Why did you decide to move abroad?
We knew for a while that living abroad would be something we would both be interested in someday. We were settled and comfortable with our life in Portland, Maine, complete with a mortgage, white picket fence, and our adorable beagle Basil. However, our thirst for travel was really growing, and we wanted see more of the world, and not feel stuck in our lives.
Julie eventually took a role with an international marketing company, with the hope that it could lead to an overseas position. So we relocated to NYC, exchanging our spacious home for a cramped studio in downtown Manhattan. About two years later, a opening came up in London within her company, and she snagged it. We wanted to challenge ourselves, break out of our comfort zone, and truly embrace a new culture and country.
Then, after three years (and a lot of traveling!) we decided to make another change and not renew our UK visas. We loved our time in London, but we both wanted to challenge ourselves yet again. Both of us had no interest in returning to the US, and there were ample opportunities for Julie in Asia, so she started to pursue those roles.
After a rather long and tedious internal job search, Julie secured a role in Shenzhen, China, a city and country that neither one of us had ever been to. We went into this relocation 100% blind.
How did you spend your First Month Abroad?
The first month abroad is always the most confusing.
In London, we spent the time getting accustomed to a new way of life, a new culture. It took us a month to figure out how to setup our utilities, a bank account, and get into our daily routine. It was exhilarating yet challenging. We needed to learn how even basic things worked, as we tried to wrap our heads around the idea of a TV license and how to pay something called a Council Tax.
In Shenzhen, the first month was a more radical adjustment. Those little things that caused us stress in London (bank accounts, grocery shopping, utilities) were less of an issue the second time around as expats. We had experience with getting our lives set up in a foreign country and anticipated the frustrations. But unlike London, the cultural adjustment and language barrier were more of a struggle. China is a whole different beast, as any expat will tell you. English is not widely spoken here, so daily interactions were (and still are in some cases) a struggle. We also moved here in the height of summer, with crippling heat and humidity that our bodies had not felt in many, many years thanks to the cool, crisp London summers.
What has surprised you most about living in a foreign country?
I am surprised how well we have adapted to two very, very different countries. I assumed that we would be fine, but there was no certainty until we actually made the move. London was a great jumping off point for us, as we could adjust to life in Europe without worrying about any language issues. China has been more of a struggle since communicating on a daily basis is a challenge. Yet, just like London, we have gotten settled in and just go about our normal daily routine. Our expat life in Shenzhen feels surprisingly normal already.
Any cultural/language barrier funny moments?
In London, the one that always got me was the use of the word “pants” which means underwear in the UK. I worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy (a famous cheese retailer), and if I ever spilled something on my jeans, I would just blurt out loud that my pants were dirty. Snickers from my English mates would follow. Even after three years, I never fully embraced that linguistic difference.
In Shenzhen, as you imagine, there are a lot of funny moments. Recently, at our Mandarin lessons, I recited a line to our teacher as part of the homework. I was trying to say the word for panda (xiongmao) but made a mistake with the tone. My teacher seemed confused, even though I thought I had nailed it. I told her I was talking about a panda. She laughed, and said that with the tone I used, I was telling her about my chest hair. The wrong tone can make a huge difference.
What are your favorite activities in your new town?
We love to get out and enjoy the ample amount of green space. In a Chinese city of 12 million, there are a huge number of parks and open space, which was one of the biggest surprises for us in Shenzhen. In fact, it is the greenest city in China. We love to hike up Nanshan Mountain, where the 8km trail starts just a few minutes walk from our apartment. They also just opened a 6km walking and cycling path along the waterfront that starts from our neighborhood.
And if the heat is too intense for extended outdoor activities, we have a huge pedestrian-only plaza right next door to us called Sea World Plaza (not relation to the theme park), packed with restaurants and bars, so good food and drink are never far away.
What advice would you give to tourists visiting your new home town?
Use the transportation system.
It is so easy to get around Shenzhen or head out of the city on a day trip using mass transit. The subway system is hyper modern, with impeccably clean stations and cars. The signage and announcements are in both English and Chinese, so navigating the metro is simple and incredibly cheap.
There is also multiple train stations and the Shekou Ferry Terminal. You can be in Guangzhou in 29 minutes on a high-speed train, or take the 60 minute ferry to downtown Hong Kong or Macau for an afternoon. It’s amazing how well connected Shenzhen is!
What is the one MUST SEE?
Shenzhen is a very modern city, so it doesn’t have the same edge that cities like Beijing and Shanghai have. In fact, it is cleaner and more orderly than most US cities. But if you want to experience a “ok, this is China” part of the city, the Dongmen Pedestrian Street is the place to go. It is a major shopping destination, with luxury department stores and super discount shops all crammed together in one area. The streets are crowded, there are people shouting for you to come into their store, and there are street food stalls grilling skewers and stir-frying noodles in woks over massive flames. It is the kind of chaotic scene that most visitors expect of a large Chinese city. It is full of unfamiliar sites, sounds, and smells that reminds us that we are indeed very far away from home.
What do you miss most about home?
We miss friends and family of course. For the past three years we were a 6-8 hour flight away. Now, we are a 16+ hour flight, so the ease of going back becomes a little more of a logistical issue. It means that we will probably return less often, and when we do, there will always be people and places that we just don’t have time to visit.
Who knows! Maybe Africa, back to Europe. For at least the next couple of years, Shenzhen will be our home. We have fallen in love with the expat life, much to the chagrin of our families back in the US. I don’t see us moving back any time soon. We are living of our dream, and don’t want the ride to end.
Space of infinite possibilitiesI always found the concept of “I’ll travel when I retire” funny, because who knows what life has in store. Our expat life allows us to pursue our careers while seeing the world. By the time we retire, we will have seen the world.
Of course, I understand that expat life is not for everyone. Many people could not adjust to living overseas, away from friends and family, in unfamiliar surroundings. Of course, I would also say that you never know until you try it. I never thought even 10 years ago that this would be my life. I never thought that walking past Tower Bridge in London on my way to work would become routine, and that I now go to Hong Kong for an afternoon to see friends.
It is amazing what can happen when you take the leap into the unknown.