Expats and interesting people

Much has been written about expats of various kinds over the years. I don’t have enough experience to assess critically this broad body of writing, so I won’t address it, but I do want to share a little bit about the expats, broadly defined, that I’ve met.

I want to highlight one clear benefit from spending time around expats, both Western expats in China and Chinese who have been expats in other countries, which is that they’re often very interesting. Assuming that the people I’ve met are basically telling the truth about their pasts (a big assumption, since I tend to be overly trusting, credulous even), the English-speaking and/or tolerant-of-bad-Mandarin crowd in Beijing is collectively the most interesting group of people I’ve ever met, by a very wide margin. This post lists a few of my disjointed recollections.

  1. One of my Chinese colleagues speaks very good English because he worked for a Chinese company in Iran, where the common language was not Farsi or Chinese, but English. He said that there was a big diplomatic kerfuffle between Iran and China when he was there over some stupid thing — I forget what but it felt similar to the kinds of things that get media talking heads worked up in the US and China — that made it really unsafe for Chinese people in Iran for a couple weeks. Also, he never got used to the food — “everything they eat is meat.”
  2. Another of my Chinese colleagues worked in Libya for a Chinese company. Apparently bread in Libya used to be really cheap in part because it was subsidized by the government, back when Libya had a functioning government. You could buy a whole week’s worth of food for a few dollars.
  3. Yet another of my Chinese colleagues worked on climate change stuff in Antarctica!
  4. Another Chinese colleague comes from an agricultural background. She is a second daughter in the one-child policy era, and didn’t have household registration until middle school. One of her cousins, son of farmers with the build of a football lineman, is a wedding photographer. Not expats, I suppose, but interesting people nonetheless.
  5. A final Chinese colleague spent a lot of time in Mexico and had interesting things to say about Chinese vs Mexican cultural norms regarding work.
  6. A Chinese friend was a high school participant in one of the Beijing anti-Japan protests of 10 years ago or so. According to him, it was actually a soccer riot in response to perceived unfair refereeing. His dad got really mad at him for being part of the riot. Also according to him, a similar anti-Hong Kong soccer riot had occurred about 10 years prior (which I can’t remember if he also also participated in), also in response to perceived unfair refereeing.
  7. I had a conversation with an Irish guy at a bar who claimed to be a tour organizer for trips to North Korea. A friend of a friend (who was also present, as was our mutual friend) confirmed that she had traveled on one of the Irish guy’s trips. Notable items from this conversation: 1) it’s not uncommon for Americans and other westerners to go on trips to North Korea; 2) James Franco’s and Seth Rogen’s movie The Interview is actually a very accurate representation of what going to North Korea is like; and 3) one of the Irish guy’s tour people was arrested in North Korea (sentenced for a long jail term, and cause of an international incident) for doing something along the lines of breaking into a staff-only area of the hotel and stealing a propaganda banner.
  8. I’ve chatted with a bunch of people involved in various aspects of the Chinese movie business. The Chinese movie market is super interesting.
  9. I’ve met several African and Central Asian students studying for graduate degrees in China. The presence of these students here in Beijing is probably related in some way to Chinese influence in those parts of the world.
  10. Many young people from western countries seem to spend a few years in China and then head off to other places. These folks often have fun stories to tell.
  11. I met an American teaching at one of the Beijing universities who is the son of Foreign Service Officers. Notable thoughts from this guy: 1) embassies sometimes provide internships for FSO children; 2) unfriendly host countries sometimes screw with people living in diplomatic residences by going through their stuff (I’m reminded of the scenes in Amelie in which she torments the grocery store owner who is mean to his employee); 3) FSO kids statistically have a lot of problems like drug abuse.
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