Goodbye China

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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Scenic Flight Sydney Harbour

If you’d like to discover what’s fascinating about China, read my article: 10 Random Facts about China you need to know! 

 

 

 

 

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A retreat in Songkou, the ancient town

Monday 12th of April 2018, somewhere in the deep mountains of Fuzhou, China.

The road gets more and more winding and the series of turns makes me nauseous. However, it feels good to enjoy the silence. We are lost up in the mountains and the air by the window tickles my cheeks. A getaway from the busy Fuzhou city is all I need. Finally, I can breathe some fresh air and feel connected to something else than buildings and noise. Nature, trees, the sounds of the birds, I am missing it.

The deeper we get into the mountains, the more authentic it feels. The civilisation is slowly disappearing, leaving some space to little towns and villages. There are farmers working hard in the fields, oldies and children selling food along the road. We stop on our way to buy some fruits. A Chinese fruit that I have never seen before and which is quite tasty.

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“Oh my god where are we?! Where are the people and where are the shops!” ask Yance, my dear friend who is panicking at the idea of losing trace of civilisation.

I laugh. This is the whole point of this trip. A retreat far away from the city life. An adventure I haven’t experienced since I have been living in China. Discovering an ancient Chinese town and feel the old vibes of what China used to be thousands of years ago.

Two hours later after a trip that felt like four because of the winding road, we finally arrive. I jump out of the car and look around. What strikes me the most is the very peaceful atmosphere that reigns here. There are no cars horning or motorbikes slaloming. No untimely brouhaha coming from every corner of the streets. Probably because there’s only one main street in this old town.

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I spot a sign “Songkou”. Songkou is an ancient town in Yongtai County of Fuzhou. Located beside mountains and rivers, the town used to be the original residence for Hakka ancestors migrating from Fujian to Guangdong. The Hakkas or Hakka Han are Han Chinese people whose ancestral home are chiefly in the Hakka-speaking provincial areas of Guangdong, Fujian and a few others provinces.

The architecture of the ancient town features a combination of Chinese and western styles. Songkou has a history of over 1,000 years and is notable for a wealth of well-preserved old buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties. I can tell this town isn’t yet a year-round major tourist destination, which preserves its tranquility and authenticity.

We’re walking to our guest house which turns out to be a charming cottage built of wood and stone. The scenery is picturesque and delightful to the eyes.

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As we get in, I smell the scent of wood and jasmine. The place is cosy and warm. The design combines Japanese and vintage style. The wood, the stone walls and the decoration give an impression of old mixed with new. I am guessing that the place is a very ancient building that has been renovated with wooden structures. I like seeing the vestiges of the past with the big cracked walls and the roof made of old bricks.

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The bedrooms upstairs are simple and minimalist. Every single piece of furniture is made of wood. I lay down on the big Totoro bed on the floor, the dream of many children and big kids like me! There’s a Japanese style living room where we can sit on pillows and have some tea.

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I go up to the last storey of the guest house and go out on the balcony to look at the view. I feel like going back to the XIV century and sense an air of the old China during the Ming dynasty. The architecture, the shapes of the roof, the old stones, the bricks and the walls that curve like a maze. I am so glad to capture this unique atmosphere full of history.

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After unpacking our bags and a quick rest we go out exploring the town. Exploring is my favourite hobby when I am discovering a new place. I feel inspired when I explore.

We’re going down a beautiful pedestrian street made of stones which shelters food shops and little home-craft shops. I like witnessing the lives of the local people. They are looking at us, city people that we are and they’re watching me with an air of curiosity.

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This stuffed onion little bread is so addictive!

There are oldies sitting at the front of their shop, smoking and whiling away the time selling fresh drinks and fruits. I spot a rudimentary hairdresser, probably the most authentic I have ever seen. The street is very calm, there’s no noise here, only the laughter of children, and the rooster’s morning song. The simplicity of life in this town revitalises me. At some point, the city life, especially in China, eats you and I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Here, it’s like coming back to the basics and the simple values that we tend to forget.

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We go down the stone street and to my great surprise we end up on the shore of a beautiful river coming down from the mountains.

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The ancient town of Songkou was once the second largest port of the inland rivers of Guangdong and the Maritime Silk Road. With its rich Hakka history and culture, the town has become a cultural hub for overseas Chinese and traditional folk songs.

There are some very ancient houses on each side of the rivers and some of them are literally about to collapse. I jump on a large wooden construction that turns out to be a boat. I would have liked seeing these large pieces of wood put together, floating on the river. I smell the odour of fish that fishermen leave on the sun to dry out in big wicker baskets for a few days.

 

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As we walk alongside the river, I am having a close look at the houses on the shore. I even walk on people’s property without knowing it. These houses and their authenticity fascinate me. They carry so much history and have remained untouched. They make me travel back in time and fill my imagination with pictures of ancient eras under the reign of Chinese emperors.

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The heat is getting more intense and we happily go back to the guest house where an afternoon tea is offered by the house. The main room of the cottage is cosy with an artistic design. Each detail has been well thought out and put together, resulting in the most original decoration.

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We sit on a little couch by the window. The hostess brings us some dry plums and pours our glasses with a thick yellow drink that appears to be tea. I am surprised by its unusual thickness and its delicious fruity taste. It’s probably the best tea I have ever had.

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After drinking two pots of tea, I go exploring the guest house and its every detail. This place is full of little treasures. I find out there’s a small art gallery on the last storey. I spot a small ladder and climb to discover a little attic with a Japanese set up where you can relax and read a book.

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The morning of our departure, I devour a delicious breakfast made of local products:

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Life in Songkou is peaceful and relaxing. The pace is slow, there’s not much to do around. If you’re seeking an exciting nightlife, there is none. Songkou is the place to go for a retreat and forget about the turpitudes of the modern world. I love the simplicity in which people live their lives, far away from the city, with no artifice, a life full of authenticity. The ancient town definitely gives a sense of the old China and its impressive history. For a couple of days, I felt like I was living in another century.

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Lost in Translation Part III – China’s nightlife

My new life in Fuzhou is slowly taking shape and after a difficult start, I finally feel like my time in China is going to be amazing. I can see myself living here for a while, learning what I have to learn, discovering and experiencing as much as I can. 

I remind myself every day the reason why I came here and where it’s going to lead me. It makes me feel good.

I am eventually feeling what I love so much about my life: enjoying my freedom.

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Fuzhou city, a night at the Life Club, 2 am.

The music is so loud that I have to shout in the ear of a guy who’s asking my name.

“My name is Juliiiie!!” He says something back but I cannot understand a word. I shout a very ungraceful: “Whaaat??”

That’s pretty much the only conversation you can have at the Life Club, the place where you lose your memory (or your consciousness) while having countless shots of vodka and feeling the vibes on the dance floor.

I’ve never really been a party girl but this place is probably the craziest club I’ve ever been to. Going to Life Club is like doing a triathlon of drinking, jumping and dancing. You need a full day to recover.

Clouds of mist and confetti spray on my face every ten minutes, huge balloons floating in the air, free bottles of vodka on every table, performers are diving into the crowd on inflatable boats and DJs are dressed up as pandas. It’s a fun madness. Jumping and dancing on the bouncing stage in front of the DJ booth has been the best exercise. I have to say it, Chinese people know how to party.

 

Fuzhou’s nightlife is quite lively and offers a diversity of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and pubs. Wherever you go, no matter what the time is, you will always find a place to entertain yourself. Chinese youths go out a lot and love hanging out to play games, to party, to have drinks or to eat a festive dinner with friends. There are many ways and places in Fuzhou to socialise and meet people. You just have to get out there.

One night, I randomly ended up in an underground club. A dance battle competition was on. I am not a dancer but I stayed all night. The Chinese dance scene is unbelievably good and it was interesting to observe something new. I’ve found the dancers to be crazy free, bold and really daring. Like they were freeing themselves from a strict and pressured everyday life.

It’s so easy to get carried away here. The Chinese hospitality when it comes to partying is limitless. Chinese people love making toasts shouting: “Gan bei!” (cheers) every 5 minutes, offering drinks and giving cigarettes to everyone. Not the best way to stay healthy but definitely the best way to bond.

I’ve been meeting more foreigners lately which has considerably diminished the feeling of isolation. I am feeling again what traveling and what being an expat is truly about. New encounters are such a huge part of it. It reminds me of when I left France to move to Australia 5 years ago. I was on my own, but I met along the way some amazing friends to share beautiful adventures with.

Moving to a new country and experiencing such a strong cultural shock really pushes you to open your mind in a big way and to accept different customs and habits. Adaptation and acceptance are fundamental.

Applying these principles are making my life in China way easier and because of that, I feel happier. Even if the language barrier is still omnipresent, I am finding my own way to create a new life and to fit in a completely new environment.

 

 

Lost in Translation – Part II

I am feeling fear as I’m standing on the corner of an intersection. A hundred of motorbikes are sitting there, waiting impatiently for the green light.

“Don’t hesitate, just go and don’t stop. They will avoid you.” says my Chinese friend Yance.  I grab his arm tight and dive into the madness.

I am still trying to overcome my fear when I cross the street in Fuzhou. Motorbikes are like pedestrians here, so they use pedestrian crossing…It is so impressive (and scary!) to see on the other side of the road, an army of motorbikes that literally ploughs into you.

China is a real cultural shock that I am still in the process of getting used to. It will happen in the end but it takes time. Everything is so different and it’s a big change from my western life.

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My life in Fuzhou is challenging. I am feeling a mixed bag of emotions that make it quite intense. I am so excited to discover a new culture and immerse myself in a new environment. But it is also alienating as the cultural shock is so strong.

It reminds me of the turmoil of Vietnam. Insane traffic, a hustle and bustle in the streets that never stops, a cacophony of horns and the smell of Asian food emanating from every corner.

Fuzhou never sleeps, it’s constantly developing and expanding. Buildings, skyscrapers, and massive shopping malls are popping up like flowers. Towers appear in no time and in a couple of months, a new suburb is born. China is like a giant tree whose branches keep growing.

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I have observed a curious mix of advanced technology, modernism, tradition, and conservatism. It’s everything and its opposite. They fancy the luxury of the Western world but forbid you to be truly exposed to the outside world (Google, YouTube, social media are banned). The access to information is restricted and controlled. If I am still able to update my blog and socials it’s thanks to a VPN (Virtual Private Network) that I have downloaded.

It’s for sure one of the most difficult things to cope with as a foreigner. I was born in a democratic country whose main principle is liberty.

But the most challenging part is definitely the language barrier. I did not really think of it before leaving. I was way too excited about the amazing teaching opportunity. I naively thought that people would speak English. At least a little bit.

The reality is no one speaks English in Fuzhou. All the signs are in Mandarin and I have no clue of what’s happening around me.

Luckily, my Chinese friend Yance is with me. He’s been guiding me so patiently but relying entirely on someone is somehow, alienating and frustrating. Not being able to communicate or understand people are the biggest frustration I’ve ever felt in my life.

I remember the first group dinner we had. I felt so diminished and powerless not to be able to interact with the rest of the group. It’s a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling. I have never faced a struggle like that before and I did think: “What am I doing here”.

I am so out of my comfort zone that it scares me. The thought of going back to Australia has crossed my mind many times. This natural instinct that pushes you to go back to what you know because it’s safer and easier…

I do miss my Western lifestyle, but I do know I need to put in the effort to build a new life in Fuzhou if I want to make the most of it.

I have to think about the long-term and I want to recall this experience 5 years from now saying:

“My year in China has been the most enriching and challenging experience in my life. I am proud to have given myself the chance to live over there and open my mind to a new world.”

 

 

Lost in Translation – Part I

I saw it straight away. My name “Julie Do” on a piece of paper at the arrivals of the international airport in Fuzhou, China.

“Ni Hao” I said to the driver and “Xie xie ” when he carried my two huge suitcases to the car. That’s about all I can say in Chinese.

“Do you speak English?” I ask the driver who laughs and shakes his head to say no.

On the way, with my eyes wide open, I look at my new surroundings. A misty chain of mountains, a few Chinese temples, then as we get closer to the city, a blooming industrial life.

I see huge towers spitting clouds of smoke, enormous boats transporting merchandise, monster trucks filled with construction material. Soon we get stuck in the most insane traffic.

The driver sighs and whispers something in Chinese. He is probably swearing. An hour later, we finally reach the city.

The landscape changes and I can spot big buildings and skyscrapers. The streets are busy and loud. The driver slaloms between motorbikes, pedestrians, cars, bikes and buses. It’s complete madness.

The car finally stops in front of a big modern building. It’s the library where I’ve planned to meet up with my dearest Chinese friend, Yance.

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I met Yance two years ago when I was living in Sydney. We soon became very close and I recall so many happy memories. His flamboyant personality got me the instant I met him. I can’t believe that just a couple of month ago, he contacted me to offer me an English teacher position at the school where he works.

And now here I am, after quitting my job and saying goodbye to my boyfriend in no time, I am standing in a giant Chinese city, my life packed into two suitcases.

To be continued.