"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China


“Adventure” is a vague word
August 11, 2010, 1:52 pm
Filed under: efl world, the expat life

I’ve been told so many times that one’s college years are the best four years of one’s life–and that once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

For me, those years ended last May, when I graduated. But I really feel that the adventure is just beginning…in fact, I am currently preparing to move to China. My destination: Dalian, a coastal city in the northeast, near Korea. My job: teaching English as a foreign language.

You may be wondering why I have to go to the other side of the world to have an adventure. After all, I’m from New York City; the world is my oyster, and a good chunk of it can be found within a five-mile radius of my apartment (well, a fraction, at least).

If I’m going to move to another country, though, the time to do it is now. This is one of the few moments in my life where I am entirely free. I’ve just graduated from college; my friends are diffused across the country; there’s no significant other; I have lots of family, but they are very supportive of my decision.

Do I really need any more reasons?

Yes and no.  “Adventure” is a vague word, and China is a pretty big country. What, exactly, am I expecting?  What parts of myself do I want to change?  What do I want to accomplish?  And what, exactly, is the object of my search?  Because I do feel that I am searching for something, and, in the words of U2, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

On that note, what is out there to be found?

I have to admit that I have no answers to these questions.  But I do have a few concrete, attainable goals:

  • to grow as a professional teacher
  • to attain linguistic and cultural fluency in Chinese (or as close as possible to fluency)
  • to learn how to cook Chinese food

This blog is meant to be, among other things, a way of measuring and recording my progress in attaining those goals.  The most important goal is undoubtably the first one.  I am going to China for personal reasons, obviously, but my primary reason is to teach.  I hope, then, that this blog will eventually become a useful resource for new teachers, especially those who are looking to work abroad.

I also hope that this blog will be a respectful and “authentic” (that is, authentic to my own experience) portrayal of China.  It goes without saying that China is becoming a more prominent figure in the America’s line of sight.  Its allure is nothing new, however.  For decades, China has been the destination of countless Westerns either looking to “find” themselves or to make money by writing popular (and often inaccurate) travel literature.  A popular writer was the perennially bored Peter Fleming.  Although he traveled extensively throughout China in the 1920s and 30s, his account–One’s Company–is disinterested and condescending.  I think it’s pretty sad (not to mention shallow) when your only way of measuring a city’s merits is by the attractiveness of the women.

So no, I’m not striving to follow in the footsteps of such writers, even though they, too, promised to deliver a respectful and authentic portrayal of China.  Maybe it is a naive promise to make.  For now, though, I am looking more to Peter Hessler than to Peter Fleming.  Peter Hessler is an American who taught English in China as a Peace Corps volunteer, and then stayed on to write a few very evocative books about his own experience in China, most notably River Town, his memoir of his Peace Corps days.  He is now the Beijing correspondent of the New Yorker.

One thing is for sure — I certainly don’t expect to be a “China Hand,” or expert, in one year, or possibly even a lifetime.  I think it would be wise to heed the advice that travel writer Harry Franck offered in his own memoir, Wandering through Northern China (1923):

“You can easily tell how long a man has been in China by how much he doesn’t know about it.  If he knows almost everything, he has just recently arrived; if he is in doubt, he has been here a few years; if he admits that he really knows nothing whatever about the Chinese people or their probable future, you may take it for granted that he has been here a very long time.”

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3 Comments so far
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Best of luck in your adventure and thanks for the book rec. I will def read River Town.

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Comment by Vennie Encheva

Great start – keep up the good work!!

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Comment by Alex

Hi Allison,
Sounds like an amazing experience. Needles to say, I’m jealous! And, your blog is as good as anything Michel Meyer or Peter Hessler wrote about their experiences living and working in China!

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Comment by Barbara Kiperman




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