China is my do-over. It’s my “let’s get it right this time.”
When I went abroad for the first time last year, I lived in UAE, muddling through, floundering about– as most naïve first-timers do. I had a lonely and tiring expat existence. With direction and guidance only personal experience and hindsight can give, I would change so much about my time in UAE. With that said, I am lucky enough to get a “do-over” to learn from my previous circumstances.
I look at my new life now– in China –as an opportunity to live an improved version of my expat life from last year. Working and living in Dalian, China gives me the chance to mend the broken strings, to avoid the pitfalls, and put right all of my naive expat blunders from last year’s stint. The missteps, the oversight can now be amended.
So what would I change?
I would start here: accept every invite during that first month abroad.
Strange advice? Sure, perhaps. On the contrary, thirty days have passed me by in Dalian, and I can happily report back that my expat life is so much better. That’s in large part due to my more open, acceptive mindset.
You know that movie Yes Man? The one where Jim Carrey challenges himself to say “yes” to everything for a year? Well, I kinda, sorta did that– for a quick month. And lemme tell ya, life in Dalian has been robust and pleasant because of it. By accepting almost every invitation from coworkers and acquaintances, I lived without reservation, thus avoiding that overly cautious and guarded mindset I adopted last year.
(Note: I say almost because at the end of the day, I’m not going to kill myself snorting hot sauce off a bar like Jim Carrey did.)
So what did that look like?
I guess you could say I did a few things…
- I ate Korean BBQ’d chicken feet and Chinese cold noodles (and didn’t like either one).
- I danced in the city square with a 70 year-old Chinese man (who kept wagging his finger in my face, criticizing my dancing skills).
- I shopped at the local fish market for my weekly groceries (even though I didn’t always know what I was buying since they only spoke Chinese).
- I bought a full-body Chinese massage (and was sore for two days).
- I rode on a bus for 6 hours to Inner Mongolia (with people I didn’t know).
- I flew to Zhengzhou to run in the International Marathon (for as long as I could run– basically until I developed massive blisters on the balls of my feet).
Here are my biggest takeaways:
I’m happy that I was dumb “within reason.” Sure, I got tired. Sure, I had second thoughts. Sure, I was lucky I didn’t get food poisoned. But taking the plunge head-first into Chinese culture has actually, and surprisingly, formed a community of good, stable people around me, helped me assimilate quicker, and obviously, granted me an authentic lens through which I learned Chinese culture.
- You quickly establish connections and create community
- Your indecision no longer holds you back
- You accelerate assimilation
- You learn more about the country and its culture
1. You quickly establish connections and create community
Because I believe in the importance of social interaction as one of the best ways to keep healthy, I never turned down a party, supper, hiking trip, massage trip, or even marathon–of all things.
“Be a gatherer” was literally the phrase I told myself when neighbors, office mates, and random acquaintances asked if I wanted to hang with them.Tweet
Because I believe in the importance of social interaction as one of the best ways to keep healthy, I never turned down a party, supper, hiking trip, massage trip, or even marathon–of all things. Outings like this empowered me to make new acquaintances, connect over a shared interest, and explore a new area in the process. In time, those acquaintances may develop into more meaningful relationships in the months to follow.
2. Your indecision no longer holds you back
When you can’t say “no,” you instantly see the positive side of the new adventure. I found this true of myself: When I first moved to UAE, it was easy for me to say “give me a week to settle in, then I will…” when what really happened was I stuck my head in a hole like an ostrich. Treading on unfamiliar ground sometimes tempts expats to stick to what’s familiar, thus, never making the transition from expat to compatriot. After all, one of the greatest treasures of living abroad is uniting with local culture.
That hesitation, or what I call indecision, is constantly seducing you back into your familiar apartment where the scary culture can be hidden from sight and cured through Netflix. I know. I did just that. Thanks to hours of Friends episodes, I could enjoy my safety net and forget I was ever in another country. I now see that that was my way of delaying very real emotions of living abroad–both good and bad.
The sooner you can experience the wave of emotional trauma that comes with living in another country, the faster you will assimilate and ward off homesickness.Tweet
Therefore, to get the most out of expat life, take the first step and accept culture shock. Just don’t let the shock get the better of you. Give yourself due time to settle in, but as soon as you find your feet underneath you, be prepared to launch. I promise you won’t regret your crazy decision to accept all invitations.
3. You accelerate your assimilation
When the honeymoon stage finally wears off, not all hope is lost.
Saying “yes” to all invitations means you don’t have time to brood over the transition from the honeymoon stage to the disintegration stage, where reality goes from jubilant to frustrating.Tweet
The disintegration stage will gently and inevitably find its way into your mind to reverse the earlier heavenly and problem-free vibes. Accepting invitations to all sorts of things will carry you through all three stages much quicker: from honeymoon to disintegration to reintegration.
The reintegration stage is the goal here. Challenges you faced earlier in the disintegration stage suddenly don’t seem so large. You’ll realize you’re adapting to the new ways of doing things and saying “yes” to all kinds of dinners, trips, and events, which will lead you quicker and faster to that third ideal stage.
4. You learn more about the country and its culture
One thing I refused to do was coop myself up in my apartment to Netflix the evenings away. Sure, I took a few days to settle in and get oriented, but I recognized the danger in letting too much time distance myself from adventure and culture. Regrets are many when I play it safe and familiar.
“Be an adventurer.” This means you’re accepting the roller coaster of all things good and bad of exploring a new land. You will ask lots of questions, get lost, lose money, worry more than you need to, but at the end of the day, you explored. You visited. You cried. You laughed. You handled situations.Tweet
For years I anticipated 2018 to be my shining, breakout year where I took the Middle East by storm, but sadly, it kicked my butt and sent me back home. I would change almost everything about my time in UAE. I’d try to loosen up, go with the flow, adopt the mindset “progress, not perfection,” and take life a hell of a lot less seriously.
Even today, I remind myself to be easy on me. Americans have been conditioned to believe that failing isn’t okay. That failure is a shame. That failure identifies who we are. But I’m fighting the urge and instead loving that I risked a lot to learn a lot. It’s okay to fail. Because at the end of the day, I tried my best. Many of the blunders that happened during my first stint overseas were out of my control. I wrestled with inescapable horrors in my teaching job. However, I’m learning to accept them. To see them as a good try. I’m okay with failing big. I’d much rather take risks and fail big than to play it safe all my life.
At the end of the day, however, I’m not the person to promote a wacky “adventure-or-nothing” lifestyle. I always encourage expats and travelers to take the time needed to settle in and get oriented. Be patient with yourself and the process. Building connections in a new place takes time.
Overall, safety matters the most, so find a balance between maintaining good judgement and finding an adventure.
It’s out there waiting for you.