Almost every expat in China knows what it means to have a “Bad China Day.” As I look back on ten years here, I have realised that Good China Days have a much bigger impact than Bad China Days. To be a happy expat in China one needs to have an attitude that looks for, and cultivates opportunities for, Good China Days.
Stories abound of Bad China Days. I have many of my own BCD stories. For some reason I’ve always been reluctant to write about them here. I’ve always felt they don’t tell the whole story, that they propagate a picture of China that isn’t accurate, and I’ve finally worked out how to articulate why I feel this way. Everyone, everywhere, has bad days. There are days where nothing goes right. You hit all the red lights, a stranger is rude to you, the store is out of the one thing you really needed… whatever. Normally, when we have these bad days, we have a whinge, indulge in something as a reward for surviving, and that’s that. When expats have Bad China Days, the stories are often phrased as an indictment on the country and its people, then pulled out as proof of why China is whatever a complaining person say it is. I think too many of us lean too heavily on our BCD experiences when explaining China. In my early years, I was no different in this respect.
The reality is that Bad China Days feel so bad because they are confusing – they take us by surprise. They happen when we run up against a system we don’t understand, and are stymied by the result. They happen when we interact with people from a different language and culture, and don’t understand their words, or their perspective. I get mad that I have to make 6 trips to the bank/police station/visa office because there is always another piece of paper I need – but once I know the system, I bring all the paperwork I need the first time and everything goes smoothly. I remember the first time this happened to me; I was stunned at how easily several official processes were completed. Then I realised nothing had changed – except me, my expectations, and my preparation. Now that the system was familiar, the process was not frustrating. China was never the problem – the problem had always been my lack of familiarity with China.
The same goes for so many BCD stories I hear. Now that I understand more of the Chinese way of thinking and doing things, I see the Chinese in many of these stories as perfectly rational – and the poor put-upon foreigners as the ignorant ones. Yes, sometimes a Chinese person does or says something unkind or inappropriate – but that happens everywhere; unkind and ignorant people are not exclusive to China. If this happens to me in Australia, I don’t say “all Australians are…” but in China, it’s tempting for expats to paint all Chinese with one bad experience.
Good China Days are actually very similar to Bad China Days in a few respects. Both are the result of unexpected/unanticipated interactions and occurences – which feel either good or bad. Bad China Days happen when people do not live up to my expectations for them; Good China Days happen when people surpass my expectations for them. Good China Days actually show my own faults – show how poorly I think of the country in which I live, the people among whom I live. They show me what I’m missing, where I’m lacking, and how wonderful China is. Bad China Days tempt me to wallow in self-pity and see myself as better than the people around me; Good China Days lift my eyes to see that I am actually the one with a problem. Good China Days have the ability to change me, and change how I experience China. That is why Good China Days are so vital to a positive expatriate experience!
Some examples of recent “Good China Day” moments and stories…
- The other day I forgot a key ingredient when grocery shopping – eggs. So I went downstairs to the corner store to pick some up. The whole family who run the store (parents and grown son) were all there chatting together, and we had a lovely conversation. They were impressed by my Chinese, thought I was much younger than I am (ego stroke!) and wrote down the mobile number they use for the store, saying that any time I need something I can just call them and they’ll bring it up to me.
- Earlier this year I left my mobile at the register while paying for my meal in a restaurant and a waitress came running down the road to bring it back to me.
- Last night I couldn’t find a taxi and took a chance on a black cab I didn’t know – he seemed nice, was reasonable on price, and his car was clean and not smoky/smelly, so I decided to risk it. I was rewarded with a half hour of very pleasant conversation and a new driver I can call on when I’m in the city at night.
- One time last year I was having trouble starting my scooter, and two different older Chinese men stopped to help me out, staying with me until we got it running and giving me advice.
- Sunshine and flowers – Spring is so short here, but I celebrate it when it comes! Sitting outside a cafe in comfortably warm air, paying attention to the details of blossoms and new growth while driving by in a taxi… these things make for Good China Days!
These are just a few little things, but little things that changed the course of my day. And when I stop and think about it, I have more Good China Day experiences than Bad China Day experiences – by a long shot.