What It’s Like to Move to China: The first 96-ish hours

This is a long one, so buckle up, hang on tight, and keep your arms inside the ride!

It’s currently around 1am Shanghai time and for whatever reason (jetlag, nerves) I can’t sleep. Bolt upright at 12am and awake ever since. The fact that everyone back home is up and posting to facebook isn’t helping the desire to sleep either (nor is the jackhammering that apparently needed to take place outside my hotel right now).

A lot of thoughts are running through my mind so I’m hoping if I get some of them out, maybe I can grab a few more hours before it’s time to get my health test and move into my new apartment.

The big things first: moving to China is hard. The permanence of knowing that I’m in this for an entire year was pretty overwhelming from the moment I got here. The food is different, the smells are different, the standard of cleanliness is different, the language is completely incomprehensible (and “most people speak English” really means “most people speak some English but it can be broken and still very difficult to communicate”), and my stomach has felt just a little funky since I arrived. I sat on my bed in the hotel my first night thinking to myself, “what the hell am I doing here…can I really do this? For a year?”.

The thing is, I want to be able to do this for at least a year—hopefully longer. People who’ve been here for a while really seem to love it. I even met one woman who said she’d sworn she’d never live in China again, yet here she is, embarking on another teaching abroad journey. I am certain—like all other risks in life—that the desire to succeed at something terrifying is what separates the people who stick it out from those who quit. If you’re not determined to make it work through the rough times, it’ll be easy to find an excuse to leave.

The other big thing I’ve realized since arriving is that I’m actually kind of a scared/timid person in some respects (I realize many of you may laugh at this, as I have a reputation in Chicago of doing things with a sort of reckless abandon, but I promise I’m telling the truth!). I’m not afraid in a Chuckie Finster, “oh my god the world is going to end because I ate a watermelon seed” kind of way, but in a more hesitant, “normal” kind of way. In my mind, being told there are 2 kinds of parasites you can contract by swimming in fresh water in China is a reason not to do it. Learning you can get sick from street food is a reason to be cautious. However, I’ve met several people, including some of my new coworkers, who approach things in the way I hope to once I’ve been here a while—they. Just. Do. Everything.

When I mentioned the fresh water parasites to Kate, our dean, her response was “oh, nothing happened to me…” rather than the grossed out horror I’d gotten from most friends in the states. Another coworker of mine has lived abroad for several years and unabashedly uses wild pantomiming to explain himself through the language barrier while I barely speak, smiling and nodding a lot of the time and just sort of hoping I’ll get what/where I need. I’m impressed by their zeal for life here and willingness to just sort of deal with the difficult parts—embracing them rather than scoffing at them. How very Yes &…

So while I am still grappling to make the adjustment, I’m hopeful that eventually I’ll be able to develop that same devil-may-care attitude and go with everything. For now, I thought I’d give a brief run-down of some other things that people might be curious to know.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Travels to China

My 6 hour flight to Seattle from New York was relatively uneventful, save for the fact that the guy next to me definitely had some sort of gaseousness going on, which is fabulous in the wide, well-ventilated atmosphere of a flying tube of toothpaste (can’t take credit for that metaphor but it’s my new favorite). Gas man also tried to sit in my window seat. Not today Gas Man, not today!

My flight, however, had been delayed slightly so we arrived late and were unable to de-board efficiently—evidently due to the fact that many people suck and cannot allow those of us with tight connections to get off first. Obnoxious lady in front of me who needed to secure her driver to come get her from the airport? I’m comin’ for you lady. Someday

The delay resulted in me running at full sprint to the train to get across the airport to another terminal, run up 2 escalators and down the terminal to my flight. I was the second to last person to board and they were calling my name over the PA as I ran. It was kind of dramatic and fun ultimately—very Home Alone (which I definitely would not have thought had I missed that flight). My fun ended though when I realized I’d left my brand new work iPad (with all my school textbooks and course materials) on my previous flight in the seatback pocket. I’m still hoping some good samaritan turned it in to Delta.

Shanghai flight was not as torturously long as many would have you believe. I slept for 4-5 of the 12 hour flight and they provide both free movies/TV shows to watch and free booze. That, and meal service, pretty much made it a typical Saturday…sitting in a cramped space next to a tiny girl who I’m pretty sure never got up the entire flight. The woman who started vomiting in front of me was no fun (those who know me well know that my reflex was to tell the flight attendant that I needed a new seat or she needed to build me one while flying at 34,000 feet). But I suppose that’s the beauty of headphones…

Our arrival in Shanghai was 2 hours late and coincided with torrential rains that further delayed our de-boarding, being that we were located at a bus gate and had to climb down the slippery metal presidential stairs that connect to the plane to board a bus to the actual terminal. I was quite relieved, however, to finally leave the plane, make it safely through customs, and find that every single one of my bags (including my carry on suitcase that they made me check at JFK) arrived in one piece. That, and the lovely Lilia—who works with my new school—was there with a sign bearing my name to help me get in a cab and make it to the hotel quickly. Being that I brought over 200 lbs of luggage, I was pretty grateful to see her.

(Side note: I met a couple working for the other Barstow campus in Ningbo China who brought 200 pounds worth of books with them. I’m just sayin’, all you naysayers, I’m not totally crazy for wanting to bring one suitcase of books!!!)

New York, New Yor– Shanghai, Shanghai

First impression of Shanghai from the cab that night? It is more enormous than you can possibly fathom. New York + Chicago + Boston and maybe a few more small cities thrown in there. To be fair, China considers the city of Ningbo, where the other Barstow school is (I work for Barstow Shanghai), to be a small town. It has 8 million people. Which is roughly the population of New York City.

This place is MASSIVE.

Arriving at my hotel was magnificent, especially given that it was 10pm Shanghai time and I was able to immediately pass out. Breakfast at the hotel the next morning was another interesting venture. It consisted of such items as fried rice (2 varieties), chow mein, corn on the cob, chicken nuggets (labeled “colonel’s nuggets”), toast, and porridge. I still can’t quite determine if this is normal or if it’s an attempt to serve things Americans/Westerners would want or be familiar with. After four days of this, memories of waffles and omelets already haunt my dreams.

The food in general has been interesting so far, mainly because I often have no idea what I’m eating. It’s mostly delicious, especially the several times I’ve had dumplings. I drew the line at some blood pudding and a few internal organs at a dinner we went to a few nights ago but otherwise it’s been delicious. Everything is also incredibly cheap. For reference, I bought a new SIM card for my phone so that I have a Chinese number and data plan. The man I purchased it from informed me it would cost a total of 36 ¥/month, the equivalent of about $5 USD. I signed up. I also purchased a Redbull and a bottle of water during a break from planning yesterday for 10¥, or $1.50.

I have had Chinese McDonald’s twice now—once because I was exhausted and needed something to eat that I could recognize, and once because the orientation program bought it for us—but I do not plan to make it a habit. There’s a ton of delicious food here, and while I remain worried about possible digestive issues—hey, I’m working on it—I couldn’t avoid all of it if I wanted to (and I’m sure I would really be missing out if I did). Plus, it’s possible to get sick from food pretty much anywhere, it’s just luck of the draw I guess. I’m still hoping I draw a lucky food hand…

Taxi Driver, or How I Fear for My Life: Part I

I can see it being easy to spend quite a bit on taxis here, as they are very inexpensive and it’s wonderful to get to and from your destinations with no worry about directions. The interesting part being that most taxi drivers do not speak English, so you have to be prepared with the address written in Chinese character or risk getting lost/kicked out of the cab (they won’t take a fare if they don’t know where they’re going). They are also RIDICULOUS at driving. Not to continue to compare to NYC, but these drivers make NYC cabbies look like Driving Miss Daisy. Most of the time I just sort of cover my eyes and hope for the best. Supposedly there are very few traffic accidents, though I remain skeptical and for a self-titled aggressive lover of driving, I’d certainly never drive here.

Apartment Hunting, or How I Fear for my Life: Part II

I finally found an apartment on Wednesday, again with the help of our wonderful liaison Lilia. She’d shown me several pictures but I wanted to see them myself so we met with a rental agent. She had a short chat with him in Chinese and then told me to hop on the back of his moped and he’d take me to see it while she waited at the agency.

So I was whisked off down the street on the back moped with a man who spoke no English to go view an apartment. We flew around corners and I held on the best I could as we whipped into an apartment complex. The apartment itself was…a bit below my usual standard of living. In general, China’s standard of “clean” is a lot different than the U.S. and there is not as much new renovation or building as you might typically find in U.S. apartments—at least not within my housing budget. The third apartment I viewed that day was downright scary—Lilia’s comment was something like “it looks like some crime happened here!”

Fortunately, I eventually found a place that works—not perfect but I can give it a good deep clean, spruce it up a bit and hope for the best. It’s a studio with a decent sized kitchen space and is very quiet (probably due to the fact that it’s a 6 floor walk-up in the back of the complex). It does come furnished and have a great set of ninja stickers on the refrigerator though. I had a gut feeling upon entering the building itself and I figured this was probably cream of the crop for my budget. I then watched as Lilia speedily spoke Mandarin with the apartment management agent and negotiated the terms of my contract. I’ve already taken to doing my own interpretation of what they might be saying in Mandarin, which leads to hilarious dubbing of conversations in my mind. On a serious note, I cannot express how helpful it is to have a native speaker ready to help navigate all of these processes, it has definitely made so many parts of this move easier.

School Sweet School

My new school—The Barstow School of Shanghai—is incredibly tiny. I thought West St. John in Louisiana, with less than 200 students was small. At the moment, we have 4 American staff and 5 Chinese teachers at Barstow, with ~40 students. But I am really excited to be working here. There’s huge potential in getting to build a program like this and I am starting to get that excited/apprehensive feeling that accompanies the beginning of each new school year. The school itself is housed in a much larger complex, which we hope to eventually expand into, and within the same building as one of our partner companies that works on test prep, including a TOEFL program. Right down the street is a long row of various food stands and restaurants, as well as a small convenience store and some other shops. There’s a beautiful park across the street and my apartment is within walking distance.

I’ve met four of our current students already and I am wildly excited to begin working with them. Like all students, they’re full of excitement and potential which is completely infectious. A few interesting things worth noting: the students board at the school during the week and it’s a closed campus, meaning they can never leave it without permission. Nor are they allowed to have cell phones or laptops. At all. Just iPads, which are disabled except for school/studying functions. I’m continually fascinated by all the differences in education here and how we’ll go about melding an American-style education with Chinese culture.

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

I have truly met some incredible people in this last week alone, and I can only hope to meet many more as time progresses. Everyone comes with such a plethora of experience and knowledge, and it is incredibly comforting to have them welcome us newbies so readily, teaching us how to adapt to China. Contrary to what many people have said, a lot of the teachers at my orientation were older, many married and traveling/working with their spouse. There are other young folks like me, but it’s really a wide variety of people and experience. Listening to one woman from our partner campus in Ningbo talk about her travels and previous jobs was pretty incredible. It’s incredible to be surrounded by people who are so well traveled and have such an extensive amount of life experience. .

Hot Tub Time Machine

I’ve been here less than one fully week. I can’t quite believe that this time last week I was still in Connecticut getting packed up and there are moments when I think “man, it would be nice to still be there…waffles…” But at the moments when I seem to be tip-toeing toward the danger zone of stress/homesickness, I’m fortunate to have coworkers who truly love it here to show me the beauty, joy, and fun of working in Shanghai. I was invited to a pub quiz at a Western bar a few nights ago and quickly forgot I wasn’t at home with some awesome new friends. There’s also an adjustment period that happens during every new move, where nothing feels familiar and everything is wrong and uncomfortable. I remember feeling like that in particular when I moved to Chicago and was getting used to my local Jewel-Osco. Nothing was in the right place and they didn’t carry everything I wanted. But I adjusted. I like to think of it like getting into a hot tub (I like metaphors and I spent a lot of time in the hot tub at my mom’s before I left): when you get in, it can feel super hot and uncomfortable at first and it’s tempting to hop back out to avoid the scalding water. But as you ease in, you start to get more comfortable and realize, “hey, this actually feels amazing…I think I’ll live here…”. I’ve never committed to living in a hot tub but I think I can commit to staying here.

More to come in the next few weeks as I have time.


Silverstein & Shakespeare Know What’s Up

Credit to Shel Silverstein and his marvelous drawings.

Credit to Shel Silverstein and his marvelous drawings.

It’s the eve of the eve of the eve of the day I move to China.

Yep. Move. To. China.

I have faith that it will be a phenomenal experience that I won’t regret. Eventually.

But right now it feels stressful and frustrating. In choosing to move, I need to sell my car—and I’m upside down in my loan. Being a fantastic procrastinator (the name of the book—The Fantastic Procrastinator—I should write…some day…), I decided to wait as long as possible to sell it and now cannot take out a personal loan to cover the costs but rather have to put the balance on my credit card. I should note that I have a huge amount of anxiety around my credit card because I live in fear of being in debt and never getting out. So I play the Debt Dance of putting stuff on the card/paying it off over and over while never really accruing any savings or assets. When I get money, I mostly spend it—on what I consider are valuable experiences like travel,  eating in delicious restaurants with friends, and a Netflix account. But ultimately I end up with a spending hangover, wondering why I don’t learn my damn lesson and pace myself.

I’m not writing this to complain about my financial woes though, but rather my perspective on this experience. I’m sure some people feel much more overwhelmed by even bigger issues than I, and to that I say, “read on.”

Inspirational Ink

Three years ago I got my first tattoo and it took me years to even decide to get it. I was hesitant even after I’d decided to get it. But my second two seemed meant to be inked to my skin, as though they should have been there from birth, and are meant to serve as reminders of how I want to live my life.

The first, “Yes, &”, is an improv rule for those not in the know. It requires your scene partner(s) to accept whatever you offer them and build on it—add more details, make it more clear and specific, etc. It is admittedly one of the more difficult rules to follow because, as it turns out, our natural tendency (and by “our” I mean “my and some of the people I’ve taken classes with”) is to argue, pass the buck, deny, negate, and otherwise be negative. Especially when we don’t like what’s offered to us. For example:

Oh no, I wanted us to be on a spaceship and she just said at grandma’s house! My plan is ruined! Now I will look dumb and my genius idea for a scene just went down the tubes! Stupid me….stupid her…stupid life…I should just quit improv and go live in a box.

Maybe not always that melodramatic, but I think most improvisers have been in a similar thought pattern at some point. When things don’t go the way you wanted or expected, you can get thrown and then freeze on stage, unsure of what to do next, unwilling to trust your instincts because you haven’t had the time to carefully plan a hilarious scene. As any improviser will tell you, however, the most memorable, genius, hilarious scenes don’t come from being carefully planned out, they come from performers taking whatever hand they’ve been dealt—crappy or not—and making it gold. The best improvisers are people who do this, who can take even a terrible offer from a scene partner and make them look like a genius.

The second tattoo is a portion of the following poem by Shel Silverstein:

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
      Listen to the DON’TS
      Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
      Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
      Anything can happen, child,

A beautiful, subtle way to mention how negativity-filled the world often is—and how is easy it is to simply listen but ignore that negative smog. I still marvel at Shel Silverstein’s simplistic brilliance every time I pick up one of his books (if you’ve never read one, you’re missing out).

Shakespeare Knows, Man, He Knows…

I’ll add one more of my favorite quotes, because I’m in an inspirational quote kind of mood today. One of my homeroom teachers in high school wrote a daily quote on the board and I’ve always remembered one by William Shakespeare that she posted. I think most of us agree that Willy Shakes is a pretty smart guy and in Hamlet he wrote, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” My little high school brain was so struck by this idea that I immediately wrote it down—and then had to sort it out in my head for the next 10 years. Could we truly choose to not think something as bad, and therefore make it not bad? Does our perspective on a situation control the situation itself? I’ve had so many people remark about my moving to China, “Oh, I could never do that!”. To which, I’d argue, maybe you WOULD never do it but you certainly COULD. Just because your brain thinks it doesn’t make it fact (as any opponents of Donald Trump probably will attest).

These habits—of accepting what comes to you and believing in the best despite negative surroundings—have always been the underlying qualities I’ve seen in truly happy, successful people. And, as Willy Shakes ( can’t stop, won’t stop) told us via Hamlet, we can train our brains to think that way. When you come across an obstacle you can do the “freeze and freak out” OR, you can take a few huge breaths, curse a couple of times (if that’s what it takes) and then make a plan to move forward. I’m not arguing that we ignore/deny our emotions—that doesn’t fit with accepting the situation in front of you. You feel however you need to feel. What I’m advocating is that it doesn’t need to suck you down into a vortex of doom in which you resign yourself to life always being terrible. And I say all of this as much to myself as anyone reading it.

My initial reaction to my car situation was “Stupid me….stupid car…stupid life…STUPID!!! I should just quit everything and go live in a box.” But again, too melodramatic, and certainly doesn’t give me any credit for being a capable human adult with a pretty good brain in my head. So I chose instead to look at that ink embedded into my skin and think “Man, this really [FREAKIN’] sucks. But I can’t do much else about it. I’m going to prioritize being on top of my finances and I’ll get myself out of this over time. At least I’ll get all those credit card reward points”.

So, while I don’t necessarily think we can magically remove all the bad from the world purely by thinking, we CAN certainly choose our response—and I say we “yes, and…” the sh*t out of it.


P.S. I’ll be updating this blog as much as I can about my experiences while abroad and whatever life lessons I learn along the way. Stay tuned!!!