How China Changed My Life Forever
When most people graduate from college, they usually have dream jobs that they want, dreams of seeing the world, or at least dreams of some kind. My dream was nothing more than gray fog hovering over a never ending dark void. For years I had dreamed of being a teacher but due to unexpected circumstances, I didn’t graduate with an education degree. Instead, I had a B.A. in Spanish and was told that I could get a Master’s in education or I couldn’t teach.
Long story short, I spent three months looking for a job just about anywhere that paid more than minimum wage. I had $30,000 in college debt to pay back, I couldn’t do that on minimum wage. I graduated in early May, by the beginning of July I still didn’t have a job and my mom had sent me an email titled “Teach in China”. I literally opened it, thought this is a joke, closed it and went back to sleep. A week later, she asked me if I had considered it. I said, “No, it’s China. Why would I want to go there? I don’t speak Chinese, I speak Spanish.”
Fast forward a little, over the next month I had a meeting with some Americans who also worked in China. That was followed by an interview with a woman in China via Skype. Half an hour after the interview, she offered me the job. Three days later, I signed the contract and started the process of applying for a visa and in less than a month from initial contact, I was standing on Chinese soil. And I was terrified!
I grew up in the same house on the same street for my entire life. When I went to college, I decided to stay pretty close to home and go about two hours away, if traffic was bad. I had been out of the country three times when I was in college, twice to Honduras and once to Israel. But my longest time outside of America was for about three months and at least I spoke the language.
Imagine if you will: put yourself in a huge city, surrounded by people who all look very different from you and yet very similar to each other. Everywhere I went, it felt like everyone else had dressed for a black tie event and I showed up for a pool party in a bikini. I ended up teaching in a very small city, at least by Chinese standards. There are about 250,000 people in this city and among those people, less than 10 people are not of Chinese origin. Kind of mind blowing, right?
Within the first week of arriving I quickly learned the words for “foreigner” in Chinese. On a daily basis people would point and stare, or shout “HELLO!” from the other side of the street, or even ask to take pictures with me. Three years later, this still happens regularly. I was a celebrity in this city and only because I was not Chinese.
I hated it, I hated being treated differently. I was raised in a house where we treated people as people, we are all equal. And if I was going to be famous for something, I wanted it to be because I had done something worthwhile, not because I was born in America.
First Six Months
The first six months that I was here were pretty great. I started my teaching job and it was actually pretty easy because I only worked about ten hours a week. That gave me time to study Chinese, make friends, and even start a local English corner for people to come and practice English for free.
What made these first six months even better was an American family who lived in the city with me. Their family made up half of the foreigners in the entire city and they became good friends of mine. We met weekly, and some times even daily. Their two teenage daughters were the same age as my students but since they had spent most of their lives growing up in China, they were very encouraging to me. The whole family helped me make friends, learn my way around the city, but most importantly, they reminded me that I was not alone.
If it hadn’t have been for this family, I don’t think I would have survived the first six months alone in China. But even good things don’t last forever and it came time for them to leave.
Six Months of Darkness
After this family left, I was alone. There were other foreign teachers who I worked with but we were workmates, not close friends. And very quickly I discovered that I had not faced the most difficult part of moving to another country, culture shock. For six months, I was able to escape into the “American bubble” that was that family’s apartment multiple times a week. So, I had an extended stay in the “honeymoon” phase of culture shock.
When they left, it was like someone ripped a bandage off a wound that I didn’t even know I had. It started off small, little things would make me angry. Then everything made me angry. Eventually, I hated everything about being in this city. I slipped into a darkness that began as anger, which led to isolation. Then I became very lonely and depressed for a brief time. And eventually, I decided that I just didn’t care anymore.
But to everyone else, I was the sweet and always smiling foreigner who taught at the No. 1 high school. They didn’t see the dark clouds that loomed above me because I had managed to force myself to shine a bright smile every time I walked outside.
Around the eighth month of my contract, the school approached me and asked me if I had planned to stay another year. Even to this day, three years later, I don’t know why I agreed. As near as I can tell, I was afraid to leave because I didn’t know what I would do if I went back to America. Working at Walmart was certainly not my dream. I guess I saw that if I stayed in China, at least I could be a teacher. So I stayed.
Choices have Consequences
How did I go from “just ten months” to “please don’t make me leave?” That is a very good question. Sometimes, I am still a little unsure of the answer. But this is what I have come up with. There were three major turning points in my life. Three choices that I made that changed my view of this city and of this country and even my view of my own life forever.
The first choice that I made was to start trying to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine.
I wanted to be a martial artist. I now lived in the land of martial arts, kungfu, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee. Before I started, I was a lazy couch potato that didn’t even like walking to the supermarket each day for fresh vegetables, so I ate out all the time. In December 2015, I started studying Chinese Taichi. I quickly fell in love and studied three mornings a week with a teacher who didn’t even speak English. Then in May 2016, he began working with a young Tae Kwon Do instructor and they made arrangements for me to join the children as they studied. This was even better than Taichi for me because it was fast paced, high energy and we were learning not only the basics of combat, but how to apply them to real life situations. On top of that, the kids where great motivation to push myself to grow more every day.
Eventually, my Tae Kwon Do coach became one of my closest friends and in the summer, we began training together for several hours a day six days a week. By the end of summer, I had my green belt and plans to continue working towards my black belt.
In October, my coach began studying a Filipino stick fighting martial art called Eskrima Cacoy Doce Pares and quickly came back and taught me everything he had learned and we have continued to train in this together, even now.
My decision to fulfill a dream of mine lead me to meeting one of my closest friends and it gave me something to do. I had realized that I was so miserable for such a long time because I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go out, I didn’t make friends, I didn’t even go to the supermarket. I just went to eat alone at restaurants and went home. But now, I have martial arts, one of the most important and exciting things that I do on a daily basis.
I also became a volunteer.
It took a long time for me to get myself into a position where someone would allow me to help them but eventually, I found a local community center and began holding a free English corner there each week. I became friends with the boss and his sister and eventually, they let me start helping there during the summer of 2016. Helping at the community center gave me a sense of purpose. Prior to helping at the community center, I felt like I was wasting life because no one wanted my help and my job was so limited. I grew up volunteering at food banks, crisis pregnancy centers, and my church. Coming here and having people refuse my help broke my heart.
But this community center changed my life because it restored my sense of purpose. It gave me a reason to stay in China. I would get up every morning and unlock the door, clean up a little, talk with students, and then just be there in case someone needed something. I felt like I had a place that I belonged and a reason to be here in this city. I wanted to serve others and the boss gave me an opportunity to do that and I was happy to do it free of charge.
The final decision I made was to write a book.
That sounds a little crazy and I don’t actually have a published book right now but I did start one. Two things actually came from starting that book.
First, I discovered that I love to write. Growing up, I hated writing because I only wrote what was required of me in school and my father was always very critical of my writing. I guess I can thank him for that now because not long after I started writing in China, I decided to become a freelance writer. I had plenty of free time because my teaching job had limited hours and I couldn’t work anywhere else in China. So I started writing for people on the internet. I am actually in the process of building up my portfolio and working towards freelancing full time. Though I mostly do ghostwriting, because those jobs are a little easier to find, it has allowed me to explore writing in an array of niches from fitness and DIY, shopping and technology, and education and outdoor activities. I did discover that technology is my primary niche and health/fitness is my secondary.
Aside from falling in love with writing, something I once despised, I also found my creative release. Naturally, as a woman, I run on emotions. But I have always had difficulties coping with my emotions that seem to change faster than most women change clothes. Eventually, I started referring to myself as an emotional hurricane. I knew the problem, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I tried everything to be able to release my emotions without exploding on someone. I tried drawing and painting, singing and song writing, and even used marital arts as a way to release some emotions, but nothing seemed to really help me cope.
When I first started writing, I wrote a book about my life in China and the stages of culture shock. It was a terrible book because it was full of self-hate, overemotional nonsense, and it was really just poorly written, more like a rant in write than anything. But what it became was a way for me to see my life and how I had been going through culture shock. And how I had NOT been coping with it emotionally. My book allowed me to release the emotions that had been building up inside of me for more than two years, without having to explode on another human being. While writing the book, I cried about things I didn’t know made me sad and I laughed about things that had happened in the past that were now funny. After I had finished the 15,000-word book, I felt a sense of relief. Almost as though my body had been filling up with air for so long that I was suffocating and someone finally punctured a small hole for the air to release and I could breathe again.
Three Years Strong
In the middle of 2017, almost three years exactly from the day that I landed on Chinese soil, I sit here reflecting on my life since arriving and I can see the changes that have occurred. The lessons that I have learned. The friends that I have made. And all the experiences that I have had. Through the good, the bad, and the terribly ugly times, I made it. I don’t take credit for my strength, I would say my faith in God brought me this far because without Him, I would have quit years ago.
Even now as things in my life are beginning to shift and change again, I don’t want to leave China, and I don’t plan to leave either. As many of the doors that were once very important to me are beginning to close, I sit here waiting for the next doors to open so that I can walk through.
The local people often comment on how I live a “colorful life”. They say because I write, study martial arts, and live in China, my life is special. But I don’t really believe that is true. I could be in America, working at Walmart, and still live a life that is just as exciting as my life is here in China. This is true because I realized that it is our choices that make our lives colorful and exciting, not the places we live or the things we do.