What I’ve learned from living in China

China, the world’s second largest economy with the largest standing army in the world. Long held as the birthplace of many of today’s modern inventions and famous for its tourist attractions. As a recent grad in Canada, I didn’t know much about China and viewed it from a narrowed mind through pictures and videos shown in the media. I imagined China to be farms, towns, villages and still very ancient. Besides knowing China was home to the Great Wall and as the habitat of the Giant Panda, I was ignorant of all else. All I knew was that some friends went to teach English, and they loved it. I wanted something different from the cycle of endless schooling and wanted to satisfy my craving for travel. I wanted to do something different.

Me? A teacher?

I would never have imagined. But the demand for native ESL teachers in Asian countries is high. Hours and hours of applying for applications and meticulously sorting through contracts and finding legalized workplaces, I finally signed on. This is where I began teaching myself Chinese and started to Wikipedia everything about where I was going to live: Shenzhen. What about Shenzhen? It wasn’t Beijing; and I was never inclined on living in Shanghai. The close proximity to Hong Kong was a big sell. However, the Wikipedia page was vague except for mentioning a major robbery and murder. This didn’t bode well, but hey, it couldn’t be so bad.

What I didn’t expect was the 20 million people living in Shenzhen. It’s not someone sitting behind their computer in a sparsely populated country like Canada can ever understand. Largest city? Toronto (6+ million). The heat and humidity of southern China and the population density shocked me immediately. The traffic, the noise and the tightness of roads and lack of sidewalks; the loopholes, waiting and arguing to do anything at a Chinese bank were overwhelming. Jetlag was my savior in getting sleep. The lack of English speakers and learning to get around were keeping me in the dark and I cowered in cowardice. But I was lucky. I signed with a great company who put me at a school with great staff. Everyone was friendly and helpful to get me on my feet and become independent.

Even so, China has a way of gnawing at the back of your brain. The lack of manners, the pushing and shoving and spitting and smoking everywhere; all the small things added up until I became a China-hater. My first year in China was a lot of fun; I made a lot of friends, but mostly expats like myself. The pollution made me sick and I told myself I’ll never return, even though the job afforded me travel time to multiple countries and famous sites in China. I returned to Canada with tears in my eyes; for the first time, truly feeling like I was coming home. But there was something missing. The quiet monotony of Canada was subdued by a desire to get back into the chaos of China. So I went back; to the same school no less. To the same problems and everyday headaches. But I was more confident and well-situated with the city. I had friends and a great support staff.

This time I pushed myself further out of my bubble. I started picking up Chinese to an intermediate level. I started exploring places and made friends with many locals and migrant workers. I learned more about the culture and began to appreciate China a lot more. It started to become another home. The same problems such as no heating during winter and windows wide open, boiling hot water in the summer and the mass of people selfishly doing their own thing continued to annoy me. But, I was getting used to it, and with the money I was saving and the vacation time that led me to wander around Southeast Asia, the small things were trivial.

China is a crazy place and I’ve known many people who stayed a year; a month; a few weeks; even a few days, who found it too crazy and packed up and left. I’ve known people who walked out of their work contract in the dead of night because a single problem got to them. I always wondered what their problem was. These same people were “China-haters,” as I like to call them. People who had problems and setbacks living in China who instead of facing the challenge head-on and persevering, gave up and left. These people expected China to be like their western, developed country with small populations. For some strange reason, I thrive in the chaos of China. There’s always something happening and something new popping up every day.

Nothing ever stays the same. Life in China is unpredictable.

I learned something in my years here. Life is hard and life is a challenge every single day. Nothing will ever go my way. Instead of trying to control everything, I should concentrate on my own efforts in whatever situation I encounter.

Persistence and perseverance are keys to living anywhere new.

I still faced daily struggles in China, but I became so used to everything that some things in this 1.4 billion-person country of chaos became routine. Dare I say, I’m ready for something even crazier. When something negative happens in China, it’s just a part of daily life and as expats like myself vent about it, the only words that come to mind are, “This Is China.”

I will recommend China as a place to travel and work in, but I warn them that it’s nothing like they’ll expect. Keep an open mind and push through — it will all work out. To those who quit, I’d like to remind them that they had the choice to quit. The people who have been born and raised here struggle in the same way. They can’t quit. They can’t fly away to a democratic nation where mom cooks their favourite meal.

They didn’t give up.