It is difficult to pinpoint one clear reason why I chose to become an expat. I had just graduated from university in 2011, aged 24. I was the first person in my family to graduate from university, it was a proud moment, especially seeing my dad beaming with pride.
I was on the hunt for a graduate job and about to move in with my boyfriend of three years. From the outside, my life looked like it was going well, but shortly after graduating, my partner and I decided to go our separate ways.
I was also struggling in the search for a job, a recession meant that jobs were highly competitive and while everyone around me was having more success, my life was failing miserably. So I decided to pluck up the courage and bring my dream of travelling and living abroad to life. A job offer as an English language teacher meant that I was going to Northern China, eeeekkk!
Now for anyone who has gone through the process of acquiring a Chinese visa, even a tourist one, will understand that it is ridiculously difficult. I had requests to resend documents about four or five times before losing my cool and putting in a complaint. After which my visa miraculously arrived in the post. Flights were booked and it was time to say goodbye and fly halfway across the world. Seeing my mother cry is a rarity, maybe only twice has it happened, when she was in a car accident (luckily unscathed) and when my grandad passed away. So seeing my mum welling up with tears at the airport is still something gets me. I wasn't prepared for how difficult it would be to leave.
The journey there is still a vivid memory, in particular the flight from Heathrow to Istanbul. Plane food is probably some of the worst food I've tasted and it may have something to do with the altitude but I despise it and mainly eat just the bread rolls. So on this particular flight I was sat next to a balding, heavy-set Turkish man who decided to take over my teeny, tiny space. This however, wasn't enough for the man. He only had to ruin my life by stealing my bread roll (I know it seems silly but I was starving, words cannot describe the torment I felt at witnessing him eat MY BREAD ROLL!). I know you feel my pain.
Getting off the plane in Hohhot, where you ask? Where indeed! It borders Mongolia with China but I can assure you it is in China. There was nothing more irritating than being asked 'how's Mongolia', I don't know because I live in China!
First thing I noticed is it's ridiculously cold, like -25 degrees Celsius cold. I almost turned around and caught the first plane back. After this the first week was a blur, a stressful, surreal blur (if you get the quote, you're my new favourite person). This is a medium-sized city in China, so quite big. Out of a population of 1.407 million there were probably around 100 expats, slightly outnumbered to say the least.
The locals, ah the locals, the stares of disbelief and the incessant 'Hello?', the question mark is intentional as they said it like it was a question. What happened if you said it back I hear you say, well they would jump out of their skin if you could speak. By this point you may have gathered that they knew very little English.
The most annoying thing about living there was the constant bombardment of photos. This is so they can turn around to their friends and say 'this is my rich western friend' (it's a social status thing but can be quite intrusive and annoying). In the end I resolved to walking around with a hoodie up and earphones in because it was such a nuisance walking through the streets as a ‘wàiguórén’ (foreigner) or ‘Gweilo’ (literal translation=ghost man but has been translated in English as foreign devil). I was forced to learn mandarin due to language barriers, however, my mandarin was quite limited to food, greetings and directions. It hasn't improved much since then either. I spent a year in China and being away from the tourist areas enabled me to learn a lot about the culture and traditions of this ancient country, but every day was also a huge struggle in either communication or cultural clashes.
My year in China was difficult but also amazing. It opened up my eyes to things I never thought existed. I’ve pushed beyond my boundaries into something completely new and unknown and in the process I’ve also gained some lifelong friends from the experience. After this I returned home for three months as I’d been away from my family for 12 months and needed to spend some quality time with them. But I didn’t stay put for long, my next adventure took me to Hong Kong.
If I had to sum up Hong Kong in one word it would have to be ‘amazing’, it’s a place I recommend everyone at least visits. It is a much easier place to live than China, as English is spoken affluently here. It is only the mainlanders that you will find don’t speak English and they are usually situated around the Mong Kok area.
Hong Kong is a Westerners playground, there are restaurants from every corner of the world to cater to your whims and desires. There is afternoon tea, a floating restaurant, beaches, hikes, waterfalls, infinity pools, islands, dragon boat racing, kayaking, windsurfing, camping and junk boats (these are boats which you can hire for the day, catered with food and drink and floatation devices. So much fun!). However, there something which is very pungent to notice about Hong Kong, there is an evident divide between races and the social classes in the city. So obvious so, that there are particular areas of the city that are dominated by expats.
Although this sounds a little like a sales pitch, it was that amazing, but that’s not to say it was without its own challenges. Culture was a still a bit of a struggle although not as prominent. Hong Kong is also a very transient city and the friends you make there, although they will no doubt be lifelong as you have a shared experience like no other, eventually everyone leaves and you are faced with the challenge of almost starting all over again. This can make you feel a little lost or unsettled here, you never truly feel like anything here is fixed or permanent. I left at the start of the Hong Kong riots and this also highlighted another uncertainty facing this city, how long with it be able to maintain its independent government before China sweeps in and destroys everything this city stands for?
To epitomise what an expat is to me it is the broadening of the mind. The pursuit of something ‘other’, to push past your own boundaries into the new and unknown and come out of it a better person than you went in. If you’re going to make the leap to move away the best advice I could give is to keep an open mind. You are going to come across things in other cultures which you struggle with or don’t agree with but it’s the sitting down and asking why that will really help to understand a culture and immerse yourself in it. You still may not agree with the reasoning but at least you will know why something is done rather than simply rejecting it without even trying to understand it. This is a lot harder said than done but everything is a learning curve, we’re all human and no one is perfect but as long as you try that will make your life abroad a lot easier in the long-term.
I hold very fond memories of the 16 months I spent in Hong Kong and although I left it I wasn’t truly ready to say goodbye to this metropolis haven. I returned to pursue a Master’s degree in London. So in a sense I have moved back to my native country, but once completed, I’m doubtful I will stick around for very long, I wasn’t made to stay in one place for too long.