In 2016, at 27 years old, I decided to turn my back on my dead end job in London and move to China to teach English.
The decision came after years of feeling apathetic towards life. After graduating, I found myself trapped in a repetitive cycle of simply living to work; which eventually turned me into a shell of my former self.
Being 27 and single, it felt like there were only a few years ahead of me to take adventures into the unknown without affecting anybody and therefore it felt necessary to seize the opportunity.
My soul was yearning for more, and this burning desire spurred me to pack my bags and move abroad.
There were so many steps involved before I could work in China. Fortunately I found a great agency that guided me through the process. However, nothing could have fully prepared me for the reality of being a black woman in China.
I faced numerous challenges that could have easily broken my spirit. But my unwavering resilience ultimately morphed me into a stronger version of myself.
Lesson 1: Letting empathy dictate the experience from day one
After several trips to the Chinese embassy and a flight that felt like an eternity, my first day finally arrived as the new kindergarten teacher in Zhengzhou.
I walked steadily into the classroom, and to my dismay I was instantly met with a large group of crying, petrified children. They were shocked at seeing a black person for the first time, ever.
My heart sank immediately but luckily my research beforehand on the history of China and its censorship allowed me to tap into the psyche of my kindergarten students; who had never been exposed to a world beyond their own.
It took daily determination to turn around the situation, and eventually I was able to foster a comfortable classroom environment. My mind-set was pivotal in the success that unfolded in the months that followed.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity I decided to see this as accepting the challenge of educating China’s next generation on the different cultures around the world.
The anxiety I felt on the first day quickly turned into the excitement of the gradual enlightenment of my students. After months of many trial and error moments, I finally reached a point with my students where their initial horror towards my appearance gradually morphed into kind, friendly curiosity.
When we face situations that appear to be unfavourable, it’s easy to feel pessimistic and throw in the towel. But we must never underestimate the power of empathy and our ability to set the narrative of a given circumstance. By stepping into the shoes of another person, we allow ourselves to understand them better, and ultimately take back control in how we respond.
In this case, I saw it as a personal project to teach these students that although I looked completely different to them (being black), I was still no different to them. It was so rewarding by the end of the year when the kids had completely warmed to me.
Lesson 2: The reward that comes with openness
Perhaps one of the most overwhelming/interesting aspects of my experience was my new found celebrity status.
It was impossible to step a foot outside without the feeling of being mobbed. Zhengzhou, China was not an expat hotspot, so as a black expat I stood out like a sore thumb.
Along my daily commute to the local shopping area I would be met with an overwhelming number of people either begging for a photograph, or simply staring at me until I was no longer within sight. Some would even try to take a not-so-discreet picture of me as I strolled through the town.
These daily occurrences could have been a justified reason to quit the entire experience; after all it was like an invasion of privacy, especially when my photo was continuously snapped without permission.
However, I also knew that I travelled to China to embrace the whole experience in its entirety. So, instead of being annoyed I chose to see it as the joys of experiencing the celebrity life.
From that point on I chose to stroll with an extra spring in my step. This was exciting.
With the shift to my state of mind it became evident that my openness appeared to have given the locals the confidence to find out who I was. Through the new welcoming presence I was projecting, I was able to make friends; and these have become some of my best friends today.
In hindsight my Chinese friends truly gave me an authentic experience as they took me to places I would not have otherwise discovered, and really took me under their wing.
Since retuning to the UK, I have tried to maintain this openness. It has earned me the ability to make best friends as an adult. Something that would have felt impossible beforehand. Furthermore, my openness has cultivated inner confidence.
Lesson 3: Resisting the familiar within the unfamiliar for personal growth
When I moved to Zhengzhou I was one of six foreign teachers at my school. For those initial months we naturally gravitated towards each other and became a tribe of home sick (often pessimistic) foreign teachers.
We moved to China at roughly the same time. We were going through the different phases of culture shock together. And often vented about the struggles we were facing.
However, very quickly I realised that by limiting my friendships to those who were in the same boat would only keep me stuck in an expat bubble; and rob me of an authentic experience of China.
The daily episodes of complaining to one another quickly became detrimental to my mind-set. I knew I would need to break free from the group in order to enjoy the experience.
One day I made a conscious decision to embrace the experience by becoming fully integrated in all facets of the Chinese culture. I decided to find hobbies that I could get involved in locally; as an opportunity to meet new people and have fun in the process.
Through participating in activities outside of my school life, I made friends and was able to build multiple skills including public speaking. I instantly felt my dopamine levels increase. This was pivotal in allowing me to settle down, which resulted in China feeling more like home. Creating a life outside of the school added a new dimension to the experience and gave me more variation to my days.
The biggest lesson here was the prize that manifests when we break out of our comfort zone.
You could say that me moving to China was already coming out of my comfort zone; and yes, of course in many ways it was.
However, as an expat abroad it’s very easy to fall into the trap of only staying with other expats. We do this as a way to cope and to mould our new normal back to the normal we left behind.
After flying for several hours across the globe, I was certain that it was not an option to limit my friendships to those from the same country. I could have stayed in the UK to do that.
Challenges birth character.
By the end of my trip in China I had overcome so many hurdles. There were a multitude of obstacles that could have easily dampened my spirit; but I chose to fight on and now I am stronger because of it.
I have unearthed so many traits that may have gone unnoticed otherwise. I now have a perpetual hunger for development.
At 31, I now understand that the true joys of life occur through positive personal transformation.