Becky: Writer. Traveler. Tea Drinker.
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Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to China, etc.
I’m an American who moved to China for a six-month “lark.” I thought I could teach English for one semester and use my salary for travel. But after my first semester, I wanted to stay another. And then another year, and another year. This is now my 6th year and I have no plans to leave.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started a blog a few months before I left for China. I knew that coming to China would be unique and interesting experience. I wanted a place to write things down and keep the experiences and pictures fresh in my mind. Now that I have lived here so long the focus of my blog has changed. I feel like there is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about China in the western media. I try to use my blog as a way to share an understanding of China through my experiences. I also try to focus on some of the more positive aspects of China and living in China because I feel there is too much negativity in the media today.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
I wrote a blog recently that got a lot of attention. It was about dealing with the pressures of Chinese culture even though I’m an “outsider.” I’m certainly not expected to follow Chinese traditions or Chinese culture. Yet when you live in a country you cannot avoid feeling the pressure of society and you end up acting differently and thinking differently than you did before.
Tell us about the ways your new life in China differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
I’m a traveler and new places excite me. Of course coming to China was a shock, but I actually really liked it. It was like every day was a new adventure full of new challenges. Since I originally came just for 6-months I wanted to see and experience as much as I could. I think after the first 6-months, it started to sink in that China was my “new normal” and then I began to crave some things I missed from home like cheese and butter (which wasn’t available in the small city in which I lived.)
Another difference was exercise. Many expats say they gain weight when they come to China because of the delicious food. But actually I lost weight because I didn’t have a car like in America and I needed to walk/bike everywhere. That has been one of the biggest differences between my life back home and China — my level of fitness and health has increased greatly. And I don’t need to go to the gym!
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in China? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I wouldn’t change anything. I had done a lot of research before I got to China, and I found a great job to work for in a great, small city, in which I was really forced to immerse myself in Chinese culture. I knew to bring tissues with me (because no toilet paper in the bathrooms) and bring deodorant because it wasn’t easy to find.
But I don’t think anyone can be fully prepared for life in China. Even if you read all the books, know all the history, the reality is very shocking at first. It is very chaotic and overwhelming, though there are plenty of good surprises as well (like the amazing cheap food and the kindness of friends).
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
Well, I guess I’ll embarrass myself with a language mistake. I was on a date with a Chinese guy that couldn’t speak any English. He suggested a dish which in Chinese was pronounced niuwa. I knew niu meant beef, but I didn’t know what wa was and I didn’t want a strange part of the cow. So I asked him to explain it to me. He kept slapping his leg and saying (in Chinese) “big leg, big leg.” So I was thinking that beef leg wasn’t so bad and I agreed to try it.
It comes in a bubbling bowl of soup (over a flame) and the meat is grey and slimy and looks really fatty. I pick up a piece and say “this doesn’t look like beef,” and he laughs and says no. He hits his leg again and says, “big leg, big leg.” I said I still didn’t understand and he told me to check my dictionary. Niuwa meant bullfrog. It was not delicious.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in China?
I think you just need one tip. Be open minded and easy-going. (Okay, that’s kinda two, ha.) Things happen here that seem illogical and nonsensical. Efficiency, common sense and courtesy is often lacking. You could get mad when things don’t meet your expectations, or you could just relax and go with the flow. I think all expats lose it from time to time (known as a “bad china day”) but you learn pretty quickly that an entire culture and society isn’t going to change to be more convenient to you. Just go with it. Whatever it is, try not to freak out too much.
How is the expat community in China? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
When I first came to China I lived in a very small city. The “expat community” consisted of me and my 10 co-workers. But I preferred it. I didn’t come to China to make friends with foreigners or eat McDonalds every day. I came to meet Chinese people and experience the culture. But now that I have lived in China for so long, and have no plans to leave, I am discovering I want a mix of expat friends and Chinese friends. Expats are the only ones that can really understand my experience and there is some comfort in that. This autumn (after 5 years in a small city) I moved to Xiamen and I have been very impressed with the expat community. Not just young drinkers trying to sleep with as many girls as possible (though those kinds of expats exist here too). Most have integrated themselves into China, married a Chinese spouse, had babies, opened bilingual businesses and respect China and the culture. Now my circle of friends and all the activities I attend have a good mix of foreigners and Chinese. I really like that.
How would you summarize your expat life in China in a single, catchy sentence?
Every day is an adventure.