This week’s guest post is from Sarah who lived in China for over 5 years and had the time of her life. She embraced the culture fully by learning Chinese and traveling to lots of destinations in China. Today, she is sharing how she continues her life after moving back.
“I left China in July 2013, closing a 5.5-year chapter of life in Shanghai. I left a job I enjoyed and all my closest friends, but it was time to make a go of my long-distance relationship and move on. For a year after, I abandoned all things China-related; it took most of my energy just getting established in the US, another foreign country to me. The initial tasks were to confirm my visa and work set-up (not the most relaxing process), but it also just took time to adjust to the day-to-day differences between Shanghai and L.A. Silly things, like realizing America’s rules and regulations are so much more established and set in stone… so “no” generally really does mean “no” here! There’s nothing that distinguishes me from an American, apart from a British accent, and yet I felt like even more of an outsider in the US than I did in China to begin with. It was starting from scratch from a social and professional standpoint, and that was draining.
A couple of months ago, however, I started up Chinese lessons again. This has prompted me to look at my motivations to learn this language, and why they remain. I think it boils down to two main points: 1) China got itself under my skin and 2) learning Chinese is the best way to remedy this and stay connected.
China’s still under my skin, and here’s why:
As a foreigner in China, you are constantly reminded that you’re living in a different culture, a nation with 5000 years of history, propelling itself forward at a lightning pace. This is simultaneously fascinating, endearing, humbling, and exciting. On one end, I’d go running in old parts of Shanghai, where clothes and meats would be hanging between buildings to dry, and I may as well have been running through the 1930s; on the other end, every day you’d see evidence of the Chinese embracing all things new, from Bitcoin to K-Pop, and leap-frogging over the west with technology, e-commerce and skyscrapers. The endless juxtapositions and the daily peppering of randomness never gets old. How can I not miss that?!
I love that the Chinese are optimistic and push hard towards improving their own futures and that of their kids. I also love how open Chinese people can be about their observations; if you look great, they’ll tell you with a big smile (equally, if you look tired they’ll let you know as soon as you walk in the room). Also, once you are friends, Chinese people are so caring, thoughtful and hospitable – they’ll really go to any length to take care of family and close friends.
Even when I was leaving, a dear friend from Shandong invited me to stay with her and her boyfriend for almost a month, after I’d found a replacement tenant for my apartment. Cassie (her English name) insisted that I must come and stay with them and be taken care of in my last weeks in China – and refused any contribution to the rent. She would even get up earlier than normal, just to walk with me to work (her habit was to get a taxi, last minute).
Of course, there are westerners who share this generous spirit but I do believe there’s something special about the way Chinese look out for those in their closest circles. We in the west can learn a lot from that.
Expat life (or, rather, the expat mindset)
I think the impermanence of my life in China meant that I would always say “yes” to new experiences, challenges, trips. It was a fun mindset to be in, when life felt like a great adventure. This is of course compounded because you’re surrounded by fellow laowai who also share this sense of impermanence and want to make the most of their short years in Asia. Had I not been in this environment, there’s no way I would have run ultra-marathons in Mongolia and Hong Kong, or participated in Season 1 of the Amazing Race China! I try to take this spirit with me, as life should be a great adventure.
With these reasons (and many more), it was actually quite difficult to imagine “life after China”. Would it be dull?! I had no idea how I’d react to the US and “adult” life outside the China bubble!
I have no regrets for leaving when I did, but I have just come to conclude that it’s important to remain connected with China, both from a personal level but also because China is such an important global power. This is where continuing to learn Chinese comes in:
Why learning Chinese is key to staying connected to China:
It opens up China’s domestic news & media
To be able to understand China and keep up with all the news, it’s impossible to rely solely on the biased reporting of western media. I hope to improve my Chinese so that one day I can follow the media in full – and be a little more objective and balanced when forming my opinions about the PRC.
Relationships can be built and better maintained
It was largely the friendships that I made in China that hooked me in the first place, and language is obviously key maintaining the social connection. Plenty of Chinese have really excellent English so it’s not always strictly necessary, but to maintain friendships of any depth, and to forge new relationships, having Chinese and an understanding of Chinese culture obviously helps enormously. Ideally this can be helpful for both personal and business reasons in the future.
It’s another great reason to visit
I definitely plan to visit China again in the future, and share more of the country with my husband. Why not return with better Mandarin than I had when I left?!!
Besides all this, learning Chinese is such a great challenge. I really believe it’s good to have a hobby that challenges you and keeps you humble, separate from work or sports.
In sum, I’m glad to say there is indeed life after China, and mine is certainly better for it – but that’s not a reason to end it all there! My Chinese is currently at an intermediate level so there’s much to improve. I’m very motivated to do so…
Keep up with Sarah through her twitter at @suxiaoya !