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

Riding in Cars with Aiyi
November 1, 2015, 9:01 pm
Filed under: daily life in china, dalian, the expat life | Tags: ,

To hail a taxi with the attitude of “Ha! This is only two dollars!” is pure economic freedom.

It’s not something I can do in America. In Dalian, though, it’s worth budgeting for even if your earnings are meager, for there will be days when 5 o’clock rolls around and thought of getting hit by a bus actually sounds better than that of having to squeeze into one. Just picture that hot summer’s day, roiling in the stench of humanity . . . and a raw garlic-eating portion of humanity at that.

There’s another bonus attached to taxis, for those expats who are learning Chinese. When I had first moved to China, my principle teachers of Chinese were taxi drivers. (Then I started running out of money, and I sought to learn Chinese from fruit vendors.)

And once you get some basic communication skills, you realize that every taxi driver is different. I re-learned that during this past trip. However, because I was with Lipeng, most of them would ask him all sorts of questions about me–“Where is she from? What’s her job? Does she understand any Chinese? Wow, she’s really white/beautiful!”–as though I were his exotic pet. Once, we shared a cab with an older lady in the early evening. She and the ruddy-faced, accelerator-happy driver cackled as they tested my comprehension of Dalianhua. Oh God, I thought, they’re drunk. They’re drunk and we’re gonna crash and the last thing I hear before I die will be coarse ers and ars and ahs of Dalianhua.

(We did not die.)

My favorite taxi driver of all, however, is a woman who goes by Aiyi. Bless your heart if you get the privilege of riding with her. She will get you where you need to go, and she’ll chat you up in her grade school English, which remarkably she still remembers. She’s a woman cabbie and she’s no pushover.

“Go! Fuck!” Beep beep. “Move! Go, baby!” Another punctuative honk, and the car that had been blocking the intersession moved to let us pass. “Thank you!”

Yet you can hear the warmth, the toughness, even an almost nurturing lilt outlining her thick Dalian accent, even if you can’t speak Chinese. When she speaks English, the thing that comes out is her joy.

“I pick up a Colombian girl at the Shengri Di La hotel. You know? I speak English, she so surprised! She work in the hotel be a singer, and she give me a free concert! In my car!”

As an English learner, Aiyi is an interesting case. She’s one of those people who doesn’t let a limited command over a foreign language get in the way of expressing herself. “I love English,” she told me.  Her dream was to be an English teacher–but she now feels too old to pursue formal study. Because her parents didn’t have a lot of money when she was growing up, she was unable to go to college. That opportunity had gone to her brother, who now works in a multinational corporation and frequently travels to other countries on business.

Like many Chinese, things are turning around for the next generation: her daughter, 23, is finishing her last year of college, and to make that happen Aiyi has taken the night shift while her husband drives a daytime taxi.

And as far as English goes, I think Aiyi seeks out opportunities to practice just because she enjoys it. She pays 150 RMB a month to park outside the foreigner clubs (JD’s, Suzie Wong’s, Shengri Di La). So if you’ve gone out and you’re ready to call it a night, look for a female cabbie–it could be Aiyi!


Back from China Again
August 22, 2015, 12:05 pm
Filed under: the expat life | Tags:

I blinked and my trip was over. I am both sad and relieved — sad to leave China behind yet again, but I can’t deny how good it feels to be back on American soil.

Because we were so busy–too busy, actually, to wait around for WordPress to load, along with every other non-Baidu-searchable website. I will have to add a backlog of posts over the next few weeks. Some may have to appear next week, after Lipeng arrives, because many of the necessary pictures are on his camera.

This particular visit to China was extremely busy because there were a lot of family visits and celebrations of our marriage (which actually happened last year). So there weren’t a lot of boots on the ground-type explorations of China. Still, there were some wonderful moments that would be hard to picture occurring in America, which I can’t wait to relate on the blog.

I must say, this time around, I’ve returned without regrets. I’ve been relishing my daily coffee, the clean, blue skies and the casual conversations that emerge with people that I encounter each day (in China, it’s much rarer to chat with strangers). And I’m relieved to see my plants still alive.

An uncomfortable thought bothered me all throughout the trip, though, which is the question: could I ever expatriate again in the future? Even though I identify as an expat, I realize now how comfortable I’ve gotten in California, thanks to friends, a literary community, fun stuff happening every weekend, good weather and the year-round availability of fresh, organic and surprisingly affordable produce–not to mention the convenience of things like browsing my local library, or being around like-minded people. A year ago, my lack of job security blinded me to these pleasures — and while I’m not exactly on an SF tech job salary, I can at least enjoy my life.

Whereas, as an expat in China, money would not be something to worry about (assuming the Chinese economy does not impact language schools), but the trade-off is to endure the dark side of life in China . . . pollution, corruption, getting ripped off everywhere you go . . . this time around, any time we wanted to buy something Lipeng would have to shoo me away before the salespeople could see my face. This is not a way to live. And of course, there’s the Baidu prison. Baidu is the only functional search engine! Goodbye, Google, Yahoo and just about every website I like to visit. I almost kissed my phone when I got to Korea for my layover. (Helpful hint: the BBC news website is blocked, but the app works. Small mercies, indeed.)

A year ago, two years ago, was my homesickness for China just a knee-jerk reaction to my financial situation? I don’t really want to think that that’s the case. There are so many wonderful people, memories, food, little details that pull me back to Dalian . . . And let’s not forget that getting kicked out meant not leaving on my own terms and feeling that my time there had ended prematurely. Since then, I’ve been back twice and had my fill. On the morning of my departure I did not cry over the dumplings that Lipeng’s mom had made. I hadn’t felt the need to retrace my steps to old haunts, like Olympic Square or Xi’an Lu or Transformers. I’d drunk the cup and had my fill and felt the warm glow of satisfaction.  Have I been cured of homesickness?  To say yes would be speaking too soon: as the queen of homesickness, I’m sure I’ll be humming a different tune in the coming months.

When people act like your career is a joke (and why it isn’t)
May 9, 2015, 1:25 pm
Filed under: efl world, teaching, the expat life | Tags: ,

Oh, if I had a kuai for every time a fellow expat said to me, “Teaching English isn’t a real job…” And indeed, it’s easy to fall victim to the “my job is an illusion” mentality–that’s the guiding principle of your co-workers, perhaps, and it’s an unspoken truth that your manager knows as well.  So what’s to stop you from going down the same dragonhole?

Let’s add another kuai to every time people said, “Teaching is easy,” and I think I’d be a millionaire in RMB. During my first year I thought that there must have been something wrong with me. Why were all of my painstakingly wrought lessons coming apart at the seams? How do you get your “little friends” to stop throwing tantrums like little hysterical hyenas?

I realize that not all English teachers here are in it for the career development. They’re here to travel or to learn Chinese. Some are even here because jobs are scarce in their home countries. And some just simply are not the 9-5 types.  Some are artists, looking for a way to make a living while making art.  Of course, these are all legitimate reasons.

Really, not matter why you’re here at the front of the class, it can be hard to summon the motivation to keep going. There are so many things that can bring a teacher down, like:

  • demanding work, possibly long hours and weekend work
  • disinterested management (I experienced that a lot in China)
  • lack of resources or support from school
  • abysmally low pay (in the U.S., at least; in other countries, including China, teaching English can be lucrative)

Add it all up, plus or minus other factors like culture shock, a faulty curriculum, an unrealistic schedule, difficult or confrontational students, etc, and suddenly you’re looking at grad school programs in anything other than teaching.

So if you tell me that teaching is an easy job, I will charge you a kuai and point out that you just insulted every language teacher. Good job.

But if you ask me how I stay motivated, I will show you this card:

samantha note

This is from a current student of mine who has encountered a lot of difficulty in her classes. She particularly likes to fight with me about English grammar.  I, along with other teachers, poured a lot of time into her studies.  It’s been hard for her, and sometimes she’s not the easiest student to work with, but she’s been making small strides!

I also think about former students who have enjoyed greater success because of their English skills–a student who got a promotion in a bank, another one who is now finishing up her MBA in the States (with mostly A’s), and of course Lipeng, who is pursuing his ambition of becoming a director (and recently got offered a job as Assistant Director! Whoo hoo! Go Lipeng!).

I’m not saying I’m responsible for their achievements. It just feels good to know that I did something to help them forge their own futures.

I’ve sat in on classes, though, with foreign teachers who make it very clear they have better things to do. It’s really embarrassing to watch a “teacher” scrap the lesson entirely just to rant about things they find annoying about China.  They even make fun of the students sometimes!  Or they just go on about their own petty problems.  Basically, anything unprofessional thing a teacher can do, I’ve seen–and it’s always been a foreign teacher in China. 

Why settle for being just another foreign face when you could be, well, an inspiration? Or at least a positive representation of your country? In China, people have such limited resources to learn about the world beyond their borders, so they look to foreign teachers for a something more intimate and informative than a Friends rerun.  

How to become a better teacher is perhaps not the sexiest of topics at the expat bars, but it’s worth talking about. At the very least, I hope all of you teachers out there, expat or not, career-driven or in it for the experience, will remember your worth, and that your job is as real as any other job. It is not a joke unless you think it is, and if that’s the case then that’s how your students will treat your class. And you.


When you eat chocolate, how do you know when to stop?
April 1, 2015, 12:57 am
Filed under: Chinese culture, racism, the expat life, TIC | Tags: , , ,

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend of mine–a fellow former China expat–posted a video of a comedy sketch about being black in China and the bewildering ignorance that black people experience. I thought it was hilarious–because, sadly, it’s true. Racism does exist in China. Here’s the proof:

“When you eat chocolate, how do you know when to stop?” AI YA WO DE MA YA!!!

All foreigners, regardless of race, should expect be asked some off the wall questions, ranging from the benign to the offensive. It’s understandable: a cocktail of a one-party system that limits free speech, a guarded Internet and travel restrictions has created a culture that really doesn’t understand the outside world. Even the language demonstrates China’s isolation: you may here Chinese people refer to China as guonei (within the country) and the rest of the world as guowai (outside the country), as well as to themselves as Zhongguoren (Chinese) and the rest of the world as waiguoren (foreigner). Yes, you could find a similar way to express these ideas in English (your country/abroad, your nationality/immigrants or foreigners or what have you), but these concepts are different when Chinese people speak. You will hear people say things like, “Chinese people are like this, but foreigners are like that”–as though the entire world is diametrically opposed to China in a massive monoculture. I do not say this as a criticism of China, a country that was previously very poor and more isolated than today, and does not have the same history of immigration and diversity as many other countries. 

And that historical void has been filled with the next best thing: Western media. Do you see where I’m going with this? There’s a certain demonization of black people in our media, and developing countries like China pick up on that. The difference is that while they hear things about black people being dangerous, homeless, unemployed and drug addicts, most of them have never met a single black person. I think my students–most of whom are Chinese, studying in San Francisco–are afraid of black people. They will casually say things that I think are racist, like, they see a fast driver on the street and say, “Oh, he’s black.” Meaning: that’s why he’s a reckless driver. That’s just one, tiny example; nevertheless, I find it disturbing. We have to contend with racism as a force so vicious, so pervasive, that it can spill onto foreign soil and grow.  Slavery has long been abolished, and yet the world is still reeling from its repercussions.

Well, regardless of how or why racism reared its ugly head in China, the fact is it’s very hurtful. I’d like to share with you all the first time I ever encountered racism in China. I’m white so I didn’t experience it first-hand; in fact, it was several months into my first year until I really noticed it.

It was Christmas Day, and I was sick as a dog with some kind of gastrointestinal infection. My friend and roommate was at work, but her boyfriend was around. One look at me and he knew I needed a doctor, and luckily, he happened to speak fluent Chinese (he was doing his M.A. in Dalian). So he took me to see a doctor.

On the walk to the hospital, I noticed that people often paused to look at us. OK, this was not unusual, we were foreigners after all, but it seemed like . . . more?  And less friendly? The stares I attracted were partnered with smiles; but these stares were quite unwelcome.

And then, once we’d arrived, I finally got it. We found a nurse and approached her to ask for directions for the proper facility.

As we approached, a look of cold fear took over her face.

This guy, my savior on that day, was black, from a small African country, and quite dark-skinned. The nurse was afraid for her life.

Honestly, if everywhere I went I had to deal with fear and contempt, I probably would have quit China long ago. I really don’t know how people do it. I suppose some people just don’t have a choice. You go where the money and opportunities are; that’s what we all have to do, it’s just easier for some of us.

After that experience, I tried to do a lesson on racism in my adult language class. But surprisingly, none of my students believed racism existed in China. They maintained (like in the video) that Chinese people are all the same race, therefore, there is no racism. And if no one believes in racism, how can they talk about it? How can they work through it? How can they begin to see it?

The video above was also posted onto the Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube. Here below is a snapshot of what some Chinese people made of this video, which I’ve translated into English. Some of the opinions are harsh. But at least there’s some kind of platform for people to talk about racism. Is it too generous to believe that this is a start? Read below and decide for yourself.


It’s not that I discriminate against black people, but they do leave me with a bad impression. Black people contribute absolutely nothing to the progress of the civilized world, from ancient times to the not so distant European Industrial Revolution–nothing advantageous came from the work of black people. They completely enjoy the results of progress brought on by people of other races.


Why do black people continue to live in China? Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Africa?


The truth is, Asian people think white is pretty…

还有中国1978年才开始慢慢发展到现的程度。国家很穷,教育也不好,旅游也不可能。 //@(username deleted): 因为中国封闭了几十年 让人坐井观天

And it wasn’t until 1978 that China slowly began to open its doors. China was poor, the education was bad and people couldn’t travel. / @(username deleted): This is because for so many decades China was sealed off. It makes people narrow-minded.


We understand, but that’s not to say that all Chinese people do. Although not all Chinese people are like the ones in this video, most are!


This video says something really profound about Chinese people’s ignorance!

For further reading, please check out A Minority in the Middle Kingdom: My Experience Being Black in China via Tea Leaf Nation.

Culture shock?
November 2, 2010, 1:08 pm
Filed under: the expat life | Tags:

It is not fun being sick in the U.S. It is equally not fun being sick in China. In the land of tea, there’s no one here to make me any! 😦

It’s no wonder I’ve been sick – I now work 30 hours a week instead of 18, travel a lot through bacteria-ridden roads and WCs without the aid of soap (at school, anyway), and I’ve been putting way too much pressure on myself in general. Finally, I had to take a few days off. So then, laying on my bed and watching Julie and Julia for the zillionth time, I realized a few things (aside from the fact that I really need to learn how to cook).

For the past few weeks, I have wondered if I am suffering from culture shock. I always carry around a lingering homesickness, though to be honest, I tend to be homesick even when I’m home. Living daily life in China seems harder – I have responsibilities to my students, bills to pay; I have to manage my budget; I have to manage my time carefully and carve out opportunities for relaxation, particularly in the evenings. I have to accept the fact that there is no one here to bail me out. I am also beginning to realize that employers don’t care about their employees as much as they do about their profits, and that other people in the world will try to swindle you in other, more subtle ways.

So anyway, I was watching Julie yelling and crying on the kitchen floor next to a stuffed chicken, and then I realized: this isn’t culture shock. This is being an adult in the real world shock.

O, for the days of the bill-free life of Mount Holyoke College: visiting my friends down the hall, eating warm meals downstairs, studying in the library, measuring my nights in coffee pots, freaking out over my thesis, curling up in my warm down comforter on the bed which I really didn’t get a chance to sleep in enough. Yeah, I think I’ll take China.

Not everyday is an adventure
October 13, 2010, 1:46 am
Filed under: the expat life | Tags:

At an expat gathering not long ago, another American asked me a very typical question: “Where are you from?”

I told him I was from New York City.  Then he asked why I was here; usually, I just tell people that I am teaching, but this time I said, “For an adventure.”

He looked surprised and asked me, jokingly, “You’re from New York and you came to Dalian for an adventure?”

Even though this happened at least two weeks ago, his words have followed me all the way to this blog entry.  He had a point, after all–Dalian is not the most exciting city in the world.  I’ve pretty much seen all of the sites, all of which are modern constructions, since there doesn’t seem to be any remains of Dalian’s history.  It didn’t help that, only a day after this exchange, I found myself in the basement of a very ritzy hotel with a bunch of out of place 60+ year old expats, listening to a live band play something that was a cross between bad disco and elevator music.  As someone I met there said, “This is for people who are really, really nostalgic.”

Now, I’m halfway through my second month of living in Dalian, and a growing part of me has to wonder: why am I here? What am I doing?  I think it’s time to face the fact that not every day is an adventure.  And that’s okay–I can’t expect every day to sweep me off my feet.  This is daily life now, and daily life is not always the most interesting.

Sometimes, it also seems like life here is so inconsequential.  I don’t have to stay here; I could get on a plane next week, if really wanted to.  I could make my entire life here disappear–and that is a very weird feeling.

Living in China, thus far, has also been a difficult lesson in learning to be alone.  I find that half of the time I am out and about, meeting people or hanging out with a few friends that I’ve made; but a lot of time is spent in my own company.  I’m not used to greeting the day every morning and not receiving another human voice saying, “Good morning” back.  To my credit, even before I came I expected to be alone a lot.  One of my personal goals was–and still is–to learn how to be okay with my own company.

For this, I turn to this lovely poem by Tanya Davis:

“Just take the perspective you get from being one person in one head and feel the effects of it.”

Anonymously Known
September 28, 2010, 4:02 am
Filed under: daily life in china, the expat life | Tags:

“One of the pleasures of travel is being anonymous,” writes travel writer Paul Theroux.*  But travel in China, for me, demands a different kind of anonymity, a visible anonymity.  In New York, anyone can be anonymous; no one looks at one another, no one really cares who you are or where you’re going.  Here, everyone looks, everyone cares.  Or nearly everyone.

An anonymous person in China will be showered with attention: I get stared at, I get special treatment from street vendors, restaurant owners and locals, and I can expect that someone will try to engage me in conversation.  It is this kind of anonymity that makes China seem like a “dangerous” place, as though anything can happen at any time; simply walking down the street is an invitation to some kind of interaction with a fellow stranger.

By “dangerous,” I really mean unpredictable, which is very intimidating when you’re new to town.  There have been several times when the unpredictable has knocked on my door and given me a scare.  Once, the unpredictable decided not to knock but simply let himself in; I’m pretty sure someone had broken into my apartment a few times, not to steal anything, just to look around and see how the foreigner lives.  (I changed the locks, and haven’t had a problem since.) Other incidents have been minor: a man on the bus pestered me for my phone number (I told him I didn’t have one) and then followed me when I got off at my stop; or, while eating lunch at the market, a crowd surrounded me and watched a man stuff a bunch of bank papers in my face–he wanted me to transfer money to an overseas account.

But China is really not a very dangerous place, especially not for a foreigner.  If anything, most people have been nothing but warm and hospitable to me, to the point where I have to struggle to contain the ever-suspicious New Yorker inside of me.  Nothing is free–right?  Sometimes, it isn’t; Chinese culture operates on a system of guanxi, or connections–if you help a person, then you’re free to ask them for a favor later on.  Admittedly, knowing this puts me at ease; I don’t have to worry about people’s real intentions might be.

Often, however, my visible anonymity makes another Chinese quality visible: simple, unconditional kindness.  Some people–strangers–don’t expect anything in return.  During my first week here, I kept getting lost and couldn’t understand people’s directions when I asked for help.  So they would take the time to walk me to wherever I needed to be.  On the buses, groups of strangers would keep an eye on me to make sure I got off at the correct stop.  When a seat on the bus is free, someone will always insist that I sit, and I in turn fight to let them have the seat (luckily, they still understand me when I accidentally say “please come in” instead of “please sit”).

I don’t expect this kind of hospitality to continue much longer; it’s already waning, since I’ve more or less adjusted to daily life here and can manage on my own.  But knowing that people have my back makes trying new things a lot easier.  Just a few nights ago, I wandered into a real Chinese restaurant by myself.  I had avoided going into restaurants before because there’s so much on the menu that I can’t read.  So it was with some anxiety that I stepped into this crowded, noisy restaurant.

The laoban (restaurant owner) was so excited that a foreigner walked through the door that she insisted that I stay, even though there were no seats.  I ended up sitting with a man and his mother.  For a few minutes, I studied the menu as though I could actually read it.

“Excuse me,” I said.  “Can you recommend something good to eat? I can’t read the menu.”

“Don’t worry,” said the woman.  “It’s our treat.”

Immediately, I assumed that this tired and delicate-looking mother and son duo was out to rob, kidnap or kill me.  Because really, would this ever happen in New York?

I liked the mother a lot.  She regarded me as something akin to an orphan and took it upon herself to be a mother to me for the evening.  She warned me never to share important information with anyone, never give anyone my phone number, never get into a car with anyone: “There are good people in Dalian, but there are also very bad people.”

Like a good mother, she seemed to worry about me.  She thought the neighborhood where I live is unsafe and advised me to move downtown.  Like many people, she asked my age, and when I told her I was twenty-two she nearly went into hysterics that reminded me very much of my Nana: “Twenty-two! You’re just a child! How could your parents let you come here by yourself?”

After dinner, she took me outside and, clinging to my hand and my arm, showed me which taxis are safe to take and which are not.  We exchanged email addresses and said goodbye, and I offered to treat them next time.

I checked my wallet and bag. Everything was there.  I was pretty sure I hadn’t been killed, and I promise you right now that it is really I, not any kidnappers, who is writing this.

*From Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China