After the name exchange and typical “where are you from?” the most commonly asked question of expats is: “What brought you to China?” I’ve condensed the answer down to two or three concise sentences that, admittedly, have come to sound slightly rehearsed. Of course, the real reasons are much more complex.
This winter, though, a spotlight suddenly shone on the question in reverse. My family faced the decision of possibly leaving China. So I had to ask myself: “Why leave?” There was no simple and easily rehearsed answer. A long list of reasons revealed themselves. Then another long list of reasons emerged about why we should, in fact, stay. Indecision reigned. I lost sleep.
You see, I would argue that expats like me who have been here for more than five years (and have ties to not just the community but also to Chinese households through marriage and family) have done what it takes to accept the fact that our duration in this place could indeed be indefinite. We have made it our home. We have adapted. There was no other way to survive! That isn’t to say we haven’t had our “bad China days” like everyone else, but we can’t deny that a long-term relationship with a place is not unlike a long-term relationship with a person: there are phenomenal things about China and there are certainly challenges. But that’s what committed people do: we stick it out.
When we arrive at a crossroads in which our long-accepted notion of home threatens to come to an end (I speak from experience), destabilization takes the wheel. The annoying lyric “Should I stay or should I go now” by The Clash incessantly played on a loop in my head. Questions piled on top of questions like: What will I do professionally in Canada? How will I handle the absence of my in-laws regarding childcare? How will I preserve the Chinese language for the kids in a non-Chinese speaking school and environment? Etc. Etc.
Of course, the reasons for leaving were also plentiful. My ageing parents in Canada. The free education. The absence of (though much improved, still ever-present) air pollution. Free healthcare. A new beginning.
When I say I lost sleep, I wasn’t kidding. On the eve of possibly making great changes, our minds play out various scenarios. I spun new future stories until the wee hours of the morning, all while I had to still be a mom and get my kids on the school bus the next day. It was unhealthy. A stupid obsessive thought wormhole I slipped in for weeks.
That, in itself, is a testimony to Beijing’s magnetic charm. How do you leave such a draw? After so many years (9+) in this city’s force field, I am unquestionably changed. I love my life here. I love my apartment and my rhythms. I love my friends and my freelance “juggle” that feels positively circus-like at the best of times. To have mastered the skill of keeping such colorful and diverse jobs simultaneously suspended in the air feels like a victory. How do I let this all go?
So, in early January, I decided to stop deciding. I mentally placed the dilemma of choice to one side and let myself sit with the lists. Sometimes you have to actively stop spinning the “what if” narratives and just wait for the “mind snow” to settle, as if our brains are snow globes and the crossroads have given us a shake.
The result? We’re staying.
For now. But that’s the best I can give you, Beijing. And now I’ve rehearsed a nice concise answer for “Why stay?”
About the Writer
Ember Swift is a Canadian musician and writer who has been living in Beijing since late 2008. She and her husband Guo Jian (国囝), who is also a musician, have a daughter called Echo (国如一) and a son called Topaz or “Paz” (国世龙).