Meet Ailin, my identity in China — guest posting on ExpatHarem

I just did a guest post on ExpatHarem about expat identity, through my own identity in China, Ailin:

Ailin sings a fierce karaoke song, loves pink pastel T-shirts, paints squiggly green snakes, and isn’t afraid to argue with a bus driver. I know her well — because Ailin is me, when I’m in China.

I encourage you to visit ExpatHarem to read the full post, and others like it, and comment!

If you’ve never visited before, the site supports globally minded women writers — especially those who have lived in Asia. Thanks to Anastasia Ashman’s editorial direction, it’s like reading a fine magazine.

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13 thoughts on “Meet Ailin, my identity in China — guest posting on ExpatHarem

  • December 8, 2009 at 2:16 am

    Interesting thoughts. I’d really like to see you elaborate more on the subject.

    • December 8, 2009 at 5:02 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Zictor! I’m assuming you read the full post at ExpatHarem — but it really is just more of a postcard than a full treatment of the subject (because the writing has to be shorter for their site). I’ll see if I can write something more elaborate.

  • December 8, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    I believe I did. 3 paragraphs, right? With some 5-6 comments (at the time I read it)?

    I have to say that I really relate to what you say. Currently, I am having my 4th experience living abroad (3 different countries). My basic take is that simply coming to a new place gives you the opportunity to remake yourself unhindered by the baggage and constraints you had at home, but also with some particularities of your new situation. For some people, this is a real blessing, for others it can be the worst of curses.

    If you’re interested, I can try to make a short(ish) version of the metamorphosis I have been going through since I first left home.

    • December 8, 2009 at 9:50 pm

      Zictor, I would definitely be interested in your own “metamorphosis” — please do share!

      I’m glad you mentioned the the idea of being “unhindered by the baggage and constraints” — that has definitely been a blessing for me in living abroad. I had a lot of baggage that China really helped me leave behind, including a family drastically altered in the wake of my mother passing away. As I mention in the post, it is so hard to reconnect w/ the people who knew you before you went abroad and transformed. I am actually facing that as I plan to reconnect w/ some old high school friends I haven’t seen in years, people who knew me when I was facing a lot of that baggage. I have to admit, I’m a little nervous about it, because it is a pre-Ailin experience, so to speak. 😉

  • December 8, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    You have opened a Pandora box. My story will come as soon as I have had time to write it.

  • December 13, 2009 at 7:20 am

    Hello Jocelyn

    Reading your post motivated me to write this out. I think our words need to be seen.

    I have recently moved back to China because I’ve felt that it is my…um…calling….for a lack of a better term. Since I’m Chinese, moved to the US at the young ignorant age of 7, I’ve always been the foreigner, on the inside and outside, when standing on American soil. I’ve always felt that I have a missed a great….an important…an essential part of my Life being away from China, the country that I was born in. I knew little of China, very little, and I just had to come back and experience living here myself.

    I thought that moving back to China would make me find peace somewhere within my chaotic mind….in some ways. But now, I feel like I’m just floating in air, not even sure what’s real and what’s fake.

    The thing that has disappointed me the most about me being in China is myself. I have known all along, that I am not Chinese, nor am I American. And coming back to China has further proven this fact…..I am not Chinese. Even though I have Black hair, black eyes, a Chinese face, speak pretty fluent Mandarin…it pains me that I still feel like the outsider. It pains me greatly when I walk outside and see a bunch of Chinese guys and girls walking together laughing and talking…knowing that I probably won’t experience anything like that. I get along with my co-workers fine, my relatives fine…..but there’s this chemistry that’s often missing. This barrier of language, the western mind and the eastern mind. I can no longer use my quick-witted sarcasm, my humor, my flirtatious verbose style when speaking in Chinese…..simply my Chinese just isn’t freaking good enough. And it frustrates me to no end.

    There are times when I really don’t “feel” like I’m in China, it doesn’t matter how many crazy things I see everyday, whether it’s a bus blowing up in the middle of the street or some guy doing a Shaolin spinning crane kick to the top of the dome (exaggeration….my strong suit). I don’t even care. My mind is still somewhere in limbo, between China and America. And I’m dying to get out.

    I have tried a myriad of things trying to immerse myself into Chinese society (or have I really?), such as—- playing basketball (yeah…such an essential part of Chinese society….but that’s all they do I swear to God)—-changing my plain and uninspired hairstyle to something completely alien, and dyeing it red, brown, orange, and silver (totally awesome, I have always wondered how those barbers get those crazy hairstyles) — force myself to read online Wuxia novels (again, this seems to be all they talk about) —-going to the KTV bars and singing Cantonese oldies (my favorite….cause I’m so damn good at it)

    But sadly I have yet to discover a friend that has the same interest as mine. I would sing a classic Cantonese song by 张国荣 and my relatives looks at me wide-eyed, expecting me to sing an English tune, explaining to me they never listen to Hong Kong music, much less even heard the tune before. To which I am just taken aback, and almost shocked. I would ask my friends where I can find some old 70s Kung Fu flicks….they look at me like I’m a crazy goon….claiming they never even heard of the films I named. Then I think to myself “Man, these fools don’t know a thing…this IS China right??” But then again, it could be me who is ignorant, I could be the one who’s out of my mind, having no expectations of China but so many at the same time.

    I might give off a strong, likable, humble presence on the outside. But I’m definitely struggling on the inside, trying to find a peace of mind somewhere…….and I thought that my hometown would be it….but I’m scared that if it isn’t……well…..I can only try my best no matter what.

    • December 14, 2009 at 4:43 pm

      Dear Jason,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. Wow. When you said:

      Since I’m Chinese, moved to the US at the young ignorant age of 7, I’ve always been the foreigner, on the inside and outside, when standing on American soil.

      I was reminded of my husband. It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t want to stay here. “I’ll always be a foreigner here,” he says. It’s true. Sad, but true.

      I am saddened to see how much trouble you’ve had in China — especially after being such an outsider here in the US. I was actually surprised to read what you mentioned about your friends. Changing your hair, for example. Maybe my husband’s friends are old-school (or maybe it’s because they grew up in the countryside), but they would never do that, or expect people to do that. I know a lot of people who love to sing Cantonese songs — I’ve seen some of my friends sing them. And many of my friends and my husband’s friends still love kungfu movies.

      I don’t know where your hometown is. But I will say that China is a big place with a lot of diversity in its cities. Even my husband does not like every city in China. I remember how much trouble both of us had when we were in Shanghai, for example — yes, even my husband, who is Chinese. Both of us seemed unable to make friends, and felt lonely. But in other cities, we have felt more comfortable and welcome. I had wonderful experiences living in Zhengzhou, Hangzhou, and Taipei.

      I guess I would say, don’t give up. Maybe your hometown isn’t the place that will bring you peace of mind. But I believe if you have an open heart and willingness to try new things and new places, you’ll find the place right for yourself. Feel free to contact me offline, if you’d like.

  • December 15, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    Now here’s mine:

    I was always this small, shy kid who wanted to draw attention to himself but would hide whenever he was in a new place. I just wanted to connect to people, but didn’t really know how to do it.
    I tried to please everybody, but never really stood up for myself. In high school, I ended up at the very bottom of the food chain. Even the losers didn’t want to hang out with me. At some point I just said fuck it, and started to become one of those kids who wore black, etc.

    At that point (I was 17) came the time of my Rotary exchange year in Germany. Lived with a few German families, went to a German school. Learning a new language, seeing a new culture, having contact with other exchange students from around the world. This really gave me some perspective. Life wasn’t just that. I could be this explosive and happy Brazilian guy and people wouldn’t feel threatened. I was all over the place. I had courage to chat up girls.
    When I came back, I went back to my last year of high school and I really could see the difference. I was honestly much more mature than everybody around me.

    Went into college and met other people. Of course things got balanced again regarding maturity, but I had been bitten by the bug already. Symptoms were aggravated by the amazing teacher I had in International Law. At the end of my college years, I wanted to see something different. And coming to China was actually cheaper than going back to Europe.

    When I arrived in China, that kid from Germany came out again, and he was fascinated by all the movement and diversity of Beijing. I loved the language and the spirit of opportunity in China, but also saw some things that were lees cool. At the end of that first period in China, I met my French girlfriend.

    Back in Brazil, I was this guy who had been to China, people found it kind of weird, made jokes. After a couple of weeks, I was up to date on everything that had happened, not much had changed. A sort of consolation was that I knew it wouldn’t last for too long.

    The time came for me to go to France be with my girlfriend. While I was looking for a job and studying French, my life wasn’t that amazing. especially because I barely had friends of my own. I was only an appendix to my girlfriend. Everyone I knew was through her and my social life revolved around her.

    The time came for me to come back to China. Here, I can connect to new people really fast, I am involved in cool projects. I have a job that not only allows me to constantly meet new people, it forces me to. I also have the opportunity to meet people from many different countries and learn about them. And here I also get the opportunity to practice all the languages I speak. At home I of course only speak one, and it is kinda pretentious to go telling people “hey, hello, I can speak X languages”. Here, it kinda shows itself, and it isn’t that much of a deal, because a lot of foreigners speak a bunch of languages. But it still is a good hook to talk to more people. At “home” I could not do the type of job I can do in China. No matter where “home” is. Here I have friends doing the most amazing things, from being TV presenters to weather men to artists, to investment banking.

    One of my friends made ultra fast advancements in his career, because he isn’t “home”.

    Yes, there are some downsides to being here, but I do love my international persona, who’s slowly becoming more and more merged with me. And I like it

    • December 15, 2009 at 9:17 pm

      Hi Zictor,

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience! I can so relate to how you felt in high school. I know I was definitely considered a big loser when I was in middle school and high school.

      What a metamorphosis you went through, from being shy to finally being able to put yourself out there and be courageous. As my husband might say, you were truly “courageously moving forward.”

      And, I agree, there’s really something to be said for working in China — that foreigners often have a variety of opportunities. We’re not put into a box as much as we might be in our own countries. You might say that is also a part of the transformative aspect of the country; at least, it was for me. If I hadn’t gone to China, I would not have discovered I was a writer. It was through landing writing jobs — mostly because I just happened to fall into them — that I realized this was what I wanted.

  • December 22, 2009 at 1:51 am

    Yes, there is something to be said about job opportunities for foreigners in China. We can simply do certain things that would require a very long and arduous procedure back home, but in China is possible simply because, as a friend put it once, “China is a country of amateurs”. (I know this sounds controversial, I can explain the context later if anyone wants).

    Just imagine what kind of qualifications you would need to be a TV anchor, and the arduous selection to get there! And I have met quite a few people who are now on various programs in CCTV9 and learning a lot! Also this guy I know has a girlfriend who’s a model/actress doing commercials for all the big brands, something she says would be very tough in her homeland. PR firms, and many other fields which we can test before settling for one. Even in my own professional field, there is a case to be made for being much easier to start in China.

    • December 22, 2009 at 6:34 pm

      You’re completely right on the qualifications! Even I met some models in China who could never have made the cut on the Paris or Milan runway. And, like you, same with friends in other fields.

      I would be interested in your explanation of “China is a country of amateurs” — please do share.

  • December 23, 2009 at 12:12 am

    It all started as one of the millions of arguements we had in the “Brazilians in China” community of Orkut (networking website similar to Facebook). As usual, some people of Chinese ancestry got very nationalistic and irrational. You know, sometimes it feels good to complain a little bit about China and these guys got offended and started blasting us. One of them said “If you cannot take it, don’t come here, China isn’t a country for amateurs”. To what this guy replied “What are you talking about?…” He went on explaining the jobs he had had (English teacher, photography instructor, etc.) saying that he would never had qualified for this type of job back in Brazil.

    As a foreigner, there are just so many different jobs that are completely inaccessible at home, not just because they would need more qualifications, but also because they just wouldn’t have the correct networking to get there.

    Here, not only is the foreign network smaller, China also lacks qualified workforce AND the image of foreigners as bearers of knowledge still exists.

    The basic example are two very visible careers here: Language teaching and media.

    Because of prejudice from the parents (some demand a white face to teach their little emperors), lack of qualification from school owners/managers (they can’t tell if the prospective teacher actually knows the language) and sheer demand, the range of qualification for teaching English in China goes from white-faced-moron-who-can’t-speak-correctly to qualified-instructor-with-a-university-degree.

    What is actually amazing is that people who really are serious joining their career at the bottom level and walk out of it with full qualifications, understanding of the industry and ready to tackle it anywhere else (doesn’t happen to everybody, but does happen). I myself hope this will happen to me.

  • December 23, 2009 at 3:13 am

    Zictor, I wouldn’t worry too much, relatively speaking, about those attitudes. People exist like that everywhere in the world, and often replied quite similar. Mostly talk. It’s ok to a certain extent, like telling like it is, but sometimes it depends on the social atmosphere, like the environment people in how one carry their expressions. Like is it really for the sake of communicating, just venting off a little steam, maybe some criticism for specific purposes, etc, and how well others repond to them. Generally speaking, and I’m stereotyping a bit, females are a little better at reading this and react quicker (sometimes subtle but effective) than most males in a lot of cases, or at least they appear to be.

    At first, I also wonder what the amateur part was, I assume that you meant the “professional-social” ladder in the work environment was shorter than most places, thus many amateurs but then I can sort of see what you mean.


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