Guest Post: Life After China And Why I Can’t Let Go of Learning Chinese

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.

Sarah posing for a photo with a Chinese baby

Sarah posing for a photo with a Chinese baby

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:

Daily Juxtapositions

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?!

Chinese People

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.

Checking out the Shanghai single market!

Checking out the Shanghai single market!

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

Follow Sarah on Twitter @

Follow Sarah on Twitter @

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 !

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: Life After China And Why I Can’t Let Go of Learning Chinese

  1. It is always helpful to try to stay connected with a country you stayed at for several years. Best way is of course to revisit often or as in your case to study more the language. I left myself a country behind I lived for over seven years but right now I am just glad for the change. Perhaps later on I will see again more positive aspects of that country which I just took for granted all these years

  2. This is such a great post. It’s always enriching to know how China is perceived by people who do not grow up in this culture. 🙂

    Two things Sarah wrote caught my attention, “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”, and “I do believe there’s something special about the way Chinese look out for those in their closest circles.” But the thing is, you kind of have to be in the close circle first. The contrast between how the same Chinese person treat “close friends” and “strangers” could be very, very large. I just can’t help wondering, all these extreme kindness among close circles, are they real? Or it might be a default surviving instinct for most Chinese people, because this is a nation you can’t get anything done unless knowing a “close friend”, or “close friend’s close friend”. I have had this confusion for years… And the caring from close friends sometimes come at the price of privacy, which is another a dilemma for me. I know these are all based on my personal experiences… so I am probably biased. And I don’t doubt there are genuine Chinese people out there.

    Sorry for being off the topic… I just somehow felt the impulse to say what I felt about this “close friends” phenomenon. I do encourage Sarah to keep learning Chinese (if she sees this 🙂 ), because in my opinion the language is one of the most beautiful things in Chinese culture. Some of the greatest treasures such as ancient poems are possible to be appreciated only with a solid understanding of Chinese. 🙂

    • Hi Yabin,

      Thanks very much for your encouragement in sticking with my Chinese studies!

      Regarding your points, I think I can qualify my observations by saying that Chinese people have good and not-so-good traits, just as people from ALL nations do, stereotypically speaking. I just feel that in the western media, often it’s the “strange” and negative sides of China that are presented. This perpetuates ignorance and negativity, which is a shame.

      Many people in China showed so much kindness and hospitality to me (without gaining anything much for themselves), and I’ll always be grateful for that. Equally, I’m not saying that there aren’t faults in the way people treat others in China. I’ve had plenty of days where I’ve just felt so frustrated in Shanghai, just walking (read: battling my way) down the street!! However, in an economy that’s changing so quickly, I think it’s going to take at least few generations more for society to catch-up fully to today’s China. No-doubt there’ll be some hiccups as part of that, but again, it’s no different than any other country. I mean, have you seen the Ferguson protests/violence in the US recently?!!

      That’s my two cents anyway 🙂

  3. Hi Sarah,

    I am not simply sad because there are turmoils happening in China — I believe that is a healthy part for any growing economy and society. But I am sad about the way Chinese interacted with others in Chinese culture. Intellectually, I understand that all people have good traits and not-so-good traits. And after 100 years everything will be much better: people will treat each other with fairness, respect and dignity, no matter where they come from. But as a Chinese, every time I read a terrible news, I can’t help thinking: What is wrong? Will this be a sustaining hindrance for this society? What I wrote down is really just my inner conflicts. I think in some sense I am being impetuous for pouring my personal conflicts to you like this, and I am sorry about that.

    I recently realized that I am very biased — in the sense that I can only see a tiny fraction of what life can offer me, during a limited period of time. We have both been in China, but we meet different people, and have different life. In my life, I haven’t met many nice people, and seen lots of stupid things. I guess you can’t really trust what I think about China. 😛

    I might sound like a bummer, but I never regretted growing up in Chinese culture: Poems, Chinese Buddhism, calligraphy, brush paintings, novels… The beauty is transcendental. I think that’s really cool of you to keep studying Chinese, because somewhere down the line you will encounter other parts of the culture as well. Have fun! 🙂

    • Yabin –

      Thank you, it’s great to read such an honest perspective from someone who has grown up in China but can look at it from outside too. I think it’s important to be aware of these inner conflicts and to discuss them.

      As I say, my thoughts are no more than one person’s observations of life in one period of time in China. I really value reading others’ observations as I try to navigate its language and culture. 🙂

  4. After I made an infographic on learning Chinese as a second language, I really interested in how foreigners(who do not speak Chinese as mother language) feel on learning Chinese culture. It is great to see that you are enjoying the process. I am a Chinese student majoring public relations in America, and I am planning go back to China for future career. From my experience I believe that multicultural background is really helpful for a better future. It is great that you decide keep learning Chinese, because I also believe this skill will help you finding jobs easily in your country. Good luck!

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