Who are you?
My name is Steven LePoidevin. I’m a retired mathematics and chemistry teacher currently living in Chiangmai, Thailand, with my wife, Nancy.
Where, when and why did you move abroad?
We moved from a small town in rural Canada, to Wuhan, China in 2008. It was a big jump to go from a town with a population of five thousand to a megalopolis of over ten million! After a long teaching career in Canada, I had been considering the idea of teaching abroad for a few years before I retired.I had spent a year working in Scotland a decade earlier and knew that this would probably be my last chance to work overseas again. Teaching abroad had been a great experience and seemed like it would be a fun way to end my successful career.
I had put out several feelers and been accepted to a large recruitment fair by the Council of International Schools that was to take place the end of February, 2008 in Seattle. This probably would have resulted in a position at one of their member schools somewhere in the world. However, before I had a chance to find out, I received a phone call from a headhunter for a large international school in China. He had come across my resume online and was looking for a Science teacher as a result of an increase in enrolment at their new school in Wuhan. Hmmm…should I wait and see what happens at the recruitment fair or do I jump at the chance to move to China in the middle of a Canadian winter? With the support of my wife, we decided to head to Asia. She is a big city girl who had recently immigrated to Canada (another story!) and was more than ready to leave small-town British Columbia for the city lights again, even if it was in China! Little did we know how exciting the next few years would be!
What challenges did you face during the move?
Our biggest challenge was time! I had lived in the same town for the last twenty years, raised two children and had all the stuff to show for it. Tons of it! We had less than three weeks to get prepared, deal with all our possessions, and move to China. We quickly decided to get rid of everything and go for the ultimate freedom of becoming mobile.
Circumstances were also working in our favor. First, we had sold our house already in anticipation of leaving the country in a few months so we didn’t have to worry about that. Second, the small, local hospital wanted our apartment and everything in it. They were looking for a furnished residence with all the extras for part-time locums that periodically arrived to replace doctors who were away for one reason or another. They wanted the visiting doctors to be able to move into a place that would have everything necessary for day-to-day life. We made a list of every item we owned, put a fair price on it, and they gave us a check. How cool was that? We didn’t have to move anything! Photograph albums, art pieces, crafts and other personal items were given to my ex-wife and friends. I kept a handful of personal treasures but if I ever wanted to see the rest again, I would know where to find them! So our life’s possessions were finally distilled down to two large suitcases and one carry-on each! Oh, what a feeling! Free at last!
How did you find somewhere to live?
Fortunately, finding a place to live was taken care of by the school. They had already asked us about our requirements and had found us a suitable condo near the school. Six years ago, it was quite difficult to find a place to live if you didn’t speak any Chinese and were unfamiliar with the local possibilities. Wuhan is not a tourist city and very few people speak English. The nice part about renting in Asia is that most units are totally furnished so it is very easy to move in and out. We ended up eventually moving to a larger condo in the same complex the following year.
Are there many other expats in your area?
Yes and no! Once you are outside the main tourist cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, there are still not that many expats in China in the big scheme of things. As I said earlier, Wuhan is not a tourist town so it is not unusual to be out and about in the city all day, and not run across another foreigner. For the most part, the only expats in our immediate area were the other teachers at the school. This was our built in support system and surrogate family. We all worked together, lived close to each other and ended up partying together. Although there were only twelve of us the year the school opened, this number has grown to more than seventy-five Canadian teachers as the school has grown from 125 students to over 1500 since it opened in 2007.
There are also a handful of expats teaching at the nearby universities or working in the many technology companies that make up most of the local city region. Wuhan ranks third in China in scientific and education strength. It has over 80 higher education institutions, 350 research institutes, and over 1500 hi-tech enterprises, including 36 colleges and universities. There are certainly other pockets of expats in Wuhan but because the city is so vast, it takes effort to find them and get to know them.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
Again, living in a city such as Wuhan is different than cities such as Shanghai and Beijing that have been open to outsiders for many decades. You will always be a foreigner in China. It is not a multicultural country! That you are there at all is amazing to most Chinese. They really don’t understand why you would leave your family and country to live there.
Although it is changing quickly, you still almost have celebrity status, even more so as you move further out of the cities.
People will take pictures of you, strangers will try to speak English and everyone is very curious about you. Having said that, there is also an underlying current of racism that is always present. You will be pointed at and laughed at, people will rudely take your photo at inopportune times and generally drive you nuts if you allow them! But on the other side of the coin, they will bend over backwards to help you out or serve you. Most locals who do become your good friends have been around Westerners more than the average person, so they are beyond these types of behaviors.
What do you like about life where you are?
Over the course of my career, I have taught several thousand students in three countries. My years in China were the best of my working life. I can’t say enough good stuff about the Wuhan kids. I absolutely loved waking up every day and going to work. I have never seen a group of students work so hard to achieve their goals while maintaining a healthy balance of work and play. Almost 100% of the graduating classes are now attending universities around the world, mostly in Canada and the US. This would have been unheard of for these kids not that many years ago. I continue to stay in touch with many of them through Facebook and other social media.
Despite the fact that China is chaotic, lawless, polluted, noisy and can be totally racist, we enjoyed it immensely! But we were also spoiled brats! I was making a Canadian teaching salary and the cost of living was one sixth of what we had left in Canada. Our condo surpassed anything in North America for the price. We had a brand new, furnished, two-story place with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, three balconies, recreation center, and pool in the center of a city of ten million for a fraction of the price we would have paid in Canada. We could afford to eat out on a regular basis and choose from thousands of restaurants. In addition, China is a shopper’s paradise, which was right up Nancy’s ally! And it is relatively inexpensive to travel around China and to neighboring countries.
China is an exciting place to be these days. It is a booming country. During our six years in Wuhan, we watched skyscrapers going up by the hundreds, literally. On a twenty-minute taxi ride to a restaurant, I gave up counting after I reached one hundred new towers. There were another hundred going up within site of our school grounds. During that time, a city-wide mass transit system was put into place.
The first line of the subway opened the month we left. What used to take an hour to drive now takes less than twenty minutes. And great transportation is not limited to the cities. I could get on a bullet train ten minutes from our place and be knocking at my son’s door in Changsha in less than two hours, a 500 km distance.
My wife and I are avid motorcyclists and China is a two-wheeled society. We had a variety of scooters, trikes and motorcycles over the six-year period we lived there. Because I had lots of experience riding my large cruiser through countless North American cities during our numerous cross-country trips, it didn’t take long to become comfortable driving in Wuhan. I have decided that if you can drive in China, you can drive anywhere!
And we loved the food and the communal nature of mealtime! A large variety of dishes are always shared by those at the table. Along with the regular dishes of pork and chicken, I ate my way through dog, pigeon, frog, snake, turtle and a variety of other tasty treats, But the best of all was the wide assortment of street food that was available everywhere 24-7. There is nothing like eating a delicious bowl of hot, steaming, spicy noodles at 3 am, freshly prepared by a street vendor, after partying hard at one of the many local clubs! Every city has its local cuisine and Wuhan is well known as one of the culinary centers of the country. When I ask my ex-students who are now attending universities around the world what they miss the most, it is always the Chinese food!
What do you dislike about your expat life?
If you are living in a large, urban city in China, you cannot escape the pollution. There are clear days in Wuhan but they are rare. The daily pollution can range from a grey haze that permeates the city to a thick yellow blanket that obscures the buildings across the street. The summer temperatures often surpass 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and 100% humidity is common. Fortunately, the pollution decreases during the summer months because the combination would be brutal!
During the winters, it is difficult to warm up. Buildings are usually concrete and not insulated. Most places have no efficient central heating. Although the temperatures rarely dip below freezing in Wuhan, the dampness and lack of heating result in being chilled to the bone everywhere you go during the cold months! The Chinese like fresh air and believe that air conditioning and heating make you ill. If you share an office or classroom with a Chinese person, you can be assured that the windows will be opened wide when you are not around, regardless of the time of year! It is not unusual to see a family sitting around watching TV in the winter, bundled up in jackets, sweaters and hats!
The language is very difficult. Many signs in foreign countries are possible to understand because there is usually an alphabet and enough clues to give the gist of what is written.
Spanish, German, French…usually these can be somewhat understood. With Chinese, there is no hope of reading any signs! Step into a Chinese restaurant and try to read a menu that has no pictures! About all you can do is point and gesture to get what you want unless you speak a bit of the language. Of the hundreds of expats I worked with or met in China, only a handful have become fairly proficient with the language.
Most foreigners have no intention of staying for the long term and, therefore, do not put a lot of effort into learning anything beyond survival Chinese. It takes a very big commitment to memorize several thousand characters and four tones!
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
Although there are too many differences to mention, I suppose the one that stands out would be the rudeness, at least what most Westerns would perceive as rude! Whether you are walking, standing or driving, pushing and shoving is a way of life. People will budge in line at the shops, squeeze past you to get on a bus, grab your seat if you get up for a minute and squeeze in front of you on the road. In fact, the most important unwritten rule of the road is that whoever is ahead of you has the right-of-way. If they are beside you and their car is one inch ahead of you, they will cut you off with no qualms. If vehicles followed the rules, traffic would probably grind to a halt! If you politely stand around waiting for a cab, you’ll end up walking. By the end of our stay, I was pushing older women out of the way to get into a taxi!
In restaurants, you yell across the restaurant to get the waiters’ attention. Once you are served, you will never see them again unless you call out to them. Now we are living in Thailand, it is the opposite extreme. Everybody is quiet and composed. If you see two neighbors in China screaming at each other, they are probably just having a friendly conversation.
Toddlers don’t wear diapers. They have split pants and just poop and pee wherever and whenever they happen to have the need. I have to say this is definitely a bit of a shock to most first-time visitors. While on the subject of bodily functions, I should mention that squat toilets are another huge cultural difference that takes some getting used to!
How does shopping differ compared to home?
When my sister visited us, she stated, “Everything is big in China except the people!” I will add to that, “and the clothing.”
Finding clothing and shoes in larger sizes is very difficult. If you are a very big person, it is next to impossible. Most clothing you see in stores would barely fit a severely anorexic person. This is improving as more Western stores begin to infiltrate the country and now H & M, and others, can be found in most larger centers.
In general, the service is much better than anywhere at home. There will be numerous sales associates hovering over you throughout most stores. They are not there to make sure you don’t steal anything. They are there to bend over backwards to help you. Somewhere along the way, this concept of service disappeared in North America. They still have bell-capped elevator operators at some department stores in Wuhan!
Very few grocery stores carry a variety of foreign foods but these items can be purchased at large, foreign-owned stores such as Metro that are located around the city. A wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables is available at all the local neighborhood shops. Unlike North America, these items are only sold when in season so the displays change throughout the year. When it comes to meat, there is not the large plethora of cuts you have available in the rest of the world.
You just buy a chunk of meat! Or the whole live chicken or fish, if you are shopping at the local market! We often saw people riding along on their scooters holding on tightly to a bag with something flopping madly inside!
These days, you will be able to find almost anything you are looking for in large urban centers such as Wuhan. There are huge malls in every area of the city with most well-known global brand products available for a price. This was not true as recent as a decade ago, according to expat friends who have been in China for a long time.
And, last but not least, there is no tipping or taxes in China. I think this is one of the most refreshing parts of living in China. Tipping has got out of hand in many parts of the world. In Wuhan, cab drivers and restaurant employees will chase you down to hand back a tiny bit of change.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Be flexible! Moving to any foreign country requires that you leave your preconceived notions at home and China is no exception. You are not going to change a culture that has existed fairly successfully for several thousand years. There will be things you see that defy any logic but you just need to accept the fact and carry on! You are a guest in a foreign land.
Get away from the cities! We loved our various scooter trips into the countryside surrounding Wuhan. The small villages will give you a totally different perspective on the country.
China has a wide variety of interesting places to visit where the air is clean and fresh, and the scenery is spectacular. Travel as much as you can.
Try to learn enough of the language to at least shop, order a few meals and get around in a taxi. It will make your life a lot easier.
What are your plans for the future?
After our six years in China, I had to leave the school as a result of school, provincial and national laws on retirement.
Although I probably could have found another teaching position somewhere, I had no interest in starting over in another location in order to work two or three more years so I made the decision to retire. We had really grown to love Asia and, after thinking about all the possibilities, decided to move to Chiangmai, Thailand. Four boxes of more stuff, most of which were computers and accessories, accompanied our initial four suitcases! Now we have been here for several months, we realize that we could have left most of our clothing behind! Since we stepped off the plane, we have worn nothing but shorts, t-shirts and sandals. Everything else has been stored away in vacuum-packed bags and not yet been touched!
We currently live in a one-bedroom condo in the city center where we are within walking distance of almost everywhere we would want to go on a daily basis. We continue to be two-wheel junkies and have a Honda PCX 150 scooter for longer trips around the city and beyond. Life is good!
Steven now blogs about life in Thailand at www.thaicanuck.com.