It’s a question I hear weekly from locals and foreigners alike.
There are lots of places you can move in the world if you’re a native English speaker with a Bachelors degree. I did a lot of research and decided to begin my TEFL career in China because it seemed like the perfect marriage of my interests.
- I wanted to be in a country that was going to be a challenge. I don’t like things to be easy.
- I wanted to learn Mandarin. I think it’s an important language to learn as a global citizen.
- I was interested in the fact that China is a communist country, and I wanted to know what it feels like to live in such a place.
- The pay was relatively high and the cost of living, relatively low, compared to other ESL jobs in Asia.
- I had, and still have this sense that China is on the rise. They’ve been on the rise, and American exceptionalism has allowed me to discount this. Things are happening here. Mark my words.
Is it Challenging?
I came here with pretty low expectations… or you might say… no expectations. I did my research, don’t get me wrong, but I know that expectations often lead to disappointment, and I figured this move was going to be hard enough already.
I was right. China isn’t easy to live in as a foreigner. I’m not in one of the major cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. I’m in the largest city in the poorest province in China. A lot of people here aren’t used to seeing foreigners, and they act accordingly.
I get charged more at the produce markets, corner shops, and when using unofficial e-bike taxis… which at first I was bitter about… then I realized that I have a whole lot more money than most of the people here. Fair is fair. I was allowed into this country, issued a permit to work, and I’ll pay the white people tax happily. The overall warmth I’ve been met with is worth it.
I get a lot of “HELLO/HOW ARE YOU/LAOWAI/WAI GOU REN/MEI GOU” yelled in my general direction. Often Chinese are shy about it, so I’ll hear the word, turn a bit, instinctively, and be met with a person staring at their shoes. People take pictures, sometimes with my consent, sometimes without. Once I was lost deep in thought at the park, fervently working out a thought in my journal, when I got tapped on the shoulder and asked for a picture. It was hard to restrain myself that day. I declined, but I usually try to see these words and photo requests as an attempt to connect. It’s human, I’m an alien, and I can control my reactions to these things that sometimes… frankly… really piss me off.
It’s awkward living here. You get used to it, you adjust, then things change. You lock yourself out of your apartment, you eat bad food and even your toilet regrets it, or you break your leg rollerblading, and you have to figure out how to deal with it.
Mandarin isn’t easy, and I don’t have a lot of time to study because I work really hard. For some reason I thought it would come more naturally than it has. I’m good at learning language, but it turns out that some classroom instruction is necessary, especially considering the fact that most people in Yunnan don’t actually speak Mandarin, but one of many regional dialects. I have a great Chinese teacher, but one hour of instruction per week can only go so far. If I were to stay in China longer than this year, I would love to devote a much larger percentage of my time to learning the language. Having a decent grasp of the language would make me a better immigrant and allow me to connect more with my neighbors and friends.
Communism in China
I think the thing that’s surprised me the most is that China doesn’t FEEL communist. I don’t know what communism is supposed to feel like, and I didn’t live through the cultural revolution… I suspect it felt a lot different back then. China has an enormous population, and despite what Western media leads us to believe, the government has a huge motivation to keep its citizens happy. Can you imagine the power of 1.4 billion pissed off people?
Lots of people in China are rich. There is a massive and constantly growing middle class. While there are a LOT of poor people here, and problems with inequality, like most places, there’s a lot of room for growth and financial improvement, too. Not every family has a path to abundance here, but a lot do. Frankly, China feels like the most capitalist place I’ve ever been. Opulent gestures from people illustrating their fortune are commonplace. There are a massive amount of shopping malls, luxury imported cars, beautiful homes.
Overall, as a privileged Westerner living my day to day life in China, I don’t feel the effects of Communism like I expected. In fact, I genuinely feel more individual freedom and a better sense of personal safety than I did when I lived in the US. I can go where I want, do what I want, and say, more or less, what I want. People here have opinions about the government, and while they may not express them as openly as Westerners, there are strong undercurrents. China’s still figuring things out for themselves, but they’re doing something right.
Cost of Living
I know that cost of living can be pretty high in some areas of China. In Kunming, it’s low, and I can save more money, less deliberately, and still maintain a very comfortable standard of living. China just sort of hit a sweet spot for me when I was doing my cost/benefit analyses. I earn a good wage, have a good quality of life, and I’m happy with my financial arrangement.
The Rise of China
I went into this a little in the section about Communism. This is one of those things that’s sort of vague and hard to explain. Economists won’t disagree with me, but it’s not even necessarily the rising per capita GDP or the fact that China tops the world’s economy in GDP when Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) scales are used. I feel a sense within me that there are real opportunities here, for Chinese and foreigners alike. That’s sort of all I can say about it. I’m not able to use words that I know to describe this sense, so I’ll call it intangible. I find Westerners here, often of the toxic variety, who disagree with this sense that I have. Either way, I’m happy to be able to experience a rapidly developing country and to witness the effects that its prosperity has on its citizens.
That was long. I guess I can just refer people here the next time they ask, because I have a hard time organizing my thoughts on the spot. If you’re a foreigner in China, or a Chinese citizen who has thoughts on what I’ve written, feel free to give me feedback! I welcome comments and emails. I hope you enjoyed this post.