Who are you?
I am Marta and I was born in a town in the west of Spain in 1984. I started studying Mandarin Chinese during my first year of University in Spain and when I graduated I went to Beijing to improve my language skills. I currently work as a translator in a computer and mobile games publisher in Shanghai and I spend my weekends in the neighboring city of Suzhou, where my boyfriend and our dog live.Where, when and why did you move abroad?
I first came to China as a student in 2006. I stayed in Beijing for 3 years and then I worked in Shanghai for a few months. I went back to Spain at the end of 2010 and started working for a company that happened to have a factory in Suzhou (very close to Shanghai). In 2011 they sent me to Suzhou and I have been working in China ever since, although not in the same job that brought me back here.
What challenges did you face during the move?
To be honest, not many! I was really looking forward to go back to China. If anything, the main problem was that I could only bring one 23 kg. suitcase (some airlines are so stingy!). A colleague who had the airline gold card brought my second piece of luggage and that solved it.
How did you find somewhere to live?
When I arrived to Suzhou my company helped me find an apartment through a Chinese real state agency. I went to visit all the apartments they had prepared and a Chinese colleague came with me. I saw some nasty caves but the 5th or 6th apartment ended up being my home. New apartments in China are very nice, big and bright and with all the things a foreigner needs… well, except an oven!
Are there many other expats in your area?
I currently live between Shanghai, where I work, and Suzhou, where I spend my weekends. There are many expats in both places. Shanghai is full of young professional foreigners developing their careers and partying hard, and in Suzhou there are many expat families with kids attending the international schools and all.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
I would say very close! My boyfriend is Chinese. We usually hang out with his friends, who are Chinese and Taiwanese. At work, half of my colleagues are Chinese and the other half are foreigners.
What do you like about life where you are?
I like the feeling of excitement and novelty about daily things. For example, after so many years, going to the supermarket still is a big adventure! I also like the bustle of the cities, seeing Chinese old people dancing in the parks and the fact that people don’t judge the way you dress (they go out in their pajamas!). I also love the convenience of Chinese online stores, where you order something, pay with your phone and have it on your door after two days.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
I am mostly satisfied. If anything, I would like to have more friends, but it is kind of hard. The Chinese girls my age are all married with kids and they are dedicated to their families; foreigners always end up leaving. It also sucks to be so far away from my family and friends back in Spain; one of my best friends is getting married soon and I won’t be able to attend.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
The way people work. To work with Chinese people you need a complete new mindset. They never say no directly and they won’t tell you there is a problem until the last minute. That can be kind of frustrating.
How does shopping (for food/clothes/household items etc.) differ compared to back home?
There are not many differences. In China you can find the same big supermarkets as in Europe or America: Walmart, Carrefour, Metro… The difference is that most of the products are Chinese, of course! But all of the big supermarkets have imported food sections where you can find goodies from back home… at a more expensive price. Wet markets are still very common in China, and the cheapest option to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, etc.
For clothes, in big cities there are the same stores you can find anywhere else in the world. So globalization was this!
I think the main difference is that in China online shopping is very developed. Many young people don’t go shopping anymore; they get all their groceries and other stuff online.
What do you think of the food in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
I love Chinese food! Well, to be honest I love ANY kind of food. But focusing on Chinese food: there are many different regional cuisines and all of them are delicious! When I first arrived I was surprised to find that some veggies I had always thought I didn’t like, like eggplant and broccoli, are in fact very tasty. It all depends on how you cook them! I also had to get used to spicy dishes; in Spain we basically don’t have any spicy foods and the first time I ate a lamb skewer (a very popular street food) my mouth was on fire!
What I don’t like: food scandals are unfortunately very common in China and restaurant kitchens are not always very clean. But hey, I have only been seriously sick 2 times in 8 years. I must be immune by now!
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Try to learn some Chinese before you arrive, it will make a difference. Come with open eyes and a big smile and embrace the differences you see. Don’t focus on the negative!
What are your plans for the future?
I’m not very good at plan-making but for the moment I am not planning on going back to Spain. I will probably get married next year and continue living between Shanghai and Suzhou!
Marta shares more information about expat life in China through her blog, martalivesinchina.