Coming at you straight from the Middle Kingdom herself:
China, that is, and Shanghai to be exact.
The past six months have been spilling over with excitement, uncertainty, apprehension, hard work, and some seriously drawn out, difficult goodbyes. Choosing to uproot myself to China was no easy decision.
Now that I’m finally here, the chaos has settled and I finally feel at peace.
Let’s talk about ambiguity.
In general, I am a plan-oriented person. I like writing to-do lists, I am thorough in my pre-trip research, and I take comfort in knowing what to expect out of a new situation. However, I also love the thrill of spontaneity and the possibility of exciting twists and turns.
If I were to place myself on a spectrum of One to Control Freak, I would probably rate myself around a 4, but no matter how free-spirited I like to think that I am, there is a certain crippling anxiety that comes with the daily pre-China conversations that always went something like this:
Them: You’re going to China — that’s so cool! How long will you be gone?
Me: Um, I’m not really sure yet.
Them: But how long do you think you will be gone?
Me: At least a year, maybe more. It will depend on how much I enjoy teaching I guess.
Them: Wow, so you will you be back for holidays? Will you get summers off from your job?
Me: I don’t know yet, I won’t know until I get a job.
Them: You don’t know where you’re working yet?!
Me: Well, no. I’m spending the first month getting my TEFL Certification.
Them: *blank face*
Me: Yeah and then once I finish that, I’ll be able to find a teaching job.
Them: *some variation of “do you know where you’re living?” “what kind of school will you work at?” “what age will you teach?” “will you teach little kids or adults?” “do you speak any Chinese?” “how will you communicate with them if you don’t speak Chinese?!” “how soon will you find a job?” “what if you can’t find a job?” “won’t you miss home?” “will you be traveling anywhere else?” “what will you bring with you?” “isn’t the air quality like, soooo bad there?” “I think I have a friend of a cousin that did that, want me to get their contact information so you can ask them questions?” etc, etc, etc…
To which I reply: Ummm, I’m not really sure yet.
Don’t get me wrong, I have so appreciated the outpouring of support for this crazy life I’ve chosen, and I did my best to keep a confident face when reassuring my wonderful family and friends that what I’m doing is, in fact, quite commonplace.
But the hounding questions to which I had very few answers were exhausting, and had me wondering if this was even the best decision after all, and I doubted myself quite a bit in the months counting down to my departure.
It was true: My plans were so ambiguous that even I didn’t really know what they were, and I feel bad for any worry I caused my friends and family. But I had a spot reserved at reputable TEFL course, an Airbnb booked for a month, and a cheap as hell ($289 USD!!!) one-way ticket to China and there was no way I was turning back — no matter how hard the goodbyes were.
The weeks leading up to my departure were absolute havoc, and I was scrambling to complete tasks that I should have checked off my list months ago, visiting with friends that I should have met up with years ago, and wishing that I wouldn’t have spread myself so thin over the summer.
I finally got everything in order — like sending in my absentee ballot before the impending doom of the 2016 Presidential Election — and was able to focus on what mattered. There was quite an array of going-away events for Karl and me, which were all really special. I got to spend time with my wonderful family and friends, and I did some re-evaluating of who is really important in my life. It really hurts, and it can be petty, but I finally realized that some people are just not worth my time. (Seriously, who leaves a going-away party without saying goodbye?)
Whatever. I know I’ve always got my core people, and the ones that matter reached out to me before I left or made their best efforts to do so.
I bawled my eyes out saying goodbye to my beautiful puppies, and I will miss my parents like crazy. I’ve never been a homesick person, but I cried all the way up to the gate at Chicago O’Hare airport.
Welcome to Shanghai
Landing at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, I felt kind of like a fair-weather zombie. I was so exhausted from the 16 hours of flight time I’d just experienced, but I was like WHAT, I’m in CHINA?!
The air was heavy and sweet coming out of the airport, the way a big indoor market smells on a rainy day. It was about 11 p.m. in Shanghai, so back in the United States my parents would be out with the dogs for their morning walk.
Karl and I matched ourselves to the Chinese driver holding our names on a piece of cardboard, and for the first time I experienced a loss for words when I realized I couldn’t speak his language. He was a small man, and he lifted all of our suitcases into the minivan for us before speeding us away in the Shanghai night.
The first few days were very strange. I thought that I would be able to adjust to my jet lag by just going to bed immediately when we arrived at our Airbnb, but I only slept a few hours that night and was in bed the next day by 4 in the afternoon. As a morning person, I had no problem waking up at the crack of dawn, but when my body was telling me to quit by dinnertime, exploring my new city became somewhat difficult.
The language barrier also really got to me, and I was terrified to try ordering anything unless it had an English menu. We were pleasantly caught off-guard when a food vendor on our street said, “What’s up, man?” to Karl in perfect English, and we later learned he was a Hong-kong native who grew up in the UK. We bought a lot of his grilled-cheese toasties that first week just for the conversation.
Shanghai is a massive city of over 24 million people, and I thought the crowding would be a big problem for me. I am an advocate for alone time and a crusader for personal space, and I don’t like strangers entering my bubble (unless you are talking about 16-year-old me and we are in the pit at Warped Tour).
Surprisingly, I’m not that bothered by all the people. Obviously it was a sacrifice I chose to make by coming to one of the biggest cities in the world, but my personal bubble has rarely been popped and I’m even starting to have fun cutting people in line and elbowing my way onto the metro! Really, fighting for the last seat on the train is like a sport!
I’ve now been here two weeks and I feel as though I’m really getting into the groove of things and developing a routine in Shanghai. I have my coffee place, my breakfast-dumpling-roll-thing place (seriously, I need to learn Mandarin), and I know a good amount of the metro by heart. I’ve learned that locals don’t really expect me to speak any of the language, and other foreigners either give you an unsuspecting glare or they ignore you completely. And you know what? I love that.
I love living as an expat, a foreigner, an anonymous human being. In the United States, I feel constantly judged. On the street, by people I don’t know, by people I interact with at work, by people who serve my food — literally, all the time, whether it’s happening or not, I feel like people are forming an opinion about me and developing their own constructions and expectations of who I am.
Classic boring brunette girl with too much/too little makeup and cheap dark clothing. She should brush her hair or something. I bet she grabs a candy bar at the checkout. Checking your phone, are you? Did you really get a message or are you just trying to look busy. She has probably never had an original thought in her life.
It baffles me as to why, but it’s like I can constantly hear my own brain’s absurd concoctions of the thoughts of strangers around me, and they rarely have anything nice to say. I don’t really care — it doesn’t make me any more or less self-conscious — I just always get the feeling that people are watching each other.
When I’m abroad, that all shuts off.
Here I can form to the mold of the foreign, anonymous female, and with that I find so much confidence. No thinks that I should fit in, so I don’t. It is so liberating. It is so peaceful.
Right now, I still won’t be able to answer many of the same questions about my plans for the future that were asked of me months ago.
I still don’t know where I’m working, what age group I’ll be teaching, or what kind of time off I will have. I don’t know where I will be living in two weeks, and I don’t know when I will see my family next.
All I am focusing on right now is learning as much as I can from my TEFL course, so that I can be the best possible English teacher I can be. I’ve never taught before, and my total experience working with children is now about a week old. But I love what I’m learning, and I’ve had so much fun with the practice teaching I’ve already done during this course. It’s incredible to see real learning and language acquisition occurring right before my eyes, and it makes me so excited to start learning Mandarin Chinese myself.
When I get a chance I explore Shanghai, but so far I really haven’t seen much. I’m in no hurry though, I am already falling in love with this bright, modern city that has shattered so many of my preconceived notions. I know I will be here for a while.
Two weekends ago, Karl and I tried to visit the Yuyuan Gardens, one of Shanghai’s “must-see” tourist destinations, but going on a Saturday afternoon proved to be heavy on the crowds and we were quickly turned off. It was lovely, but this city has so many more gems that I want to explore before I start checking off sites just for the bucket list.
I used to be obsessed with adding more countries to my roster. China is number fourteen, but I don’t feel particularly inclined to push onwards until I feel that I’ve really experienced this place. I may visit Japan or Mongolia while I’m living in China, but I am here and I am present and I want to learn as much as I can before I move on.
Right now I am so calm and happy, a feeling that I don’t often experience when I’m stateside. I love that I am fortunate enough to experience a place the way that I hope to experience China in the coming months or years, and I’m thankful that my heart told me this was my only option.
On Saturday, it rained all day. I walked around my neighborhood for quite some time, and found myself wandering Jing’an Park completely alone. Alone. Alone is a rare occurrence when you live in a massive city, share a studio apartment with your boyfriend, and attend small group classes every day.
I took a wet, green, fresh breath of air. My clothes were damp from the humidity and drizzle, but the rain had subsided and my umbrella was clutched at my side. Unzipping my raincoat and lifting the hood back from my head, I tied my sticky hair into a low bun with one hand and felt the breeze around my neck. A stray cat ran across my path, and I strolled slowly along the red brick sidewalks, noting every soggy tread my soles made on the ground below and every pattering of water droplets that fell from the tress above. I gazed the empty benches and vacant mahjong tables. Chinese children giggled somewhere in the distance. The light was just peeking through the clouds. Peace. Sigh.
This is my life now.
How would you most like to read about my time in China? Email updates? Monthly post? Not at all? Let me know in the comments and I’ll figure out how to move forward with maintaining an *actual* posting schedule!