Five Life Lessons I Learned Teaching in China

An acting teacher once told me that people stop changing at twenty-five, that after that time your character is pretty much set in stone. When I moved to China to teach at the ripe old age of 27, I realized just how wrong he was. These are five life lessons that I learned in my time living abroad that I will take with me for the rest of my life:

Take Nothing Personally

When I first started working in China, I was surprised at how, um, aggressive the feedback was about my performance. I was described as uninteresting, inexperienced, unlikable, and incapable even when I felt like I was performing exactly like they’d asked me to. When I shared my experiences with other friends who were working in the country, they all said the same thing: “That’s China. Don’t take anything personally.” While some nuances of these messages may have been lost in translation, sugar-coating and euphemizing just wasn’t part of the culture. Sure, this directly opposed my polite Canadian sensibilities, but once I accepted that their comments weren’t about me as a person and just about the work, they became easier to swallow. While it would be naïve to say that I’ll never get upset at people’s comments or feedback again, I have a better idea of how to separate myself from those words more easily.

Flexibility Makes You Happier

China has accomplished so much as a nation, and it may be because of a strong ‘act first, think later’ mentality. There is less emphasis on planning and more emphasis on doing. This meant that changes happened often and at the last minute. Literally, at the last minute. This was a big challenge at first, especially coming from a project management/administration background. But once I let go of control and decided to be more flexible, the anxiety around not knowing what was going to happen at every moment faded and I was able to enjoy my classes more. And I know moving forward, my improvisation and quick-thinking skills are stronger because of it.

Live With Less

Knowing that we’re here temporarily, being budget-conscious, and knowing that we have to lug everything we want to take back to Canada on a five-week backpacking trip through Southeast Asia has changed my feelings towards all of our stuff. Not only am I less likely to buy new stuff unless it’s absolutely necessary, but we’ve both been motivated to get rid of the clothes that aren’t serving us anymore. This means that we’ve spent the last eight months cooking and eating with just one small paring knife, that when my favourite pair of jeans keeps splitting along the seam, I just keep sewing them up, and also why Adam has donated at least 30% of the clothes he brought with him. While this attitude has definitely been a product of circumstance, I’ve realized that I need much less than I thought. And while I am pretty excited to replace the only two surviving pairs of pants I have when I get back to Canada, I will only be acquiring the stuff that makes me feel awesome and that I actually need.

Always Have An Exit Plan

A couple years ago, I read an article about the importance of every woman having a ‘Fuck-It Fund.’ While this particular article was written by someone who needed enough money to leave an abusive relationship, it popped back into my mind around the middle of our contract when things at work were getting really bad. The work, schedule, general every day life was nothing like we expected when first negotiating our contract and friction with our employer and colleagues were high. We needed to know that if worse came to worst, we’d be able to leave. So we made sure we had enough money in our Fuck-It Fund, looked into how to move our money out of the country, and priced out flights going anywhere but here. The result? It turned out that just making our exit plan made us feel better and more positive about the entire situation. No, we never actually had to use it, but now I know the importance of having an exit plan for any job, financial investment, living situation, et cetera that I get myself into in the future.

Gratitude, Always Gratitude

The last year has been the most consistently challenging year of my life. I have cried, felt frustrated, yelled at people, almost given up, hated myself, hated where I’m at. Every time I started to feel very negative about the situation (which to be honest, was often), I have always–ahem, for the people in the back–ALWAYS felt better after listing a few things I am grateful for. These can be anything, from delicious food to nice weather, but some of the regulars being: the privilege of being able to live and work in a foreign country, the opportunity to save some money, a community of my family and friends that check in so often, and probably most often, such a supportive, ride-or-die partner in Adam. Is this always my first response when shit starts to hit the fan? No, not always. But when I finally pick myself up to do it, I always –yes, ALWAYS— feel better.


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