On a Chinese Screen

Popular wisdom tells us that living abroad is good for us. It broadens horizons, imparts new perspectives and bestows knowledge. IS THE HYPE ALL TRUE?

British Passport flight ticket and personal belongings displayed on a world map. Travel and vacation

Your average expatriate, particularly a longer-term one, should be a veritable man of the world, a polyglot, a diplomat, a man or woman perfectly at ease in two distinct cultures. This all sounds rather grand, but what if popular wisdom is a self-perpetuated myth and the opposite is true? What if the fate of the expat is to become inward-looking, bitterly nostalgic, hateful of his new country, essentially trapped between two worlds with nowhere to go. It’s a grim thesis, no doubt, but one worth considering.

British writer W. Somerset Maugham toured China almost a century ago, setting down his observations in the short travelogue On a Chinese Screen. It is a short book, comprising a series of sketches largely looking at expatriates that lived in China at the time. It’s an ugly cast of characters, residing in their own cliques despite having all of China to explore, defined primarily by their boredom and distrust of China: petty businessman, cruel bureaucrats, alcoholics drinking themselves to an early grave, womanizers, racists. As Maugham put it, they “had seen one another for an intolerable number of years and each topic that arose was seized upon desperately, only to be exhausted and followed up by a formidable silence … China bored them all, and they did not want to speak of that. They only knew just so much about it as was necessary to their business.”

Time and time again, Maugham’s misanthropic eye skewers these bloody foreigners for any number of things. Chiefly, for not learning the language or really caring about the country: “Though he had been so long in China, he knew no Chinese, in his day it was not thought necessary to learn the damned language, and he asked the coolies in English whose grave they were digging. They did not understand. They answered him in Chinese and he cursed them for ignorant fools […] He hated the country. China. Why had he ever come? He was panic stricken now. He must get out. What did he care about Shanghai? ‘Oh my god, he cried, ‘if I were only safely back in England!’”

On other occasions, expatriates are painted as people who are here simply for money and a good time, “It was always the same story: they had come out to China; they had never seen so much money before, they were good fellows and they wanted to drink with the rest; they couldn’t stand it and they were in the cemetery. You had to have a strong head and a fine constitution to drink drink for drink on the China coast.

Today’s foreigner is different, right? He has lots of Chinese friends; he learns the language; he loves the country and sings its praises; he is here for culture, not money.

The hypocrisy of the foreigner presented in On a Chinese Screen is brutal, but the book was published in 1922, at the tail end of British colonialism. It is likely that Westerners, certainly the British, at that time did see themselves as superior to the Chinese. It’s not something they would have particularly questioned. Perhaps this should make us feel a bit better. We cannot be responsible for the bad manners of our ancestors. After all, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. Today’s foreigner is different, right? He has lots of Chinese friends; he learns the language; he loves the country and sings its praises; he is here for culture, not money.

This all seems unlikely.

Mankind has made a lot of strides in the last century, but I doubt too much of his innate hypocrisy has disappeared. Maugham’s foreigners are commonplace in today’s China. Hell, I am probably one of them. Barely learning enough Chinese to get by; staying so long it is not obvious as to what to do if you go back; socializing with the same half-dozen foreign friends, until they go and the next band of monkeys comes in; and, ultimately, bewildered by a nation that is all so different to home.

Westerners in China come for all sorts of reasons: adventure, exile, travel, business, boredom, and even love. But we are not much different from the fickle creatures that came here all those years ago, getting by, desperately trying to earn a buck, curiously peering into a country we do not and cannot really understand.

This is not to say that coming to China is bad for you. Of course not. Many readers would have spent the best years of their lives here. It is just to say that travelling the world is not necessarily as self-improving as the myth suggests. If you were an asshole when you came out here, you are likely to still be an asshole now, regardless of the idea that moving abroad is supposed make you more rounded, caring and aware of the world.