Living in Asia as an Asian Expat: 5 Things They Didn’t Tell You

In recent decades, the trend of the Asian “repats”—or Asian expats who have found their new homes in Asia—is becoming more and more prevalent. Whether it be to reconnect with familial roots, to escape from political woes (Brexit, Trump etc.), or, as with all other expats, to capitalize on the fast growing emerging markets and cheaper living costs in Asia, a number of the Asian mobile class of the world have decided to turn East. 

The allure of adventure, opportunity, and yummy Asian food all around your doorsteps are enough to draw on your heartstrings, but once the novelty wears off, you may find that you’ve got more than you signed up for. 

Along with the usual challenges that expats face when moving to a new country, living as an Asian foreigner in Asia also means that you have become an “invisible immigrant.” This can be great for when you want to blend in with the crowd but can cause you headaches further down the road. 

Here are the 5 challenges that comes with the experience of being an Asian “repat” and some suggestions to overcome them.  

1. The answer to the question of “where are you from” just got little more tricky 

We are all familiar with the age-old question: “where are you really from?” In the West, such questions are labeled insensitive, ignorant, and even borderline racist. What most Asian expats don’t expect is that they would be expected to answer the same question in Asia with even greater detail.

If your answer is “Canada” or “Australia,” or basically any non-Asian country, be expected to be met with a look of confusion and followup comments like, but “you don’t looks Canadian,” aka you aren’t white. Although comments like this might seem offensive at first, it’s important to understand where the person you’re conversing with comes from. 

Compared to immigrant populated countries in the West, most countries in Asia are a lot less racially diverse, with the exception of countries like Singapore which boasts of a melting pot culture. In countries like China, Han Chinese make up about 92% of the mainland Chinese population and most other ethnic groups in China lack little physical distinction with the Han. Therefore, Chinese people (outside of urban cities with a large foreign population) are constrained by the limits of what they see and are less familiar with the concept of racial diversity within a nation. 

Suggestion(s): In expecting our host communities to be open minded to our diverse backgrounds, we must also be open minded to their’s. Assume the best of intentions when someone wants to know more about your background, because most of it stems from curiosity. Some of the questions directed towards you may feel a bit prying, so establish ahead of time how much of your background you’re comfortable with sharing, and have a short backstory ready when people ask. That way, you won’t be caught off guard fumbling for words or oversharing pieces of information that you’re not comfortable with. 

Remember, just as coming into a new locale is a learning experience for you, so is meeting you a learning experience for your hosts. By sharing and engaging with one another, world views are expanded on both sides. And hey, maybe next time they meet an Asian foreigner, they’d be more understanding, all thanks to you. 

2. Your family does not understand your decision to move to Asia 

Weeks prior to your departure, you might have been nagged by your parents with the questions of “what don’t you like about life here?” “why Asia, the place we’ve left to come here?” Weeks after you settle into your new home, the question might change to “when are you going to come back?” 

Your decision to move to Asia is baffling to your parents for good reason. Asia is the region that they or prior generations of your immediate family have have left in search of a better life abroad. After working hard to establish a life in their new home that they’ve strived for when they were younger, your family cannot understand why you would ever want to leave, especially if the image they have of Asia is outdated. 

Suggestion(s): Assure your family that you have good reason for your move. Share with them how moving to Asia would fit with your goals and aspirations. 

Provide them with information sources on current developments in Asia to keep them informed about the region. Asia is the fastest developing region in the world and the Asia that they knew back in their days is vastly different than what Asia has become today. 

Remind them that when they were young, they’ve braved unknown journeys to get to where they are today. You are simply following in their foot steps!

3. You are automatically expected to fluently speak the local language 

For Asian expats in Asia, the experience can be a bit bazar. One minute you’re being praised as a genius for “how good your English is”, and the next minute, you may feel silently judged as an idiot for your lack of knowledge in the local language, especially when others incorrectly assume that you’re a local. It’s weird I know.  

If you’re already fluent in the local language, congrats! You are fully a chameleon, this doesn’t apply to you. 

For those who are still stuck at counting from one to ten or are at that awkward stage where your language skills are better than the average foreigner, but significantly worse than a local, this can be a frustrating experience. Worst yet, you could be mistaken by locals as a translator or guide for your white companion(s). Yup I’ve been there. 

Suggestion(s): First and foremost, it’s always a good idea to try to learn the language of the place you will be calling your new home. Not only will it make your life easier, but it will also demonstrate to your hosts that you are making the effort to integrate. 

Even so, don’t give yourself too much pressure by trying to master the language in 3 months. Politely indicate that you are not a local when others try to converse with you in an unfamiliar context. Very rarely will someone give you a hard time about it, and most of the judgement you sense is just in your head. As long as you’re trying here, your hosts will appreciate it. 

4. Similar to above, you’re expected to know and adhere to local social norms 

Because of similarities in physical appearance, locals who see you as one of them assumes that you are familiar with local norms and expects you to intuitively grasp cultural nuances. You are held to a much higher standard than the average expat. Such high expectations can lead to a strange mix of shame and the imposter syndrome. 

Similar with not being able to fluently speak the local language, you begin to wonder to yourself, “do people think I’m dumb for not knowing this?” “am I dumb for not knowing this?” “why do other foreigners have it so easy whereas I have to prove myself?” 

All these discouraging thoughts that flows into your head can wear you down overtime, and negatively impact your overseas experience overall. 

Suggestion(s): Begin by changing the voice you use to communicate with your inner self. Cheer yourself on instead of letting self-judgement (or any other type of judgement) shut you down on this complicated journey towards creating this new life. And whatever you do, do not play the comparison game with other foreigners. If anything, use your Asian background as an advantage to connect with the locals.

Make the effort to learn about local culture and customs as a way to demonstrate respect to your host community. Living in a different places requires not only a physical shift, but also a shift in mindset. Do not be afraid to ask questions when you are not sure of certain cultural nuances. Most people love to feel like an expert at something and provide you with their knowledge. 

While it is true that you can play the foreigner card and get away with not comprehending local norms, I wouldn’t recommend doing this in the long term. You came here to learn, to grow, and to connect with the local community. By highlighting your “foreigner” and thereby “outsider” status, you will not fully grow in your new environment and would be forever encapsulated inside the expats’ bubble. 

5. A looming identity crisis is nerve wrecking 

Living in Asia and experiencing the woes of being an “invisible immigrant” can cause one to question one’s own identity. Suddenly, you may have gone from being not “Western” enough in your country, to becoming not “Asian” enough in your new community. Without feeling like you fully fit into any side of the spectrum, you begin to wonder, “who am I?” 

It is a tough question to have on the back of your mind on top of the struggles of trying to navigate your professional and social live in this new environment. It can also feel a bit lonely at times when you feel like nobody in the local community or expat circle can relate to what you’re going through. 

Suggestion(s): Build community. Seek out others who are going through the same thing. Most of the time, you’ll find that you are not alone. Online platforms like meetup are a great resource for you to scout out people with similar interests and backgrounds in your local community. There are meetup groups in almost every large city in the world, with a wide range of interest groups spanning from language learning to tech. I once even found and joined a group called “Asian Bananas,” and it was a fun experience getting to know people in the group who shared the similar struggles of fitting in. Facebook events are also a great tool to find out more about what’s going on in your community. If you cannot find already available communities that you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to get proactive and start your own!

Be accepting of yourself. Recognize that you do not have to choose sides and that your dual (or more) identities is what makes you unique. Find both work and social communities where your hybrid identity would be an asset and appreciated by others. 

Treasure this internal turmoil that you are experiencing at the moment, because struggles such as these often provides us with the opportunities for the greatest growth. Your transition will not be easy, but I guarantee you that in the end, it is almost always worth it. 

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