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    Shanghai Confidential: An Expat’s Journey From Sous Chef to Food Writer

    First arriving as a chef in Shanghai in the mid-2000s, Christopher St. Cavish would eventually find his calling detailing the intricacies of Chinese food to foreigners. He looks back on his journey in his new book, “Outsider.”

    Editor’s note: Shanghai, often hailed as China’s most cosmopolitan city, has for centuries beckoned people from around the world drawn to its vitality and mystique or fleeing danger or familiarity. Hailing from Miami, Christopher St. Cavish is one such transplant, arriving in Shanghai as a keen chef in the mid-2000s, largely naive of what awaited him. Eighteen years on, he has attempted to make sense of his time here by turning his experiences and relationship with the city into a book: “Outsider.”

    As a chef-turned-writer, St. Cavish’s frank but informed style has seen him called “the foreigner with the deepest understanding of Shanghai xiaolongbao,” but his keen sense is not limited to food. In “Outsider,” he captures the common dilemmas faced by foreigners living in China via vivid language and keen insight, and while not always positive, his deep affection for Shanghai is evident between the lines. The following is an excerpt:

    I landed at Pudong International Airport on a hot summer evening in 2005. The hotel had sent a car to pick me up and I followed the driver out into the night, clueless of where we were going, of where my life was headed for the next year. The humid, heavy air pressed down on me as we walked to the car. It was my first time in the Chinese mainland. I had a small suitcase, a chef’s job lined up and no idea what I was doing.

    I knew nothing about Shanghai, nothing about the language, nothing about much of anything, really — I was 24 — and on the drive from the airport, I saw nothing, too. The night was black and there were few lights along the side of the highway, even less on the small roads we exited onto.

    After 15 minutes, I figured the airport was not near downtown. I backpacked through Southeast Asia as a young line cook in the early 2000s and visited my sister who was on business in Hong Kong.

    I fell in love with Hong Kong. It wasn’t Western and it wasn’t exactly Chinese. It had a third culture, a personality of its own. It felt new and I wanted an adventure. I was tired of Miami, tired of the suburbs I had grown up in, tired of learning about Asian food from chefs who had never even been to the continent. I wanted to go straight to the source.

    After visiting Hong Kong, I went back to Miami wondering how to get a job halfway across the world. The internet was still young, and chefs spent their time in kitchens, not on computers.

    In Florida, it had been no problem. I picked the best restaurant in Miami and, one morning, I walked to the alley behind it. I found the kitchen door and knocked. A huge Italian man opened the door and asked what I wanted. “A job,” I said. “I want to talk to the chef.” The executive chef, a guy in his 30s who I had clearly interrupted at some task, appeared. “I want to work here,” I said. He cocked his head to the side and looked at me. “I’ll work for free,” I offered. He thought about it for a second and told me to come back the next day. I was in.

    I wasn’t the best cook in that restaurant — far from it — but I had the confidence that after working for free for a few days, the restaurant would hire me. I was still pretty good. On the second day, they did. I spent three years cooking there.

    So, I figured, if I couldn’t get in touch with the chef of The Peninsula in Hong Kong, I’d do the next best thing: show up at his back door and offer to work for free. It had worked before. I sold my motorcycle in Miami, got rid of the few things I owned and said goodbye to my friends and family. I would try it again.

    The problem with The Peninsula in Hong Kong is that its back door doesn’t open into the kitchen. Instead, it’s the service entrance for the hotel’s hundreds of employees and it’s guarded by security cameras. I found this out on my first day in Hong Kong, loopy from the jet lag and a bit confused about what to do next.

    I went back to my cheap hostel and re-grouped. I just needed to get to the chef and explain myself, and he’d see my obvious talent and hire me on the spot, I figured. At worst, I’d have to work for free for a little while. But I needed to get in front of the chef.

    The problem with that, is that the chef of The Peninsula is surrounded by people guarding access to him: sous chefs, secretaries, and F&B directors. I called, pretending to be a cheese or wine supplier, to get past the secretaries on the phone.

    That didn’t work. I waited outside the doors, hoping to catch the chef on his way into work. That didn’t work. I tried to think of some other way to talk to him. That didn’t work.

    I had failed. In retrospect, even if I had gotten to the chef at the time, it wouldn’t have worked. The Peninsula was a hotel full of excellent chefs — excellent Chinese chefs — and it didn’t need a young white guy who spoke no Cantonese and had no legal right to work in Hong Kong.

    I was doomed, dejected, depressed. I spent days at the library, the only place I could get internet, sending homesick emails. I tried to make friends with the coked-up Brazilian models staying in the hostel room next to me. I wandered Hong Kong at night, when it was cooler, and ate all my meals alone. I was running out of money and didn’t know what to do.

    Bangkok, I thought. I could live cheaply on Thai food and maybe find work there. My plan was vague.

    Things changed for me on the flight to Thailand. I started talking to the man sitting next to me. He turned out to be a Canadian chef, working at a five-star hotel in Bangkok. He had connections across the region, and a few weeks later, I flew back to Hong Kong to meet one of them.

    I forgot his name immediately but I’ll never forget the impression that the F&B director of the Island Shangri-La Hotel made on me. Standing about 10 feet tall, in an impeccable suit with silver cufflinks and a gold Shangri-La pin on his lapel, he looked at me, waiting in the lobby in my best (patched) jeans and (dirty) T-shirt, with disgust. He pointed at me and turned to his assistant to confirm I was really the one here to talk to him. “Is this him?” he asked, in a European accent, before sizing me up and sitting down next to me.

    I told him my story, my background, and why I was in Hong Kong. He nodded his head and sighed. “Yes, I will talk to my chef, and we might have something. But listen to me. You have to clean yourself up. Next time you come back here,” he waved in my direction, “do better than this.” Back in Miami, I dressed in torn jeans and punk rock T-shirts, grungy and proud of it. In commercial, conservative Hong Kong, it got me belittled.

    I waited at the library, checking my email constantly for a reply from the F&B director and when he finally gave me a date to meet the chef, I went directly to Calvin Klein and spent my last dollars on a new suit, the first I’d ever owned. I got a cheap haircut at a trendy salon in Wan Chai with the rest of the money. I looked ridiculous.

    The next day I showed up back to the Shangri-La lobby in my new suit and hair. An assistant opened a hidden door off the lobby and we stepped into the brightly lit service corridor. She walked me back into the chef’s quarters. Another giant European man stood waiting for me in a spotlessly white chef uniform. He was part of the old guard of hotel chefs, a Swiss-German with a thick accent and the slow cadence of a man who was used to giving orders. He lectured and questioned me, and when he was done, he asked me two questions, as we sat across his heavy black desk from each other.

    “Son,” he said. “You say you want to work in Asia. Have you ever been to India?”
    “No, chef.”
    “Son, have you ever been to the mainland?”
    “Just Hong Kong, chef.”
    “Then...”, he said, really drawing it out, “you will go to the mainland. I think I have something there for you.”

    It seemed final. I had done it. Well, I hadn’t done what I came to do — work at The Peninsula — but now I hadn’t failed either — this old European chef would send me to the mainland. I didn’t have to go back to Miami.

    There were more interviews after that, with the intense French chef I would actually be working for. We spoke by phone. He knew the Miami restaurant I had worked at. He needed more staff. And though I never offered to work for free, I was young and cheap — the hotel would give me a work visa, and I’d take the same pay as a Chinese cook. Shanghai wasn’t exactly what I had in mind but it was close enough — a modern metropolis, like Hong Kong. Right?

    After 45 minutes in the airport car, I started panicking. We were still passing small towns and rural houses. Had I just made a colossal mistake and accepted a job offer in the middle of nowhere? Shanghai looked a lot smaller than I imagined. The tallest buildings around were five stories. Where were the skyscrapers?

    After an hour, we turned into Lujiazui. The pink lights of the Oriental Pearl Tower were already dark but the buildings were tall. Much, much taller. It was a city. There was the river. It would be okay. I could do this for a year.

    The Pudong Shangri-La Hotel was luxurious, the nicest room I’d ever stayed in, with too many pillows and a rainfall shower. This, its second tower, was weeks away from opening to guests, making it one of the largest and most ambitious hotels in all of Shanghai. On top of the new tower, 36 floors up, there would be a flagship French restaurant, run by a relatively unknown chef from the south of France with crazy ideas about cooking.

    I met Paul Pairet at breakfast the next day. The new tower had a buffet like I’d never seen before, with a dozen different stations all cooking food from different countries, with chefs from that country or region. Even at eight in the morning, for me as a chef, the opulence was overwhelming.

    In his 40s, wearing Converse sneakers and a hat, his teeth stained yellow from unfiltered cigarettes, Paul Pairet did not look much like the stereotypical chef. He spoke in a thick French accent, quick and cutting, looking me over to see just who and what he had hired for his kitchen. I brought myself to Asia but Pairet brought me to Shanghai. It would not be pretty.

    After breakfast, we toured the kitchen, still under construction, but centered on a million-dollar Molteni range, the Ferrari of kitchen equipment. Custom-built, it sat on a reinforced floor in the middle of a thoroughly modern kitchen, outfitted with expensive steam ovens, a pressure steamer, a medical-grade blast freezer, and all kinds of other gadgets. I just wanted to cook. Pairet had other ideas.

    The first month was the worst. Pairet, as a chef, was a genius. He would later go on to earn three Michelin stars for his conceptual restaurant Ultraviolet, and become a celebrity in Europe for his TV appearances. But in 2005, he was unknown, a journeyman chef in his 40s, given a huge opportunity. He had a lot to prove.

    The kitchen was a pressure cooker. Pairet yelled. He screamed. He yelled more and stormed out of the kitchen, cursing down the hallway back into his small office. He insulted everyone equally, calling us donkeys and monkeys, asking why our mothers had even bothered giving birth to us.

    None of the dozens of staff had cooked in the way that he wanted us to cook, with digital scales and precision instruments and gels, making classic French sauces in strange and unknown ways. The kitchen was a laboratory but none of us were scientists. The learning curve was steep. We had no time to learn. We just had to do it, fail, get yelled at, and try not to fail or get yelled at again.

    The restaurant could have made or ruined his career. A hugely famous French chef, who had taken a liking to Pairet during his time in Paris, had made the connection to the hotel and given Pairet the chance. His reputation and his relationship were on the line. But his food was in our hands, a kitchen full of molecular novices.

    The restaurant’s setting was extravagant, designed by some famous American guy who traded on cliches. The restaurant had its own elevator to whisk guests directly from the lobby to our 36th floor, and when you arrived, a massive chandelier hung overhead. The globular lights were, the designer said, inspired by rice.

    A white marble hallway extended from the elevators around the corner. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked down onto a construction site. Hundreds of workers scrambled around massive pilings sunk deep into the ground, building the support before laying the foundation of what would become the Shanghai World Financial Center, the city’s “bottle opener.”

    A block away, the nets of a golf driving range shot up into the sky, stopping errant golf balls from sailing into skyscrapers. We didn’t know it at the time, but the driving range was only temporary; years later, long after I had left, construction began on that block as well, the final building soaring much higher than the green nets ever — now the 128-story Shanghai Tower.

    Lujiazui was never really dark back then. Sparks fell dozens of stories down the side of high-rises as I got off work late at night, fluttering through the sky like orange fireflies. Construction carried on 24 hours a day. Floodlights lit up the sites. In 2005, there were many sites.

    This was going to become something big, something important, everyone said. The older hotel managers debated buying apartments nearby. The prices were already so high, they complained — 30,000 yuan ($4,168) per square meter! in Pudong! — that it must be a bubble. If I had bought one, just one, that year, I’d be a millionaire today. I didn’t have money. I didn’t expect to stay.

    The entrance hall turned another corner into a plush dining room, with thick cranberry-colored carpet and a view across the Huangpu River to the old colonial warehouses and banks on the Bund. Huge, frosted glass sculptures lined one wall, the designer’s reference to the snuff bottles of pre-Liberation Shanghai. On the other side of the elevators, a lounge was dominated by a bar designed as a jewelry box with the lid open. A private room curled around the back, hidden out of view, the sleazy playroom for the hotel’s expat general manager.

    But for me, a lower to mid-level manager in the kitchen — a junior sous chef in chef speak — the first few months were strange and lonely. The kitchen, always a comforting place for me in other jobs, was unfamiliar. The new approach to cooking made me feel stupid, as if I was starting over again. I struggled to assert my own authority in the kitchen. Many of the lower-ranked cooks were just as skilled or talented as I was. My years of experience didn’t matter when it came to molecular cooking. We were all learning together. Why was I their boss? Because I was the white guy and they were Chinese? I felt like a fraud.

    There was one other foreigner in the kitchen, a round Englishman named Simon. Simon had come from the Fat Duck outside London, one of the best restaurants in the world, a pioneer in the new field of molecular cooking. His energy was kinetic, his jacket one size too small, bouncing around like an overstuffed sausage from task to task. Certainly, more qualified than I, he took even more shit from Pairet than the lowliest cook. He became a target. We bonded quickly in our misery.

    What would the scandal be today, we wondered. We talked to Pairet and tried to assess his mood. Would he go for a full meltdown, or spend service in quiet anger, smoking cigarettes in front of the computer, sat in his tiny office behind the stockroom?

    In the afternoon, the visits would start. The F&B director, in charge of all seven of the hotel’s restaurants, would drop in. Other hotel chefs would come for a few words with Pairet. Senior management would bring VIP guests to visit our rarefied kitchen.

    Pairet cared little. Technically, he was supposed to report up through the chain of command, but in reality, he reported only to the general manager. He was the bad boy of the hotel, the rebellious outsider who didn’t have to follow the rules, the spoiled kid.

    His restaurant — our kitchen — was the crown jewel in this brand-new 36-floor tower, now the flagship property of the entire Shangri-La Hotel chain. If he had to yell at his staff a little to make it work, no one was going to tell him differently. He was the “genius chef,” the French savant. We were just the donkeys turning the gears.

    I shuttled back and forth to work alone for months. I got on the subway in the morning, groggy from the previous night, and emerged, awake, into the construction of Lujiazui. Work kept me occupied but at night I went home by myself.

    Full of leftover energy and adrenaline from the night’s service, I’d stay up too late surfing the internet.

    Days off I spent cycling around the city, listening to music on headphones and getting lost. The only human interaction I would have all day, the only connection, was with the waitress at dinner. Even then, I didn’t talk so much as just point at a picture. I didn’t know what I was ordering until years later, when I could finally read a few characters. The defining taste of my first year, I would learn, was spicy eggplants with minced pork in a clay pot. I don’t eat it anymore; it makes me sad.

    Life was lonely. But I didn’t want to give up again. I had been lucky to get this job in Shanghai, even if it wasn’t what I had set out for. I would finish the year-long contract, at least.

    The terrible leadership in the Shanghai kitchen cascaded down to everyone with a manager’s title (which included me, barely). I had begun to feel more comfortable with my team, flirting with the waitresses and hostesses and learning how to count in Shanghainese. But I did not respect or like this cooking, which replaced human skill with science, and I did not want to work 60 hours a week or more to produce it. More importantly, I didn’t want to be bullied anymore.

    Simon had left suddenly one day, after learning his younger brother had died of a freak heart attack while playing football. He never came back. I was alone again and tired. When winter came, six months after I had begun, I told Pairet I was leaving. I quit.

    Pairet called me a “backpacker,” an insult in his world that meant someone not serious enough to be a “real” chef, someone who just wanted to travel and cook. I called him an asshole and told him what I thought of his temper. With that off our chests, we were suddenly able to talk, if not as equals, then at least respectfully. I agreed to stay another six months and help him find a replacement for me. And from that day forward, he treated me (mostly) like a human. Now, almost 20 years later, we are friends and he is a kind of mentor to me. His temper has subsided as he has achieved international success.

    I can’t say I contributed to it in any meaningful way — I was the most junior of sous chefs, more a thorn in his side than a factor in his fame — but I was there. These days, Pairet is Shanghai’s most famous chef. I used to organize his stockroom. It would be the last kitchen I really worked in.

    I made friends.

    Egg Foo Young was a deejay in New York. Half-Chinese, he was coming back to Shanghai, his mom’s hometown, for work. We were friends from his time in Miami when we both played records in nightclubs. Through his job at a record store in Manhattan, and the internet, he had connected with another deejay in Shanghai, Mr. Stokes, who invited him to play in Shanghai. I went along.

    Stokes, whose real name is Adam, was a fiercely intelligent refugee from Ivy League academia. He was slumming it in China, throwing parties and writing for the free English-language magazines. His friends were also over-educated Ivy League graduates, some with degrees related to China and some not, who found a kind of freedom and excitement in the early 2000s China boom. They had gone to Dartmouth.

    My education was in the kitchen. But we both came looking for something that was missing back home. Adam would become my closest friend. His friends became my friends. Those friends changed China for me.

    They were expats and the world they involved me in was mostly The Bubble. There was Chinese Shanghai — scary, frustrating, difficult — and there was foreign Shanghai — comfortable, expensive, English-speaking — The Bubble. Tens and tens of thousands of expats lived in The Bubble back then, and thousands more were joining every year. Between the Italian restaurants and imported supermarkets, the French kindergartens and British doctors, it becomes a shadow world, a city within a city. When I arrived in 2005, there were 100,000 foreign residents in Shanghai.

    Ten years later, it had doubled.

    The Bubble is universal. Human nature is tribal and it’s easy to stay among “our” people, in “our” language, with “our” values. But when we arrive, wherever we arrive, we do the same thing: We build The Bubble.

    My friends and I were young wanderers looking for a thrill. They were different from the typical China expat then, the stereotypical executive on a lucrative contract with a chauffeured Buick minivan. They didn’t live in that bubble, and they were proud of that, but they created their own fragile world.

    They came curious about China and some of them spoke decent Chinese but they lived in downtown Xuhui District and ate at all the new Western restaurants. They worked in design or architecture or advertising or media. (Never teaching English, the perception being that that was for “low-class” expats.) But the writers among them wrote in English, for throwaway weekly magazines read by other expats. They told foreigners which restaurant had the best burger or an affordable wine list, explained how to navigate hospitals or pay utility bills, fetishized a vegetable stall that sold cheap avocados and drank in bars that made them feel like they were back home.

    I wanted to be like them. There was a lot to learn. I had worked closely with 30 Chinese cooks, six days a week, for a year, and I still knew nothing about them or their country. They would tell me where they were from — Nantong, Hefei, Dongbei — and I would nod like the strange names meant something to me. I could barely speak a sentence in Chinese. My vocabulary was all the words of a high-pressure kitchen — Hurry up! This is hot! I was embarrassed. And now finished with the kitchen, I wanted another adventure.

    I figured I’d give China one more year.

    The blog I published during the motorcycle trip proved I could do more than just cook, and my new friend Jarrett, a food writer, was leaving his job at a weekly English-language magazine soon anyway. Maybe I could do that? The position would pay me to learn about food and restaurants in Shanghai, and in return, all I had to do was write a few opinions about my meals?

    I was hired. Twenty-six years old. I had never worked in an office before or done anything besides cook for a living. Adjusting to a new life outside a restaurant was going to take time.

    In the kitchen, there was a long list of things that had to be done before the dining room opened and the first customers arrived. There was never enough time. It was high pressure and high stakes. The feedback was immediate. If you messed something up, it would be caught, you would be screamed at, and you would try again. Oftentimes, I was the one doing the screaming; it was my job to catch mistakes. Everyone was on edge. When customers arrived and service started, the pressure became even heavier. If you could avoid a stream of insults from the chef, it was a good night. There was never a down moment; there was always something to do.

    The office was different. I showed up on Monday morning at 9 a.m. to the magazine’s office, a generic floor in an aging high-rise tower. The carpet was gray. Strangers peeked over their computer monitors at me. This — corporate life, a desk, a chair — was foreign to me. How could these people sit down all day? Why was it so quiet?

    Where did they cook their lunch?

    Dan, the British managing editor with model-good looks, gave me a quick tour and introduced me to the requirements of the job: Every week, I would need to write a two-page feature related to food, three restaurant reviews of my choice (which they would pay for), and column of restaurant gossip — which chefs were going where, what was opening soon, who had closed, that type of thing. Sure, I said. I’ll start right now and will get it all done today. I was in the hurry-up-hurry-up kitchen mindset.

    Just one question: What will I do for the rest of the week? Dan looked at me strangely. Why did I want more work, he seemed to be saying. It was my first lesson in office life: Slow down. Stretch this out until Friday. Take your time.

    After years of physical labor and standing on my feet for 14 hours a day, all I had to do was… type letters into a keyboard for a few hours a week? While sitting down? It seemed ludicrous. I felt guilty for taking the (small) salary.

    In the kitchen, politics and feedback were immediate. If you had a problem with someone, you confronted them and settled it on the spot. A customer didn’t like a dish? They sent it back to the kitchen and we made a new one. Problems appeared constantly. The job was managing them.

    In the office, politics was a shadow world and feedback came indirectly. I didn’t understand. The transition was not smooth. The perfectionism drilled into me over 10 years in macho kitchens was no help in a carpeted office. Office workers were fragile. I felt as if I came from another planet.

    But I had friends.

    We went out almost every night of the week in groups of 10 or 12 people. When we ventured out of The Bubble, we drank cases of Snow beer in rustic Hunan restaurants and took over stalls at the grimy old seafood market on Tongchuan Road. I recruited my friends into my late-night cycling routine. We called it the Midnight Cycling Club and we started riding hours after most people had gone to sleep. Our motley crew, more of a drinking club than an athletics group, toured all over the city, riding until two, three, four in the morning.

    Shanghai really was different in those days. Drunk and brave from the baijiu we carried in our pockets, we explored the Old Town, pushing into the narrow alleys of the Chinese city. The dense network of lanes went back centuries, and was considered off-limits to foreigners a hundred years ago — too dangerous. We wandered with impunity, riding among historic guild halls and decrepit temples, now long gone amidst Shanghai’s re-development. We didn’t know the stories of those alleys but we could feel their history.

    The streets with pailou (traditional Chinese archways) were lit all night and lined with outdoor food stalls. In summer, we went for 3 a.m. crayfish and warm beers. Thousands of people slept on cots they had pulled out into the streets, relief from their hot, cramped apartments.

    Pink and purple neon lit the barbershops up and down the roads. Pig slop collectors pushed their bikes along slowly, the leftover stew sloshing in the buckets balanced over their rear wheel. Informal recyclers cruised the streets looking for Styrofoam, cardboard or copper wiring to add to their tricycles.

    We rode through the lanes of Hongkou District, where previous generations of foreigners had made their home during World War Two, and around the huge industrial infrastructure projects that lined the Yangpu riverfront. In the shantytowns along Suzhou Creek, we found people growing corn and raising chickens in the shadow of high-rises.

    In the south of the city, we trespassed along the old freight railroad tracks. The security guards were asleep as we moved through the stacks of containers and climbed up the gantry cranes — today’s West Bund. Under one of the massive bridges that cross the Huangpu River, we talked our way past a confused security guard and into a working shipyard.

    When one of us crashed while going too fast, scraping off a massive amount of skin on his back, we stopped at the nearest Alldays, dressed his wound with a travel-sized bottle of Smirnoff — the only sterile thing we could think of at 4 a.m. — and kept going.

    As drunk as we may have been, those rides laid the foundations of Shanghai for all of us. We explored, we discovered, we learned the city as well as any taxi driver. It wouldn’t last much longer.

    The 2010 World Expo was less than five years away and Shanghai had started its preparations. Metro lines were being dug everywhere. Large swaths of the city were marked for renewal. In fact, many of the lanes and alleys we had explored were already in the process of being abandoned.

    I couldn’t say what my plans were back then. I didn’t have any. During the day, I was slowly learning to become a writer. At night I was out with my friends. Life in The Bubble was frivolous but I was having too much fun. Occasionally I would hunt down a good China story, finding some of the city’s last wok makers or stumbling into a then-unknown street market that formed on Fridays outside Shanghai’s main mosque. I would probably go back into the kitchen and cook again when this adventure ended, I figured — no need to take it too seriously. In the meantime, I would learn a little about China and a lot about expats.

    “Another year.” That was how we all thought back then, probably how many expats in China still think today. In one more year, we would evaluate, decide, probably go home or to another country. It’s “tomorrow syndrome” — tomorrow never comes.

    That year never ends.

    But for us, that’s how we demarcate our lives: 12 months at a time. It’s short-term thinking, avoiding any serious future plans. It’s easy to trace the reasons for this short-sightedness at the heart of most expats: the visa. Every expat you see is at the mercy of the visa. The visa rules everything.

    There are exceptions but for most of us who aren’t married to someone with a shenfenzheng (Chinese I.D.), China gives us permission to live here one year at a time. Many of us have to apply every year and it’s getting harder to qualify. We need university degrees, and translations of those degrees, and criminal background checks, and records of our fingerprints, and work histories, and relevant experience, and health checks (no HIV) and tests of our Chinese fluency and…

    Once we have that, our worth as a potential resident of China is scored on a points system and we are sorted into three classes: A, B, and C. Class A are the elites, the ones who make more than 60,000 yuan a month or have special skills that the Chinese government particularly wants. Class C are people who China might tolerate for service industries. The rest of us, most of us, are Class B foreigners. It takes weeks or even months to do our visas, from start to finish.

    It can be a fraught process. Even when it goes smoothly, it creates anxiety. What if something has changed this year? What if the visa doesn’t go through? The longer you’ve been in China, the deeper you’ve put down roots here, the worse it is. I’ve been in China for almost 20 years. Almost 20 times, I’ve gone through this. Almost 20 small pieces of paper grafted into my passport, granting me a life in China, one year at a time.

    Of course, China is allowed to grant entry to whoever it wants, whenever it wants, and for whatever reasons. My years here don’t automatically give me unlimited access to this country.

    Getting a resident visa for America is far harder. I am lucky that China has allowed me to be a guest for as long as I have been. It would be nice if there was a path to permanent residency for certain expats but China already has enough people. I have no right.

    Still, it is the visa process and the yearly renewal that allow “tomorrow syndrome” to flourish among expats. Without the security of knowing they will be welcome in two, three, five more years, they neglect to put down roots: They stay in The Bubble, living in expat-land, putting off those Chinese language classes, and renting expensive apartments on annual contracts.

    We talk about it all the time, those of us who have been here for a while now — if only we knew how long we were going to stay. We would have bought houses, we cry, and now we would be rich. We would have taken more Chinese classes, we cry, and now we would be fluent. We would have started our own companies, we cry, and now we would be the boss.

    But we didn’t.

    We didn’t plan to stay this long, we say.

    It was always just going to be one more year.

    This article is an excerpt from the book “Outsider” by Christopher St. Cavish, published by Thinkingdom in October 2023. It is republished here with permission.

    Editor: Xue Ni; contributions: Chen Yue.

    (Icons: VCG)

    (Header image: Qi Xiao/VCG)