Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about those foreigners that come to China and not only stay here for a while, but make their permanent home here. I know more and more expats, or shall we call them immigrants, who have been living here for more than 10 or even more than 20 years.
A friend asked what keeps these foreigners here? Do they have similar characteristics? And indeed I think they do.
Chinese spouse or family member
All longtime expats that I know here in Guangzhou are married to a Chinese spouse. It’s natural that you settle in here if you have found your love here as well.
This of course includes me as well, it’s hard to say if I would have stayed in China as long as I have (10 years and counting) if I didn’t marry my husband who happens to be a Chinese citizen. I do see many intercultural couples moving out of China when kids go to school, so spouse can’t be the only things that is keeping them/us here.
Fulfilling career or business
Those long-term foreigners usually have their own business here or find their job fulfilling. A job or being an entrepreneur is a big part of your life, so if that area is working for you in China, then you are likely to stay.
Originally I thought it would be difficult to create my career here as a non-native Chinese teacher, but it has proved to be the opposite. Back home in Finland I probably wouldn’t be able to make teaching Chinese a full time job, let alone hire other teachers to work for me.
For my Chinese husband it would be even harder to find a job in Finland without excellent English and Finnish skills.
When you find true friends then you feel like home. With expat life style it can be difficult to find long-term friends as most expats stay only a few years in one country, but luckily we can find other foreigners who have made their home here or make local friends.
When I was a students I often wrote about the difficulty of making friends here, now older and settled, most of my friends have a similar life situations as I do. They are married to a Chinese spouse and have kids like ours. I know not everyone like the term mixed, but for our Finnish-Chinese daughter I feel it’s important to make friends with other kids like here. So she can see that having parents from different cultures is natural thing to grow up with.
Life in China is full of last minute changes, things that you can’t explain with your “foreign logic”. You might get mad at people and things as they don’t work as you expect them to. When I observe those expats who stay here for a long time, all of them seem to have this easy-going attitude to life and China. They know that they can bring new things to China, but at the same time need to learn to work the Chinese way.
Forcing people around me to do thing the Finnish Way wouldn’t go very far here. I can introduce different ways of doing things, I can train my staff differently, but still I need to understand how Chinese people think, care, work and feel.
After becoming a parent I have more things on my list that I would like to change in China if I could, but I try to think it from a different point of view. I don’t want to be a foreigner who wants to change China, rather I’m an ordinary parent who want the best for their child, and thus wants to see improvements in the society. Like any other parent would like to.
How long will I stay?
This is not a question that I actively think, but it comes up every once in a while. After living in Guangzhou for a decade, I don’t feel like I’m living abroad anymore, I’m living at home.
In Finland I lived in a few different cities, the longest I stayed in Heinola (years 2-14) which I consider my hometown. Very soon I have been living in Guangzhou longer than I lived in Heinola. Quite a crazy thought actually!
At this moment we don’t have any plans to leave Guangzhou. Our businesses are here, our friends are here. We also want our daughter to go through Chinese speaking education to become fully fluent in Chinese as any other Chinese person. She is growing up as an ordinary Chinese kid (just happens to have a mom who speaks Finnish with her), she feels like home here.
Due to her looks, our daughter can be recognized as mixed child here, but not as clearly as if we lived in Finland. In Finland she would be visibly different and we would have our own challenges to make here feel like she belongs and to make sure she has a culturally rich group of friends and classmates.
So to answer the question, my life is keeping me here in China, Guangzhou, at my home. For how long? For the foreseeable future, that’s the only answer I can give.
For more about this topic, check out our newest YouTube video here.
P.s. Living away from my own childhood family isn’t easy of course, but that’s a topic for another blog post.