9 months of complete oxymoron. Growth, fun, peace and serenity yet, anxiety, loneliness and fear.
Moving to a different country and starting a new life along with its culture and people wasn’t the most perfect thing ever, but it was definitely needed, knowing myself. When I see it glamourised so much on social media I think we tend to forget the baggage it comes with and the level of patience and commitment it takes.
China is full of surprises. One minute you’re sitting in a beautiful garden, living your best life, chewing on a beef dumpling satisfied with the scenic pictures you’ve just taken and the next minute you’re sweating on the metro because you saw someone stare into your soul, then whisper into their friend’s ear and now they’re both looking at you. At. The same. Time.
But China is full of surprises. Whilst living in Shanghai, I’ve loved all the positives. I’ve loved the food, the fact that there was always somewhere new to go, someone new to speak to, how similar it is to London, how relatively cheaper it was and how convenient it was to travel domestically. The culture was a tough one to crack for me, so it took a while for my culture shock to completely disappear, but the more I learned the easier it was to navigate. Check out my 2 month update post here.
I had loads of people asking me for advice along with questions about living and working abroad, mainly because they were planning to do something similar and so I was always happy to share my thoughts and experiences.
But my experiences are my experiences, and I wouldn’t want anyone to go by it 100%. However, with regards to general aspects like the culture, places, food, people, weather etc you could easily have 10 people tell you the same thing. Plus, Google and YouTube are well and truly your best friends.
So what was China really like for me behind the palm trees, pretty buildings and tasty dumplings?
Unsurprisingly, being abroad whilst black can be the most uncomfortable, frustrating and overwhelming experience ever, to the point where we’d always want to know prior to travelling how we are treated in said country. Before coming to China, I learned that we are constantly stared at and have our photos taken in secret (some not so secretive)! out of curiosity, since most have never seen a black person in the flesh before.
But I took it with a pinch of salt, and even found some humour behind it, because what can you really do? However, it wasn’t long before I grew to hate it, and almost resented those who did it. I soon stopped caring about their obsession and curiousness that seemed innocent at first but just turned into straight up ignorance. I soon stopped having the approachable aura I once had and a welcoming face because with staring came whispering and I’d be naive not to think that any of those whispers were rude comments.
When I say staring, I don’t even mean the basic and sly looks we give to strangers on a regular basis. I’m talking watching tv type of staring, the going out of their way to make you feel uncomfortable type of staring, the what is this person even doing here kind of staring. No shame whatsoever and completely disregarding the fact that you are a human with feelings.
I remember when I wanted to pick up a side job of one to one tutoring for extra money, which is what a lot of international teachers like myself had been doing, and was also a great opportunity to expand your teaching profile. In a group chat to support this, there were recruiters who’d post new opportunities all day long. You could then private message them once you saw a position you were interested in.
After contacting one of the recruiters, I was told that the client (parents) only required white teachers. This left me extremely disheartened and although I shouldn’t have been all that surprised, it was disappointing to witness, especially during one of the most lowest points in my life. I started to catch on how other recruiters from this group chat spoke to me, although they never mentioned anything race related, their whole energy was off, unpleasant and unprofessional.
Following this, at work I began getting more and more anxious about how I was being perceived by the parents of my students (or any student for that matter) as a black teacher. As extremely nice as most of them came across, I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought of me and if they felt as if their money was going to good use when they’d see me. Because let me keep it all the way real, they’re rich. The school fees are insane so I knew expectations were high which was understandable but also scary.
This wasn’t to doubt my teaching ability, because I knew how good I was at what I did. My teaching styles are so personalised and no one could’ve taken that from me. It’s a shame I wasn’t given the opportunity to show this off to all the recruiters I spoke to from the group chat because all they had to do was look at my profile picture and think ‘nah’.
Anxiety told me that the parents at my school would think the exact same.
It got more and more nerve racking for occasions like parent teacher conferences, graduation ceremonies and open lessons. That’s when they really got to see me in action and if they felt their children were getting the best education possible. Despite always getting positive feedback, I tended to think whether they would have preferred it if I was white.
Overtime, something as simple as getting on the metro or walking into a convenient store triggered so much anxiety. I knew that 1 in 5 people will stare at me like I owe them rent and at least one person will try and take a sly photo of me. Imagine being in the worst mood you could possibly think of, get on public transport and people are behaving this way? You just want to fight the whole carriage and scream at the top of your lungs.
But you can’t draw attention to yourself, because your race already does that for you.
In hindsight, I’ve realised it was pointless to dwell on what opinions and perceptions the locals had of me, especially knowing that I’ve met and befriended the most kindest and selfless souls; and that’s really all that mattered.
This was always going to happen and it was never going to be easy. I was always going to feel homesick, I was always going to give my friends a sob story every hour, I was always going to consider handing in my notice and flee the country prematurely, I was always going to cry at 3am wondering if I was really in the right place at the right time, and if so, will I ever get through it.
But China is full of surprises. One minute you’re asking the man upstairs to release you from bondage, the next minute your 4 year old student randomly says, ‘Teacher, I love you.’
The thing about being a teacher is you can’t just come in, do your job and go home. For the next hour or so spent with them, you have to be their mother, father, sister, brother, therapist, cuddly toy, everything. You have to build some form of rapport. You learn about them and get to know them as individuals not only as a group. You cater to their individual needs. You learn each of their likes and dislikes and act accordingly. You can mention at least one personality trait for each child. They’ll drive you up the wall, but then share their snacks with you 5 minutes later. Your whole life could be falling apart but you still have to come in and put smiles on their faces because you owe them that. They’ll see you in the corridor and scream your name. They’ll run inside the office just to say hi. You leave such a huge impact without even realising. And that’s what’s given me so much fulfilment.
The good always outweighed the bad. I did things I never imagined myself doing like solo travelling – check out my solo trip to Thailand post here. And overcoming a mini fear I had of travelling to the south of China where I knew the reactions of locals would be much more intense. Check out my Chinese New Year post here. Now I have enough memories to write a whole book.
I was always exposed to great company and I knew how important it was to occasionally connect with and spend time with other black internationals, as this kept me sane. We were all fighting the same battles and it was so good to vent to people who simply get you.
This was the freest I was ever going to be in my life. I came to China with no major responsibilities like a child to take care of or a mortgage to pay off. I congratulate myself because I’m the biggest scardy cat and cry baby this world has to offer, yet I managed to do something a lot of people have told me they’d never do. I always knew my resilience was through the roof, but this was the icing on the cake.
Shout out to anyone who has or is currently working/studying abroad! It’s funny how we always have an idea of what to expect but it still hits like a ton of bricks.
And farewell to the kids of Shanghai ❤️