For those of you who have read Solo Beginnings, you will know that my first experience of solo travelling planted an irrevocable seed that grew with such fever, the long wait for another vacation was never going to satisfy these itchy feet of mine that find it impossible to stay rooted to the ground. The direction I found led me to obtaining a TEFL certificate, and the path I followed brought me to my first expat destination; China.
Admittedly, China was not my first choice. I longed for the beaches of Thailand but I couldn’t wait for the next hiring period of November. Staying true to my impulsive self, I looked for countries with an earlier start date and within a week had set up five interviews, four in China and one for Vietnam. Vietnam would have won me over if it wasn’t for the lack of confidence in the school after having the skype interview. And so China became my number one choice. The Schools were all in different provinces, I chose Fuzhou as it was described as a city surrounded by mountains. I am fortunate to also have a base here. My step mother’s family reside in Luoyuan, an hours bus journey from Fuzhou. And so here I am, an expat in Fuzhou, Fujian, China, since July 2016.
From accepting the teaching position in Fuzhou to moving to China was a six week time frame. I gave five weeks notice to my employer, moved out of my apartment in the North West of England, and ventured home to Wales to spend a week with the family and store the little I had decided to keep. I drifted through the majority of this time, feeling quite void. Preparing the paperwork, having the conversations with everyone about where I was going and what I would be doing, making all necessary arrangements. I completed everything that needed to be done but none of it felt very real, I was simply going through the motions of it all.
The moments when my attention was focused solely on uprooting my entire life to a country I didn’t know, gave way to absolute panic. I think I experienced two panic attacks during this six week haze, once pulling myself together the numbness allowed me to continue with all the preparations. I don’t know how better to describe how I felt as I didn’t allow myself to dwell on the fact that this wasn’t a vacation, this was a new life. I wasn’t going to be a tourist this time. I was going to be an expat, in a country who’s language I couldn’t speak and who’s culture is very different from my own. The excitement didn’t really take hold until after I arrived in the city I would now call home.
My first two weeks were hectic to say the least! I needed to go to the hospital for a full medical check, including a psychological test to ensure my condition was satisfactory to become a resident. The first thing I was told was to look past the fact the hospital would not be as familiar in standard compared to a western hospital. Although efficient, I to give this advice to new comers. I also needed to report to the Public Security Bureau to obtain a residence permit. Again a slightly uncomfortable interaction. You sit there with a representative of your employer, not really understanding what’s going on while you and all your documents are analysed. There’s no guarantee of a yes. Another thing I quickly realized was that I’ve never handed my passport over so often and for great lengths of time as I have since being in China. Obviously always getting my passport back but feeling slightly uneasy nevertheless.
Also on my to do list; Set up my bank account, buy a Chinese sim card (you need your passport for this also), figure out my bus route, master the art of chopsticks and realize that traffic can always turn right in Fuzhou regardless of the false security given by the little green man! Becoming familiar with my surroundings became interesting in my first week when I was able to experience my very first typhoon! The intense rainy season that coincides with China’s summer months was like nothing I had experienced before. The warm rain barely lifted the balmy heat that left a permanent layer of salty sweat on your skin. Skip to winter and prepare for a cold that the buildings here are not designed to cope with. If you’re lucky your air-conditioner will be able to produce heat but don’t rely on your room having the ability to retain that heat. All I can say is layers.
Once becoming slightly more accustomed to the heat I began exploring the local area. My spare time was familiar to what I would do back home, read in coffee shops and go out for lunch, except now I could also walk around temples daily and wander up small mountains to find locals practicing what I assume is a type of Tai Chi. Fuzhou is a fairly westernized city and so if you feel like a break from Chinese food there are plenty of western options. There is also a variety of dining to enjoy from other cultures available around the city. Its simply a case of wandering and discovering.
One past time here that is unfamiliar is the dancing. There are a variety of parks all around the city where the older generation gather to listen to music and dance. There are many different styles from traditional to ballroom, and not a single hesitation from all to stand and dance as though no one is watching. Its a very moving experience, to be granted an invitation to watch a joyful expression in motion. This just wouldn’t happen in the UK, you wouldn’t see it and if you did it would be sneered at and considered weird. It is these experiences which take you from feeling like an expat on the outside to becoming part of a community.
Of course you are quickly reminded that you are in fact an expat when you realize how you took for granted the simple things in life. Like asking how much to pay for anything, ordering a coffee and being able to request no sugar, or being able to ask the person next to you if you were on the right bus. The immediate loss of general communication isn’t something I’ve experienced so profoundly before. In Europe I’ve always got by knowing only English, China is not the same. I smile and point and hope for the best a lot of the time. I keep my address laminated in my wallet for those moments I find myself completely disorientated. And when it comes to food, I’ve stopped trying to guess what I’m eating and just chew and swallow. The language requires serious dedication, learning the tones and how to read pinyin, to moving on to characters is a challenge no other language has presented to me before.
Considering there have been days I’ve barely spoken when out exploring solo, I have by no means felt invisible. Fuzhou is not a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong and Shanghai, many locals here haven’t seen or interacted with a foreigner and so there is an obvious curiosity surrounding the expat. My first time being filmed at a bus spot was an uncomfortable moment. I had become used to the staring and the random ‘Hellos’ that would be audible in many different directions, but being filmed felt like a violation and to be blunt, rude. Over time I have found it easier to ignore this and except that it is a curiosity and not an intention to be offensive. Besides it is mainly my height that draws the attention, my build and dark hair often allow me to blend in without being disturbed. Not so easy for my blonde friends I can assure you!
So far with all the ups and downs, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to call this ancient country, steeped in history my home for now. The locals I have met here, and the insight my family has been able to give me in the variety of lifestyles here in China is an enriching experience I will never forget. Moving to another country changes you. You move through the world differently, enlightened to the world outside of your individual life. I am further reassured that to stay in one place is a detrimental and conscious choice to stay ignorant to the world and it’s people, for me personally. It is not easy to leave everything you know behind, I am fortunate to have little ties and no responsibility that cannot be fulfilled from anywhere I choose to be. Although wanting to take everything I can from being in China, I am also looking forward to my next destination. Wanting to live life as a permanent expat calling the world home.