just another little ramble

There’s something that jumps out at me every time I read of the expat denizens of China of the pre-1949, International Settlements era, and that I occasionally find myself pondering in moments of idle speculation. And this morning I decided to get the students’ view and put it on the blackboard in this form:

In the 1920s and 1930s expats in China would visit their homelands only every few years and their holidays would last several months.

Now, most expats I know go home once each year and their visits are only for a few weeks.

And I emphasised what I saw as two key differences between those two situations:

  1. “every few years” vs. “every year” and “several months” vs. “a few weeks”.
  2. “visit their homelands” vs. “go home”.

The second of those two was my deliberate choice of wording, but that’s really what I see. I don’t think terribly many expats here these days put down roots or get themselves established to the point of considering China ‘home’. Maybe it’s the field I work in – the foreign teacher system certainly does not encourage people to settle down – but most expats I’ve known over these dozen years have definitely seen China as a very temporary way station, even to the point of referring to the world outside China as “the real world”. And the homeland, the country they migrated from, is still definitely home. But way back then, it seems to me, although expats were definitely seen by Chinese as foreigners in China, expats here were putting down roots and making homes.

Now, one key difference, of course, lies in technology. Back then by sea or overland. International air travel fell into the neo-natal category of industry, and it’s existence was still precarious. Trips back to the homeland, even by plane, could take weeks or even months instead of a day or two.

But I do wonder about that apparent difference in attitude, and I wonder if technology really has changed that much. And I also wonder if the combination of global warming and peak oil will see a return to international travel primarily being by slow ship, train and bus rather than rapid plane. And I wonder: If expats 100-odd years hence are travelling between New Zealand, America and China by ship, will their attitudes to ‘home’ and frequency and duration of trips to their homeland resemble more those of modern expats or those of the expats of the 1920s and 1930s?

About the Author


A Kiwi teaching English to oil workers in Beijing, studying Chinese in my spare time, married to a beautiful Beijing lass, consuming vast quantities of green tea (usually Xihu Longjing/西湖龙井, if that means anything to you), eating good food (except for when I cook), missing good Kiwi ale, breathing smog, generally living as best I can outside Godzone and having a good time of it.

3 thoughts on “just another little ramble

  1. That’d be neat, wouldn’t it? Though I think it’s equally likely that there will be some sort of breakthrough in energy technology that renders peak oil and global warming moot, and we’ll be able to hover back and forth like in the old sci-fi novels we used to read.

    It is an interesting dynamic, though. In visits to the US when I lived in China I only ever stayed long enough to have it be “special”- i.e., eating the food I missed, seeing old family and friends, and taking care of whatever shopping (usually shoes) that I needed to take care of. Then I’d be back. Being home for a longer stretch- a month or more- gets you back into that rhythm of daily life which can be tough to break out of.

  2. @Kevin: One student asked how often I’d gone back to NZ and why, and got probably a longer, more detailed answer than she wanted. One said she preferred the old style less frequent but longer trips back – I can’t remember her reason, though. The others all said they’d prefer annual short trips home, most giving a variation on the homesickness, take care of my parents theme, but one saying that things would change too much if she stayed away too long, leaving her all at sea when she did go back.I gave them the option of framing their answer in terms of expats in China; expats anywhere, or themselves overseas, and all chose the latter.

    @Matt: No idea what you did to get held in the moderation queue. Sorry about that.

    When I was at university there was one summer I came across half price fares on the train and ferry and, despite that trip taking two days and requiring an overnight stop in Christchurch, decided, yeah, that’s how I’m getting home! To get back to Dunedin I managed to combine a painfully early (but fast!) ferry and two buses, with only a few hours in Christchurch, working out, when extra costs like meals were factored in, at about the same cost as a plane. And my mother thought I was crazy, but I’d found all the plane travel somehow unreal, as if I’d sit in a tin can for an hour and a bit (or more often, 45 minutes to Christchurch, a few hours in the airport their, and another 45 minutes to Dunedin) while somebody outside rearranged the scenery. Absurd, I know, but I did those train and bus trips in large part because I wanted to feel the travel instead of just sit in a tin can. So yeah, a large part of me would totally dig a few weeks on a boat from Tianjin to Auckland with stop-offs in strange and exotic locations along the way (imagine: Palau! Port Vila! Noumea!). Travel just feels so much more real that way. But then again, flying is just so much more convenient, and when somebody finally invents a teleporter (what’s the use of these bloody physicists if they can’t even do that?!) I’m going to be as close to the front of the queue as I can get.

    Then again, I remember my grandfather telling me that after the war it was a US Navy troopship that took him from Trieste back to New Zealand, and in a spectacular bout of incompetence or negligence, the captain sailed the ship into the Manukau Harbour, then realised that he’d have to sail back out of the harbour, up around Cape Reinga, down through the Hauraki Gulf and into the Waitemata Harbour to get to the port he was supposed to be at. A bit of fun with a map will show you just how extraordinarily happy every Kiwi soldier on the boat must’ve been.

    Now, the second half of your comment I seem to remember you having previously framed in the context of keeping it all happy and avoiding the downside of culture shock.

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