In a recent post I talked about Good China Days and Bad China Days. I said that to be happy as an expat one needs to be looking for Good China Day experiences. When I look at the expats I know who are the most, or the least, happy I definitely see a relationship between their Good/Bad China Day stories and their contentment in China.
So how do you look for, and create opportunities for, Good China Day stories? In that last post I wrote that “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.” I think a large part of cultivating Good China Days (and limiting my Bad China Days) comes down to changing my assumptions and expectations about China and Chinese people.
It’s all about attitude, and perspective – how I look at China, creating space for Chinese people to pleasantly surprise me, looking for ways to interact in a way that doesn’t make me the aloof foreigner. So here are a bunch of ideas – things that help me adjust my attitude toward China, and create space for Good China Days that lift my spirits and make me love this country, and its people.
1 – Be friendly and polite
It’s amazing how differently people treat me when I approach them with a smile, a friendly attitude, and without a sense of entitlement. Too many foreigners forget to do simple, polite things that would be expected in their home country. Just because you are a foreigner, just because you don’t share a common language, does not excuse you from common courtesy. Instead, being the ones who are out-of-place should prompt us to be nicer to the people we interact with. Rather than expecting people to do everything to help you, especially workers at banks or other offices, recognise that they are doing a job – which doesn’t include hand-holding foreigners who can’t read/speak their language. Being friendly and polite is a far better way to get extra help than sighing and complaining.
2 – Practice humility
Recognise that you don’t know much about this place, its people, its language, its culture. Instead of expecting things be done your way, take the position of humble student – and learn how things are done here. Let someone help you – and when they do, listen to their advice. When you stop talking (demanding) and start listening (learning), you may be surprised at how kindly you are treated. Don’t buy into the insidious idea that because you are a foreigner you are somehow “above” or “better than” the Chinese people you interact with. You may be surrounded by people who are more intelligent and articulate than you – you just don’t know it because you don’t speak their language, and only hear them speak in a broken version of your language. Imagine how you would come across were you forced to communicate entirely in Chinese. Consider how ill-mannered and uneducated you might sounds when speaking Mandarin with native speakers – what you intend to say may not be what is actually heard. That goes both ways.
3 – Assume the best
When things go wrong, when something is not done as you wanted, when you don’t get what you asked for – assume that there was an honest mistake. I cringe whenever I hear foreigners complain about bad service, or about no one speaking English. I also cringe when I hear complaints about being “cheated”. Yes, it does happen at times (especially in markets that cater to rich tourists), but most Chinese are trying to make an honest living, often in difficult circumstances. It’s so much better to assume that the people you meet are kind and honest, unless they prove to be otherwise. When you start from a place of assuming people are out to get you, you’ll collect Bad China Day stories everywhere.
4 – See your own part in any misunderstandings
If something does go wrong, look for how you may have contributed to the problem. It’s more likely that your own lack of language skills, lack of familiarity with how things normally work, or assumptions about the process, created a mistake – not a worker maliciously trying to make trouble for you. Don’t expect the Chinese people around you to compensate for your own lack of knowledge about their country, culture and language. Instead of complaining about the bad English someone speaks, realise that you are the one who needs translation – the one who doesn’t speak the language of the country in which you live. If someone speaks your language, that is a bonus for you – they are compensating for your lack. Instead of yelling about something that goes wrong, try to understand what the misunderstanding was, and work out how to avoid it next time. Yes, something may seem “obvious” to you – but that’s from an outside perspective; you may be expecting something that is quite outside the norm here. It’s tempting to demand that things be done in a way that makes sense to me, but I am in a foreign country – it’s my job to adjust to the Chinese way of doing things, and not the other way around. The way things are done in my home country is not inherently “better” – and telling people that is not going to change the way things are done here, so I might as well start learning the local system.
5 – Focus on the good
It so easy to fall into the trap of complaining about how things are done better elsewhere, how this system is irritating or frustrating or whatever. But complaining doesn’t improve your experience. Focus on the good rather than on the bad. Tell stories about the good thing that happened to you, rather than the bad thing. Remember that China is a work in progress. In some ways it is just a totally different system to what you were accustomed to in your home country. In other ways, it is still playing catch up. In the past 10 years I have seen a lot of things improve greatly – including banking, driving and grocery shopping. Look for the bright spots, the improvements, and celebrate them!
6 – Laugh at yourself
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Learn to laugh at cultural missteps, and linguistic misunderstandings. Some of the funniest China stories I’ve heard are from friends who said something in Chinese that mistakenly came across very differently than intended! So take risks, give it a go, and laugh when things go wrong. It’s good for your soul – and your opinion of China.
7 – Share your own stories
In addition to seeing the good in others, let them see the good in you. For example, see the Chinese worker you are interacting with as a person, just like you – and let them see you as a person, just like them. One especially helpful hint – talk about your family. Family is important in China, and sharing stories about my family (my sisters, parents, grandparents) and my relationships with them has helped many Chinese people see me as a fellow human rather than an alien foreigner.