The Stubborn Shanghai Expat

Stubbornness has its virtues and should be practiced vigilantly by the expatriate, but first it must be channeled appropriately.

For instance, the expat mom from Texas in Shanghai, who greeted visitors with: “When y’all come into my house, y’all are enterin’ the USA!”, had it wrong (and I don’t just mean geographically). Obstinate in her rejection of acclimation in any manner, she retreated, thereby not only losing out on a chance to educate herself linguistically and culturally, but also becoming clinically depressed in the long-run and virtually unable to care for her family.

Leading a meaningful life in a country where English is not spoken and everything is different, from the grade of toilet paper to the weather to a source of reliable electricity, can be at times a nearly impossible task. Cocooning within your own home or, if you’re extremely fortunate, within an “expatriate ghetto”, is certainly an attractive temptation and perhaps sometimes even necessary, as a sparingly-used breather, for ultimate success.

However, it’s the head down, shoulder to the grindstone approach that makes headway. A refusal to let stares in the street or half-understood derogatory comments in the subway undermine your self-confidence. A persistence in using a difficult language, even after you’ve goofed once more and called the butcher a “chicken” instead of asking for some. It’s the ability to laugh at yourself when you unknowingly blunder with respect to local customs, bringing an even number of flowers on your first visit to a new friend’s home.

If you get lost on public transport (again), look at it as a tour. If a landmark is painted over (turn right at the big yellow house), you’re about on schedule to learn to at least recognize (if not read) road signs. If someone impatiently brushes by as you mime a request for the time (probably thinking you’re just another half-wit), don’t take it personally, and try someone else. If little kids follow you shouting, “Yankee, go home!”, resist the urge to turn and rush towards them, roaring loudly and making horrible faces. Although immediately satisfying, it does rather reinforce the “ugly American” thing. Better to have a waspish retort in the target language, carefully written out phonetically and tucked away in a safe pocket, ready for occasions such as these.

Is there an expat formula for success? No, not really. It all depends on the expatriate’s character, determination and willingness to change. You might want to take these with you, though: doggedness tempered with humor; appreciation for your new homeland and respect for its culture; knowing when to withdraw and regroup or spend a few hours venting with experienced expats, and then going right back at it.