My time in China taught me a lot about life as an expat. Here’s my collection of wisdom that I wish someone had told me before I left. Expat or not I hope that you find it of use.
I lived in Changsha for 18 months, a small city by Chinese standards. 7 million people crammed at the feet of the Heng shan (Southern Mountain) range; Mount Yeulu (Foot Mountain) forms the Northern most point of the chain and enjoys some phenomenal view over the bustling city below.
Mao Zedong, Chairman of the People Republic of China, spent his early years in Changsha, he wrote a poem on his experience standing on the tip of Orange Island, The river flowing North as he gazed in to the deep green wood’s atop Yeulu Mountain; the memory of Mao and his poem is cemented in the cities psyche by a 100 foot statue of his decapitated head punctuating the spot he describes.
It is within this setting that I experienced many trials and tribulations as an expat English teacher. Read on to find out what I wish I’d known before starting my adventure.
1. Learn the Language
It’s very easy to assume that the entire world speaks English when you have grown up with it as your mother tongue, but that just isn’t the case. At some point you will find yourself in a new city surrounded by blisteringly fast speech in a language you cannot comprehend. It will feel as though you have regressed to your earliest years, the world a blur of activity, strange sights and smells littering the air. You are forced to stand there powerless, unable to communicate.
Learning a new language takes a lot of work and can’t be done overnight, but there is no better time to start than when living abroad and being completely immersed in a new culture. It can go a long way to reduce stress during life’s little emergencies. It lets you enrich your experience and gain a deeper appreciation of your surroundings.
Learning the basics of a language before you travel can save you the embarrassment of being stuck having to use nouns as one word instructions and relying on kind strangers to translate for you. You might get to an airport by yelling “Jīchǎng” at your taxi driver or successfully order a strawberry smoothy with a terse “Cǎoméi”, but you won’t be making any friends. Language is a beautiful tool that can be crafted to charm, humour and engage. By learning useful phrases and good manners you can build rapport with all manner of people and feel at home anywhere.
There are countless free resources to learn Mandarin online, but if you really want to obtain a level of proficiency and competency there is no substitute for a good tutor, language courses are available in most cities. You may be able to join online forums to meet up with expatriates in your own community who can give you a helping hand before you go.
2. Know when to shut up
Drunkenly discussing the intricacies of politics and philosophy has always been an enjoyable pastime of mine. Chairman Mao is a divisive figure; some call him the father of a nation, saving the workers from foreign imperialism; others might point out his legacy as a power obsessed maniac responsible for the largest case of democide in human history and the mutilation of China’s historical and cultural legacy but, you can make up your own mind.
Whatever, your opinion, sometimes it is best to keep your opinion to yourself. There is considerable enjoyment to be had marching down the street using your newly acquired language skills to colourfully berate the absurdity of Chinese life, but as a westerner you stick out like a sore thumb. It’s easy to find yourself toe to toe with the wrong official who views you as an unwelcome guest and decides to send you home; you are unlikely to encounter problems by remaining polite and courteous.
3. Sort out your finances
There are countless ways Expats get ripped off. You can avoid being overcharged in street markets by savvying up, negotiating ruthlessly and never accepting the first price offered. Bank accounts can be troublesome to open too: it is best to set up an overseas bank account before you leave; avoiding that pesky withdrawal for your domestic account.
Many expats myself included forget their car insurance; if you plan on leaving your car at home the worst course of action is to continue with your current policy, instead you can get discounted expat policies. I went 8 months paying full whack on a car I wasn’t driving.
4. Don’t get yourself exploited
The Chinese have a tendency to associate a western appearance with competency as an English teacher; how do I know this? I’m 90% certain it’s the only reason they gave me the job over countless highly competent native Chinese English teachers.
This is a double edged sword for many who are tempted by an opportunity to travel abroad and earn money with limited experience and in most cases it will work out fine. It is important to do your research, if you end up applying for a fake post the best case scenario is that you lose your deposit, worst case you make the headlines.
Unrealistic expectations of your hosts can sour your experience when they don’t see results and leave you out of pocket when they decide that you aren’t up to scratch. Teaching English abroad isn’t something that you should rush into, it is best to get some experience and qualifications in advance so you have your back covered when push comes to shove.
5. Live like a local
It’s very easy to arrive in a new country and stick to your niche of expat friends. But, by befriending the locals, you open up your opportunities enormously. There are all manner of local festivals, events and venues that you catch wind of. This attitude is best extended to your own explorations. Be sure to make a note of your home address and any land marks in its vicinity so that you can get a taxi back if/when you inevitably get lost.
Hop on a bus in the evening and get off at different stops each time. These random trips can give you a better understanding of the city you are in and open you up to all manner of interesting experiences. The majority of people you come across are genuine but, it is important to keep your wits about you and if something doesn’t feel right trust your gut and move on politely and assertively.
It’s very easy to find yourself caught up in how everything at home is so much better. This mentality can hamper your enjoyment of your time abroad and it will wind up making you home sick. You are free to choose your attitude to any set of circumstances, life as an expatriate becomes considerably more enjoyable if you embrace the present and make the most of an extraordinary opportunity.
About the author
I hope that by writing about my experiences I can encourage people to take a flying leap out of their comfort zones.
Resources that Kit found useful:
- A big thank you to Gary from Keith Michaels’ who was my expat car insurance saviour.
- If there’s an app to use for learning a new language it’s 321 Speak. It was invaluable when I first started learning mandarin and I’ve started to use the Italian one (no points for guessing where I intend to go next).