Moving halfway across the world to live and work abroad was THE biggest challenge of my life to date, but also hands down the best decision I have ever made. I’m still new to Shanghai, China but reflecting on the experiences and lessons I’ve learned in a short period of time has allowed me to realise and reveal the person it has shaped me to become. I moved to China with the idea of living here for a year, one week in-I wanted to complete my training and go home. Then a month into living and working here, I realised that I would definitely be living here for longer than a year (sorry Mum and Dad!)
So after many attempts and different drafts, here are the five most important things I learned living and working in Shanghai, China.
1. To be spontaneous
One of the hardest but most fun things I have learned about living and working in China is how to be spontaneous and to enjoy it. When I was living in England, I would always have plans, I would have planned every detail in advance from who I was seeing, where I was going, all the way down to what time I would need to set my alarm for and when to leave. This time management has really benefited me in terms of teaching as my lesson plans mean I am able to teach everything I am meant to within a lesson. But at the same time living in Shanghai means you have to learn to be spontaneous. One of the best memories I’ve had from Shanghai so far, consisted of leaving my apartment to pick up some cleaning products, bumping into a friend, going out for dinner and then ending up in a club drinking gin and tonics (I have never been a gin and tonic type of gal!). I was wearing old leggings, trainers, a baggy top and no makeup but ended up clubbing, missing the metro home and crashing on a friends couch. Past Sophie would have been super anxious about this, not having it planned, going out with no makeup on and not going home but current Sophie had one of the best nights out of her life. Being spontaneous doesn’t always have to mean drinking or clubbing, socially a lot of the plans are created last minute too. This has become super fun and learning to expect the unexpected has created a lot of enjoyment.
I've had my fair share of experiences where being spontaneous has helped me, learning to ignore the word ‘normal’ has been beneficial: using normal to describe social aspects, food, routines or ideas implies superiority between the two properties that are being compared. Personally, learning that in a foreign land, it is most likely to be the foreigner who is strange, helped me to learn to expect the unexpected and to be spontaneous. Being spontaneous also means you don’t have any expectations; this has worked favourably in the sense that I’m never let down, which in turn means I’m more positive leading to more happiness! Happiness is so so important any way but even more so when you are living and working in a foreign country.
2. Make an effort to learn the language
Chinese is definitely seen as one of the hardest languages to learn, this preconceived reputation scared me off from learning the language to begin with. The characters and tones are new to me, only speaking English and a little bit of French. I learned that the characters are not random pictures, there is a system to understand and the tones accuracy is not completely necessary to help understanding. As well as this, Chinese has no tenses, cases, genders and really only uses simple grammar! Don’t get me wrong, learning a language does have its difficulties but with practice and living in the country the basics can be learned and through practice can be remembered and improved.
Learning the local language opens up so many opportunities and really benefits the ability to settle and feel comfortable in the new country such as:
It allows for new friendships and conversations.
Learning about the less touristy places to visit, to eat at and to experience.
It is always cool to show off to other ex-pats, and family.
Helps with visiting the doctors, asking for help and for ordering the correct items and foods.
Overall it helps living and working in a new country become a lot more comfortable, enjoyable and fun. Personally I feel proud when I’m able to understand what other people are saying (even if it is just a phase or single word in their conversation) and to be able to order food and not get meat in it really helps with being a vegetarian in a big meat eating country!
3. Don’t make a judgement from media coverage
When talking to family and friends about moving to China I would always hear negative responses. “Why would you want to move there?”, “Is it safe?”, “The culture shock will hit you hard” and a lot more. Don’t get me wrong, they fully supported my decision but it showed me how bias and tainted their opinions were for individuals who have never been to the country. I had a blank slate for thinking about China as a whole, I understood that it has its faults (as does any country) but I knew it would also have a lot of positives. When looking into the idea of moving to Shanghai, I did a lot of research into the country and city and not to my surprise there were a lot of negatives that came up first. This irritated me-Was there no way I could find an unbiased view of what it was like to live and work in the country? I needed to know both the positives and negatives in order to make a decision to whether I wanted and could live in Shanghai. I’m going to be realistic here and state for the record that China is a complicated country with a long history, what I have learned in the short time I’ve been living here is that what was true of China one year again may not be true today. Everything is moving and evolving quickly, and China certainly moves at a much faster pace. Don’t believe everything you read in the media, I have experienced and accepted some of the ‘negatives’ to living and working in the big city but still love the country as the positives out shine any of the negatives.
Being open-minded is so important, as cliché as it may sound take everything with a pinch of salt and quickly learn that you are a guest in another country. What you may see as the cultural or social norm will most likely be different, once you learn and adapt to living as a ‘guest’ in another country you will enjoy the experience a lot more. A saying that has stuck with me and can only be fully understood by individuals who have experienced traveling or living in China is to “expect the unexpected” and “that’s so China”. As soon as you think you have seen it all, whether it’s something new or shocking, positive and/or negative something else will occur making you say “that’s so China”.
4. A better understanding of friendships and family
“Distance makes the heart grow fonder”
This quote hit me hard after moving 5704 miles from England to Shanghai. The hardest challenge for any friendship is distance; this is made even harder in different time zones. When I’m awake in the mornings, everyone in the UK is asleep, when they are awake I’m going to sleep. It can mean that setting up times to talk seem impossible and therefore has helped me to appreciate those who go out of their way to help to make it work.
Being so far away from my family has definitely made us a lot stronger, we will set up times to talk and will talk in extreme detail about our days. We will describe how our days were down to the most insignificant thing as the difference in cultures makes every little moment a lot more interesting. From a conversation I had in work with a Chinese colleague to how my family have bought a new cereal (this will lead into a detailed conversation about them describing how it taste and me missing western foods!). I have friends who will pay a lot of money to send me deodorant and other home comforts. At the same time on the flip side there are friends who I haven’t spoken to since I moved. That’s fine, it’s equally both of our faults and we will comfortably pick up where we left off when we are in the same time zone or location again but personally the distance has highlighted where the friendship stands.
Living in a new country has brought me friendships that I can’t imagine my life without. I’m forever grateful for those friendships abroad as we are all strong for each other, becoming friends with the locals has brought me friendships for life. My time in Shanghai has shown me that the friendships are a lot more intense and special because we are all going through a unique experience together, one that individuals who aren’t going through can’t completely understand.
5. To get used to be stared and pointed at
My first day living in Shanghai, consisted of myself and a French girl exploring and learning about the area we were living in. Two blonde hair girls together meant we received a lot of stares and pointing. This overwhelmed me, I felt intimidated and almost threatened. All foreign visitors to China, especially if you are blonde or fair-skinned will receive a lot of attention in public. You will experience people staring, pointing and even trying to take discrete photos from people of all ages, especially little children. Don’t feel intimidated, it is purely down to curiosity with no malice behind the actions. This isn’t too bad in Shanghai with how western it has become, Chinese people are naturally curious to see a foreigner. Many Chinese natives haven’t seen a foreigner in their lives, minus maybe in advertisements or on TV.
In western cultures, we are taught that it is rude to stare and this threw me off to begin with. Chinese people openly stare at other Chinese people; therefore I’m not being treated any differently? It might at some points seem personal but the truth is it’s part of the culture, they are just doing what they have always done. Curiosity is something that influences everyone, again it is also important to remember that I’m a guest in their country so I can not expect them to conform to my social norms and my culture. What is different in my western culture might be considered normal in their culture.
To conclude, my personal development has been phenomenal and I could have written a lot more than five things I’ve learnt from working and living in Shanghai. Moving abroad isn’t easy, there are high points and low points and a full spectrum of feelings in between this. It’s scary, infuriating and overpowering but it’s always an adventure, it’s rewarding and exciting but most importantly it’s so much fun!! Be spontaneous, experience the culture with an open mind and be willing to learn and you will settle and realise the love you’ll have for the country you decided to move to. Time heals everything from physical injury to what may seem like the worst of culture shocks, things that may have shocked you at the beginning feel like second nature as time passes.
Sophie is a TEFL teacher in Shanghai, China. She is from the UK, and lived with her parents until her trip.
To see the TEFL Heaven program Sophie chose to start her adventure, see the Teach English in China Program.