Not a Good Plan, Stan.


August 23rd, 2011
Time: 4:11 pm
Location: Wagas Jing’An

Yesterday I walked out of my bathroom clad only in a towel and received an awkward wave from a young Chinese man.  
  
And so I dedicate this long-awaited post to the art of re-expatriating. 
 
The life of an expat goes something like this: decide to move to a foreign country, have friends, family, colleagues, bosses, etc., provide copious amounts of information about culture shock and how to adjust to it.  Go live in decided country and become accustomed to it. Finish your stint abroad and return home where once again you are inundated with information on how to adjust to reverse culture shock and what to expect as you undergo repatriation. 

What no one ever talks about is the life in the in between: what happens when you go home for 4 weeks on an extended vacation and then return to your country of residence.  

Re-expatriating.  It’ll mess with your mind.

Here’s the conundrum – you go home for just long enough to settle back into the mindset of your old life.  You expect lines, rules, order. And then you go back to China, knowing full well to expect chaos but still clinging unconsciously to ingrained habits and expectations from your old life.  You are returning to China without 2 things: Number 1: the first-timer’s expectations. When you’re a newbie expat, you’re so chockfull of information on culture shock that you expect everything to be new and different.  Number 2: That callous that builds up from everyday life in Shanghai.

The chasm between expecting the crazy and living the crazy is no mere puddle jump.

You are going to do things that you know you shouldn’t do, but you’re going to do them anyway despite the mental and physical health risks. Here is a shadow of that list:

Wear flip-flops.  In a city where people treat the common thoroughfare as a personal toilet, shoot snot bombs from their noses at death-defying speeds, hock lugees the size of Georgia to great lengths, and lose their lunches after a long night of baijiu, not to mention the possibility of amputation on a crowded metro carriage, exposing your feet to the streets is not a great idea.  Multiply that 10 times over when it rains.  You’ve now got urine, mucus, vomit, feces, and all other manners of filth running over your bare feet.  I don’t care that it’s 100 degrees outside not including the humidity – Just. Say. No.

Expect obedience to traffic laws. You know, you know, that the taxi coming at you is not going to stop, despite his red light. You know it, but you’re going to eye him down and keep walking. The China part of you is telling you to stop, but the piece of you still stuck at home is willing that driver into submission.  I’ve heard being in traction for 6 months provides ample opportunity for self-reflection.  I hope to God you’re not an ESL teacher.

Become irrationally angry at the lack of order and regulation. The first go-around you probably wrote a pithy email about this back home.  Oh, those silly Chinese. This time you know it’s there, but you’ve just returned from a life of order and you liked it. You liked it so much that you still haven’t let go of it. So when people step in front of you at the grocery store, you’re going to get mad and you’ll probably go into some silent rant.  Let it go, my man.  It’s just giving you high blood pressure.

Yell at people and /or talk about people in English. You’re never understood when you want to be but whenever the urge to mouth-off overcomes you, one of those Chinese people around you knows exactly what you’re saying.  Every single damn time. And as you well know, Chinese people don’t shy from a good bout of fisticuffs. And those Shanghainese women know the value of a strategically placed ice-pick heel.  Go home and write a blog about it unless you’re itching for a good slap fight.  If that’s that case, have at it.  But call me first because I’d like to place my bets before the action begins.

Eat street food your first week back. Yeah, you missed your 3 kuai pot stickers. I get it, I do. But don’t kid yourself.  You’ve got some serious adjusting to do, and your stomach has got enough on its plate as it is.  Don’t add to the misery.  Just give it time.  No reason to go through your Cosco-sized bottle of Pepto-Bismol the first week back. 

Stare at the man rubbing his exposed belly. Let’s be real.  You don’t want to see that. I just wanted to cement that image in your mind so that you can well and truly realize you’re back in good ol’ Shanghai.

As for that guy standing in my apartment gazing at me half-naked?  All I can say is I’d better be getting my whole deposit back from my landlord.