I grew up with very vague, red and gold dyed images of China. I imagined that it’d mainly be like downtown Chinatown; smelly, loud, shops selling warm produce, jade jewelry stores lined up next to dim sum and roast pork holes-in-the wall. Communism. The Great Wall. The Forbidden City. Dragons. Tea. Mao.
And there was all of that. But it was much more than that. In my year in China, I can say that I’ve probably only scratched the surface of the history, modern culture, food, people, et cetera, et cetera.
To distill the whole country into one article would be like describing Kaneohe, HI, and saying that’s what all of the US is like. So I’m going to skip it, because the socioeconomic, political, and cultural stuff has been talked about by people way more knowledgeable about those topics than I am.
Rather, I’ll talk about China through my eyes, as I lived and saw it. This is hard to write about (as evidence of this being at least a couple months after returning to the US) because there’s just so much to unpack. So of course, we’ll start from the beginning.
Why did you decide to come to China? That was the question that was asked more times than I remember. It seems crazy to just pack up and leave the country to live in a foreign land for a year, so it’s no surprise that would be the first question you’d ask someone else living in China. Motivations amongst my colleagues and friends all varied-some want to get away from home, some want to have fun (which Shanghai is really good at having), some want to see something new.
For me, I think it was a little bit of everything; at that point in time, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to be in the world and what I wanted to do professionally. I also wanted to get a new perspective on things, and figured that moving to a different country doing something I’ve never done before was probably the most dramatic thing I could think of. The opportunity was a happenstance while applying for jobs, and I figured there was no better time than now to do something like living abroad.
Beyond that, there was the motivation to want to learn from my ancestral roots and see what life was like in China. Being half Chinese, not knowing what life is like there and not having a strong connection to the culture, I was a bit interested to see how living there might change those things.
The simplest answer, and the one that I usually give out (because people usually aren’t looking for a long speech when they ask the question) is that “I wanted a new perspective on things, and I was always curious about China.”
Getting there was one thing.
Living in Shanghai was a whole different beast.
According to Wikipedia, “Shanghai is one of the four municipalities under the direct administration of the central government of China, the largest city in China by population, and the second most populous city proper in the world, with a population of more than 24 million as of 2017.”
That’s a lot of people and a lot of city for someone who grew up in a town of a little over 30,000. Shanghai has 5 million more people living there than in New York City! Now, I’ve lived in other cities (Portland, OR and Miami, FL) but the scale of Shanghai was a completely different beast. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of people during rush hour or pressed up against the door on the metro. You have to get used to not having as much personal space as you‘d like, and you have to get used to shoving your way around if you want to get anywhere in time. These are just a couple of the adjustments I had to make moving to Shanghai.
There was a lot of learning to do.
Learning a new job. I’ve never even been around kids all that much before coming to Shanghai; learning to manage their attention and fostering growth in their emotional and academic development was a huge challenge that required a lot of energy, but it’s a skill that I’m ultimately glad to have gained.
Learning a new language. I’ve done high school Spanish, and some Japanese on my own, but I’ve never really thrown myself into learning a new language. The prospect of communicating with another person in English is daunting enough, but to do so in another language seemed like a large wall to climb. While progress is slow (and still ongoing), the benefits of communicating in Mandarin can open up doors that weren’t there before. More than that, while it isn’t easy, I’m having fun learning Mandarin.
Of course this is all easier with a support group. In a new country, city, place, it’s easy to feel lost and lonely if you don’t have a good support group to struggle, complain, and have fun with. In China, I found friends in my coworkers and colleagues that helped me grow as an individual, have fun with, and complain about our mutual struggle being an ESL teacher for EF.
Friends to practice Mandarin with. Introduce me to yoga and Dungeons and Dragons and new beer. To complain about work and bosses and kids and parents with.
Friends to go out with. Or stay in with.
The most important adjustment you can make when in a strange, foreign, new place is to find friends. I think I was pretty successful with that.
There was a lot to like about my year in Shanghai. Despite a rocky start with getting an apartment and acclimating my body to the food and the weather, living in Shanghai is probably the easiest it has ever been for foreigners. Modern technology and Western-style amenities, food, and drink make it so that you never have to go outside of your comfort zone if you so choose or make it so that you can dip back into it when you need to reset.
Chinese apps are king, and you can do almost everything from your phone. Whether it’s to pay the bills, order food, buy and sell products, or buy your groceries, you’ll find that your phone quickly becomes almost like an extension of your body here in China. Even paying for food and drinks from street side stalls could be done with by scanning a QR code and paying through either Alipay or Wechat, two of the most popular apps in China. Within a month, I had left my wallet and cash at home when I went out, as the only thing I would need to get through the day was my house key and a solid data connection. The convenience and efficiency that apps had on my life in Shanghai cannot be understated, and it was a unique digital landscape that I’ve only experienced in China.
China was also good for food. Before coming to China, my image of Chinese food was limited to Southern Chinese cuisine like dim sum and dumplings. However, Chinese food is diverse and regional, telling a culinary culture story that rewards those brave enough to read it. I say it like that because I needed a certain amount of acclimation to eating what the locals ate often. Being half Chinese myself, I think it didn’t take too long, but the amount of oil and spice that’s prevalent in much of the food I had made for some long visits to the toilet.
Of the things I ate, hot pot was probably the dish I really fell for while in Shanghai. If you go out with friends, the number one place that you’ll go to is a hot pot place because having people to share the dishes with makes it a much better experience. For the unindoctrinated, hot pot usually comprises of a massive boiling pot of broth, usually with a spicy broth and a white broth side by side. You order raw meats, veggies, tofu, and noodles and throw them in the broth for a short while, then enjoy!
Here’s a few other things that I liked eating frequently:
For breakfast, I had what most people eat in the morning- Zhou, or rice porridge. Usually cooked with pork, cabbage, and pidan (fermented duck egg), and paired with a youtiao (a long fried doughnut), this meal is sure to give you the warmth and energy you need for your morning.
Lunch: Huntun Soup
During lunch, I was often found at a wonton soup place right outside of my workplace. Super cheap, tasty, and hot, wontons are dumplings usually containing pork and some other filling, cooked in broth and served in soup or with sauce. The only complaint I had was that it would leave me filling hungry by night time, but for a midday snack, few things beat it.
Dinner: Rice, Pork/Veggie/Peppers. Hongshao Rou
With the convenience and cheapness that was food delivery in Shanghai, I often got a cheap but filling dinner of rice and varied meat/veggies. I never really was much of a fan for vegetables, but I can say that they do it right there. Lots of spice and oil means that you don’t feel like you’re grazing on in a pasture, which is more than I can say about a lot of salads that I’ve had in the past. See also: braised sweet pork belly.
Beyond the belly, life in Shanghai was decent. I had a solid group of friends that I hope to keep in touch with in the future, there were a lot of options for dining, entertainment, and shopping, and seeing something new every day was both challenging and rewarding.
Most of all, I think that when I was in the classroom, I felt satisfied. Not all classroom environments were happy-go-lucky, but eventually, even with problem classes and kids, seeing them advance and learn in part because of me made me feel like I wasn’t just wasting my time here. I’ll miss a lot of the kids that I got to teach, and I’m sad that I won’t see what kind of people they grow up to be, but I definitely value doing something I had no idea how to do and making an impact on other people. It’s that experience that has changed my career goals slightly, in that I want to focus on having more impact on people and communities in my work.
For anyone coming from a Western country, China has a lot of ugly that takes some getting used to. Living in a country that violates human rights and suppresses dissent as naturally as they roll out convenient apps is the kind of cognitive dissonance that I had to live with, but there are other things about life in China that are more tactile.
I think most obviously, the manners and conduct of people that you will see in China, even if you are just visiting, is something that you won’t be used to. Constant spitting in the road, scooters barely missing you (and sometimes not) while driving on the sidewalk, holding babies over the trash can while they do their business, people shoving past you on the metro, the list can go on and on. When there are so much people around, it seems like it’d be disadvantageous to be considerate to everyone, but that has created an environment where even perfectly nice people must push and shove to get to work on time and the like. I think it’s worth mentioning that China is still developing. They’re in the global spotlight more than ever, but civilizations take a long time to change, and what seems rude/crude to you or me might just be the normal for them. And of course, this is all a generalization, because there are people who hold doors open, move out of the way when you’re in a rush, and are considerate. But there’s a higher chance you might see some behaviors that are strange to you should you visit. This kind of thing took some getting used to, and I’m still not exactly okay with it, but I can at least understand the behavior.
Of course, in Shanghai it’s easy to insulate yourself from most of this if you have the money. After all, Shanghai is one of the most modern cities in the entire world and luxury is easily accessible here.
But of course, money was something I didn’t have.
My finances were tight before coming to China, and my bind meant that I had to watch spending very carefully. While food is cheaper, a lot of other goods are the same price as they are overseas. Because I was paid in Chinese Yuan and had to pay bills in USD, budgeting was a real challenge. The lesson here is that moving to a new country with nothing saved up is generally a bad idea, and I definitely missed out on a lot of the pricier experiences in Shanghai because I was concerned with saving money. However, if you want to experience life as local, having a small budget, eating mainly local food and grocery shopping for yourself is a great way to do it. In addition to that, there are a lot of free activities that you can do in Shanghai! There are public parks and courts to stay active, and even the Shanghai Museum is free to enter. Personally, staying in on weekends was a good way to break the habit of going out all the time and by cutting back on restaurants and drinking, I saved a lot of money and headaches (though not all the headaches).
I think the thing that I complained most about during my time in China was my job. While it was a good experience overall, it was not without its share of problems. Firstly, my recruiter advertised it as 20 hours a week teaching, which was technically true, but that did not include 20 hours of additional in-office time. Those 20 hours were definitely needed in my first couple months there, as I was learning to teach, lesson plan, and do administrative tasks. Lesson plans were especially tedious work, as I didn’t have a good grasp of how a lesson flowed at the time. However and especially during the final months of my contract, it took me all of 2 hours to plan my lessons for the week and do admin tasks. The rest of the time was just me trying to fill space and it really didn’t make sense to be in the office so early before class. Long hours made it hard to explore and really experience the city (especially since we worked all day on weekends and a lot of events happen on Saturday and Sunday). By the time you had your two days off, you were exhausted, had to do laundry, get groceries, exercise, take Chinese lessons, and the list went on. However, in the second half of my year, I feel that I did make more of an effort to see things in and around the city.
The hardest thing about my job was definitely being in the classroom. While I did enjoy being in the classroom, even the best of classes took a lot of energy to maintain a productive and fun learning environment. The worst of them… well they were about as bad as teaching three normal classes back to back to back. For those who don’t know, kids have a short attention span, and to teach them effectively means changing up the activities during the lesson so that they’ll stay engaged throughout the entire lesson. Managing the behavior of ten or more kids, introducing new vocabulary and games, and being the authority figure in class was very emotionally and mentally draining. While the job allowed me to be in China as a foreigner that spoke no Mandarin, it quickly became apparent that I could not be in this line of work for a long time. I’m not a very talkative person to begin with, so being outside of my comfort zone for so long took its toll on me, which is why I can say that I’ve enjoyed the experience of teaching but will probably never do it again.
China was ugly and difficult at times, and beautiful at others. Living abroad taught me a lot about learning to say yes to things that might be outside of what you know, but I also learned how to say no and gain some independence. A friend once told me something that’s stuck with ever since:
‘Do the things that fill you.’
There are times where I would discover activities that I’m interested in that my roommates or friends maybe weren’t. I found that it’s extremely important to find time for the things that fulfill you, whether that’s taking time to exercise, staying in on a Friday night because you’re tired, or even saying no because you want to stay home and play games. I learned to listen to myself and try and do more of the things that I wanted to do with the limited free time that I had. This realization is the most beautiful things that I’ve learned in Shanghai, as it changed the way I approached what I do with my free time in a way that doesn’t make me feel like I’m ever being forced to do something or dragged along.
The nights out were crazy, vibrant, and full of energy, sound, and chaos. Shanghai’s nightlife is peculiar mix of clubs that are either full of bottle service areas where locals will play dice games until they pass out sleeping, or a massive dance floor with blaring EDM early into the morning. Bars catered more towards foreigners tend to be more relaxed, with the pub atmosphere familiar to those in Western countries, serving expensive beer and cocktails paired with decent food. A favorite of mine was The Shed’s Wednesday deal, where wings were 2 RMB (about a quarter USD). We’d get massive plates of wings and a tall Carlsberg beer right after work, and shoot the breeze in an Australian style pub.
The nights in were cozy, warm, still, and happy. Time spent playing games, catching up on shows, reading, eating at some quiet restaurant, or even cooking my own dinner. I often reflected on these moments as a realization that I was actually living in China. When you’re out and about and doing new things, it can seem like an adventure; like you’re in some foreign place doing some new thing with new people, and in that way, I very much felt like I was on the outside looking in. But time spent indoors, doing things I’ve always done, taking care of space that’s mine- that felt like I was living somewhere.
Beauty also came in the form of my coworkers. Extremely helpful, friendly, and capable, I’m able to say that I was really fortunate to be placed in the center I was at. I had a wonderful mentor who helped me become someone who could barely interact with children to someone that I could recognize as a teacher. At every step of the way, my coworkers helped me feel like we were a team. When sales or HQ or anyone else put pressure on the teacher team, I never felt like we were fighting each other-rather we fought for what we needed in the classroom to succeed. Outside of work, a few of them became very good friends that I could hang out and play games with. It was a blessing that I was able to find people with the same interests as me, because it made for a much more enjoyable work atmosphere as well.
Of course, when I had time, I’d leave all that behind and travel. Another large reason why I went to China was its proximity to other Asian countries. I mainly used breaks to see other parts of China and to travel to other countries. The mysterious wonder of traveling somewhere new is something that I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of. I’m a sucker for sights, and I saw a lot of good ones.
If you’re interested in reading more about my time traveling to new places, you can see full articles dedicated to:
After completing my work contract, I also spent a month traveling China with a friend. We worked our way from Chengdu through the Sichuan province to Shenzhen, on the border of Hong Kong. It was a trip that was filled with excitement, frustration, happiness, nature, food, and wonder, and probably deserves more words than I care to write in this post, but I think that we saw the good and bad sides of China during this trip, and it was a trip that I needed to take to increase my understanding of the country; I don’t think I could’ve wrote this article without seeing more than Shanghai and Beijing.
I’ve haven’t talked about everything I learned and experienced China, and not even some of my most important experiences. But the only thing left to say is that experience is what you make of it. How you spend your time is influenced by your environment, but the way you personally approach things is going to be a bigger factor on whether or not you can appreciate an experience. I know I tried to stay in the moment and appreciate my time as much as possible, and for that reason, I can say that I grew this past year.
My year in China was rife with struggle, failure, success, chaos, and peace. Though I’m gone, I’ll carry traces of my experience throughout my life, and hopefully the relationships I gained there as well.
See you later