The early stages of living in a new country can be truly daunting.
I have lived in China on three separate occasions*, but my first trip truly set the tone. It was like being the reluctant star of a comedy sketch, and I oscillated between finding it horrendous, fantastical, sad, hilarious, shocking and everything in between. It needs its own entire post, tbh.
But there are ways to navigate this.
There came a point after the ‘honeymoon stage‘, right after the constant staring, sneaky pictures and unsolicited touching; between the class clown who put another student in a headlock; and just after my attempts at speaking Chinese in public were met with bouts of raucous laughter that I decided enough was enough.
Elisia had two decisions: see this through or fly back home.
I chose the former. Here’s what helped me…
Find your tribe
I didn’t officially ‘join’ a group, per se, but I organically gathered up a nice little circle – a little Chinese, American, British, Jamaican, Rwandan gumbo of love and gushy stuff. We had our first Christmas away from home together in a meeting room in my mate’s apartment, and that time can never be replicated nor reproduced – they made my Wúxī experience what it was. For those who want a bit of a structured way to meet people, and dislike bars, I suggest going to university events, joining language corners or getting in touch with the Nomadness Travel Tribe, who have over 10,000 members all over the world – me being one of them.
Or a friend who ‘gets it’
In week 4, through a friend that ‘knew a friend’, a brief phone-call and then a dinner in a Pizza Hut, I met one such person. She is one of the most amazing black women I’ve ever met in life, and we still speak and love each other to this day. Having a friend who ‘gets it’, particularly one that looks like you, can be such a boost to your mental wellbeing. Touching base now and again gave me space to vent (without worrying about causing offence) and providing encouragement. Friends who ‘get it’ come in many forms and aren’t just restricted to other foreign expats.
Remind yourself why you’re there
Grounding – you didn’t uproot your life for fun. You went there for a purpose. Remember that.
Don’t be basic – learn some…
You may not even understand 90% of what is being said to you, but getting familiar with the rhythms and pace of the new language will start to make a lot of things stick; you’re immediately opened up to a new world. Eavesdrop on commuters, tune into the nuances of different dialects and pride yourself on identifying basic words. Try radio stations, TV shows and local artists. When I discovered Miss Puff (a Chinese animated web series) and Khalil Fong (an R&B artist from Hong Kong) it was a wrap.
Practise, practise, practise
Native Chinese speakers were usually really lovely when it came to helping me on my language journey. I had to learn to loosen up a bit. Sure, I fluffed up some words here and there, but I was shown a lot of love when I made attempts and didn’t take the ensuing giggling so personal. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve spoken some basic shit to a shopkeeper or taxi driver, and their responses were always ‘wow! your Chinese is amazing!’
‘Amazing‘ was a major reach by any stretch of the imagination, but those bits of positive reinforcement made me want to speak more. Somehow it wasn’t so bad. You can find a host of language partners in the language groups on meetup.com if you’re UK based, or here if you’re mainland based.
Have one thing that keeps you going
My goal was to achieve a conversational level of Chinese where I could be thoroughly understood and even buss one, two joke. I felt like this was the major barrier separating me between myself and my local community. I didn’t crave acceptance, per se, I just wanted to show a few people that I’m actually pretty cool, Jamaica is not in Africa, no you can’t touch, yes I can be both a non-American black person with a British passport, and I’m a decent karaoke buddy. My survival counted on fostering some sort of emotional bond with them, however fleeting, because I’m not an island and China was not London 2.0. Proficiency tests gave me discipline and structure, whilst going on walks, joining my local gym and riding the bus gave me the colloquial quips I needed to verbally scatter anyone who decided to get cheeky.
Don’t compare, integrate.
The first few weeks of living in China saw me attempting to recreate life back home, from my Sunday dinner routine right to the fruitless search for a decent VPN to keep up with my reality show fix. I understand that it’s important to feel a sense of normalcy, but only up to a certain point. The day I decided I would get stuck in and truly live in my China experience was the day my China experience improved tenfold.
I discovered that the Chinese typically bonded over a large meal shared between friends and family – easy. I love food. When the Baijiu [alcoholic paint stripper] flows, the stiffest people got a little loose and a little bit of the veil lifted. I made an effort to attend every single dinner invite and banquet. It was more than just eating food; it was community. Learning little bits of Chinese food customs, such as knowing that the person paying is usually seated in a particular seat, or that the most senior members are served first – ensured I fostered some sort of relatability and respect between myself and my new acquaintances. This increased my appreciation for my new home.
Feel your feelings
Anytime and anywhere. I promise it gets easier, but give yourself permission to accept each emotion and let it pass naturally. Denying yourself the time to feel what it is you’re actually feeling can only make things more intense.
Travel, immerse, repeat! Travel on public transport (by yourself if you’re feeling brave) and go for afternoon strolls. Try a new place for tea or coffee, or a quiet spot to read your favourite book. And if you’re contemplating making a move but not sure how to finance it, make full use of the many, many study abroad scholarships available to you. The money is there…
Resources (mostly for China)
- Wechat < over 700 million people use this messaging service, and the majority of them are native speakers. They also have a handy translation service installed.
- Pleco < they have an ‘optical character reader’ in-app purchase, which many learners find helpful.
- iMandarinPod < one of my favourite podcasts, but you could subscribe to any you feel are helpful. I find it handy to pop this on in the morning while I’m carrying on with other things.
- Xmmandarinonline < an online tutoring service I used to help me prepare for my HSK exams.
- Internations < a massive expat community offering meet-ups and talks
- Nomadness Travel Tribe
Hope this was helpful! Please let me know if there is anything you feel I missed out: firstname.lastname@example.org