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:
- “every few years” vs. “every year” and “several months” vs. “a few weeks”.
- “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?