The life of an expat is often viewed as glamorous, stress-free, and full of fun, sun, and cocktails. Although living abroad often does include such elements of fine living, my experience as an expat is a great deal more complex than the above description.
There are many positive aspects to my life in Beijing. The cost of living is significantly cheaper than the last city in which I lived, I have access to career opportunities that are not so readily available in London’s saturated job market, and I have found a fantastic community that has served as a family away from family. This being said, for me, life as an expat has always been challenging. Becoming an expat mum has added an extra dimension to this challenge.
I live in a land where I am very obviously a foreigner. Every day I step outside I am reminded of just how much I do not blend in. This truth is reinforced every time I hear the word wàiguó rén uttered as I walk down the street. This word literally means “foreigner”, and to say I hear it often is a gross understatement. I’m also reminded of my alien status when complete strangers ask me where I’m from. This is before “Hello”, “What’s your name?”, “How’s your day going?” or any of the other pleasantries that usually mark the beginning of a conversation. It seems that ascertaining where exactly I originate from is of far greater importance than anything else.
To be fair, I’ve never had reason to interpret the attention I receive as hostile. The stares are more ones of fascination and intrigue than of hatred and bigotry. Nevertheless, the attention I receive reminds me that in a city of over 20 million people, there are relatively very few people that look like me.
Beijing is an “interesting” place to be an expat. I’ve learned that If your face doesn’t fit, it’s near impossible to be considered one of the pack. This is the case even if a person was born and raised here and has mastered the language. It seems that being Chinese has less to do with an individual’s place of birth and upbringing, and everything to do with race. This is probably why whenever I tell people that my children are Chinese I’m met with a smile or sometimes even an outright laugh. One man once verbalized his comeback with the word, “bù kěnéng!” (Impossible). These responses seem harmless enough but below the surface, there is a deeper message that is being conveyed.
I have often wondered what response my children will give when the time comes for them to answer the “Where are you from?” question. My parents were born and raised in Nigeria, my husband’s parents were born and raised in Ghana and both my husband and I were born and raised in England. Our children, on the other hand, were born and are currently being raised in China. So how exactly will they respond to this loaded question?
Incidentally, there have been some instances of foreigners being naturalized. However, generally speaking it is near impossible for anyone without Chinese ancestry to become a citizen of China. But is this really an issue of citizenship? Is the absence of a Chinese passport the only obstacle to my children being considered Chinese? What exactly does it mean to be Chinese anyway?
When it’s all said and done, the positives of living in Beijing do seem to outweigh the sacrifices. Although in actual fact, our decision to live in Beijing goes far beyond the many advantages of international living. For us, it all comes down to purpose. Put simply, for the time being, Beijing is where we are meant to be.
Despite the challenges, I honestly believe that my children’s upbringing will be richer as a result of having lived abroad. It is my hope that not being allowed to fit into the homogeneous society that surrounds us, will help them own the truth that standing out from the crowd is not always a bad thing.
*This post is a reworking of a blog post that was originally published on www.itisreal.net
Photo: Pamela Djima