As a previous small-town girl that was doing the Hohhot hustle for a good three years, I feel as if the capital has ruined me.
I’m about to complete my first year in Beijing, and the only word I can find to describe it is “easy”.
I’ve had my best friend visit me, I’ve had cheaper flights to other world capitals, I’ve become a published writer, I’ve had access to the over-priced western food I missed so dearly, I’ve been able to meet tons of new friends, I’ve learned how to online shop in China, drink a plethora of craft beer, and have some other awesome things happen that will make me sound ultra braggy if I don’t shut myself up.
I’ve also become extremely judgmental towards other expats experiences. When I find out that some people have started out in Beijing, (or any major hub), and haven’t experienced the nitty-gritty-under-developed-have-everything-familiar-taken-away-from-you China, I ask myself why they even left their home country to begin with.
In hopes that you do it right, like me, because I’ve never made a mistake once in my life (being sarcastic, please don’t troll me, interwebz) I’ve complied a simple list of common expat mistakes that you can avoid, while making the most of your time abroad like a true nomad.
Take Your Time
Young, old, rich, poor. It doesn’t matter. If you’re going to commit to this, you needn’t let anyone rush you. You don’t have to learn the language before arriving or remember your Lonely Planet from cover to end. But, you do need to do a few sessions of yoga and calmly think about how you will only grow from this experience whether it lives up to your expectations, or even if it’s a total bust.
The last thing you want is to announce to your family and friends that after all the tear-filled goodbyes and selling all of your belongings, is that you’re coming home with only a month put in.
Be the inspiration. Show your strength and do this right.
Ditch the Big City
Making the move in the first place is awesome. I firmly respect anyone who has the courage to do it. But if you’re gonna do it, do it.
If you’re a common reader, you already know that I had zero idea of what I was getting myself into.
One of the first major cities I visited after living in Hohhot for eight months was Bangkok, which is certainly more developed than the suburbs of Arizona. International, fast-paced, and incredibly modern, this south east city had it all.
I was there a whole three days before I thought to myself, “Ugh, I love Thai food so much. It’s perfect. But that pizza is staring me right in the eye. I hope they have pepperoni.” Just like that, I traded in the opportunity to try something culturally diverse for what I already knew and experienced.
Everything I loved I said goodbye to by opting for a small town experience. I almost miss the struggle of having my whole life flipped around and being clueless. No, not everyone in the major cities here speaks English, but with phones, thousands of expats, translating apps, and pictures to reference in every shop, you are basically being fed with a silver spoon.
Take a gamble and spend some time in the unknown.
Guess what? You left your home country, now move on!
This is a common one and I’m quite surprised that people still do this. Tell me something interesting about the ‘hood you rep. Tell me a funny memory. But do not compare it to where you are now. This expat mistake will not even qualify you as an expat.
As Rakim once said, “It ain’t about where you from. It’s where you at.”
Live Like a Local
This one is real important and the most common in expat mistakes.
In our house, we’ve created a “5/7 Rule”. This simply means that five days out of the week we do our best to cook at home, buy our daily items/groceries from Chinese shops instead of import or western places, ride a bike or take cheap transportation instead of taxis, and just take it easy.
The other two days of the week are game on and usually result in spending too much and eating really unhealthy. Hello, burgers. Hello, beer. Hello, pants that don’t fit on Monday.
While our normal Monday to Friday routine sounds like common sense, it is sadly not. I see Beijing expats paying 65RMB for a shitty salad on their lunch break or spending 30RMB on their morning coffee from Starbucks, after sitting in a taxi that cost them 25RMB to go a mile. That’s more than families of three live off of in two days here.
Not only are their daily routines as westernized as possible, they only go to places in Beijing that are populated solely by other expats. How can you make any local friends by doing that? How are you comfortable paying 70RMB for a weak drink at a hyped up bar that will likely be closed down in six months? What happened to eating BBQ outside, bringing our own bottles of beer, and cheersing with the shirtless chain-smoking Chinese guys? TELL ME. WHAT HAPPENED?
I want to understand why some people try to mimic their previous lifestyles back home, and I totally get wanting the comfort of your motherland, but every time you do something in your daily life? Puh-leez.
Put in the work. Spend a year (or three, in my case) and earn those privileges from home back.
Learn the Language
Another no-brainer. With Beijing expats I’ve noticed one of two things; they’re either completely fluent in Chinese, or they’ve been here years and have never made an attempt to become familiar with the language. Props to those that made the effort. I’m still not fluent after nearly four years (shame on me), but I communicate very well with the Chinese I have learned. Like I mentioned before, I can do no wrong.
When you go for a 3rd tier city first, you are forced in to the language. No menus are in English and most don’t even have photos, you may be the first foreigner the locals have ever seen, and your students might be starting their English from the ground up. Yes, it’s hard to communicate, but it’s also rewarding as fudge to learn a language through submersion.
Dive right in and communicate in a way you never thought was possible before.
Eat the Food
Chinese food rules. From the way it’s prepared, to how it’s usually balanced between hot main courses and cold appetizers. Trying to understand how to pair salty and sweet with bland or sour plates can be confusing, yet so intricate, with most dishes simply being prepared with a cleaver and wok.
So why are expats in first tier cities spending tons of money every day on over-priced western food that isn’t typically close to the quality we get from back home? I. don’t. know.
A few things I’ll be lenient on here: Fear of food poisoning, ick. Not knowing what to order, fine. Not knowing how to use chop sticks, maybe.
It only comes down to common sense. If you want food from back home, cook it! If you don’t know how to cook, Google a recipe…or keep an eye out for my upcoming food blog.
Simply put, it comes down to money. How have the Chinese survived thousands of years like this? How are they growing so well economically? We can definitely learn a thing or two from them by doing what a lot of us are already doing — living here.
If you’re a current expat, are you making these little mistakes that can save you money and heighten your overseas experience? What mistakes do you see other expats making?