This post is by Morgan Dolan, who studied in China and now works there. Morgan majored in Anthropology.
For anyone who has been abroad in China the catcalls of “laowai” are an inescapable part of life. There is not a day that goes by where the average expat is not reminded in some way that they are in fact an alien. It may be through the language, the nuances of inter-personal communication or the veils of business and bureaucracy. But there is no getting away from one’s foreignness in China. Numerous years nor countless business ventures can make that ever go away.
The thing is that having children point at you as you walk down the street actually gets to you. When strangers take the time to comment on the whiteness of your skin or the bushiness of your beard, it acts as a stress to your system. It is one of the key things that makes working abroad difficult. Like stress contributes to a heart-attack, this type of stress contributes to mounting professional problems for expats in China.
Minority stress, as it’s called, has physical consequences. In a study of dominant and non-dominant macaques, researchers found that the dominant macaques in the troop lived years longer than the non-dominant monkeys. When their bodies were autopsied, the arteries of the dominant monkeys were clear as a whistle, while the non-dominant monkeys had arteries that looked like sewer pipes filled with nearly 50% sludge (Unnatural Consequences, 2008).
This stress invades business because it compounds all the other problems that one can run into. Making things that are just par for the course of doing business in China (bureaucracy, slow downs around Chinese New Year, difficult negotiations) seem all the more dire. Chronic stress can turn into irritability and headaches. What negotiation or trip to a government bureau is made better by either of those two things?
I’ve seen business negotiations between Chinese and International sides go sour to the point where the expatriate team is ready to throw in the towel because they are positive the Chinese partners are impossible to deal with. I’ve also seen expats get tired of the difficulties in communicating with their staff and read to strangle someone after dealing with a government bureaucracy. Big companies seem to account for all this by, among other things, offering generous vacation time to their expat staff based in China. But smaller companies and individuals usually get none of this. Anyone who has spent time in China knows a handful of “burn-out” expats who talk of little else but leaving.
Solutions to minority stress management begin with acknowledging its existence. Anticipating employee burnout and building a structure to deal with it will minimize the damage. On the small scale, individuals in China can increase their effectiveness at tackling problems by incorporating healthy habits of general stress management. These include: taking time to blow off steam, getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising. So often these fall by the wayside in the face of strict deadlines, long hours and highly social dinners.
Expat stress in China is real and accounting for the effect that one’s foreignness can have on well-being is a no-brainer. Anything less is the equivalent of going to China and expecting it to be the same as back home. As anyone reading who reads this blog knows, that is the first ingredient for failure.