China Correspondent: Expats

By TJ Acena, PQ Monthly

Right before I left for China I ran into an old coworker, and she lamented that so many Americans in foreign countries only talk to other Americans. “Make friends with locals,” she advised me. Though I’ve made a few Chinese friends through online apps, I’ve actually made a few more Western friends.

I spend every day at work having simple, stilted conversations with my students, and besides one American friend I have in the city who I see on weekends (and I cannot understate how necessary she is to my happiness), I don’t actually have a lot of actual conversations with people in my native language. Everyone back home is in a time zone completely off from my own. As time passed, I often found myself spending more and more time talking with other Western guys online, driven in large part because I didn’t know how much I would miss having fluent conversations in English, even in text.

One of my first friends was a German guy studying abroad. I’ve actually talked about meeting him before, and even though he isn’t American his frame of reference was similar to mine and like me, he was also an outsider. A large part of making friends with other Westerners in foreign countries is sharing the common bond of being an outsider. Like me, he often struggled against Chinese culture. He actually came to China with friends from his university so we didn’t meet up often before he left.

I met an American intern who actually worked under my friend in the city; she had told me about him before I met him online. He ended up giving me some ukulele lessons before he left. That is not a euphemism.

A Canadian guy messaged me, passing through the city on his way across country. I made the hour trip into town to meet him for dinner because he was sarcastic and I missed sarcasm–one thing that is beyond 99% of my students is sarcasm. I spend most of my time talking in ‘English teacher voice’. I managed to order two bowls of noodles at a restaurant which made me feel a little self-sufficient. After we parted ways, he messaged me that he thought I was attractive. I told him he should have opened with that. Both of us admitted we were bad at Grindr.

I met another English teacher at a language school, born in Kenya, raised in Canada. He is young and self-destructing. I’m not sure how long he’ll last here even though he actually speaks Chinese.

Using Scruff I managed to find a guy to meet up and show me around Shanghai while I was passing through during my winter holiday. He likes kale, books, art museums, yoga, and he has a beard. I definitely messaged him because he seemed like someone I would be friends with back in Portland.

I’ve made a good friend who actually lives in a city nearby and is also an English teacher at a university. We often text about work, complaining about students, giving each other teaching suggestions, and discuss coping strategies for living in China. I didn’t realize how normalizing having people to text with would make me feel, and I’m thankful to have found someone in my same time zone who gets all my cultural references and understands the constant adjustment that living in China is.

So most of the people I talk to in China are other Westerners, I did exactly what my old coworker told me not to do. But, just having these guys to talk to helps me deal with my constant feelings of isolation.