Bennett ended up teaching in China after a conversation with a university friend after a night out at early o’clock. “You’re the only person I know who could do it!” was the explanation.
Graduation was soon followed by 6 months in Inner Mongolia, China, which then ended up being extended to a 2 year stay, with a trip home for the London Olympics, a trip to see the aforementioned friend in Vietnam and a Christmas and New Year stay in New Zealand with family included in the mix.
Currently residing in Zhangzhou, in southern China, she’ll be leaving the Middle Kingdom to pursue a long-term dream of doing a working holiday in New Zealand; the 23 month visa is at the ready.
Today, she shares with the League of Expat Writers what life is like as an expat in China.
What is the best thing about being an expat?
You often get asked things like this by people wanting to do the same thing: pack up and live somewhere which is not your home country. It’s not an easy choice, neither is it easy in execution, especially at the beginning, however there is a certain something that makes me realise in my heart that what I am doing is the right thing for me.
What’s the best thing about being an expat? Becoming a local.
Coming from the UK, we often talk about our local pub, where we are known for our favourite drink. We have favourite restaurants where waiters know us by name. We also have local haunts to meet friends, be it a park, street corner or coffee shop.
However the feeling of being able to create this in a country not your own and in a place with people who do not speak the same mother tongue as you is one of the best and most satisfying in the world. In China I’m a foreigner, a wàiguó rén 外国人, I will never truly “fit in” – my white skin, 5’11” stature and light brown hair has put pay to this – however after over a year and a half of living in the same city, I can definitely call this place home now.
I have gone from not knowing how to read a menu, how to find out what is on offer somewhere to now being able to order what I want in many local places; sometimes I don’t even have to open my mouth to order, as the staff know exactly what I want. So, I may order the same thing every time, but doesn’t everyone when they are somewhere they feel comfortable, eating and drinking something they feel comfortable with? When you have takeaway at home for example, I’m sure there’s at least one dish you’ll order every time without fail, right?
Whilst my favourite foods are ordered without a breath, I can now converse a lot more with the staff whilst I wait for it.
It’s not just ordering food which has shows my capability and comfort in living in Zhangzhou. Take the hairdressers. I have visited my “local” salon a few times, firstly with a Chinese friend in tow. Gradually I felt braver and had little trims (一点yīdiǎn), but each time during the conversation with the hair washers (separate from the actual hairdressers as they need lots of jobs for all the Chinese people to do) I was not very competent or confident.
The most recent time I went to the hairdressers, I actually wanted a major style change. I had a good 20 minute conversation with the hair washer. Granted, we talked about simple things like what fruit I liked, that I couldn’t speak the local language, only Putonghua (普通话Pǔtōnghuà) (the standard Mandarin) and that I could speak more Chinese than the American who came into the salon recently, but it was a conversation. She was asking me questions and I was answering and vice versa. Even when I apologised for my poor pronunciation (4 tones is a killer), she was very kind and said that she understood me fine. I love it when people accept that you are trying your best and they try their best to listen to you.
Even though I am leaving, I am looking forward to showing my replacement around Zhangzhou. There is nothing I love more than showing off somewhere I know well! Whether it’s my university city where friends have come to visit, or Beijing, showing a friend the best that China has to offer, I love being a tour guide. To me, it’s the ultimate way of showing how much you know a place.
I am coming to my natural end here in China.
It’s not that I don’t love the place, it’s almost that I love it too much and if I don’t move now I never will. I’m also looking forward to clocking up my 4th country of residence (at least temporary anyway) in New Zealand later this year, so more exciting adventures await. I just hope that someday I can feel like a local there too.