I thought I was strange. I was the first out of my family to make a jump to move abroad for work. I had a lot of questions and comments (to my face and behind my back) made about my decisions. Albeit, I wasn't moving to the most conventional country. "I'm moving abroad for work" stirs images of beaches, glamour or common international branded cities- think Dubai, Sydney, Paris...
Where did I choose- Beijing, China. Doesn't it sound so glamorous!? The reality is, it is pretty glamorous. It is an international city, with bright lights, a rich food culture, and a great set of shopping options. When I was telling people "I'm moving to China", their usual reply was "Oh my GOSH! WHY!?" However, Beijing is a city that sucks you in! It's now hard to imagine what my life would be like away from Beijing.
I'm sure, when I eventually leave, I'll have been subjected to the Chinese norm for so long, that I'll forget how to behave in UK society...
So, what lessons have I learned by living away from my culture?
1. You are a product of your environment
Love it or hate it- you become what you are surrounded by. I am still very British (or Bri'ish as my students would say) in that my old habits and phrases still haven't fully died. However, I am now accustomed to arguing for the bill, and moving my head closer to my bowl when eating rice or noods. My stomach no longer churns when I see everyones chopsticks fishing in the hotpot, I am accustomed to last minute changes (though the Brit in me still gets irritated), and I'm able to ignore the habits of the people around me (aunties holding the baby over the bin to do it's business, or uncles hacking up phlegm and spitting in the street).
2. There is no normal
What ever you think is normal- is actually not normal. Everyone has different normals. My idea of logical is very different to my local colleagues. Even road/ traffic regulations are very different. In Beijing, it is normal to wait for the "green light" to cross the road, but also for cars to continue turning right as you are crossing. This is not normal in the UK and it took a while for me to not fully fear for my life every time I crossed the road. Drinking water at a restaurant- "bing shui" is my go to phrase because in China, hot or warm water is served instead of the European/ American way of room temperature or cold water.
3. Everyone is subject to societal norms
What really highlighted this point for me was going out for dinner with my friends at home. We all ordered our own dish and they all arrived at the same time!! The norm in BJ is to eat "family style"- dishes are ordered for everyone on the table to share unless explicitly stating "I'm ordering this dish for me, if you want some, order your own!" Due to eating family style- dishes don't all arrive at the same time- they arrive when they are ready. You may all order a burger at a burger joint on the same order- you won't all receive your burger at the same time! A common phrase- "Go on, start!! Don't let it go cold... No, honestly, it's fine, start eating! Can I steal a chip though?"
4. Common sense isn't that common
You would think that common sense came about because EVERYONE HAS IT... WRONG. See "there is no normal".
5. You aren't meant to stay in one place
I've been happier since leaving the UK, more so than ever before. Whether its removing myself from the traditional mindset and markers given in UK society, or for a better pay check- the point exists. I'm actually happy more often than I'm depressed. You would think given the Covid situation over the last 3 years, that I'd be depressed all the time not being able to go see family or leave the country. But, actually, I'm pretty content in my Beijing bubble. I've found what makes my character tick. I have a life outside of work (something that didn't happen in teaching in the UK). I have a solid set of friends who are pretty much my family. I have money to eat out, shop on a whim (for example, spending $200 in Zara because I can), have my nails manicured fortnightly, and survive with money left at the end of the month and whilst saving a healthy amount (or travelling now the borders are open! or both!!).
6. You can unlearn everything
Your normal isn't the same wherever you go- you are more adaptable than you think. I know I have changed drastically since leaving the UK. I am more quick tempered than I thought. But also, I am more patient and guarded than I realised. I never understood how friendly and open I am- until noticing that I make friends with everyone on a night out or whilst brunching- waking up with a Rolodex of contacts on WeChat that I forgot I added! This isn't what you learn to do in the UK. You learn to keep yourself to your group and not openly socialise across groups of friends when in the UK. In Beijing however- more the merrier.
7. Friends become family
The people you first meet when you arrive, will most likely be your new family. Luckily, many of us who met on the first few days of work all got along pretty well. Some of these individuals will be my friends for years to come. We've travelled together, lived in each others pockets, cried to each other, celebrated with each other, and were there through the easy and the hard times. These are the individuals who will call you out for being an idiot or too guarded. They will be there when you admit you have messed up and are sorry. When you move away, you leave your blood family behind. This doesn't mean growing a thick skin and forgetting about them. It means you need to be more vulnerable to those you class as friends. They are the ones you need to let your guard down to.
8. You're never too old
I always had reservations about leaving the UK. But my head and heart told me I needed to leave. I wasn't meant to be stuck there. Family questioned my mum- "Isn't she too old to be running away to a different country?" or "Shouldn't she be thinking about settling down, buying a house, and starting a family?" Reality is- people move for work all the time- sometimes out of choice, sometimes through no choice due to the company they work for, others due to the social climate of their home country. What moving has shown me, is that there are so many older individuals who say "I wish I'd moved abroad sooner" or "I wish I'd done this in my 20s, not my 40s". I can't help but agree with them. You know, us expats are on to something!
Copyright Lauren Toner 2019-2023