Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates the experiences of a French woman in the UK and, in previous parts, a British woman in Hong Kong.
I nearly fell off my chair — to use an expression common to English and French — when my mum said I had acquired a slight foreign accent in my native French. As no French person has ever mistaken me for a non-native, I decided she was having me on.
I am aware, however, that living abroad over an extended period affects our personality in ways we may not always realise. Visiting my home country is always a moment of reckoning with those changes.
A recent conversation I had with British-Chinese author and journalist Xinran gave me an opportunity to discuss some of these transformations with a long-term expat. One is how we relate to the culture of our home country over time, both as a defining feature of our personality and a now remote reality.
When I asked Xinran whether she would ever consider moving back to China after more than 20 years in the UK, she used an analogy I had not expected but which nevertheless made sense.
“If I were to move back to China now, I would feel like a wild animal released from a human zoo,” she said. “My own kind would not recognise me.”
Xinran has had a prolific career in the west as a writer and lecturer on modern China, working as a radio host, lecturer, columnist and non-fiction author. All her books were written for an international audience; only one has made it past China’s censors and been published there — The Good Women of China , based on a radio programme, Words on the Night Breeze, she ran in China in the 1980s.
I find Xinran’s career fascinating because I can see the mixed blessings in being a so-called specialist in your native culture after years of working and writing in a foreign country and in a foreign language.
For many years, while studying for a postgraduate degree in English literature, I strove to become an expert in American and transatlantic culture, the area in which I had chosen to specialise. I also started making a living out of writing and teaching in English in the process.
Since graduating, however, I have found myself writing more and more about France, and I have discovered a new interest in contemporary French writers, feeling at times like I am working my way back to familiarity with a country in which I no longer live.
Xinran makes a point of travelling to China twice a year, and of “doing her homework” when she does. This means talking to people, specifically sections of the Chinese population she thinks no one usually listens to: the first group she speaks to are toilet cleaners, followed by people in rural China who take the slow train from the provinces to try their luck in the big cities — generally never to go back.
To talk about modern China, Xinran says she has to notice the evolution of these people’s living conditions: can they now afford to buy food on their journey? What clothes are they wearing?
But is this approach enough to present an authentic picture? In a column for The Guardian in 2004, Xinran wrote poetically: “I may be Chinese but my knowledge is still a spoonful of tea in the ocean that is China.”
Xinran pointed out that China has 56 ethnic groups, each with its own history, language and culture. It covers 42 times the area of the UK, she added [it also has more than 20 times the population], and its culture comprises 5,000 years of history, with many layers of cultural difference and disparities in wealth.
“About 1.3bn people make things, trade, and love, too, in hundreds of accents, different languages, customs and cultures,” Xinran wrote.
She added that political control and living conditions were not comparable in different areas. “This is why westerners hear such differing stories,” she concluded in the same piece.
Xinran’s ongoing humanitarian work with Chinese children adopted by western parents reflects the idea that a country’s collective culture necessarily deals with the specifics of personal circumstance and trauma. In her latest book, The Promise, she strives to tell the bigger story of how Chinese values have evolved in modernity through individual stories of love and loss.
The Mothers’ Bridge of Love, a charity she set up in 2004 aiming to connect these children — mostly girls — with their biological mothers, has led her to tell previously unheard stories of Chinese migration to a western audience.
Expatriation can also be a catch-all identity that leaves little space for nuances. The title of this series, “Expat identities”, has raised questions about the loaded terminology implied in using the word “expat” instead of “immigrant” to refer to white westerners who have settled abroad. How does Xinran feel about the term?
“In my limited knowledge of English, I can ‘feel’ the difference between ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’,” she says.
While “expat” evokes the privilege of mobility by choice, she explains, “immigrant” by nature implies less educated, less skilled workers who move to other countries to take low-paid jobs.
In this sense, Xinran sees herself as an expat, but because of western prejudices against south-eastern Asian countries, she is sure that, based on her accent and English, in many white people’s eyes she could be mistaken for an uneducated immigrant.
She apologises, more than once, for her “Chinglish”, but in the same breath deplores the way many native English speakers are quite unaware of the privilege they enjoy in being fluent in the dominant world language.
Perhaps the privilege that her English readers enjoy, I suggest, is that international writers from all parts of the world migrate to this particular language because of its global reach, either by making their writing available for translation or sometimes by writing directly in English. Native English speakers should be very grateful for the wealth of international experience so easily accessible to them.
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here
Photographs: Getty Images/iStockphoto; Alamy