Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A tale of two expats

Life is easier for Western expatriates in China than it is for Chinese expatriates in the West

Western expatriates in China have a far easier time than they did a generation ago. They no longer huddle in drab hotels and endure Maoist standards of food and service. These days they can have almost anything, for a price: souffl├ęs and sushi, Western-style villas with gardens, private schools with famous names for their children. (Harrow and Dulwich College, two posh British schools, both have offshoots in Beijing.)
The air in China may be gritty and the censorship irksome. Conference calls with head offices in America at 4am are tedious. But life is otherwise comfortable. And business in China is more exciting than perhaps anywhere else on Earth.
Expatriate Chinese executives are a relatively new phenomenon, and a sign of Chinese strength. Previous waves of emigrants fled China because the country was poor, violent and despotically ruled. They sought a better life elsewhere, and usually found it. They arrived with nothing, prospered through wit and hard work, and often settled permanently abroad.
The new Chinese expatriates are different. They are sent abroad because the Chinese firms they work for are expanding. They arrive on foreign shores with the security of a job and a salary. Their assignments are temporary: they expect to return after a few years.
Their situation is in many ways like that of a Western expatriate, but there are glaring differences. Western expats in China have typically moved from a liberal democracy with a sluggish economy to an authoritarian state with a fast-growing one. Chinese expats in the West have done the opposite. Each journey presents its own challenges. This article seeks to illustrate them, unscientifically, by contrasting the life of a Western expat in China with that of a Chinese expat in Europe.