Chinaversary: Seven Years in China

As of today, I’ve been in China seven years. I’m officially a 7 Year Laowai.

In contemplating what having lived in China for three-quarters of the last decade means to me, I find it interesting that in a lot of ways I feel less sure or informed about this country now than I did in the past. It is, in the truest sense of the term, more or less “home”.

It is less home in all the ways you might expect it to be. Seven years on and I’m still consistently astounded and confounded by the way things are done here. Survival has forced a tempering of tantrums over every petty irritant and ignorance experienced here, but many things have also lost their “that’s so weird and cool” luster. Dirty and dangerous just aren’t as charming as they used to be.

What’s more, my Chinese language skills are still in need of a lot of work. I’ve spent next to no time in recent years improving my language abilities, and it shows. Like many an expat I’ve met, I hit the point where I could get by, and motivation was superseded by necessity. It has, in part inadvertently but in part intentionally, created a wall around my life here that prevents me from any hope of true integration with my adoptive land.

But as much as I still fumble with my tones and vocab, the toughest barrier to really feeling like China is home is that no matter how I feel about the place, I’ll always be a “laowai”. Granted, running a site called “Lost Laowai” illustrates my embracing of the term, but on a personal level, never fully being accepted by the community in which you live is tough.

Added to this is the constant pull of other “home”, the one which I now visit for a holiday, and where all my friends and family have been busily going about their lives for so many years without me. I can’t say I miss them in the ways I did when I first left Canada, I barely know their lives now, but I do miss being a part of it all. I miss things that I didn’t even really know or understand before I left. The value of holiday dinners, having family a short drive away in an emergency, people who have known you longer than your time in any one place.

But then, China is more home than any place I have ever lived.

It has become part of who I “am”. “Hi, I’m Ryan, I live in China.” It is the anecdote of my life. Whether I like it or not, my “foreignerness” has entrenched itself into my character. It is how so many of the people I know, know me. This blog isn’t about a Canadian, about a dad or about a writer cum designer. It is all those things, just as I am, but it is about a non-Chinese dude in China. I’m certain should I ever leave China, the disconnection with that identity will be a challenge.

It is also the homeland of my wife, and I cannot look at it or its people without seeing the reflection of someone I love so deeply. Through her, China has given me more patience and acceptance, as well as a much wider sense of the world and my place in it. Both her and her country have challenged me to grow and develop in ways I never knew I would.

Perhaps most relevantly though, it is the birth place and cultural identity of my son. The very fabric of me has quite literally been interwoven with China through him. Any chance that China wouldn’t forever be some sort of “home” disappeared the moment he cried his first half-Chinese cry. I love my wife, and I love my family, but I didn’t know love before my son — nothing in the world compares to that feeling. Apologies for the cliche, but creative literary devices are too complex to express how simple and true that is. And China, however indirectly, gave that to me.

And whereas Canada gets the distinction of being the place I grew up, the place I went to school, the place where I’m “from”; China will always be the place I became a husband, and a father — where I became an adult really. And for that China is definitely more home.

I’m not sure what the next seven years will bring. I barely expected to spend seven months in China, let alone the past seven years. But, for now at least, China is home, and I couldn’t be happier with that.

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