On being an expat in China

I am often asked “What brought you to China?”, and my go to response is always “That’s a very good question”.
The truth is, and I never thought I would say this; it was a job that brought me to China. Most of you that know me should also know that I am not driven by work or money, and usually it is the destination and/or the possibilities offered within that place, that drive me to visit and perhaps try out a new (usually) short-term job. However, when an advertisement popped up to teach English in China, shortly before my TEFL course was set to be complete, I found myself eagerly filling out an application form without much thought. Had I ever desired to visit China? No. Had previous travels in Asia confirmed I would enjoy living there? No – I’d never been to Asia. In fact, I had never even taught English. Nevertheless, after two short, easy interviews and an offer to move to Beijing and begin work in less than 6 months time, I found myself accepting. Having only applied for the one job that required signing a one year contract, I realise in hindsight just how risky that decision was.

 

So I arrived in China with little to no knowledge of the country, no familiarity of the language and zero skill in teaching. But with that which I lacked, I made up for in intrigue, open-mindedness and passion to give something completely alien a damn good go.
Let me rewind 7 months and tell you that I had a very difficult start to my new life, and it is only now that I can admit to myself (and my readers) how much I struggled. So much so, that I was a step away from jacking it all in and heading home on the next available flight.

The 9 days of intense training went by quickly, and although it was a constant challenge, I happily conquered it in the safety net of a hilarious room mate and an abundance of ‘in-the-same-boat’ teachers to be. It was only when training came to a close then, that reality hit home: I was being sent to work in a school 1.5hrs north of the city in an area where very few expats ventured, whilst my newly found friends dispersed across the country. The moving-in process was severely rushed, with a mere two days to find an apartment before my new job commenced as a fully fledged teacher.

Picture this: I thank the company agent profusely for helping set me up, and shut the door. In my 9th floor, one room apartment I stand and observe my only possessions; a 30ltr backpack containing everything I will need until my box eventually reaches China, which they tell me, will be at least 2 more weeks. I have no internet, no laptop. A mere £60 remains in my English account until my first proper pay cheque in 6 weeks time. There is 30p left on the electric meter. I’m not even sure how to top up the electric meter. The washing machine is broken. As I sit down to prevent myself from falling over, I almost give myself whiplash from the concrete-hard bed that hits my coccyx. Good job it’s still hot outside – no need for a duvet just yet. Outside the window I can hear the constant beeping of cars, electric bikes and tuktuks and I wonder, as I peer at the road below, where I can find food. More importantly, where can I find the courage to enter a restaurant and attempt to order?

 

During the first few weeks of my new life in China, I was scared to go anywhere and to do anything.

It’s interesting how at one time that reality had me in tears, yet now I struggle to remember that feeling clearly.
To admit to being scared is like reverting back to childhood for me, when I was in fact terrified of everything, including the prospect of having to walk to the shop instead of taking the car. Over the years I learnt to try new things and suck it up when a situation got my heart pumping. But China had a few tricks up its sleeve.
Sitting in my apartment brought with it a genuine sense of loneliness – I had no familiarity around me, no friends, no family and absolutely no means of escapism. My apparent stubbornness prevented me from admitting to (most of my) family/friends back home just how low I truly felt. If I ventured outside, piercing eyes would burn into my skin, alien voices would whisper my way and my mind would fill with paranoid negativity. Then there were the set hours designated for school, a place that terrified me more than anywhere. I’d never really been around kids (unless you count the few hours spent with my cousins during the mandatory family visits) and so acted like an awkward buffoon at any given moment. The four, windowless walls that surrounded my elected desk and my somewhat stand-offish co-workers left me gasping for stale, polluted air. My valued independence was stolen from me as realisation hit that I needed help to book a dentist appointment, to visit the doctor, to set up online banking, to online shop, to read a menu, to find the correct bus, to travel by metro, to get a haircut, to pay my rent – it’s true when they say that no one really speaks English in China.
What the hell was I doing with my life?!

But things got easier. One month became two, two became three and suddenly twelve months in China didn’t seem too scary, or impossible for that matter. I realised that pretending life in Essex would be Disneyland if I returned was ridiculous. Did I really want to return to a job that literally shortened my longevity? I reminded myself that tough times only make you appreciate the good and to be in this position really is a privilege.
As I accepted that China would be my home for one year, I began to relax into my role as a teacher and accept what it mean to be an expat in Beijing. And now as I write this, I can’t help but feel a little angry towards 4 month old me that I didn’t slap myself awake more quickly. However, on the flip side, would I appreciate my time here as much as I do now if I hadn’t been through all of that?

So allow me to put a positive spin on this somewhat off-putting story.
There’s a reason I travel as much as I do and it’s because I don’t enjoy being overly-comfortable. Comfort brings with it – based purely on my own experience – laziness, attachment (to materialistic things) and ignorance and I find I forget what is truly important to me if I’m not careful: friendships (I strive to keep in touch more when I’m on the move), remaining minimalistic, trying new things and going places regardless of the cost, challenging myself and experiencing different cultures – to name just a few. Arriving in China was a serious shock to the system because it really does offer a completely new way of life, like nothing I have previously experienced. It knocked me back for six and had me questioning my entire life choices, bringing me to tears of frustration and hopelessness on many occasions. I even found myself becoming quite anti-social, declining invitations out even though I craved company and banter, preferring to sit alone to eat yet another pot noodle in my empty flat.
But it also provided me with everything that I expect from the word Adventure – the unknown, discomfort, self analysis, self discipline, challenges, personal growth, culture shock – and for this, I am ever grateful to China.

During the past 4 months my love for this part of the world has been steadily growing. The person I am proud to be has been creeping back in to every aspect of each day and the word Content can happily escape my lips again.
I’ve been fortunate enough to share my little-Beijing world with people I care about dearly, both in person and via my blog. The people of China have provided me with memories I will cherish for life: dancing in the park, inquisitive conversations, an unknown amount of secret snapshots and blatant selfies, an insight into their bizarre and fascinating culture and above all: an unquestioning acceptance into their world as an immigrant. Because let’s face it, that is what I am: an immigrant.
As a privileged westerner that frequently uses the term ‘expat’ it’s easy to pretend that I, along with thousands of others, are any different from the immigrants that reside in the UK and across the world. The only difference being? China and it’s people are encouraging migrants to support their economy more and more since opening its doors in the 80’s. I have never experienced racism or unpleasantness, just intrigue and attention which can sometimes be a little overbearing, but which is always meant with a kind heart.
It would be easy for me to take this in a completely different direction, but I shall refrain.
My relationship with China will most certainly remain a love/hate one during the next few months, but if I find myself having a really bad day, I have the pain-staking somewhat humorous memories of my first few months to look back on. Let’s face it, anything is better than crying pathetically over the fact that you have ruined another cup of tea because you could have sworn this time it was milk and not yoghurt.

 

So I arrived in China with little to no knowledge of the country, no familiarity of the language and zero skill in teaching. But I will leave confident in my ability to interact with children, with a better insight into Chinese culture and overall a stronger person, ever thankful that I decided against booking that flight home.
To finish, here’s a comment that will stick with me:
“If you can live and work in China for a year, you can do just about anything”.

 

Chenjiapu Great Wall in winter – me doing what I do best

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