Here we are, half a world away from home and we’re out of the loop. Cut off from our origin, we are teased with all the scents of our past, but the fleeting exposure leaves our emotions riled and unfulfilled.
Pointing at a Chinese restaurant menu to order dinner like a moron sometimes gets you thinking about what you are missing back home. How many opportunities have passed you by and all the things that you can no longer do? Having coherent conversation with locals, taking a lungful of clean air or finding that off-brand jar of Marmite you like are all some of the small things we miss. But what about the big things?
It is not always the little things that escape us. A combination of time, money and any other number of factors means we often neglect things happening at home that are of an entirely different order. Occasions we feel guilty to have missed, places where we should have been. Or perhaps when we didn’t want to actually be there, our guilt is worse for it. The wedding of an old friend, the funeral of a much-loved grandparent or the bombing of our hometown by brutal foreign forces: these things happen and we weren’t there.
Finally starting to fade from view, 2016 was the kind of year when expats missed any number of seriously major events back home. Instead, we were out here, making sense of China. I’m not just talking about celebrity deaths, though there were plenty of those.
It was one of those years where you only had to blink and there seemed to be some kind of subtle shift in the world order. One minute, you are casually flying over to China to try your hand at managing a bar; the next minute, your country has coolly left the European Union. On a whim, you think you might try your hand teaching English in Shandong for a few months and before you know it, your country elects a barely literate, billionaire crypto-fascist as president. It was just one of those years.
It is a strange feeling being thousands of miles of home while acts of incredible political, or personal, magnitude go down. There’s this Ukrainian guy who works in advertising in Beijing and who left Ukraine because he didn’t want to get conscripted into the army. Presumably, because going to war with Russia didn’t sound like a fun way to idle away his weekends. He feels guilty. Though, not particularly in the patriotic, I really ought to be shooting Russians, kind of way. More so, that he has family and friends who were not able to casually jump on a plane to Asia like he did. While he is writing ad-copy for a new Xiaomi smartphone, the people at home have no idea what tomorrow will bring. These stories mess with your head.
When things happen back home that are not to your liking, it is difficult to know how annoyed, worried or angry you should be here in China. After all, you left it all in the first place. If you cared that much, you could have stayed home and campaigned, voted, fought or done whatever it was that you felt needed to be done.
There is a group of Brits living in mainland Europe who, despite never having been remotely engaged by politics before, have formed a group called Fair Deal for Expats, and are challenging Brexit in the courts. They are worried that their cozy life accented with swilling lager on Costa del Sol is under threat, and it just might be.
Flocks of Americans in China were hit hard by Donald Trump’s presidential victory. There were reports of large groups of liberal Americans huddled in expat pubs on election morning, crying their eyes out. The tears were a very different order from those shed when Obama was chosen.
Without a doubt, it is an odd feeling for your country to undergo profound change, while you sit back sipping Tsingtao, wondering where it all went wrong. I asked an American pal in Dongguan how it was all going on the morning of the U.S. election and got two basic text messages in reply.
The first said something to the effect of: “Great, man. I feel like I have been born again. Never felt so alive.” Unless I have massively misjudged him, that would be irony. He was saying he felt like shit. It was the second message that hinted more at the disposition of the expat in China, Costa del Sol or anywhere else, for that matter. It simply said, “Just happy that I am over here right now.”
For many expats, this captured sentiment is the nub of it. No matter how much Rome burns—and for many, it is very much in flames—China offers insulation, an escape from the maddening bombs, votes and insanity being paraded back in the old country. With Chinese New Year just around the corner, we all ought to raise a glass. For now, let’s “just be happy to be here right now” and hope that next year offers a few less fireworks than the last.