All your friends back home want to know how you cope with the squat toilets, not being able to read Chinese, and all of the strange foods (live turtles in the supermarket, anyone?), but mentally you were prepared for those challenges before you ever got onto the plane. What you didn’t know was that cultural challenges run deeper than that.
In China, school holiday dates are determined a few weeks before they begin (at best), so don’t even think about booking your plane tickets early. Weekly schedules will be given to you a day in advance and then changed halfway through. And don’t get me started on the pre-conceptions locals have about all ‘Westerners’ (“Why are you cold, foreigners are used to the cold!” “You are white; you can’t be from South Africa.”). Whether it’s the ever-shifting nature of plans, or the locals’ insistence that your cold / asthma / upset stomach was caused by drinking cold water instead of warm, it’s the things no one told you about that will irk you the most.
Schedules in China are rough guidelines, and meetings will always run overtime. Public holidays mean extra work days on adjacent weekends, and don’t be surprised if no one thinks to let you know until the day before. The hierarchical social structure here means that people are used to doing what they are told, and don’t understand a ‘Western’ need for independence.
I spent my first months here in China firing off self-righteous emails demanding that my time be respected, and explaining to new friends and colleagues the benefits of planning in advance: “Look how much easier / better / simpler it would be if you would just do this like me!” But it made no impact on those around me. And guess what? Chinese society kept on functioning, just as it has for the last 2000 years.
While you try to impose your way of doing things onto an alien culture, you will be stressed. You will be unhappy, upset, and anxious. As your Chinese counterpart fobs you off for the twentieth time, explaining that it is out of their hands and up to the ‘leader’, your blood pressure will rise. When you walk into your high school classroom only to find that half your kids have been excused for piano practice (bye bye lesson plan), you may even find yourself wishing that you were back home. Eventually, however, you will have to either give up, or learn to roll with the punches. And you might just find yourself a better person for it. More flexible, less uptight, and, in my experience, far better at improvising in front of a skeptical, teenage audience.
So you thought you were going to be living in a buzzing metropolis, and instead you ended up out in the sticks where the road runs out, in a town with all of the smog and not one Starbucks in sight. Or you wanted to teach kindergarten and now you’re up in front of a room of 40 teenagers. You were told there was a thriving expat community and now you’re the only foreigner in town.
It sucks, right?
Or it doesn’t.
All of these things happened to my husband and I, simultaneously. Now, our cost of living is half what it would have been in the city, so we can afford a good air purifier. I’ve discovered that while those Chinese kids are cute as a button, I truly love teaching high school. And we’ve been forced to focus on learning Chinese in a way few expats do. Plus there’s a special kind of kick to being the first foreigner most of these children have ever seen.
This one isn’t literal, of course — hang on to your passport and you can go home any time you like. But the person who shows up to hug your family and friends won’t be the same as the one who left. You’ve changed. You’re more relaxed now. You take things in your stride. It’s more than just missing the burn of the Sichuan pepper in the spicy noodles from that little place downstairs, or catching yourself saying ‘谢谢’ instead of thank you. It’s more than just missing the tiny dogs with their ridiculous outfits, or the old ladies dancing in unison on street corners. No one could ever really miss a baijiu hangover, but you’re still grateful that you had the chance to experience it. You’re a bigger person for your travels, and you shouldn’t be surprised if your old home seems the smaller for it.