Sometimes expat life brings out the worst in you

Back in May Jerry Jones of The Culture Blend wrote a post on A Life Overseas called 25 Things They Don’t Put in the Life Abroad Brochure. It was his classic blend of humour and grounded truth, and I loved it. I even included it in a Recommended Reading post on my book’s website.

Part of the reason I loved this post is that pretty much every point on the list brought up memories of my expatriate adventures over the years. Stories of times I learned these very lessons! But the one that hit hardest (almost like a gut punch) was point number 9:

9. Your worst You is coming
Like really. The You that you’ve been hiding from everyone is likely to show up at some point in this endeavor. Exhaustion. Isolation. Grief. Frustration. Language barriers. Confusion. Total incompetence. They all have a way of pulling out our worst traits.


I remember the very moment this hit home for me. I’ve decided to tell you the story. It’s a story that most people enjoy – except me!

It was Sunday afternoon at the end of a weekend trip to Qinhuangdao with grade 11 and 12 students (and a few adult chaperones). We missed our train but managed to get standing tickets for the next train back to Beijing. But it’s hard to find a good place for 15-20 people to stand around for four hours! When we first got on the train we wandered into an empty car – we looked around in disbelief and asked if we could sit there. They said sure, it’s the meal car so you’ll have to get up for the two hours around meal time, but other than that you can stay. We couldn’t believe it! Seemed too good to be true. Well, turned out it was. After we all sat down and relaxed a little they said “Oh, by the way, it’s 40 RMB per person to sit here.” Wait. What? That’s really not a lot of money, less than $10, but it was also about the price of the train ticket. And they wanted that much just for us to sit down for half the trip? We all got up and started collecting our things, preparing to move on.

Some of us jumping around on the beach. As you do.

A few people went to scout out good places to loiter while the rest of us stood around and waited. At this point the woman who managed the meal carriage started talking to one of the students, asking why she was with our group – but didn’t get an answer. The student was an American citizen with Korean heritage and fairly new to China; she didn’t speak Chinese. The manager scoffed at her confusion. Her assumption was that the student was actually Chinese, but pretending not to be. I explained the situation to the manager. We went back and forth a little. The student was feeling uncomfortable, as it was obvious we were talking about her, so I translated the gist of the conversation to her. Her response was to pull out her American passport, to demonstrate the she was indeed a foreign citizen. The manager leaned across the bench she stood behind, attempting to grab the passport out of her hand.

I feel it’s important to point out here that this was NOT a normal situation. I have never, before or since, encountered this sort of behaviour from any other Chinese person. Every country has nasty individuals, and every individual can have a bad day. As I will soon demonstrate myself.

One other student in the group was Asian in appearance; he has Chinese heritage and spoke Mandarin. He joined the conversation, speaking gently and graciously, explaining the situation again to the manager, with great patience. He also pulled out his American passport. This time the manager succeeded in snatching it out of his hand. She started flicking through it, until she opened it at a Chinese visa page, which had a city name on it (perhaps the city of issue?) She pointed to the Chinese city name and said “See! Chinese!” The student explained that this was the Chinese name for Chicago, a city in America.

The situation was a little tense, and people were feeling uncomfortable. There weren’t many fluent Mandarin speakers, so most people only had a vague understanding of what was happening. One of the scouts came back with a suggestion of where to settle ourselves, and we decided to move in three groups rather than all at once. The two students the manager had talked with were sent with the first group so as to get them out of the uncomfortable situation.

As soon as they left, the manager let loose. She started going on and on about how they were so totally Chinese, they just thought they were better because of their foreign friends, they were pretending to be foreigners because they were rude and ungrateful etc. She continued to say nasty things about two kids I loved, who had done nothing whatsoever to provoke her, and then – something just snapped in me.

I lost it.

I stomped up to her desk, slammed my hand down and started YELLING. The two of us were in each other’s faces, screaming at each other. There was no conversation. I wasn’t explaining. I was telling her how horrible she was to treat those kids that way. One of her subordinates came up to us, trying to calm us down, saying something to pacify me – and I turned and yelled at him! Then I turned back to the manager and we both kept going. Eventually he tried again, saying that I was right, that “we Chinese” don’t understand…something. Whatever he said got through to the part of me that was horrified at my behaviour. I sputtered and stopped and said “well, next time you’ll know…”

I walked away to the other group leaders, absolutely mortified, and quietly said “I think I should leave with the next group.” No one disagreed.

The people in our group seemed to have a mostly positive response to my actions. A few were impressed with my Chinese. A few of the students felt loved that I would protect them that way. One who left with the first group was annoyed he missed seeing the spectacle!

I, on the other hand, felt horrible.

Sure, I might have been propelled by love and protective instincts, but love isn’t what flowed out of me. It was hate.

When I quoted Jerry’s point number 9 earlier, I skipped the last line:

9. Your worst You is coming
Like really. The You that you’ve been hiding from everyone is likely to show up at some point in this endeavor. Exhaustion. Isolation. Grief. Frustration. Language barriers. Confusion. Total incompetence. They all have a way of pulling out our worst traits. If this is your main concern — skip to number 25.

25. Grace changes everything
Some days it will be all you have. If you can’t give people grace when they frustrate, irritate, annoy or otherwise bug you, you might just go crazy. If you can’t give yourself grace . . . you definitely will.

This wasn’t my worst “China day”. This was my worst ME day in China. I lost control. The worst me jumped out and screamed in someone’s face. I actually think this has helped me calm myself in other situations – I know that giving into the anger, giving voice to the frustration, is not going to end well. Yep, there’s a worst me. I know her. But I don’t like being her, and I certainly don’t like inflicting her on others.

I find myself on the edge of losing it more often in China than in Australia. Perhaps it’s the extra background stress of doing things in a different language and culture. Perhaps when I’m on edge for whatever reason, those differences result in increased pressure that wouldn’t build up in the same situation in Australia. Maybe shouting in frustration is more accepted here? For whatever reason, I’m really glad Jerry included point 25. I need that grace – for the people around me, and for myself.


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