Ex-pat Etiquette or Going Native?

I wrote a version of this post last week but didn’t publish it because I wasn’t happy with the writing or wording, and it didn’t communicate my thoughts clearly into text. Straying way off-topic, I somehow ended up writing about race and ethnicity, which is a potential minefield and had nothing to do with the topic. I spent so long editing it to try to avoid even the slightest hint of impropriety that the post was bland and vague, no longer resembled at all what I was originally writing about, and didn’t even communicate what I wanted to say. I realised that the post couldn’t even be edited into something resembling my attempt at the quality writing that I aspire to, so here’s a post that no one saw (apart from two friends who I emailed it to asking for advice) completely re-written to elucidate my real thoughts.
I’ve found myself in the past month or two subliminally staring at foreigners I see in the street. In doing so a curious part of me wonders if I should say hello – after all the ex-pat community here is very small and getting to know new people would be welcome – but ultimately my British reserve gets the better of me. But this brings me to another point, what is the etiquette for saying hello to obvious ex-pats? Do we all stick together with a sense of camaraderie, or do we accept that if it weren’t for us being away from “home” we probably wouldn’t even notice each other, and so ignore each other? I’ve only been an ex-pat for a little over three months, so I’m still getting used to this new situation.

A case in point was a couple of weeks ago in Xiao Zhai, where I was at a different school for a training session. After the course I walked along to the cheap DVD shop, and heard a couple speaking English to each other. My ears pricked, and I was about to say hello when a feeling of weirdness came over me: if I’d seen them on the street in London I wouldn’t give them a second glance, and ultimately I studiously avoided acknowledging them any differently to any of the other people around me.

As I mentioned, this has been happening for the past couple of months, and I think it has something to do with a vague sense of loneliness and homesickness. I’m not really a lonely person – I’ve always been perfectly content with my own company – but I miss my friends back home and I do sometimes wish I had a wider circle of friends here in Xi’an. While the other teachers at my school are great and with some I expect we’ll stay good friends for a long time after this job, on occasion I feel a bit as though we’re a group of friends only because we work at the same school, rather than people who found each other randomly and choose to be friends. This dilemma is compounded by the fact that making new friends in a city where I have no common language with the vast majority of people is not easy.

So that’s me wondering about ‘ex-pat etiquette’. Then last week before I wrote the first version of this post, I had a realisation that maybe it’s not about ex-pat etiquette, but perhaps about me ‘going native’.

One of the first things I noticed when arriving here was the staring. Local people would stare at me as I walked along the street. It’s not done in a rude or negative way, just a curiosity of who I am and what I’m doing here. Sometimes people say “hello”, which is usually the only English they know. Depending on my mood I might reply with a cheery “hello!” or say hello in another language to confuse them a little bit, or just ignore them. While back home the stares would be considered highly impolite, here it’s really not, it’s just perfectly normal curious behaviour. My realisation was that this is the behaviour that I have started to show, and so I wonder if in a tiny little way I’ve ‘gone native’.

So there it is. Hopefully over the weekend I’ll have time to finish writing about laser quest for Nick’s birthday and also an update on teaching. It could be an interesting post: my students this evening found a ball in my classroom during break time, and while playing with it in the hall managed to throw it so it hit my boss’s face. Cue an exasperated and grumpy teacher, and a set of very subdued students for the rest of the lesson.

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