The expatriate life

When I lived in Macedonia in the 90s living through one (of a number of elections), I was surprised to discover that VMRO, the Nationalist party had won. I was not a close observer of Macedonian politics but reflecting on my surprise, I realized I did not know any Macedonians who belonged to or supported VMRO, and had naturally discounted their victory (not least because so had my friends). It was an object lesson in how it is possible to live in a country and yet not be of it: inhabiting the curious space of being an expatriate.

I had a friend who went to live in Iran (for the British Council) in the 1950s who was told that if he wanted to know anything about the country he should consult Sir XY who had lived there for years. It did not take Michael, with fresh, young eyes, to realise that Sir XY had been consistently misreading Iran for those many years.

Reading Julia Boyd's 'A Dance with the Dragon: The Vanished World of Peking's Foreign Colony' brought these memories back. It is an accomplished, intelligent account running from the Boxer rebellion to the Communist arrival in Peking in 1949 focused primarily on the British and American communities. It vividly depicts, with honourable exception, a remarkably self-enclosed community, impinged upon by the outside world only through disruptive catastrophe, carrying on a life where the host country is either an exotic backdrop or a patronised inconvenience.

However, there are lacunae in this account that betray possibly blind spots, most notably over Christianity. A large portion of the expatriate community were missionaries but they barely come into focus. The only prominent Christian figure is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and creative theologian, effectively (and romantically) 'exiled' by the Vatican for his heterodox views on the relationship between science and religion (heterodox on both counts, a point Julia Boyd noticeably fails to make).

The penetration of Christianity into China was deeply ambiguous - upsetting of tradition, associated with an over overbearing bullying extractive West, it played a significant (negative) role in shaping Boxer ideology; and, yet Boyd's implicit portrayal of it as a wholly 'foreign influence' that fails to take root is a puzzling one (and breaks down in her own admission as she tells us that the father of Chinese nationalism, Sun Yat Sen, was a Christian). Christianity was such an influence (positively and negatively) precisely because it was so influential and taking root across the whole spectrum of Chinese society (as it is today, China having the fastest growing Christian community in the world, a point that begins to unsettle China's current rulers).

However, this absence apart, the book is thoroughly enjoyable for its portrait of a vanished way of life, for the pen portraits of the diversity of people attracted to life in Peking; and, as a cautionary tale of how easy it is to live in misunderstanding, to create one's 'bubble' and immunise yourself from a genuine encounter with otherness. The people who did step out and into the realities of Chinese life seem to be the one's gifted with deeper, richer, more complete lives, like my own favourite, alluded to here but not dwelt on, the Buddhist and Taoist scholar, John Blofeld, who did not confine his Chinese life to the higher paths of enlightenment, as his own memoir makes abundantly and candidly clear.


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