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First Month Living in China: How Did I Get Here?

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They must often change, who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.

  • DMX (Just kidding, it’s Confucius)

It has now been exactly one month since I moved to Beijing. I’d visited China a few times before I decided to take the plunge and come to live here, but the culture shock has still been noteworthy.

This post sticks to LLB principles, where nearly every post we write aims to give the reader something valuable. However, I will probably be a little more self-indulgent than usual here.

For those considering a move to an alien culture, or perhaps who have been putting it off, you should probably just do it. Moving to a very different, new environment results in a major learning dump. This rapid mental growth phase occurs in a much shorter space of time than is typical in an environment where you feel comfortable. This is hardly a big surprise – any time you want to improve a skill, you make yourself uncomfortable by taking on more advanced opposition, attempting something of greater complexity or just by removing your own advantages. When you move to a new place, you do this, but rather than a specific skill, you blast *everything *at once: social skills, linguistic ability, business and cultural understanding etc. It is exhausting, but exhilarating.

I would like to talk about how I went about ‘making it happen’, because it has a lot to do with some core LLB ideas. I am not here in China teaching English. Whilst teaching English has its merits, I believe that from a personal-development perspective it is one of the weakest options when moving abroad. If you are not a career-teacher, then you are effectively putting on hold other entrepreneurial/career skill development (at least between 9-5 – and probably beyond because of lesson prep and exhaustion). I did not want to have to do this, I wanted to enjoy all the benefits that moving to a new culture brings, without having to sacrifice professional development. Here’s how it happened:

My first experience of China was in 2008, when I wandered across China with a couple of Mandarin-speaking friends, culminating in the Olympic Games. It was one of the most amazing trips of my life, and I remember thinking as I left ‘I would like to live here one day’. I didn’t know when, but the seed was planted.

I came back to Beijing briefly in 2011 to visit a friend who was living there. I was struck by his quality of life relative to London norms. I enjoyed Beijing as much as I had in 2008, proving to me that it wasn’t just the ‘Olympic Atmosphere’ which I had found alluring. I returned to the UK afterwards, and took a few months of Mandarin classes. I enjoyed learning the language, and have a much better ear for pronunciation than most westerners, but the hours required to gain proficiency in reading and writing are staggering, and I did not pursue this path with great diligence – it wasn’t yet enough of a priority in my life.

Around this time, I became aware of the fact that I was getting older. By old, I mean that the available years where I only will need to worry about myself, rather than a family, are moving into single-digit territory, whereas previously they had always been double-digit. To me, these years are incredibly precious. They have shaped and will continue to shape my world-view, they are the years of greatest opportunity. That’s not to say that I won’t be able to do things like live abroad or start a business when I am in my forties, but it will be harder, and statistically less likely. Part of being rational is minimizing your risk of failure. I became aware that I was getting older, and my risk of failing to get the most out of life, to experience other cultures, was increasing. Furthermore, my observed and personal experience of learning languages is that the later in life you begin learning, the lower your potential level of attainment.

Upon my return, I acknowledged that I was unhappy in my “prestigious” rat-race consultancy job, and began job hunting. I was able to secure positions in a number of spheres, including some big corporations and the UK’s Civil Service fast-track, but ultimately decided to seize one opportunity which I felt was more flexible, where I would have the ability to try many things and move abroad where I wanted. The position I eventually secured had a long, drawn-out selection process, and the start date was not until September 2012. This might sound terrible, being forced to continue working in a job I did not enjoy (at all) for nearly a year, but once I knew I had the alternative position secured, in about February 2012, I experienced a huge relief. I was able to relax, and work sensible hours. I could have hobbies!

Although I had accepted my new job with the understanding that I would be given the opportunity to work abroad, I decided to seal the deal in the summer of 2012. I had six glorious weeks off work after I quit before I had to start my new job. I enjoyed the London Olympics, then flew to Beijing for a month. I went to language school in the mornings and took the afternoons off to enjoy life. I spent a lot of time wandering, eating and sipping beers in the sun. It was the perfect balance of intellectual challenge and debauchery. While I was over, I invited myself to my soon-to-be company’s Beijing office and managed to arrange a meeting with the Managing Director. My experience shows that when you fly across the world on your own dime to meet someone, so long as you give them enough warning, they will make time for you. We had a great chat, and suddenly I was no longer just another yuppie in London who wanted to work in China. I was the guy who was serious.

About nine enjoyable months came and went. I learned about M&A and client-side programming. The year turned to 2013, and I wrote a list of goals. “Move to China” was one of the three “high priority” goals. I resolved that if I couldn’t make it happen by the end of the year, I would quit and become a freelance developer and move there as a self-employed worker. I was now fully committed. Through contacts I’d cultivated, I heard about an internal job offer in China. I put together a pretty sexy application, but was under-qualified, really. Whilst I didn’t get the job, my application impressed a few people, and a month after I found myself having interviews for another position in the Beijing office. I experienced one of the toughest job interviews (which inspired this post on how to prepare for job interviews) of my life with the Asia MD, which involved such classic questions as: “If I were to ask you to create a health benefits package for employees at a tractor factory in Chongqing, talk me through how you’d do it”. It was a lot of fun.

Now I’m here in Beijing. For a rat-race job, the work is incredibly interesting. It’s actually quite disarming to me, someone who has always maintained that escaping the rat-race must be my number one priority, to find myself to drawn to my day job. I will save this debate for another day. What can you learn from my rambling, boastful story?

  • Travel often so that you at least have an idea of what is ‘out there’ and what you might like. Often you won’t know what you’re missing out on unless you experience it.
  • Acknowledge unhappiness – this is a critical first step.
  • THEN TAKE ACTION – this is the critical second step which so many fail to take. Action is something as simple as sending off your resume. What is the worst that can happen?
  • Make the decision that you want to move to a place. Travel there first, to be sure you are not mistaking ‘wanting to be anywhere but home’ for ‘wanting to be in xyz place’. Start learning the language to see if you actually like it, as opposed to just liking the idea of it.
  • Write the decision down as a goal. Commit to it. Create a time limit, with stakes if you fail.
  • Cultivate skills which give you the ability to freelance so that you can be more geographically mobile.
  • Have a plan to get you to your chosen destination. Most of the ‘quick and easy’ ways to live in a foreign country offer limited personal development opportunities. This is why they are easier to get.
  • Be proactive in capturing potential opportunities. Change jobs. Take someone in HR to lunch. Get someone important’s secretary a coffee. Be nosey, and bold. Say, ‘I’d like to go to that meeting because it’s something I’m really interested in’. Worst case they just yell back: “Get back in your cubicle, you filth!”

A final note, which is perhaps more of a personal one. I have made sacrifices in my romantic life for this goal, and similar ones in the past. I have deliberately pulled back from allowing relationships to get too serious because I knew I was going away, or because I knew the other person did not have the same desire to experience a new culture. Sometimes this is lonely. Ultimately though, it is a long-term investment in yourself. And what I find is that such investments pay huge professional, intellectual and romantic dividends in the long-term.