Growing up in Cleveland, I was like any other child who had big dreams about life outside the confines of the city limits. I wanted to be an actress and a writer, and even as a child, I knew Cleveland wouldn’t cut it. I wanted sunshine and big cities like Los Angeles, New York, or even Paris. Never would I have imagined my wanderlust would take me halfway across the world to Asia.
Initially, I moved to China on a whim after a year of teaching English in South Korea. “Be careful,” people told me upon learning about my plans to move to China. “It’s a hard life there,” my mother warned me with bewilderment in her eyes. There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about Chinese culture. And the truth is, in some ways, since moving to China, life for me has never been better. In my more than three years in Shanghai, life has bloomed in a number of ways for me.
Growing up in the States, I was always told that through education and hard work, I would succeed in life. As an adult in the workforce, that didn’t necessarily feel true. No matter how hard I worked, the American dream seemed to elude me. In China though, I’ve been able to gain a certain amount of financial freedom at a much more accelerated rate than I had back in my home country.
Most people come in as ESL teachers, and for good reason. The industry is booming, with candidates needing little more than a BA degree and a pulse to make good, easy money. Beyond that, China’s economy is booming and ripe with opportunities for new business owners and those looking to get into various industries unrelated to the education field. Getting a business visa for instance isn’t hard, and since so much is manufactured here, that cuts down on the costs of production. If one is looking to open a business, China is a great place to do it, not only because of the relaxed start-up culture, but also because so much hasn’t been done here, it’s easy to be at the forefront of a market.
When the time came to make the pivot from teaching to my first love of writing, I went from teacher, to copywriter, to magazine editor, all within a year’s time. I was floored at my rapid rise into the world of publishing in Shanghai. Back in New York, I had a rough go at it while trying to work my way up the ladder. There was always someone with more experience, and talent seemed to take a backseat to connections and clout. The great thing about Shanghai is that despite being a city of millions, the foreign community is still pretty small, thereby making it easier to get somewhere in your chosen field in a decent amount of time.
I changed in other ways, too. Style-wise, I became much bolder and out there with some of my clothing choices. Fashion here skews much more traditionally feminine and even juvenile, with many outfits featuring cartoon characters and embellishments like costume jewelry and ribbons. This isn’t necessarily the aesthetic I would go for back in the States, but outside of my comfort zone, I’ve become more interested in experimenting with my look.
Since being here, I’ve also taken to wearing accessories like hairbands, scrunchies and barrettes to accentuate and add a fun and whimsical element to my outfits for instance. Not feeling so beholden to staying in the “Black girl box,” I finally took the opportunity to do things like wear purple box braids, something I would have been far too insecure to do in the past.
Shanghai is a fun, dynamic city with lots to do, including a great art and music scene. I’m spoiled for choices when it come to activities and delicious international and local cuisine. There is a lot to offer.
But I will admit that it’s not all rainbows and sunshine as an expat in the Middle Kingdom.
Shanghai can be very transient when it comes to people living the expat life. Most people don’t move here looking to settle down, instead, doing short stints of anywhere between two to five years on average. As someone who often engages in intense friendships, I’ve had to learn to shield myself from getting too close to people.
And as a Black woman, I personally find dating to be more difficult in Asia than in other places I’ve lived, including in Europe and the States. Being in my 30s, I’m not so interested in random hookups and dating around just to date. In my experience though, dating the Chinese is usually out of the question as they tend to be very homogeneous and not so interested in dating outside of their race. When it comes to other foreigners, finding a temporary fix is easy, but coming across someone who might want something more serious hasn’t been so effortless in my case.
Even though living abroad comes with certain social difficulties, I am generally happy with the route I have taken. While I know a life in China might not be for everyone, in today’s uncertain economic times, we all should be looking into alternative ways of living. If you’re feeling stuck in a rut, or looking for a career change, a year or two abroad in a different country might be just the thing to jump-start a new chapter in your life.