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BUSINESS & TECH

Doing Business in China: Middle Kingdom Moves to Margins When Expats Go Home

By Doug Young

(Beijing) — This week’s column takes us back to the future, as we look at what lies ahead for many of us who head home after years in China.

Much gets written about doing business in China and the many adjustments foreigners have to make when they get here, but far less is said about the period of reacclimation everyone goes through after moving back home.

For me, one of the most exhilarating things about returning to China in 2002, following a five-year stay in the 1980s, was the incredible pace of change. The area around the Beijing university where I taught in the late 1980s was unrecognizable by the opening years of the 21st century, with the adjacent tree-lined narrow street replaced by a four-lane major thoroughfare that I recently learned has become one of the college district’s biggest nightspots.

That kind of change is generally unheard of back in my home in the U.S., where you can return to most neighborhoods years later and still recognize most landmarks. China used to be like that, too, and even more so, with the same families occupying the same cramped homes for decades during the socialist era. It was always easy to find old friends even after years of being out of touch since no one ever moved anywhere.

Fast-forward to the present, where rapid-fire change has become part of the fabric of daily life, and entire neighborhoods that existed for decades are suddenly demolished overnight to make way for new shopping centers and luxury homes. I once found that rate of change quite invigorating, though nowadays I find myself wishing for more stability in my daily life. Maybe that’s why I tend to gravitate to chain stores these days, since I’ve been disappointed one too many times when my favorite restaurant or barber shop one day suddenly closes for a meeting with the wrecking ball.

Not surprisingly, the four recent returnees I talked to expressed similar sentiment, though not always in ways one would expect. The bottom line seems to be that too much change can be exhausting, but the opposite can also be just a tad mundane.

No one I talked to missed the crowds, though one friend who moved to Switzerland after a 10-year stint in China did say the lack of people was slightly unsettling at first. Another called his recent return after a five-year stint in Shanghai both a “curse and a blessing,” describing a similarly unsettling feeling he got when walking through empty parks in his hometown of Seattle. It seems Americans have yet to discover the pleasures of public-square dancing, karaoke singing, and playing in ad hoc bands, which are regular staples in the noisy and bustling parks of China.

Another frequently cited adjustment involves adapting to costly labor in the West, something most of us take for granted here in China. No more cleaning ladies, lamented one friend who recently returned to the U.S. after 25 years in China, even though his wife desperately wanted to take back their ayi with them. Another bemoaned the end of her weekly massages, noting that even the guy who takes care of her bike makes the equivalent of 600 yuan ($87) per hour in her current home.

Such low-cost pleasures may be a perk for now, but at the rate prices are climbing, it might not be for much longer. People are constantly surprised when I tell them I paid my Chinese tutor just 3 yuan per hour when I was studying here in the 1980s. But then I add the average monthly salary back then was just 100 yuan. Now those same lessons would cost around 150 yuan per hour, and average monthly salaries in Beijing and Shanghai are closer to 6,000 yuan.

Other drawbacks to moving back covered a wide range, including getting reacquainted with driving yourself, and big loss of expat perks. One returnee mused about the big haircut he took on moving back, including the loss of extended home leave and allowances for things like housing and children’s education. Others bemoaned the lack of good Asian food, though I can personally vouch that’s no problem in my adopted hometown of Los Angeles. But that seems to be more of an issue in smaller and even midsize Western cities.

In the “likes” column, one of the most cited pluses was clean air and blue skies, which I can truly appreciate after a couple of weeklong smog bouts during my first winter here in Beijing. More attention to customer service at places like the doctor’s office was also on the list, which comes as no surprise when compared to Chinese hospitals, where you’re treated like a piece of meat on a processing line.

In terms of how long it takes to readjust, the average time seemed to be about a year or two, which is heartening to those of us who expect to return one day but feel just slightly uneasy about the prospect of reverse culture shock. Some of the most interesting insights on the topic seem almost philosophical, reflecting the different attitudes and world views that exist between the West and Asia.

One of those entails the concept of space. One returnee said he loved his bigger U.S. home that also included a garage, but noted the abundance of such spaces means that many are wasted. As someone who has lived in Hong Kong, where living and work spaces are choreographed down to the square centimeter, I can certainly appreciate that view.

One of the most interesting views came from a contact who moved back to his relatively small hometown in the U.S., with population just around 35,000. “No one is interested in China —meaning half of my work life can’t be spoken about,” he reflected. Obviously, that isn’t the same for larger cities, where China is very much at least somewhere in people’s consciousness. But at the end of the day, perhaps the biggest adjustment comes with the realization that China is no longer the Middle Kingdom for most people, and perhaps occupies only a very peripheral place in many of these Western universes.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com.

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