I’ve always embraced new experiences, new challenges, new cultures and lifestyles and moving to China for a year has probably been the boldest move I’ve ever done.
Bold but wise. Taking my chance to be an English teacher for young children in China is a daring move that I knew would get me on the right path to my goals. But more than gaining some professional teaching experience (which is already amazing!), I have allowed myself for the biggest doses of personal growth.
My time in China has been challenging, enriching and filled with memorable and special moments. I’ve experienced daily life through a different lens. I’ve pushed myself far out of my comfort zone and everything that I’ve ever known. I’ve had all my habits, familiarities and ways of thinking challenged. There is nothing more humbling and stimulating than throwing myself into the middle of a country and culture I know nothing about.
I have learnt to appreciate the beauty of connecting with someone with whom I speak zero mutual words with. I’ve learnt how to enjoy someone else’s company on the most basic fundamental human level. I’ve had to use all unimaginable resources to make myself understand and to be able to communicate. I’ve learnt how to push my limits and deal with it.
The most interesting part of my adventure is that for a year I’ve been experiencing the authentic and local Chinese life. Not the fancy and glamourous expatriate life that foreigners live when they move to major international Chinese cities like Shanghai or Beijing.
The first city I settled in when I moved to China was Fuzhou. Fuzhou is the capital of southeastern China’s Fujian province. This “small” city of 8 million inhabitants has remained quite traditional and very few people speak English. Compared to the madness of Beijing or Shanghai, Fuzhou is pretty chilled and relaxed. I like it for its temples, its green mountains surrounding the city and the beautiful urban sunsets I never get tired of. [Read more about the life in Fuzhou]
In the beginning, it was really hard to get used to living in China and after two months I seriously considered going back to Sydney! The feeling of isolation and alienation was very strong. I felt completely lost and helpless not being able to understand my surroundings and not being able to do the most basic things by myself. Without the help of my Chinese best friend Yance, I would have never stayed that long! Adaptation is a long process and it took a lot of patience and wisdom to get through it and see the bright side of it.
My teaching job helped me to feel better. Wherever you go, it’s not the place that matters the most but what you do. Doing something that I am passionate about every day reminded me of my goals and why I was here. [Read more about my teaching experience in China].
I held on to it and things started to get better. I met wonderful people along the way and I focused on the great sides of the whole experience, the big picture. I have fond memories of my time in China.
The second city I moved to and where I currently live is Shanghai. When you say Shanghai, everyone thinks of the highly international city, the New York of China, its magical skyline, and its vibrant atmosphere. Which is all true. Every time I go to the city, I forget that I am in China. Everything is so international and open. I love the combination of the historic Shanghai and the strong European influences that bring an “air de déjà vu”. [Read more about the Shanghainese life].
But when you live in the suburbs of Shanghai, it’s a completely different experience. Living a Chinese provincial life has been my biggest challenge since I have been in China. It’s even more challenging than Fuzhou where I had an urban life.
For some reasons, I’ve ended up living in the most improbable place in China. An odd Dutch town of Shanghai called Holland Village. They have recreated a little Holland and all its charming treasures. There is a canal that weaves through the town and is bordered by beautiful weeping willows. A windmill stands in the middle of the river on a little island filled with trees and flowers. Along the main street, the building facades reflect the architectural style of a quaint Dutch village.
It’s a strange sensation when you walk around. It really looks like Holland but something is missing. There is no life, no soul. Holland Village is mostly abandoned. There are very few, if any, places to eat or get a drink. No one is around except for newlyweds, using the windmill as a backdrop for their wedding photos.
Although the scenery is picturesque and lovely, I can’t stop thinking that there’s something a little strange about it. It got me to do more research.
How did this Holland town come out in the middle of an old suburb of Shanghai?
I found out that in the early 2000s, the Shanghai government launched a renovation plan to develop and modernise a few suburban districts. Each of these districts was assigned a new town, each with their own country theme. British, Spanish, German, Italian. The place where I live has obviously been assigned with a Dutch theme. You can find today many districts in Shanghai with a complete European design.
The goal of bringing Europe to China was to unclog Shanghai’s urban sprawl and appeal the population to move to the suburbs. However, the Holland village project has not been successful as the place is mostly deserted, but the Dutch architecture remains.
There’s not much to do around but I enjoy the bike rides alongside the canal and wander in the park, watching Chinese oldies dancing and doing yoga.
I’ve ended up living in this district because of the school where I teach. It’s a brand new school and the competition is less tough in the suburbs compared to the city. This school is actually an English training center designed for children aged from 3 to 12 years-old. The brand is called Cinostar and is present in major Chinese cities.
It’s been a unique experience to be part of the launch of a new school in China. I’ve experienced it twice and observing how Chinese people do business has been very interesting. It will definitely help me with my future plan when I open my own creative school.
The first time I came to visit the school area, I freaked out. This part of the suburb is called ‘The Old Town” which says it all. Everything around is old and ancient. Like the people living there. There are no foreigners here, the area is typically Chinese and the pace is very slow. It does not feel like Shanghai.
Everything is authentic and very local. The little food shops, the hairdresser, the barber shop. The oldies sitting in front of their old shops smoking cigarettes. The kids playing around in the dirt, the multitude of empty shops selling bric-à-brac, food, animals, clothes, starving dogs rummaging in the bins. It feels like another period of time and we’re very far from the extravagance of the city.
Luckily the area where we live is more modern and lively, probably the busiest part of the suburb, close to commodities, restaurants, and shops. There are a few good places to eat and hang out. Our apartment is spacious and comfortable. I ride my bike every day to go to school, it’s a nice and quiet lifestyle.
Once a week we fulfil our need for excitement by going to the city which is about 45 minutes by train. The fancy Bund, the busy Nanjing road, the lively and lovely French Concession. It’s like living in two different worlds! The authentic Shanghainese countryside vs the flamboyant Shanghai city.
I am leaving China soon and I feel very grateful for having had the chance to live there for a year, doing what I love and opening my mind in big to a different world. I have definitely learned more about myself and my abilities to adapt to a new environment. My Chinese adventure has been a whirlwind of emotions, the happiness of meeting all kind of amazing people, the fulfilment of teaching the love of learning to young children, the excitement of discovering something new but also the frustration of not being able to understand or communicate.
To me, this is what traveling is all about. Traveling is not just about going to fancy touristic places and taking beautiful photos. It’s about experiencing a different lifestyle, challenging myself to open my world to a new one. Live, eat, act like a local and see what the everyday life is about. The real life. What I love is the fact that travels consistently challenge me to rethink what I think I know. And it’s the biggest dose of personal growth I can get.
In a month, I am back in my country of heart, Australia, [Dear Australia] ready to start my new venture and still chasing my dreams, more than ever.
If you’d like to discover what’s fascinating about China, read my article: 10 Random Facts about China you need to know!