When Do You Know It’s Time to Leave China?

Leaving China is a thought that plays on all of our minds every now and then. Some of us start to consider the cost of moving, the fear of struggling for work back home, returning to car payments, single-family detached homes and all the accoutrements of suburban boredom only to tack another year on to our “time spent abroad” estimate.
Others fall down the same rabbit hole and instead miss the smell of freshly cut grass and forgetting where you parked your sedan in the supermarket parking lot so much that they actually find a job and get out of here.

Can you smell it?
You can’t stay here forever, expats often tell themselves, especially on days when the AQI soars to dangerous levels, your shower once again ceases to produce hot water and somebody spits on the metro platform.
But could you leave? Should you? What about cost of living, your ayi, the adventures awaiting you every time you walk out the door? When do you know it’s time to leave? How do you leave China without regrets? How do you secure yourself a future in the next place you leap to?
We had a lot of questions, so we set out to get a few answered.
Who Leaves China?
Here’s the cross-section of former China expatriates we asked:

Most lived in China for a few years. Is there a breaking point around year five in China after which only the strong (and bitter) survive?
Did You Return to Your Home Country?
So you want to leave China. But where do you go?

40% sought new adventures elsewhere. You don’t have to go back to boring ol’ “real life”. The world is a big place with plenty else to offer.
Why Did You Leave China?

We asked for detailed answers from a lot of former China expats. Then we transcribed all their answers into a WordCloud generator and here are the results we got. The bigger the words, the more often they occurred in people’s answers.
Unsurprisingly, the number one answer people gave for leaving China is the pollution. Similar answers like air quality and food safety also ranked highly. Education, whether for oneself or one’s children prompted many to leave, as well as career opportunity.
A few also mentioned “people”, citing a lack of local manners and a constant feeling of being a foreigner or even a spectacle as a source of exhaustion.
What’s the Hardest Part About Leaving China?
Many decide they want to leave China. The “how” and the “life after China” are the harder parts to figure out. What were the biggest challenges faced by former China expats?

Whenever you leave a place, naturally it’s the people you miss the most. But leaving China isn’t just about leaving behind the friends you’ve made.
The Expat Community
First of all you’re leaving behind one of the most interesting,international groups of friends you’ve ever had. Your weekend crew consists of Americans, Mexicans, Moroccans, Chinese, Brazilians and Belgians. On a night out, you never know what corner of the world you could encounter.
Second of all, friends are easy to meet and make when you’re a stranger in a strange land. On your third day off the plane standing in line for the visa medical exam at the international clinic, you hear someone speaking English behind you and in a rush of joy turn to them and say, “Hi! Be my friend?”

We’re only exaggerating slightly. Whether you’re fresh to China or you’ve been here a while, friends are easy to make (and lose as they move away). Something about mutual expat status draws unlikely friends together, creating a sense of community that a lot of former expats profess to miss after moving away. Your family is far away, so you create a second one for yourself here in China.
As one former expat put it, “There’s such a closeness of community among expats that you just don’t find in your home country. It’s hard leaving that behind.”
The Easy Life
Former expats also miss the easy availability of money in China. There are always jobs to be had — especially teaching.
Many expats mentioned they miss the “craziness” and “randomness” of life in China. Even when you’ve fallen into your routine, taking the metro to work every day, hitting the gym, going to the same bars all the time, etc. — you never know when you’ll step out the front door and see a taitai on rollerblades or a pug wearing giant sunglasses.
Then there’s the status as foreigner. While some former expats mentioned their permanent status as “outsider” motivated them to leave China, others find they miss it. Especially in less developed parts of China where foreigners have yet to stage a full on invasion, being the “token foreigner” can make you feel like a celebrity. Going from being constantly complimented on your pearly white skin to being made fun of daily for being pasty — or being ignored altogether — can be a welcomerespite for some and a jarring transition for others.

You never know what you’re gonna see next
Perhaps most interesting of all, former expats said they miss thefreedom they had in China. There’s a certain amount of “untouch-ability” that foreigners can often enjoy in China. The fact that many regulating laws don’t exist here (or probably more accurately, aren’t enforced here) feels incredibly liberating. As one expat puts it, if you’re a Westerner returning to your home country, “Be ready to not feel as ‘free’ as Western people pretend to be or think they are.”
One expat who repatriated to New York City describes an experience she had buying what in China would have been an innocent road beer to hold her over to the next bar — instead she had to hide it in a paper bag and furtively drink it in an alley next to a homeless man. China simply feels so far away from the “real world” of home — as one former expat put it, “When I was in Beijing, it felt like limbo…like an extended holiday.” Leaving China can feel like the party has ended.
Readjusting to “Real Life”
Moving to a new place is admittedly hard — meeting and making new friends just isn’t as easy as it was in China. Things have changed since you last lived at home — even if you were only gone for six months. You turn on the radio on the way home from the airport and you find yourself asking, “Who is this Kanye guy?” (True story: that really happened to us after our first stint in China back in 2008.) Reverse culture shock is a real phenomenon, and while you may find yourself excited to move forward, you may also find yourself having a panic attack in the greeting card aisle at Target.
One former expat advises, “Be prepared that moving back to your home country after many years abroad is as difficult as moving abroad was in the first place.” Another comments, “Be ready for a culture shock back in your home country. Be ready to face people having tons of judgmental opinions (often based on ignorance) on China, Chinese people and the Chinese government.” Yet another says, “Don’t expect your home to feel the same ever again. It hasn’t changed, but you have.”

Does anyone actually smile like that while unpacking?
One expat gives this advice: “Have a job lined up. The future isn’t so bright in other countries. It has taken us several months to get solid work. Make sure you have a large savings ahead of time. My husband, who was a stay-at-home daddy during our time in China, has a 2-year gap in his resume and some employers are asking for criminal records check for those years outside of the country.”
“There was reverse culture shock. Prepare for that. Things will have changed, but not changed. In some ways it would have been easier to move somewhere totally new, but instead we moved back into our same house, trying to pick up our lives, but we had changed and the people around us had changed while we were gone. It was [and] is still a little strange. It won’t be the same — don’t expect your life to be the same as when you left.”
What’s the Best Part About Leaving China?

It’s not all bad news, though. After all, there are Western bandwidths to look forward to!
Nothing terribly surprising here. A move away from China affords former expats clean air and water, improved food safety, bettermanners, access to better health care, a greater sense of safety and perhaps most gloriously of all: fast, unrestricted internet. We’re ready to leap on the next plane just glancing at this WorldCloud.

Other popular answers about the best part to NOT living in China include access to greater wide open space and nature — whether that means the size of your house and yard or proximity of your local forest, park or field. Outside of China, you have space to breathe and air worth breathing.

The Laowai Conundrum
Many people cited “anonymity” as a fantastic part about leaving. Notably, many of the same people who expressed relief about leaving behind their celebrity status as a foreigner in China went on to say they missed it, too. We call that “The Laowai Conundrum.”
Should You Leave?
We asked former expats what advice they would give current China expats who are thinking about leaving. What do you wish you had known or done before leaving China for your next adventure? Did you make the right decision?
Answers were much more mixed than we expected. A few had no regrets. Many were happy with their decision but those who cited a regret or two admitted they wished they had traveled more during their time here. China is a vast country and it’s difficult to hit every city on your travel wishlist — but it’s a heck of a lot harder when you don’t live in-country and you need to secure a tourist visa to come back. A surprisingly large number of people waxed very nostalgic on their time in China — a few even admitted they never should have left.
From those who were happy they moved out of China:
“When you gotta go, go! Prioritize and do what’s best for you. China has been a great experience but it’s not home for my family and [me].”
“It’s much easier than you think.”
“Just do it! If you don’t like it, better to keep going and follow your track.”
“There is way more out there than China. Don’t let the fear take from you the opportunity of finding out.”
“Two years and every expat should move.”
“Do it if you plan to better yourself.”
“Do it, it’s not as scary as you think.”
“Do it, there are other places which can make you happy as well.”

From those who regretted it:
“Think twice about leaving. I miss China every day.”
“Don’t. China is amazing if you’re with the right people and have a very open-minded mentality.”
“You will miss it.”
“The grass is always greener!”
“If you really love what you are doing in China, and are happy there, think VERY carefully before you move out. Your own country will seem a vastly different and insular place after the richness of the culture in China, and your relationship with your friends and family [will have changed].”
“Have a job and plan for your return to your home country / for the next country you move to. If you don’t, you will probably feel depressed, down and disappointed with yourself.”
“Don’t expect that your new life will be perfect or even better than your life in China.”

“Your own country will seem a vastly different and insular place.”

Practical advice from those who’ve made the move:
“Plan your moves carefully. Have an objective in mind as to how to make the transition instead of rashly packing up and leaving on a whim.”
“If [you] work back in [the] U.S., consider the difference in cost of living. [You] may be making less in China, but it goes much farther.”
“Make sure to enjoy your last few months and not stress about the aspects of leaving.”
“If you think leaving is better for you then go ahead…but if you think you are just leaving because life is difficult [in China] sometimes, because of the language or food problems, then I suggest you just be patient for a while longer — it’s totally worth it.”
“Save your money.”
“Do it on your terms, don’t wait for health/personal/professional problems to force you away. Always keep up with home or wherever you are going before leaving, have a definite plan for those first few months and stick to it. Prepare yourself for an adjustment period of six months (assuming you were in China several years).”

“Prepare yourself for an adjustment period of six months.”

“Get back in touch with home-friends a LONG time before you go back. No one wants to feel like an afterthought. But also, really commit to keeping in touch with the friends you made in China. Don’t let yourself get isolated when you leave.”
“Be aware of the state of the rest of the world.”
“Learn the language, experience as much as you can and milk the advantages of being a foreigner in China [before you leave].”
“Cherish the last moments. While there’s a chance you will come back to visit, it won’t be the same as living in China. There are difficult times when you wonder why the hell you moved here but it’s a love-hate relationship. You’ll definitely look back and remember the great days!”
“Be open-minded, take your time. Explore and try to [learn] some [of the] language.”
“Living in China is a difficult choice, especially thinking how hard it is, so use your time in China wisely. If you like nightlife, cool, go to clubs every Friday and sleep all day long afterwards on Saturday, but do not ever turn your life into an adventure of clubbing, dating hot chicks and getting drunk. Learn the language [during] other days of the week, find an internship in a good company so that you can both learn something and improve your probably empty CV and talk to people from different cultures, learn from them about life in other countries. Don’t just get drunk every single day.”

“Improve your probably empty CV… Don’t just get drunk every single day.”

“Enjoy every single day and make use of your experience as an expat. Try to learn as much as you can before you leave. Especially the language.”
“Think about your options back home and in China. Think about your expat “bubble” and what they are all doing with their lives, and think about how that matches (or [doesn’t match]) what you want to do with yours. And think about your health.”
“Think good about it. [It] might be exciting returning, but you will feel homesick for China. It is not that bad…”
“Compared to China, life in another country could be a bit boring in the first couple of months.”
“China is huge and so is its the variety of cities and people. Before leaving try to search for the city that suits you the most!”
“Think carefully about how you are going to leverage your China experience into future opportunities.”
“Make sure you have a strong network to come back to, particularly if you are from one place (like a more rural area) and want to move to another (like a big urban area), because it is very easy to come back and get trapped in some place you don’t want to be because you lack the established professional and personal networks that are so necessary…”

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