Normal expat whining is grating and graceless, but let’s face it: it has its roots in something that we can all identify with.
China takes a lot out of you, demands a lot of you at times. Sure, there are those skating by with an absurd income-to-work ratio, people to whom China is a paid vacation punctuated by occasional encounters with the indigenous people who for some reason haven’t learned to speak English. But in any expat experience, there are certain unavoidable facts of life: you’re often out of your comfort zone, ostracized or just generally unable to make things happen. If the cultural chasm doesn’t get you, it’s virtually guaranteed that the crush of 19 million people out to get theirs will. It’s that post-Line-1-at-6-pm decompression, or the why-can’t-they-understand-my-broken-ass-Mandarin desperation. Having just been told that the document you absolute need stamped is 办不了, having been unceremoniously spit out of a bus operating as a human flesh compactor, you’re faced with a choice: retreat or charge ahead?
The retreat is easy: curse the infuriating illogic, the unspeakable injustice, the utter total bullshit of this subway/government department/taxi driver. Go home to a spacious apartment equipped with filters for both pollution and unfamiliar culture. Send out a status update so all your friends in America will see how totally crazy your life in China is, pop in a pirated DVD and call it a night.
That’s an understandable response to a frustrating situation, but it’s not the only one.
Instead, you can choose to charge. Embrace the crowd, wallow in the chaos and say yes to everything around you. That rush hour subway ride transforms itself into a sea-of-humanity surf session when you just let go and roll with it. The cab driver isn’t your enemy, he’s actually a normal dude, and one who can tell you a little about what it’s like to work 12 hours a day, 350 days a year. Even trips into the belly of the bureaucratic beast are more satire than tragedy if you take that second to retell the story to yourself in the right way.
It takes more physical and emotional energy, but when you throw yourself into this madhouse, the rewards start rolling in. Smiles get returned, seats are given up, aunties stuff an extra piece of chicken into your jidan guanbing, and you’re making friends, really wonderful friends. When you open yourself up to China, this country does the same to you.
Who is Frank Turner and what does he have to do with any of this? He’s a musician, a guy from England, and his music is pure unadulterated fuel for this charge. He usually gets categorized as something ranging from post-punk to (insert qualifying adjective)-folk, but the theme that runs through it all is one giant YES to life. He’ll get pretty literal and explicit with his lyrical message, but it’s done in such unabashed, no-nonsense earnestness that you’re on his side from the very beginning.
When you’re teetering on that edge between charge and retreat, wandering dangerously close to just saying “fuck this” and climbing back into your shell, he’s there to kick you off your ass and say, “Go do something worth remembering!”
Frank’s music is about embracing this world, this place, these people. And most of all it’s a reminder of a life lesson that China reaffirms every day: you get back exactly what you put out.
Frank Turner is playing at Mao Livehouse tomorrow (Friday, March 22) at 9 pm. He’ll be speaking at Chill Bar later today at 8 pm. Details and tickets are available here. Here’s the Youku version of the top song, Photosynthesis (part of this playlist). Also see: If Ever I Stray (YouTube / Youku).
Matt is a journalist living in Beijing. He’ll be getting goosed and then going to the Frank Turner show on Friday. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @mattsheehan88.