Finding Your Way and People in a Foreign Land
The Adventure Starts Here
When I knew I would be moving abroad and teaching English in Beijing as a single 28 year old, it really seemed like the world was my oyster and anything was possible. I imagined that I would have a year full of adventures and many friends and it will all happen at light speed. This was all true but not at the pace I initially anticipated.
I did meet a lot of people but finding “my people” or social circle did take some time and although in hindsight that is OK. When I first got to the foreign land with a huge language barrier (Beijing), it was certainly daunting but this was a catalyst for me to actively go out and socialize, say yes to invites and open myself up to people; local and from afar to shape my very enriching experience.
Most Foreign Teachers/Trainers will undergo some form of training before they start working and that will be where you may meet some fellow colleagues who will become your friends. In my case; I started my training with 2 other male teachers who were placed in different areas so whilst training was fun. We were eventually separated. This was actually a very good thing because the center (school) that I was placed in was one of the largest and seemed to be the most exciting one located in the city center.
Do Some Research
When teaching abroad, it is important to do some research about the area you will be situated in. Thanks to On the Mark Education, that I was placed at a very well known school to teaching English in Beijing. This will give you an idea on where you want to look for an apartment (if you have to find your own), work out transportation costs and give you a glimpse of what your lunch breaks look like. I was lucky because I was situated in a prime area in Beijing, found an apartment 20 minutes away on foot and 8-10 minutes away by taxi, a short cycling distance as well. There was a Starbucks downstairs, a gym upstairs and many restaurant options nearby.
Once settled in my center, I found that the people I worked with were really friendly and accommodating and very soon my colleagues became my friends. With time and many nights out later, the excitement of a new foreigner in their midst wears out and you soon find your niche and your circle of buddies. When hanging out with Chinese locals you will learn that they are very friendly and fascinated by your culture, home country and way of life and are quite eager to share theirs. They love to ask you if you like Chinese food and will be surprised if you don’t. Chinese local food can be very different for people who are used Western food but you will always find something you like; I loved Tofu, Kung Pao Chicken and Hotpot so I would focus on naming the foods that I did tickle my taste buds favorably.
I was lucky that my center hired quite a few new Foreign Teachers since I started and everyone became a friend. I was also the only Foreign female surrounded by fun foreign males so I quite enjoyed that. Our center had monthly socials and dinners and was the popular location choice for new Teacher training so it was a great opportunity to meet new Foreigners. I am friendly by nature and would introduce myself to new Teachers and offer help and forged some new friendships.
Making New Friends
There were times that I was invited out by a group of people and I would have other plans; I noticed that declining once or twice was not taken well and many Chinese locals see it as “losing face”; saying No or declining something may be seen as an insult so its another cultural difference I learnt after experiencing it. Coming from a world where its Okay to say no to something if its not what I want or if I was busy; I needed to be aware of when and how and who it was okay to say it to.
Eventually, I had a group of friends (who were predominantly my colleagues) to hang out with almost daily and a few other friends that I met along the way to hang out with on days off and so on.
One of my closest friends in China was actually a student from another centre who visited ours occasionally and approached me when I was walking home. She was so interested in how I looked (Indian – you hardly see Indians in China and get many obvious stares or fingers pointed at you as they shout out “Hindu Hindu”) and where I came from (South Africa) that she wanted to take me out to the Summer Palace and get to know me better. This happened in my first 2 weeks so I was very excited by the generous offer. I loved her personality and obliged with no hesitation.
After a great day out, we became friends who later went to clubs, spas and had many “girl adventures” together. Another good friend of mine was a woman I met when I was lost in a Hutong en route to meet a friend. She walked with me for nearly 45 minutes helping me find my way; I later invited her out to lunch to thank her and learnt that she was an Executive Producer at CCTV and invited me to tour the studios and have lunch together at the Beijing Film Studio. How lucky was I?
All of these experiences did not happen overnight. It’s important for Teachers to know that when you go to a new place, there may be hiccups along the way and if it’s your first time traveling abroad then 2.5 – 3 months in is when the honeymoon phase wears off and homesickness may hit you like a ton of bricks. It’s important to surround yourself with people and go out, meet new people, see new places and find things that can comfort you. This happened to me and I made it my goal to go out and socialize and meet as many new people as possible until I found my circle which I did and had the greatest experiences.
Teaching adults definitely made it easier to make new friends and experience the Chinese culture because I was often invited to experience authentic Chinese culture, food and lifestyle. You will find that students and Chinese colleagues and friends love to take you out and show you around, introduce you to everything they find interesting and appealing about their land with hopes that you see that too and there is no doubt that you will.
If you are in Beijing; here are some tips to meet new people and have a better social life:
- Make “The Beijinger Website” your No.1 friend first – thebeijinger.com – This website will advertise many events, socials, mixers, classes (for e.g.: dance classes, calligraphy, Chinese lessons etc.) You can go to events and learn new skills and make new friends
- out with a friend/friends to Sanlitun (this is the “Foreigner area”) with a very fun and active nightlife – there is always a fun place to hang out or do your nails and get a facial during the day. It is a great place to meet other Foreigners too.
- The Bookworm – also in Sanlitun – this is a restaurant/drinks/coffee place and library. You can borrow and buy books, sit down and do your work or read while having a drink and something to eat; it also has free wifi and hosts many events. You can join their network and get invited to events. This is also a good place to meet people.
- Be open minded and go out with people especially the locals – its the best way to experience the Chinese culture.