What would you do if I sang out of tune?

A Canadian friend of mine here in Suzhou is getting married this weekend and he’s asked me to be the English-language emcee (it’s bilingual, as the bride is a Suzhou local – so maybe trilingual?) at his wedding.

Fortunately for me, my job is mostly translational and I’ll not have to give any long and/or personal speeches. It’s not my great fear of public speaking that has me relieved, but the fact that despite having gotten to know this friend quite well, we’ve only been such for a little more than a year – a short time to come up with a scandalous collection of “this one time…” stories.

The odd part is, that year-friendship is long-term by expats in China standards. It’s the nature of the beast that most expats come to China for not much more than 6 months to a year and then return from whence they came.

It was on this topic that him and I got talking last weekend as we worked out a (small) guest list for his bachelor party. As he said best, when you know your friends are going to leave to go “home” in the not-so-distant future, you tend to keep them at arm’s reach, making more acquaintances than true friendships.

I’ve met some amazing people in my time here in China, and certainly feel grateful for those relationships, but it’s true that if put to a litmus test, most would likely fall into that “acquaintance” category. Though had we all been living “back home”, there’s a good chance solid and lasting friendships would form, as a stranger in a strange land, such things are fleeting.

Like my friend, I’ve noticed that I don’t spend as much time as I used to on developing a social circle with much depth, simply because I know that circle is going to be going through continual, and drastic, changes and require constant and vigil attention to maintain it.

Now, the obvious solution to this would be to befriend locals. However, it’s more of a challenge than it sounds. In my 3+ years here I’ve yet to have a true Chinese friend. By our very nature, us expats tend to attract a “special” kind of Chinese person – generally the type that is looking for free English practice, or some presumed 关系.

This, of course, is limited in scope due to my lacking Chinese skills, but is enough to have jaded me to the whole idea of making good Chinese friends that are just fun to grab a beer with, shoot the shit and wax political.

So, until I find the magic spot where all the hip Chinese hang out, expats it is.

It is, however, a bit of a cold, sad fact that one of the first few questions I ask after meeting someone new here has changed from “So, how long you been here?” to “So, how long you staying?”

10 Responses

  1. Indeed, you’ve pretty much nailed it when it comes to expats. It’s almost annoying for anyone living here long term that even if you meet someone really cool, chances are they’ll only be around less than a year. Combine it with the Chinese friend situation, which I’ve covered quite thoroughly (post linked), and the fact that most long term expats like yourself tend to be married (not that that’s a bad thing), it’s difficult to make really good friends here.

    I have this fantasy that HK is somehow immune to this.

  2. @James: Great post (@everyone else: check it out). Trust that us married folks need friends too 😉 Though you’re right, getting a significant other is a solid way of forming a friendship – though the dating pool is full of just as many pitfalls as the friend-finding one.

    @AL: Here perhaps, but our ilk is responsible for all sorts of inspiration at this blog.

  3. For the most part this is quite true–and there are some I wish I had kept at more than arms reach. I know I’ve been fortunate enough to make friends here who I can keep in contact with even though they’ve moved on. Another type of expat you meet in China is the one you probably wouldn’t befriend if you were back home. I have a few I’m sure I wouldn’t hang out with if we met in the states, but they’ve turned out to be quality friends here.

  4. Well, we’ve (the misses and me) just re-signed for another two years so it’ll be 2010 before we’re out of here, at the earliest. In fact quite a lot of our colleagues have re-signed (just saw the need to add a hyphen in there).

    By the way, surely I’m the only one to have noticed the news.bbc.co.uk is unblocked now.

  5. Byron, I noticed about BBC days ago and posted about it on my website then(not that there’s loads of people who read it). Even some of the T word stuff works now….

    I find that in China I don’t hang out very much in ‘expat’ places but hang out with Chinese people a lot more. It may be partly because I’m here for a year(maybe 2) to improve my language and for me that’s quite important. Last time I was in China I didn’t have the language I have now and so my friends spoke more English than I spoke Chinese. This time around it’s not the case and I like that a lot. Even my ‘language exchange’ isn’t really a language exchange. I help her with her English homework sometimes and the rest of the time we just talk in Chinese as she doesn’t like talking in English. A few of my classmates(non-Chinese) I’m quite friendly with and I’d say that it was more than ‘acquaintances.’ And yes in China there are times when you meet people who you don’t agree with at all and it feels ridiculously forced just to talk to them because you’re the only foreigners in a place.

  6. Also, just to add on to my post before I get loads of stick, I’m not by any means fluent in Chinese I just try hard with it. Obviously there are things with my friends that I don’t understand but it does get better in terms of communication.

  7. Cheers Zhongguoist, to avoid missreading of my post can I point out I accidently let a ‘not’ out after the surely (don’t call me surely).

    I’d like to hang-out more with Chinese people but I’m afraid the language will always be a barrier. Do I want to learn Chinese? Of course … but I work damn hard at my job including hour every evening so it just isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Maybe next year …

  8. I’ve kept in touch (through the marvels of Facebook and its ilk) with quite a few folks I’ve met here. And though I would certainly say they are “friends”, I still feel that there’s a detachment from them compared to if I had made friends with them in our home countries.

    I’ve friendships that still exist with people I met while backpacking through Europe and Asia a few years ago. And though I value those relationships, they just don’t have the flesh and bone-ness of friends I made and kept since high school.

    In the end I think friendship is based largely on shared experiences. Because of the rather unique experiences that a foreigner faces in China, this creates fast bonds based on this alone.

    But despite being rather strange and interesting experiences, in the end they tend to be few and/or over a short period of time.

    I mean, there’s only so many e-mails you can send that say “So, what’s new? Remember the time we ate chicken feet? Haha… good times…”

    @Zhongguoist: Certainly if you hang out with Chinese you’re bound to befriend Chinese… I think my point (and the point James made on his blog) is that the friendships tend to be sort of shallow and boring. It’s a rare find in deed to meet a local that can engage in some interesting dialog (in either Chinese or English) that doesn’t sound like it’s being read from a text book.

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