The turning tide for expats in China

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

In Beijing, you can hire someone to do almost anything for you.

The hierarchy of help for an expatriate forms on the foundation of the A-yi (auntie), middle-aged women and sometimes men who mop your floors and do your dishes. Some conscientious ones arrange your underwear drawer and change your lightbulbs, and there's a top level of A-yis who take care of pets and babies.

Then there are the delivery men who bring you food, water and online purchases from across the country in 48 hours. Some even wait at the door while you try stuff on, ready to take them back if they don't fit well.

Scattered across this galaxy is an army of unskilled and semi-skilled Chinese people who allow expatiates here to live like finance-industry douches, without the hours or the damage to the soul.

At my office, there is even a man who comes in twice a week to water the plants.

I have friends here who've moved to Beijing from New York City, London and Paris, motivated in large part by the prospect of living a life where you don't have to ration cab rides or buy toilet paper by the roll.

This is a sweet, passing moment in China's development where the liveability of a major global city, on an upwards trajectory, is intersecting with a downwards- trending affordability line.

Ten years ago, a Beijing posting would legitimately be a hardship assignment with nary a Starbucks in sight. Ten years from now, Beijing will start edging up against the prices that have made everyday life such a tedious grind for young people in those aforementioned cities, and yes, in Singapore too.

For Gen-Yers from the developed West where well-paying jobs are scarce, property prices are high and student loan debts loom, life in China right now can almost be a relief, even with the air pollution and the spitting.

The danger of existing in this privileged moment, though, is the tendency to start treating the locals as tools, accessories to an expatriate life.

The language and culture barriers between locals and expatriates are already near-impenetrable without the problem of being in an almost entirely employer- employee relationship.

It's all compounded by the fact that "native ways" include open nose-digging, non-democracy and the sight of parents casually laying tissue paper down on the floor of a Uniqlo store for their baby to poop on. It's so easy to hold yourself apart and above from "them".

Local friends tell me that this superior attitude is the worst, ironically, among expatriates of Chinese origin, namely Hong Kongers, Taiwanese and Singaporeans.

Complicated existential sovereignty issues aside for the first two groups of people, the attitude stems in part from a paranoia borne of insecurity. It's hard to miss the vibe of "we look alike but we're not like them!" that emanates from East Asian expatriates, myself included.

This understandably rubs locals the wrong way, especially middle-class Chinese who are as well-educated and ambitious as we are.

Recently, I met a Singaporean around my age who was in China for work. His first question was "How do you take it ar?"

His "it" encompassed the air pollution, the teeming humanity, the ever-present possibility of poisonous food and water, the lack of respite from raised voices and sharp elbows.

I would be lying if I said I didn't have days when the China-ness of it all overwhelms me and I feel my entire being contort into a thumbed nose or a curled upper lip.

But the longer I spent in Beijing, the more I can't help but feel that time is on their side, and we are like those uppity British settlers sputtering condescension as our empires crumble into irrelevance.

Unlike in Singapore, the Chinese sense of self is not intertwined with connectedness or openness to the outside world. And as China's confidence grows, so does the sense that we need them more than they need us, a humbling reality that does not seem to hold true for expatriates in Singapore.

It's already starting to turn. Just a few months ago, the Chinese authorities abruptly raised the barrier for foreigners teaching English in China - the last vestige of the B-list angmoh in Asia. Those who want such visas now have to have a significant number of years of teaching experience and hold international qualifications.

This high hurdle to entry is only going to spread across sectors.

One day, the question won't be "how do you take it ar?" but "how can you not?".

And we would long for bygone days when there was an A-yi who arranged your underwear drawer and a man who came in twice a week to water your plants.

rchang@sph.com.sg