners (Chinese or Kiwi).

    So that’s what’s bothering you, and presumably many westerners. Someone ought to come up with a boned version of the dish, or invent a Phoenix Paws deboner.

    …Chinese students being made to go overseas, they aren’t there because they want a cultural experience, they are there to get a degree and go home.

    I don’t know that they don’t want the cultural experience. I do know the Chinese students go home because (A) the visa is expiring, or (B) a contemplation between the opportunities (in $$$, fame, creativity, pace, excitement, moral value, political alignment and modus operandi, cultural comfort, family, opposite sex, air, toilets, health, personal safety, peace, or whatever essence and quintessence of life) turns out favoring the home country. A tilt of the balance in B would lead to a decision to (try to) stay. In my case, what kept me in the States was I swear 20% $$$, 10% creativity, 70% peaceful living, and 0% moral value!

    John and others, if I may assume, rudely, that you also decide on this sort of things based on (A) the visa terms or (B) an assessment of opportunities in something, care to share what’s parked YOU in China?

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