This Expat Life? NPR's Take on Americans in China Has Us Thinking

Another common expat experience ... the Tiananmen photo op

Is it just us, or are Western media outlets big on covering foreigners living in China lately? The latest in a string of ongoing reports this year comes from NPR's radio show, "This American Life." In it, host Ira Glass speaks to the hordes of foreigners who land on Chinese TV, and of course there are spots featuring New Yorker writer Evan Osnos and super-expat Kaiser Kuo. This after a long string of articles debating whether China really is the land of opportunity for job searchers. Readers, what do you think? Are all these journalists getting it right?

The NPR spot promises to be an interesting listen. The show's producers were amused to receive tons of video clips of foreigners on Chinese TV, prompting them to ask, "Have ALL of you guys been on TV?" This segment forms the prologue of the show, in which expats give tips on how to get picked up for TV ("If you just hang out in the malls, it'll happen once or twice a week"), with the phrase "performing monkey" brought up multiple times.

Then, Evan Osnos interviews expats who've settled down in China and have no "expiration date," as Dave Eggers put it when he visited and came across these long termers. Osnos starts off with none other than Kaiser Kuo. Those of you who've been the Beijinger readers for awhile are probably familiar with his long-running column in our magazine, "Ich Bin Ein Beijinger." For a fitting refresher, you can read Kaiser's poetic take on "The Expat's Tale" here. (It's not so much "poetic" as an actual attempt at poetry ... you've been warned.)

The NPR show then goes on to explore expat life in rural China with Michael Meyer, author of an upcoming book called In Manchuria.

Have a listen to the show here, and let us know what you think.

If you haven't been following, here are all the other news stories trying to give our friends and family back home some idea of why we're here and what the heck we're all doing:

It all started with "Go East, Young Man,"an op-ed in the New York Times that shared the China success story of one Jonathan Levine. He tells us China wants us – job opportunities abound for young, energetic foreigners.

Luckily, the folks at followed up with a level-headed and much more real assessment.

BusinessWeek chimed in with similar sobering comments in an article titled "Looking to Get Ahead? China Doesn't Want You."

It seems parents are paying attention to this dialogue, and rather than be discouraged, they're deciding to make sure their kids learn Mandarin – by relocating their entire families to China. This recent Wall Street Journal article explores that phenomenon, with cute anecdotes about those kids facing challenges in language learning. Which I suspect is just a diversionary tactic before they all turn around and take over the world.

Two days ago, just after Osnos' spot aired on NPR, he wrote another article about the grey area foreigners inhabit in China, with immigration laws and policies still in embryonic stages. But his conclusion is optimistic: For those around the world seeking a better life, China might be the next hope as America tightens its borders.

What do you make of all this reporting about expat life in China? We'd all love if more people back home understood why we insist on living on the other side of the planet, but just how accurate a picture are they getting?

Photo: Wordpress user shanghaisigrid


Hollywood's come knocking a few times to make the great expat "Lost in Translation" Beijing movie (most notably the never-released film version of Rachel DeWoskin's "Foreign Babes in Beijing" directed by Alice Wu), but nothing has ever really gotten off the ground.

Looks like Shanghai has beaten us to the punch on this one.

Jerry Chan, Digital Marketing & Content Strategy Director

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