By Jessica Dell
It’s fairly safe to say that I hardly look before I leap.
Six years ago, I loaded up my Nissan with way too many pairs of shoes and drove to San Diego, California, with only the promise of a minimum-wage job and a cheap room to rent from a couple I had met on Craigslist. I had never been to California, or west of Pennsylvania for that matter, but the time had come for me to get out of my one-stoplight town, and so west I drove. San Diego seemed nice enough. The son of my mother’s close friend moved there from our town after college and was still there after about eight years, so I figured it was as good of a place as any to start my new life.
I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t easy. I almost quit my job and just came home many times during that first year, but my stubbornness refused to let me retreat back to the safety of my small town. I remember thinking, I haven’t tried surfing yet. There’s no way I can go back to Connecticut without going surfing.
After stints at a few other slightly more-than-minimum-wage jobs — working at a group home for kids in the foster care system, being a substitute teacher, working at a call center — and living in five different apartments (as well as spending a month in my car), I had finally settled into a life of making just enough to pay my bills, shop in the Old Navy clearance section and go out for drinks every other week. But after five years in San Diego, my deep-seated disdain for contentment and security forced me into a new life. Ever since suffering a family tragedy when I was 21, safety has been something I have been both constantly chasing and avoiding. As a result, whenever I start to feel comfortable, I tend to make a deliberate and drastic change before one can be made for me.
So here I am in China.
“I almost quit my job and just came home many times during that first year, but my stubbornness refused to let me retreat back to the safety of my small town.”
Six months ago, I took this picture of myself enjoying a celebratory cocktail and breakfast at John F. Kennedy International Airport before I boarded a 16-hour flight to Guangzhou, the third-largest city in China, boasting a population just shy of 15 million people. Coming from a small town that essentially lacked any type of cultural diversity and a family that had just enough money to get by but not enough to travel, I had always envied (and continue to envy) my peers who seem to be constantly jetsetting.
I was approaching my 30th birthday, and I hadn’t been outside of the country since my senior class trip to London in high school. All of my friends in San Diego were spending weeks and months abroad, in Bali, Thailand, Croatia, Japan, and I was lucky if I earned enough airline miles to fly home once a year.
As much as I liked (though not loved) my life in San Diego, I knew that if I wanted the opportunity to live abroad — and I did — it was now or never. My obligations would only increase with age, and soon, I would start to feel “too old” to do this sort of thing. So I applied for a program teaching abroad, and before I knew it, I was applying for a visa and packing my bags.
When I first arrived in China, as was the case in San Diego, I was full of excitement and curiosity, exploring my new surroundings, meeting new people, soaking up everything at my new job. But soon reality sets in, and you quickly realize you are not on vacation — you are living in a completely unfamiliar place. I can’t help but feel like I am having a bit of déjà vu.
Every day I walk 15 minutes to the metro station, my entire body covered in sweat by the time I arrive because although it is only 10 a.m., it is already 95 degrees out.
I wait for the train to come, hoping it won’t be that crowded today, but it always is. I squeeze into the carriage, sandwiched between dozens of people who may or may not have been introduced to the miracle of deodorant. I get pushed in and out of the train at the next two stops, as the carriage empties and refills again, everyone fighting for their space aboard. I spend the next 9–10 hours at work, repeating the same grammar lesson five times, planning more lessons and speaking with students. Then back to the metro.
It is often raining on my walk home. I arrive back to my apartment, which always smells like mold regardless of how much I clean. I have my dinner by 10 p.m. if I’m lucky. I try to check my email or log onto Facebook, but both sites are blocked by China’s Great Firewall and the internet is spotty at best. Most foreigners use a special app that allows us access to blocked sites, but that can be unreliable as well.
“Soon reality sets in, and you quickly realize you are not on vacation.”
So I just go to bed, prepared to repeat this weekday routine four more times. My weekends, which are actually on Mondays and Tuesdays, consist of grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry and other miscellaneous errands, which mean more time on the metro and lots more sweating. I may go out with some friends and coworkers for dinner or drinks, and try desperately to avoid the horrendous hangovers that accompany drinking the bootleg liquor served here.
And I do all of these things in a place where I do not really understand the language. I’ve started to learn some Chinese, but I’m at survival-level at best — I can direct the cab driver, order coffee and pay my bill at dinner.
I wish I could say my days are full of adventure — that I am hiking the Great Wall, or visiting ancient temples and sipping tea beside a rural rice paddy, but none of these things are true. My life abroad is not a postcard or an episode of some travel channel special. The reality is that I live in a really big city with a lot of people (nearly twice as many people as New York City), which can be a little overwhelming at times, and that it’s really, really hot.
I’m still adjusting, still getting used to being an expat. I’m hoping to take proper Chinese lessons in the fall, which I think will help a lot. I also just bought a bicycle, which will get me to and from the metro quicker and make running to the grocery store easier.
It’s not all bad, of course. There are certainly perks to being here. I live more comfortably now than I ever did in the U.S. because the cost of living combined with my skill set as an American teacher made it relatively easy for me to get a job and make decent money. Because of public transportation and my location in southeastern China, I can travel to some amazing places easily. I never had the chance to travel when I lived stateside. Since I’ve been in China, I’ve been to Hong Kong twice, Shanghai, the Philippines and a handful of nearby cities. A few weekends ago, I went whitewater rafting in the rain and then sang karaoke. It was amazing.
Sometimes I look around and think, Wow, I can’t believe I live in China. I know when I’m old and gray — or even just a few years from now — I will look back and be so proud of myself for getting out of my comfort zone — way out — and doing something I always wanted to do.
Maybe someday I’ll learn to look before I leap. But stepping over the edge, eyes squinted shut, isn’t always reckless. Despite the hardships, I am fulfilling a dream and learning along the way.
Jessica Dell is a 30-year-old expat. Originally from Connecticut, she spent five years in San Diego, California, before moving to China to teach English. She loves music, writing and travel.