Welcome to the second installment of “Life As An Expat”! If you missed the first one, definitely go ahead check it out! Today, I’m thrilled to bring you the story of David, an expat from the United States to Taiwan and China, and author of the blog Journeys on Quest.
David first moved away from the US in 2004, bound for China. He is fascinated by foreign cultures, history, and food, which was his main motivation for departing his home country.
Which city did you move to in China how did you choose that city?
I’ve lived and taught all over China! I first spent six weeks volunteer teaching in 湖北武汉 (Wuhan, Hubei Province) in 2004. Then, one life-changing day, a friend told me about an add seeking English teachers for Chinese schools posted on campus in 2005. I looked online and found a wealth of opportunities, and this led me to move to a small town called 山西运城 (Yuncheng, Shanxi province) straight after graduation (2005). It was small for China, sort of like saying Columbus Ohio… except that “small” meant over 5 million people, all packed in super close, at the time! The job offered good pay – not by US standards, of course, but with local earning levels being much lower than my local pay and the very much lower cost of living you’ll find in most places away from coastal cities like Beijing and Shanghai, it was a good deal. Add to that the fact that it was only 15 hours a week and had both Western and Chinese holidays and for a fresh college grad ready to explore the world it was a no-brainer!
Unfortunaely, I was forced to leave Yuncheng after a year due to the simply incomprehensible levels of pollution. I moved to 江苏苏州 (Suzhou, Jiangsu Province), a very, very ancient city said to be the birthplace of silk. Dating to the 6th century BC and simply jam-packed with UNESCO world heritage sites, classical gardens and pagodas, its small, cobblestone alleys and the beautiful, ancient network of canals snaking throughout the city offered endless opportunities wandering and exploration.
Two years later in 2008, it was time to start building a career. At age 28, I started making use of my professional teaching certification with a full-time job as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in an international school. I traded the tea houses and classical gardens of Suzhou for a seemingly endless network of WWI (yes I, not II) German bunkers ripe for exploration in 山东青岛 (Qingdao, Shandong Province) on the coast. The extra years I had put into exploration and satisfying my cultural curiosity – both extending my time in college for extra history, geography and Mandarin studies, and waiting to start a full-time career – may have pushed a career start back, but what I got in exchange was at once priceless and deeply enriching, and shapes me in every day life even now.
After a year in Qingdao, I moved back to Suzhou for another two years, but this time in pursuit of a more lucrative career opportunity at another international school. Even still, I kept returning to Suzhou’s old city, following the ancient alleys and canals into the days of dynasties long since fallen.
How did you navigate the legal/immigration issues of the move? Was it easy/difficult?
Well, I graduated college, having been to China on a six-week volunteer teaching stint over a summer, and knew I wanted to go there. I got online, looked for teaching jobs in China, found a massive abundance, applied for several that looked good, and took the best of the offers that came back to me. They covered airfare, visas, housing, everything – I just needed to get a tourist visa there, and they converted it into a long term employment one.
How has your experience been with assimilating to a new culture? Were there language barriers? Culture issues? How did you overcome them?
If you’re open, it helps a lot! Open to new foods, experiences, ways of thinking, methods of transportation, even ways of buying things (bartering is not something you typically pick up in the West). Fortunately for me, I’d taken a year of Mandarin in college. I went out of my way to find local places to eat (like night markets) and people to talk to and threw myself into the language and culture learning deep end. Now I’m fluent – but much more than that, there’s so, so much depth of experience that you can only get by spending a significant amount of time in another culture speaking their language in their night markets/tea shops/whatever.
Which city did you move to in Taiwan and how did you choose that city?
After leaving China in 2011, I spent a year in the US. It was very good, after being away from friends and family for so long, but I couldn’t stay there… the overseas life just kept calling me back. In 2012 I moved to 台北 (Taipei), Taiwan. I spent the summer improving my Mandarin and searching for long-term job opportunities. The culture, laws and regulations of Taiwan were much more different from China than I had anticipated, and I had to take temporary employment for a year, but by 2013 I had secured a long-term position teaching ESL at another international school, where I’m now starting my sixth year. Often overlooked by short- and long-term travelers alike, Taiwan has so much to offer! There’s amazing culture, white sandy beaches, scuba diving, and its own collection of out of the way tropical islands surrounding the main island. But after for me, it’s the world-class hiking, as well as the river tracing (a sport where you go up a river, climb up waterfalls, and very often jump off of them), that have become my latest passion.
What is your favorite city in China and Taiwan and why?
In China, there are two: Suzhou – because of all that I wrote above, and for so many more reasons – and Kashgar, in the far western area of Xinjiang. I love that whole area because of the distinctive and traditional Central Asian culture. It’s not at all what most people would think of when they imagine China, but rather a direct extension of the other ancient cultures you think of in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and the like.
As for Taiwan, while everyone has at least heard of the biggest city, Taipei, I would recommend the much, much smaller town of 鹿港 (Lukang) on the west coast neat 台中 (Taichung). In this hidden gem, you can see all sorts of amazing art, cultural attractions and temple processions with gods twice the height of a man quite literally walking in procession down the streets. People put on costumes twice their height and operate them with some sort of apparatuses on the inside so that they not only walk, but even dance down the streets leading temple gods as they ride in sedan chairs to visit other temples, all to the sound of fire crackers and strange and exotic instruments the likes of which you’ve never imagined. It’s a real sight to behold!
How long would you say it took you to become fluent in Mandarin?
A common question – and not easily answered! Language fluency is not like a destination you can arrive at, especially in a language as different as Chinese is from English. It’s more like a journey that continues for as long as you’re willing to keep going. I studied for a year in college and then made a point of using it at least once a day, whether for ordering food, asking directions, or for any reason I could make up, in China. After about three years of this and text messaging using a mix of pinyin (a system for writing Chinese with English letters) and characters, one day I looked at a bunch of text written on a wall and suddenly realized that I could read almost all of it! By the end of my six years in China, my every day language was highly advanced and I had long since stopped using pinyin, but as is common for second language learners, my academic language lagged far behind. (Want to talk about my last vacation? No problem! Chemistry or philosophy? Well… that’s going to be a lot tougher!) After a summer of intensive training in Taiwan, this improved a lot… but now, 14 years in, I can tell you there’s always going to be more, so just jump in and enjoy the journey!
“The Book of Names” Project
David’s blog is all about documenting his travels and his various “quests”. One in particular is the Noble Quest — exploration within and without, to reaching beyond our preconceptions and limitations in order to make ourselves and the world more noble. One of David’s other quests is titled The Book of Names and is absolutely awesome.
Tell me a bit about your Book of Names project…
The Book of Names is quite possibly the physical item I treasure most above all others in this world. It’s a collection of people – their names, languages, cultures, countries, hopes, dreams, values, and all they hold dear. It’s a small, brown, well-worn leather bound book that I carry with me whenever I travel. When I meet someone from a country or culture I haven’t encountered before, or who speaks a language that isn’t in the Book, I ask them to sign it in their own language, write where they’re from, where and when we met, just a few words that tell something special, important or meaningful to them, and then to write whatever they want. As of the end of summer 2018, 133 people from 77 countries, identifying as members of 105 distinct cultural, ethnic, religious or other kinds of groups have signed it in 77 written languages. People from all walks of life and all around the world have written everything from the profane to the profound in it!
The Book of Names has been signed by a Tibetan herder, the mayor of a Chinese city, backpackers and travelers, a Holocaust survivor, pastors and priests, imams and Buddhist monks, college exchange students from Haiti and various Caribbean islands, a wandering Peruvian musician, the North Korean representative to the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, taxi drivers from far flung countries, an Olympic athlete, villagers from a remote high mountain valley in Tajikistan, Bedouin nomads in an Egyptian desert, Lana tribesmen from Thailand, and my old Chinese tutor just to name a few. It includes text written not only common languages, but also in the last purely pictographic language still in use in the world, both Chinese and Arabic classical calligraphy, and several endangered languages like Yaghnobi, the language of the last remaining speakers of a language descended from that spoken by the ancient Sogdian people of the Silk Road.
People have written everything from lighthearted jokes to philosophy to blessings to Urdu poetry in the Book of Names, but for me it’s what the Yaghnobis wrote that resonates with the greatest meaning: After days of hiking beyond the broken down bulldozer that marked the sudden and abrupt end of the last dirt two track going towards their remote villages, I asked these distant descendants of fabled Silk Road merchants to add something in their vanishing language. I had no idea what they’d write of course, but I have to admit that despite all reason some part of me harbored all kinds of romantic notions about what they might say. They talked together for a while, and then the man who had bought and used that bulldozer with his own money – trying to connect these tiny, poor villages to the outside world – wrote what was in their hearts: “We need a school, and we need a road.” To this day, few things in all my travels have moved me as much as this. That is the world we live in. And that is the Book of Names.
Last, but not least…
Do you have any regrets about your experience as an expat? What do you wish you knew before you made the move?
Regrets? I don’t think so… it’s not for everyone though – at least in the 3+ year range. You miss a lot of family time and friends grow distant, for example. It’s also hard to make lasting relationships of any kind, since other people come and go just like you do. Things I wish I’d known? Well… I guess I could come up with a list of those (and can do so if you like), but really the one and only thing you really, really need to know is how to just jump in and learn to swim by not worrying about drowning! Flexibility and taking what comes as it comes is the main thing, all else comes and goes in relationship to this. In case you didn’t catch that, the one thing you need to know is something you only learn by just going and doing it. So… take the plunge!