Not everyone who goes to China loves their experience.
For example, I always thought it was harder for western women to find the same levels of enjoyment as their male counterparts because China, and Asia on the whole, isn’t geared toward women.
In my experience, much of what I experienced was catered to my gaze, and my wallet.
But since I’m obviously not a woman, I figure it’s best to stop hypothesizing on what it’s like to be a female expat in China, and instead bring in someone who actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.
I reached out to Belle Allen, a Boston native who like many young college graduates stumbled into China rather whimsically.
“China was random. I hadn’t been thinking about going to teach overseas, or even about teaching in general,” she tells me during a Zoom call on an overcast Saturday afternoon.
“I got into teaching as a last resort because I had just got out of grad school and I was looking for work. At the time, a lot of the entry-level positions were filled, and I needed something to build up my resumé.”
For Allen, this meant dabbling in teaching courses with local programs that required a lot of time and money, two things that she was not trying to waste.
Needing a change, Allen then began pursuing positions abroad.
“I have to say: I’m really glad I went to China even though it didn’t end up the way I wanted it to,” she begins.
Allen then goes on to explain that part of what didn’t go well for her was the relationship she fostered with her employer, Education First (EF), a massive corporation that has offices in many countries across the globe.
It didn’t take long for Allen to discover that she was just a cog in their machine, a reality that left her feeling both undesired and feeling like she was easily replaceable.
Adding to that, Allen also found herself battling negative thoughts that at times overwhelmed her.
“I was actually very anxious because I was overthinking the entire time I was in China, and I prevented myself from finding enjoyment,” she admits. “I wish I hadn’t done that because I think I was off-putting to some people, but I really was so anxious because of the language barrier.”
“I was trying to pick it [Mandarin] up and I was doing Duolingo, but it wasn’t working. Another reason I wish I hadn’t done that is because the language barrier wasn’t a big deal. I mean, I survived without knowing more than three words.”
Allen has a point.
I remember someone telling me that “you don’t just pick up Mandarin. It’s not like Spanish where we have the same alphabet and similar vocab.”
Another guy told me that he was confident in his ability to quickly learn the language, and being the cynic that I am, I took aim.
“So you’ll be fluent in three months?” I jabbed.
“Something like that,” he joked.
Still, like Allen said, one didn’t need to know the local language in order to thrive.
Allen again tells me that she wishes she had not made things in China more complicated than they were, that perhaps if she was able to sit back and let things play out organically, then maybe she could have started to see the many benefits of living in China.
This mentality may have also helped the relationship she had with her employer, one that could have eased some of the issues she encountered.
“I was only at EF for two months, and I ended up leaving because I had an issue with my housing. EF didn’t give us the support that they should have,” she says.
Allen isn’t wrong, but as a guy who was willing to sign a lease on the first place I toured, provided there were no soggy dumplings in the fridge or a leaky toilet in the bathroom, it’s hard to relate to her plight.
“My situation ended up being a big deal because the landlord was jerking me around and I was about to be homeless,” Allen recalls. “I reached out to EF for help and they told me it wasn’t their problem.”
I laugh, having heard from a few others about the cringy one-liners EF had doled out.
Allen then tells me that EF also told her getting scammed was par for the course in China, and that there was nothing they could do to help her reconcile the situation.
Essentially, she was on her own in finding a place to live.
“That’s when I first started thinking seriously about leaving because I didn’t want to be on the street, in China of all places,” she says.
The tenor of our conversation then switches when I ask her to summarize her time abroad.
“Six months, Belle. That’s a long time. Looking back, what did you take away from your time in China?” I ask.
“I surprisingly did not like the food, but my second takeaway is I liked a lot of the people, especially my Chinese coworkers. And I really liked the kids that I had at my second school. They were loud and they were crazy because they were between one to three years old, but I still had fun with them,” she explains.
“Plus, I always wanted to travel, and I got to go to places where I would not have gone otherwise. For example, the Great Wall of China, and I don’t think I ever would have made it over to Thailand because it is so far and when I travel with friends or family, they are not trying to take those types of flights.”
“That’s good to hear,” I tell her. “So, I know there were some things that went on with EF that you didn’t love, but were there other aspects to living in China that turned you off?”
Avid readers of this blog know about some of the vast cultural differences between the United States and China, and like I expected, a few of Allen’s concerns ran parallel with mine.
“I will say that manners differ greatly,” Allen begins. “And I’m not trying to be stuck up, but sometimes I spent a whole subway ride getting stared at. After staring at my brown skin for two minutes, I would have thought that they would have been over it, but they weren’t. It was weird because it’s not like I’m rainbow-colored.”
“I’ve had conversations with people about that same exact thing,” I acknowledge. “Do you think that people are staring because they are curious, or is there animosity attached to their gaze?”
“I want to say it’s curiosity. One of my coworkers explained that in their culture skin color is a representation of class. For example, in Chinese culture, people will assume that if your skin is dark that you work in the fields and are poor.”
“On the other hand, I was also told that some people might think I am a movie star. That would be awesome, but obviously that’s not the case with me.”
Allen then tells a story where she went to a park on her day off.
She says the entire time she was being followed by people who were snapping photos of her, but Allen insists that their intentions were pure, with many members of the unofficial paparazzi remarking on how beautiful she was and being awestruck at how different she was from them.
All of these events encompassed much of her six months in China, after which Allen made the decision to ultimately return to Boston and begin a new chapter of her life.
“The first thing I did when I came back was join AmeriCorps. Although it was not what it was described to be, I made a lot of friends there and I’m glad I did it,” Allen says. “We would meet up twice a month and perform our service, but each time we did my friends and I joked that we learned absolutely nothing,” she laughs.
With AmeriCorps, Allen didn’t feel like she was helping out her community the way she intended, but the experience did motivate her to transition into her new career as a freelancer in communications.
“I am running social media, writing blog posts, doing newsletters, and I even learned coding because I am always doing other people’s jobs,” she says of her new responsibilities.
Also, despite the unpredictability of 2020, Allen has also discovered a passion for art, something she has commercialized by starting her own store on Etsy.
Ask her, and Allen may tell you that all this seemed impossible before she embarked on a journey halfway around the world back in 2018, but she’s here today, and doing her best to enjoy the present.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself sometimes, so I’ve been working on relaxing and dealing with my anxiety that is self-made and completely unnecessary,” she tells me as we wrap our virtual reunion.
China may not be for you, but for anyone and everyone who goes, an opportunity to grow most certainly awaits.
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