Moving to China became a whirlwind decision for me. Within one week, I went from toying with the idea of moving to Asia for the very first time to accepting a position and announcing my move to all my friends and family. I only had a few months to get my “ducks in a row” for moving abroad (pretty much the shortest amount of time one can do all the visa and paperwork in). I knew no Mandarin and very little about day-to-day life there, but felt excited. This was going to be good… right? (In my head, I pictured a very Lost in Translation type of adventure.)
As one should when moving to foreign country, I did a bit of research. I talked to friends who’d been there; I downloaded the recommended language apps; I made a list of recommended products to bring; and I read the recommended blog posts about living there (oddly, all the highly recommended blog posts for living in China are fairly depressing and talk a lot about going through a period of total regret after the excitement of a new country fades—but don’t worry, apparently if you push through, living in China gets good again). Never once during the lead up to moving did I ever feel hesitant or nervous about my decision. Except for maybe when I received an email casually mentioning that my flight had been moved up like a week and I’d have maybe two days between finishing my current job and moving to get everything I needed to do finished (I started packing my suitcase at like 5 p.m. the night before). I have a way of shaking things off by saying “don’t worry, it’ll be an adventure,” so for me, the emotional aspects of moving to the other side of the world, to a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and really didn’t know much about the culture didn’t set in until I stepped off the plane. My first week in China was full of nerves and emotions but it was also one of my greatest weeks:
Thursday (+Wednesday): One of those days that feels abnormally long… and technically was since I spent so many hours in that state of limbo created by airport layovers and long flights over multiple timezones. My flight eventually left America Wednesday evening. We had dinner, midnight snack, and breakfast on the plane (sometimes after dinner all the airplane’s windows go into fake night mode). Though, I just had Thursday morning before landing, it’s late Thursday night when I finally step off the plane and onto Chinese soil. It’s weird going from morning instantly to night but I had the worse time attempting to sleep on the flight, so I felt pretty tired anyway. Landing in Beijing, my phone only worked on WiFi, which I couldn’t access at the airport for some reason, so I couldn’t use any emails or text anyone to let them know I made it. I had no idea where I was heading (but I did know Disney had sent a driver to meet me). I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed but seeing all the city lights on the way to the hotel was pretty exciting. Checking in, I realized that even at an international hotel, communicating with staff was going to be a challenge. (A welcome package from Disney made my day though). My first big mistake came within my first hour there when I blew all the power in my room. (The staff that came to help reset the box were so nice and kept apologizing to me about the power. I felt horribly embarrassed and sad that I didn’t have the language skills to explain that it was all my fault).
Friday: Woke up at 3 a.m. (that time change is a real b) and spent that first morning doing fairly unproductive things (like letting a feeling of sadness and loneliness wash over me) until it was time to go to a TEFL conference (required by the government to get my work visa approved). I wondered around the second floor of the hotel lost and hungry until I found the right conference room only to learn the hotel told me to be there an hour earlier than needed. Luckily, I wasn’t the only person who was there stupid early. Unlucky for my fellow early arriver, this was when stress and hunger gave me a one-two punch in the gut and I broke down into tears while introducing myself. I had no idea where I could get food nor the skill set to ask, but she did and my first adventure exploring around the hotel resulted in eating my very first steamed bun. Food in my stomach and surrounded by English speakers, life didn’t feel as “holy-shirt-what-the-fork-am-I-doing-here” as it did before.
Saturday-Tuesday: (I’m lumping these days together because they were all fairly similar.) It really took less than 24 hours to get comfortable with Beijing and gain my bearings. I’d use my extra time from waking at 3 a.m. to go running around the Olympic Village and in the evenings use the subway to go exploring (often to checkout the breweries; there are some awesome ones popping up in Beijing). I made a solid circle of friends (many of whom I still talk to regularly) and somehow ended up with a pseudo-boyfriend. (We just… clicked! Unfortunately, he lives in Harbin and I was moving to Chengdu, two places about as far away from each other as you can get in China). That week, I had my first real-life experience with horrible pollution (one day where you could actually taste the pollution in the air, followed by a day so bad you couldn’t see more than a couple feet in front of you). Life felt good though. Exciting. I felt like China was somewhere I’d want to stay for years.
Wednesday: On my last full day in Beijing, the conference ended and I moved to a new hotel (only for one night, and they lost the reservation. We—me and about four other Disney employees—spent an hour in the lobby trying to get ahold of someone from corporate before we got it all cleared up). My room came with a pet fish (I have since named two fish after him) and a rubrik’s cube (exciting cause I’ve kept one by my bed in the states for years). That night, we celebrated our last night at probably my favorite brewery in all of China (I think it was 京A Taproom). Cozy. Good beer. It was a perfect ending to my time in Beijing and one of my favorite memories from China.
Thursday: I had a morning flight to Chengdu, so my entire morning was spent saying my goodbyes. My pseudo-boyfriend helped load my luggage into the car and we promised to visit each other soon (I never saw him again). I left him standing there, waving at me through the fog as my car headed down the street; I teared up just a little bit but couldn’t help but laugh when the driver asked if that was my husband. Landing in Chengdu felt a bit like starting over. My phone still didn’t work without WiFi but I had my hotel reservation and directions saved as photos so I could sill access them. No one met me at the airport. A scammer tried to take my luggage and force me into an unmarked taxi. When I was finally able to get into a legit taxi, the driver charged me twice as much as I should have paid for the trip to the hotel (I discovered that later). Not a smooth start to my new city. For Friday night, I had plans to go out with Beijing friends who had also moved to Chengdu (there were about six of us), but nothing for that first night. I messaged back and forth with my pseudo-boyfriend while settling into my hotel room, determined to keep that upbeat, excited feeling for living in China that I felt during that first week. But standing there alone in my hotel room, staring out at my view of the second ring road and listening to the constant abrasive honking of the traffic below, my new reality started settling in:
What the fork was I doing here?
GRETCHEN IS A WRITER-BASED IN PORTLAND, ORE. SHE GOT HER START AS A JOURNALIST WORKING ON THE SUSTAINABLE FASHION AND RESTAURANT BEAT BEFORE MOVING INTO COPYWRITING AND ADVERTISING WORK. SHE CURRENTLY BLOGS AND WORKS AS A FREELANCE WRITER.