[China] ranked No. 1 overall among 37 countries as a destination for expats in an HSBC Holdings PLC survey released earlier this week, edging out Germany, Singapore and the Cayman Islands. Its surveys ranked China No. 2 out of 37 countries in terms of beneficial economics and No. 3 in terms of what the bank calls “expat experience,” or general quality of life.
The survey questioned just over 7,000 expats, HSBC said. Of that group, 71 were in China, and judging by the results they had plenty positive to say about life in the Middle Kingdom. Nearly half praised China’s better work-life balance compared with what they experienced at home, 56% said the quality of education was better, two-thirds said it was an easy place to make friends, and nearly three-quarters said their children were safer than they were at home.
I would also say that China has an excellent lack of spiders and great travel opportunities. But having lived only in one country outside the U.S., I don’t think I can definitively say China is the best. I can vouch for the perks of living in China, though, and do generally agree with what the people surveyed said about it. There are few countries in the world where you can instantly obtain a certain higher status just by virtue of being an outsider. There are probably even fewer countries in the world where you can earn double the average local wage for doing very little work and have money left over to spend on hobbies. Add to the fact that (at least in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) there is a sizable enough population of people in the same expat boat as you that a whole community of expat-oriented services has cropped up, and you pretty much have the reason why expats love China so much. You can feel like you’re in a different country, and yet, like you’ve never left home. And not only did you not leave home, you’ve suddenly become the king of your home. Make no mistake, that higher status — imposed on us by the Chinese and willingly accepted by every expat — may prevent us from ever becoming “at one” with China, but it is a powerful drug, half opiate and half amphetamine, capable of such wild intoxication that we cannot leave the country, even as we bemoan the pollution and crowds and filth and rudeness and threats to our health and safety that we aren’t even used to worrying about. Because when you think about it, logically, China is a horrible place.
Pollution. According to the Journal report, if you factor in pollution, China is no longer the expats’ favorite place. Indeed, while I think Western media tend to paint an exaggerated picture of choking smog all the time, the truth is that a lot of the time, it’s polluted. This can range from a slight haziness in the sky to something like this. And when you hear about how bad the air is, it really is that bad. The pictures don’t lie. And it’s not just the air, it’s the water and environment in general. Just name me something in China that isn’t polluted.
Crowds. People are everywhere. Always. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that everyone, everywhere, either are oblivious to the fact that you’re there or choose to act like you’re not. Always. So a group of them will take up the entire sidewalk and walk at the pace of a snail. Or cross the road in the middle of oncoming traffic. Or switch into your lane even though you’re going twice as fast and there’s no one in front of them in their lane and they actually want to turn right. Or shove their way to the counter, shouting an order and throwing money down, even though you are in the middle of asking for something yourself. Or mob the door of the bus, pushing and squeezing you so hard that you are basically carried onto the bus by the sheer momentum of dozens of smelly bodies cramming onto a bus all at once.
Filth. In any large city such as Beijing, there will be some amount of litter. But Beijing is also supposed to be a showcase capital. And yet people spit everywhere, children urinate and more right on the sidewalks, and pretty much everyone is plagued by halitosis and body odor. Actually, I can’t even call what they do “spitting”. It’s more like summoning all of the nasty bodily fluids within them with a deep, guttural rumble and then expelling whatever loogie they’ve created from their mouth. And the kids? They just pull down their pants and go. You have to be careful not to walk into them or their piss.
Rudeness. See “Crowds” and “Filth” above. I mean, these things might just be their “cultural norm”, but I bet even the Chinese would think the world is nicer if people were more aware of others and stopped spitting and pooping on the streets. And then they are just generally loud. In restaurants, when you want to have a nice, quiet dinner, a Chinese patron will inevitably shatter the peace, if not by smacking his lips or slurping his soup, then by screaming for the fuwuyuan. Or else they are shouting into their cell phones and the person on the other side is shouting back. I often wonder if they have a hearing problem. I’m a bit hard of hearing myself, but I can still hear them and their phone friend all the way from the other side of the bus over the noisy bus engine and sounds of traffic.
Threats to health and safety. Besides all the health hazards caused by pollution, there are loads of problems with food and product safety. New revelations come out every week, but nothing really ever happens to prevent future occurrences.
So these are things that expats may not have to deal with in other countries, or if they do, they won’t experience them with the same frequency or magnitude as they would in China. Frequency and magnitude make a ton of difference in defining people’s perception of a place. Having to deal with all of these things on a several-times-a-day basis makes China an awfully hard place to live. Like how the air pollution engulfs the entire city and everything in it, so do the filth and rude crowds. But even though they make us pause and are great for water cooler conversations, we mostly learn to just get on with things. I just accept that nobody cares I exist, call them a sha bi and/or shove them when they try to run through me. I just assume that everything I eat or buy is laced with poison and made with things reclaimed from a sewer. I’d rather not have do these things, but I don’t have any other choice except to leave this expat paradise. Pollution, filth and crowds just make up the nasty background to our lives.
Besides, no one said it was logical to like China. China itself has never been a place for logic. It’s like some weird vortex or black hole for logic — any logic that comes near it gets sucked in, distorted, and never makes it back out in any form that is recognizable as logic. It doesn’t make sense that China came out as No. 1 in the expat survey because even the tourists no longer want to come. If people don’t even want to visit, why would they want to live here? But, alas, there China is, at the top of the list.