Expats explain the moment they finally felt China was more than just a temporary place to live

By Leila Hashemi Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/11 15:23:39

Home is where the heart is


Accepting and adopting local cultures helps make adapting easier for expats. Photo: VCG



It was the last day of the National Day holidays, and Emily Skipper (pseudonym), 31, was in the US messaging her friends back in Beijing. She almost did a double take when she reread the message she sent saying, "I can't wait to get back home."

"It was the first time I had ever referred to Beijing or China as home; I was a little taken aback, but it was actually comforting at the same time," she said.

Moving across the world to a place that is completely foreign in language, customs and day-to-day life is challenging. It takes months to a year to get through the initial stages of culture shock and finally feel settled down and a part of the new country you now live in. At first, you go through the exciting "honeymoon phase" where everything is new, and then to the "distress stage" where you realize you feel alone and confused. Then comes the "re-integration stage," which has you feeling angry with all the differences and idolizing your life back home. These are the biggest hurdles to jump through before finally reaching the final stage of acceptance and feeling at home "away from home."

Metropolitan spoke to expats and a therapist about when they finally felt at home in China and what they did to get there, as well as asking them to share some advice for fellow expats settling down in China.

The moment of realization

Daniel Rothwell, 24, who has been living in Beijing for four years, had a similar experience as Skipper when he first realized he felt China was his new home.

"It was my first time back in the UK after a year of living in Beijing when it dawned on me where I was born was no longer home," he said. "I'd catch myself unintentionally referring to Beijing as home, and jokingly brush it off as a mistake. After a few times, I gave up self-correcting and just accepted it as fact."

Rothwell agrees that the early stages of living in China are difficult. "Of course everyone has their teething problems and other cultural issues when they first move here, and in my first couple of weeks, I was also really dropped into the deep end. This forced me to adapt to the 'craziness,' and adapt quickly."

For Kaspar Davis, a 38-year-old teacher and student in China, it took almost two years to feel at home.

"I came to feel China was my home while I was in Dalian (Liao Ning)," he said. "I was studying Chinese kung fu bajiquan and went through a solemn to become a disciple to a master. I felt like my master became my second father and all his disciples became my brothers and sisters."

For Johann Lewis, a 31-year-old teacher who has been living in China since 2015, the moment he realized China was now his home was when he signed his new work contract. "My moment of clarity came when I was updating my resume and realized that by signing the contract for my third year of employment, this will be the longest I have ever stayed at one company," he explained.

Steps to feeling at home

Mia Livingston, expat and counselor at the Beijing Mindfulness Center, gave some advice to expats moving to a new place for the first time from her own experiences. "I've been an expat most of my life, so before we moved to China I thought I knew exactly what to do," she said. "Download some TV series from home; they'll make your first few weeks feel much more normal and settled. Learn some basic Chinese phrases, and get comfortable with Google Translate for the rest. Maximize the luggage you can bring with you - we paid just a bit extra so we could immediately have a few of our usual pictures and decorations around us in our new place, as well as using some of the same spices from home when cooking."

She explained that these physical details may not seem like a big deal, but they really make a difference in helping you settle down smoothly. "No matter how experienced you may be, there's a reptile part of your brain that is instinctively afraid that all those changes are going to kill you!" she said. "Remind yourself that it's normal to feel irrationally terrified, and you'll feel at home eventually. Be patient with yourself - it's definitely going to take time."

In a report from The Telegraph, a UK-based publication, they give five ways to help you feel more at home in the country you have moved to - absorb, ask, adventure, attempt and adopt.

In the article, they urge new expats to get out there and find out more about the culture around them, ask questions and seek out new places and become familiar with their surroundings. In addition, they suggest to try new things and to start adopting some of the local nuances and cultures to feel more a part of the area.

Rothwell advises expats to relax and try to take their time. "Don't rush anything. Find your place, find your people, and if you can't find them, they'll come," he said. "Everything changes so fast in this city, there's no use trying to keep up."

Davis and Lewis both suggest that learning the language is a pivotal way of becoming more acclimated in China. "The advice I would give is to learn Chinese as quickly as possible to help you get by. Also, don't only hang out with foreigners," Davis said. "Having Chinese friends is the best way to learn Chinese culture and adapt more smoothly."

Lewis agrees. "Knowledge of the language will take you far. I only know enough to form a few basic sentences, and I can do much more than my peers who have not taken the time to learn the language."

Becoming a part of the community

In addition to going through the stages of shock and acceptance, there are ways to make your life easier and feel more at home in China. Rothwell explains that joining the music scene was an integral part of his feeling more at home in China. "It's awesome. It's all inclusive. It's amazing. It's got everything you want within the Second Ring Road, and then past the fifth," he said.

He added that the people in Beijing are also a huge part of making China his home away from home.

"Beijing's a transient place, and you get used to those that are close to you coming and going pretty quickly. What this means is that (at the risk of sounding like a poster on a teenager's wall) you really 'live for the nights you won't remember with the people you'll never forget.'"

Rothwell believes it is easy to feel at home because you meet people from all walks of life, including some you may not associate with if you were back in your hometown. 

"Beijing's nightlife scene throws people from all professions and genre-stereotypes into the same melting pot for both locals and expats, and this results in creating some of the most interesting and dynamic friendships one can make. What's even better is that many of these friends end up becoming family," Rothwell said. 

Lewis advises that the word "yes" will get you a long way in trying to make new friends and have experiences that will make you feel more included in the local scene. "Another piece of advice once you get here - accept any and all KTV invitations," he said. "I generally dislike karaoke, but I've met more people this way than in any other way. Even if you can't speak the language, everyone can laugh, play dice, drink beer and sing songs."

Finding familiar faces and places is all a part of creating a more inclusive lifestyle in a foreign county. In an article from internations.org, an organization designed to help expats feel at home abroad through advice and networking, they advise that expats get out and find local places to call their own. Suggesting that expats find a local coffee shop, library or join a yoga class or interest group, which will help expats feel a sense of familiarity and develop relationships within those groups.

 Livingston agrees. "Once you've arrived, start creating routines immediately, and see if you can recreate some of the same routines that you had at home," she explained. "Along with the basics such as getting a phone and bank account, get to know a few people locally, even if it's just learning the name of the person next door so you can say 'hi' and 'how are you.'" She also added that you should set yourself the task of doing a bit of research every week to find your favorite market, park and local walk. "All of this will be exhausting and take a lot of time, so pace yourself. It's said that everything you used to do at home, will take ten times the energy to do in a brand new place where you're not familiar with the life or language."

Expats should take steps to become a part of their new community and feel at home. Photo: VCG 


Newspaper headline: Home is where the heart is


Posted in: TWOCENTS-OPINION,METRO BEIJING

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