Gone are the days when a typical expatriate was a Westerner on an assignment in Asia, whether a senior executive managing a subsidiary, or an English teacher working at a university. Today the flow of skilled workforce is just as likely to be westward, if not more so. And the West is by no means the only destination.
As the government in Beijing urges its biggest companies to expand overseas, their offices across the world are staffed by Chinese, from senior management to professionals at all levels of organisational hierarchy. It’s a matter of better communication and enhanced trust, but also of a strategic intention to equip the workforce with international experience.
But with the increased freedom of movement and a range of opportunities brought about by globalisation, growing numbers of individual Chinese are able to travel abroad for employment, education, or lifestyle reasons, all on their own, without their employers’ blessing. And they make the most of what the interconnected world has to offer.
‚If you have a chance to work overseas, grab it’, says Zhang Jun from Hunan province, who himself grabbed a chance to go to Cambodia. ‚You will live in this world with an entirely new perspective’.
This sense of gaining a new way of seeing the world is shared by Lin from Guangdong: ‚Going abroad has been a splendid experience for me. The sights I saw from inside “the cage” are not the same when seen from the outside’. For him, the eye-opener has been his time spent working in Zimbabwe.
Zhou Guowu from Hunan, now in Zambia, agrees: ‚My experience here has broadened my horizons. It has helped me see the possibilities of different kinds of life’.
The experience of self-growth is a common one among Chinese expats. Yige from Henan, currently in New Zealand, is a case in point: ‚For me, the experience of living here is unforgettable. I’ve grown a lot, and have become more independent’.
Guo Ren from Hunan has seen his outlook transform by what he has experienced in Australia: ‚I have realized that I should live for myself. Life is short, you need to enjoy everything around you’.
Two and a half months spent in Romania have infused Meng Jingxia from Guangxi with a similarly optimistic attitude: ‚A person should be brave to do whatever they want as long as there is an opportunity, or as long as they can create an opportunity for themselves’. Her foreign friends taught her an important lesson: ‚Have fun as much as you can and be responsible at the same time. Life is really short, even if you are only 22. Happiness is the most essential element in life’.
‚Life can be happy if you want to’, agrees Long Hongxiu from Hainan. ‚You don’t have to be rich to be happy, you don’t have to go travelling to be happy, it’s all about you and how you manage your emotions’. She has just come back from Australia.
Wang Changyi from Jiangsu, now in South Korea, sums it all up: ‚I guess I have learnt more about myself and the whole world. It’s like upgrading to a new version of me’.
Going up in the world
‚If I weren’t here, I would never know how challenging working as a teacher could be’, says Zhang Jun, who has been teaching Chinese as a volunteer in Takeo in southern Cambodia for nearly two years. ‚Teaching, especially in a foreign country, is an extraordinary experience in one’s life. And Cambodia is a good place worth going to, either for travel or for work’. But all good things come to an end: ‚After this semester I’m going to go back to China to pursue an advanced degree’.
Ning Rui from Anhui holds a Master of Education degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Western University in Ontario. ‚Canada is a very safe country to go and international students have the opportunity to get a permanent residence status’. What are her options now that she has graduated? ‚In some small cities, for example in London where I’m currently in, the job market is super small. So I decided to move to Toronto as soon as possible although the cost of living there is higher’.
Yige, currently a student of Electronic and Electrical Engineering in Auckland, wants to settle down abroad as well. ‚I have a part time job here, waitressing at a Chinese restaurant. After graduation, I’m planning to find a job, become a permanent resident, and bring my parents to come live here with me. Compared to China, New Zealand has less pollution and better food safety’.
Meng Jingxia is not planning on settling down in Romania, but having volunteered with AIESEC on the Global Volunteer programme she got a taste of working abroad. ‚When I was applying for the visa in Beijing, there were nine people there from all over China to volunteer in Romania. Some went to protect endangered species, others to work at vineyards, me, I got a position as a baby-sitter’. Placed with a family in Cluj Napoca, her responsibilities included cooking, cleaning, speaking English and playing with kids, picking them up after school, and shovelling snow.
A receptionist, a waitress, a cheese factory worker, a housekeeper, a bartender – Long Hongxiu changed her jobs quite often due to visa restrictions: a foreign visitor in Australia can’t work for the same employer for more than six months. There were ups and downs, but she was game for trying on new roles. ‚Since it was too hard to find a paid legal job in Melbourne, I decided to leave, but my friend’s friend was the owner of a cheese factory so he recommended me to work there’, she recalls. ‚I knew that cheese was a big part of western food culture, and I’d never had any cheese before, so I thought it would be a good chance to learn about the culture, and I would be living and working with locals, a totally new experience, so I jumped at the chance’. How important are these and other experiences she had while in Australia? ‚I don’t know how to answer that, I can only say it widens my knowledge, I’m sure I can use that in my life now and in the future at some point’.
‚I’d always had an idea in my mind, that is, I had to see what the world was like through my own eyes with the help of English’, says Zhou Guowu. ‚Therefore, when the opportunity came, I grabbed it’. It came in 2015 when, with a college diploma in English studies, he got a job in Lesotho as a translator for a construction company. ‚Then I worked as a marketing manager in Namibia and Ghana. Now, I am working as the Assistant General Manager and Business Development Manager in Zambia with the same company’.
Lin also has put his English to good use. He works in Zimbabwe, ‚one of the poorest countries in the world, yet also one of the best educated in Africa’, as an interpreter. ‚In the future, I wish to improve my English skills this way, and more importantly, gain confidence to set foot in another country, set out on another adventure’.
‚Public Relations involves a lot of communication and I love it’, says Wang Changyi, who is juggling her employment in a PR company in South Korea with her academic commitments as a postgraduate student of International Relations. ‚I think everything is experience and the time spent here is going to be extremely important as I am working on my degree, but also it’s a turning point when I decide what kind of job I would like to have and what kind of person I want to be’. One of the possible futures she contemplates for herself is as an international relations scholar in the West.
Zhang Shuai from Hunan has made the expat lifestyle her own. With a BA in Translation from Tianjin, she left for the US to study for her MA in Mass Communications in Minnesota. Upon graduation, she got a translating job in Delaware and spent three years there. She then left the US to work in China, intermittently travelling on business back to the US. The next stop was a position in Tanzania. Most recently she came back to the US last year. Now she is a certified yoga teacher in New York.
‚Teaching yoga is my passion and the purpose of my life’, she says. ‚In sharing what I know about yoga, I try my best to use yoga as a tool to benefit people not only physically but also mentally and emotionally, or even spiritually; in other words, to restore people’s overall wellbeing. Yoga is much needed and particularly useful in New York, a fast-paced city full of perfectionists that do not know how to relax or live a well-balanced life’. She is about to come back to China again and teach yoga there for a living.
Home away from home
‚Canadians are very friendly and polite’, says Ning Rui. ‚It is an international country where you can meet people with different backgrounds and get to know different cultures’. On the other hand, ‚e-payments, transportation, food, postal services, it’s all very bad, not as customer-friendly as in China. As a developed country, it is developing very slowly compared to China. I do not see any booming business here, so it is not easy to find a job’.
Guo Ren, first a hotel receptionist, and now a laundry attendant in Darwin, doesn’t mind slow: ‚I feel really comfortable working with Australians. The work and life here is slow, I get more time to enjoy the local life, it’s placid here in Darwin’. He knows that ‚working as a laundry attendant I can get a second year visa for a working holiday’. Still, he does miss his ‚family and friends, Chinese food, and Chinese karaoke’.
‚It’s never easy to stay overseas far away from one’s family and all things one likes and has got used to’, says Zhang Jun. ‚But since I chose to volunteer here, enjoying the local life is more important than missing my old life. The cultural differences sometimes upset me, but as long as you get accustomed to the local culture, everything will be fine’. Sometimes more than fine: ‚What impresses me most is the way students treat me. They always help me out. One time, I ran out of chalk, which I should have asked the principal to provide but forgot. When I entered the classroom, I saw a box of chalk on my desk. My students had bought it. I was surprised because they didn’t have extra money to do this’.
Zhang Shuai fondly remembers her translation job in Delaware. ‚I was amazed by how simple, direct, yet highly efficient the management was. Teamwork was great and tasks were delivered on time with aspiration and commitment. My co-workers were open minded, creative, fun, and kind. The company respected the employees’ time and value and the company’s culture was caring and encouraging, which made it a fantastic place for young people like me to grow in every possible way. Even after I left the company I have maintained lifelong friendship with many of my co-workers there’. Any downsides at all? ‚Only that the place where I worked was quite boring with very few entertainment options during the weekend’.
‚In my opinion, most people, especially those who have to live alone for the first time, must feel homesick, and that also includes me’, says Yige. ‚Sometimes when I use the Chinese app Meituan, I can see many delicious foods, which I can’t find in New Zealand. However, I am still lucky, because in Auckland there are many Chinese restaurants, so I can enjoy Chinese food with my friends. About my family, we can use WeChat to talk with each other any time. Even though I can’t see them for real, it’s enough for me’. And the people she has met make it even easier for her to feel at home: ‚All the staff here, like the chefs, the manager, and other waiters, even the owner, are very nice. I also made a lot of good friends here. For example, the couple that hosted me when I first arrived gave me a lot of help to adapt to the new environment, improve my English, everything really. They treated me like I was their daughter’.
It’s an experience shared by Meng Jingxia. ‚I like the people here, they are very friendly’. There were other pleasant surprises, too. ‚What impressed me most is that many people, especially the young generation, speak English quite well so that I didn’t have much problem communicating with them’. But it wasn’t all fun and games. ‚What I found really hard to adapt to was the food. Even a number of locals told me they didn’t like the Romanian food that much, either, as it made them fat. Thank God I could buy some lighter food and Chinese food in supermarkets!’ Did she miss China? ‚The strange thing was that even though I spent almost two and half months there, I didn’t miss my country and my family very much. And that was only my first time going abroad!’
Long Hongxiu found the Australian nature ‚pure and breathtaking’. Humans were a highlight as well: ‚You can meet people from all over the world here. It’s very interesting to learn about different countries and cultures. The most impressive thing was that all the Australians I met were so welcoming and generous to me. I received enormous love and kindness not only from friends but also strangers’. Every coin has two sides, though. ‚Some Chinese people, especially Chinese employers, at least the ones I met, are like a tumour in Australia: they exploit their staff, they are arrogant and mean to other Chinese but they butter up foreigners. I would say they were the worst Chinese people I have ever met in my life’.
‚When I received the offer to work in Africa, I decided to know more about the continent’, recalls Zhou Guowu. ‚I downloaded some films, but unfortunately most of them were about war, crime, disease, poverty, genocide, this sort of thing. They really brought me down. Then I ran a Baidu search, but of course the information about Africa on the internet was equally negative. Considering the possible challenges I could face, I began to doubt whether it’s the right decision for me to go there. However, my view totally changed shortly after my plane touched down’. The continent amazed him with its landscape, its nature, and its people, and taught him a lot about life. ‚Africa is not a village and not a jungle. Negative aspects of Africa have been exaggerated by the foreign media. Perhaps only poverty, diseases and images of starving children can arouse their interest. Now I know that before coming to Africa, I had been a victim of the prejudice of the media and of someone else’s experiences. Even though people here live in difficult conditions, they are still very optimistic and enjoy their life. I think this kind of attitude towards life will help me through any difficulties in the future. I really enjoy life here in Africa. I do miss my family and friends in China, and want to sit down with them to talk and laugh. But my curiosity and thirst for experiencing life here still outweigh my longing for my family and friends’.
Wang Changyi is a bit torn. ‚I miss my family but I enjoy local life. I think it’s important to move on with our life when we are abroad and can’t see our family very often. I don’t miss food and things like that because I think it’s interesting to immerse yourself into another culture. But I’m kind of disappointed with the language barrier. Koreans are shy to talk if we speak English or other languages, except for Chinese or Japanese, because these are everywhere here’.
Honour thy father and thy mother
Asked about the Confucian virtue of xiao, or filial piety, Guo Ren quotes from the Analects of Confucius: ‚”A son not ought to go to a distance where he will not be able to pay the due services to his parents”. I am far away from my parents now, but I still love them, and I can share my life in Australia with them by video calls’.
Lin sees it from a different perspective: ‚It was really a disaster for my mother that I went abroad. For those from one-child families, I do not suggest they abandon their parents and cause them suffering’.
Zhang Jun recognizes the complexity and evolution of the problem. ‚It all depends. For youngsters, I think it is great to work in a different country, if not permanently. As for the Confucian virtue of filial piety, there’s a lot of ways to do this. Nowadays we live in the internet era. We can get in touch with anyone, anytime, anywhere as long as we have a smartphone. The distance is not a big deal. Also, working abroad does not always require spending a long time away from one’s family, especially compared to four years Chinese students spend attending their university, which is usually far away from their hometown’.
Wang Changyi also thinks that it depends: ‚Family backgrounds, educational backgrounds, personal preferences all matter. I don’t think living abroad is against xiao because filial piety can be followed in different ways’.
Yige agrees: ‚From my point of view, there are many different ways to express filial piety. Parents also want their children to have a good future. What can help is getting in touch with them often: they always worry about us because of the long distance’.
‚Maybe I am a fake Chinese’, says Meng Jingxia. ‚I am a family girl and I love to talk to my grandparents, but I never think that you have to stay with them all the time. That is impossible and maybe they don’t even want that. I went to university on a remote island, I did my internship in Shanghai, then I travelled to Beijing… But my father is very proud of me. He is very open-minded. I know most parents aren’t like that’. What does xiao mean for her in practice? ‚For me it means to take care of the elderly family members and obey what they say most of the time. I call them once a week and assure them I am safe so they don’t need to worry. Is that not filial piety?’
‚First of all, I don’t think working far away from home is against filial piety, nor do I think working near home is following filial piety’, points out Long Hongxiu. ‚You can still follow it even though you are working far away, like by visiting them once in a while, buying them things, calling them, taking them for trips to places they want. It’s always about what you do for them, not how far apart you are, even though living nearby would definitely provide more opportunities to do such things’.
Zhou Guowu considers the problem from multiple angles, one of them being that ‚life in China is hard sometimes. Working abroad may help earn more than in China. Therefore, people who work abroad can support their family better. Their parents will enjoy better medical care and living conditions. From this point of view, that is filial piety. But when parents are too old to take care of themselves, then we have to try our best to stay together with them. If we leave them under such circumstances and work abroad, then we are against the virtue of filial piety’.
Bridging the gaps
‚I have had the honour to study with many master yoga teachers in the US and I have been blessed to broaden and deepen my knowledge in different lineages of yoga: Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini, Katonah, Yin, Restorative, to name just a few’, says Zhang Shuai. ‚The major difference in the teaching of yoga between China and America, according to my own experience, is the emphasis on spirituality. I feel most American yoga instructors incorporate spiritual elements in their classes to make them a more authentic yoga experience; on the other hand, in China, yoga classes are more fitness oriented’. She hopes to try and inject some more spirituality in her yoga classes in China.
Zhou Guowu has had to grapple with prejudices. ‚Some Chinese eat different kinds of animals, some even poach elephants, rhinos and crocodiles and then smuggle their allegedly valuable body parts to the Chinese market for profit. Therefore, each time there’s any news of Chinese citizens doing just that, Africans express their disdain towards the Chinese. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to take part in a conversation like the following: „Do you eat dogs?” I reply „no”. „I know you eat frogs!” Again, I reply „no”. My interlocutor is a little bit disappointed but soon he is grinning again: „You surely eat pangolins!” It’s time for me to explain the truth. Those who eat or kill those animals are a fraction of the Chinese people. A lot of Chinese actually fight against that. And to my knowledge, there are even some Chinese who do wildlife conservation work in Africa’. Despite the never ending work of having to explain the truth, Zhou Guowu remains upbeat: ‚Life will be the same no matter where we go. We have to work hard, be kind, be true to friends, be open-minded and follow the law so that we can have a happy life’.
‚I can still feel the racism although it is not very obvious, especially since I started to look for a job’, says Ning Rui. That doesn’t preclude communication, however: ‚My English has improved living here because I am quite sociable so I try to step out of my comfort zone and make friends with people from other countries, which kind of pushes me to speak English to communicate with them’.
‚I’ve been privileged’, says Zhang Jun. ‚Among my students, some of their families own small grocery stores. I always get some food or even clothes from my students even though I have made it very clear that they shouldn’t do that’. He also can vouch for Cambodian hospitality: ‚During local festivals, they invite me to have dinner with their families’.
Before finding her current job with a credit insurance company doing financial analysis as part of a corporate strategy team in Amsterdam, Wang Qi from Hunan studied and worked in the UK and Germany. She recalls a speech contest she took part in on the subject of the most influential innovation in Germany. ‚During my research, I found out about many things, such as cars and aspirin. Of course all of these innovations are linked to German culture and history, going back to the First and Second World Wars. Take aspirin for example: it’s widely used around the world but no one really knows about the history behind it. In fact, one of the innovators was Jewish and of course at that time no one recognised his contribution. It was a difficult period for Germany and it’s written all over the German culture. This research helped me understand their language, culture, and background’.
‚Most of the people I met said I was not really of the “yellow race”, but a white girl’, says Meng Jingxia. ‚They laughed at me when I spoke loudly: they think Chinese are very obedient and polite. Who the hell told them that?’ But the stereotypes Romanians hold of the Chinese can also come in handy: ‚People here like us on account of the cooperation between the two countries. China invests a lot of money here. There was one situation when my friend wanted to take me to a park but it turned out to be closed. When a park employee found out I was from China, he allowed us to enter for half hour’.
All that and many other things she experienced in Romania led her to the following conclusion: ‚It is good for a young person to travel overseas before being affected too much by their home culture. In the future, I think I will travel more and open my mind to embrace different cultures’. These cultures may not be that different after all, however, because ‚according to all the conversations with all the people I met, I really believe all nations on our planet share a very similar culture’.
Eppur si muove
The same poll finds that among the Asian nations surveyed, only Singaporeans beat the Chinese to the top spot as the most globally-mobile workforce, with 97% of the current job seekers willing to work abroad. Hong Kong and Malaysia are not far behind, with 94% and 93% respectively. Even the relatively foot-dragging Japanese that came 5th poll at 88%.
If these figures hold for other countries in the region, and if the volume of Chinese students choosing to study abroad remains at the current level for the foreseeable future, it may well be the East, not the West, that will keep the inter-cultural engine of globalisation going despite nationalistic and protectionist voices calling for shutting it down.
Dawid Juraszek is a university lecturer, author, editor, and translator based in Guangzhou.