Who are you?
Hello, my name is Vanessa Anderson and I’m originally from the UK. I tend to think of myself now as a “global citizen” as this is the fourth country I’ve lived and worked in. The plan is to keep moving, experiencing different cultures around the world. I was raised in London, but as an adult, I’ve spent time living in France, Spain, and Panama. My latest move has been to China where I live with my partner, Ian Usher. We both work as English teachers for a private language school.Where, when and why did you move abroad?
We spent six months last year travelling round the southern states of the USA in a big old RV. However, we struggled to renew our travel visa for a further three months, so had to revise our plans. Ian had previously visited Beijing and was keen to see more of the country.
It seemed that China could provide us with the ideal opportunity to live in a totally different culture while also allowing us to top up our badly depleted travel funds. We spent a couple of months back in the UK training for our TEFL certificates, got jobs and visas organised and arrived in Shenzhen in December 2014.
What challenges did you face during the move?
I had already sold pretty much all of my possessions back in 2013, including my house, so the actual process of moving here was mostly stress free. The transition into our teaching jobs was painless too. The language centre we work for is a professionally run Chinese business and the centre manager eased us into work almost immediately with very few problems.
Thereafter the biggest challenges were things like organising cell phones, management fees, utilities, setting up WIFI, bank accounts, travel cards etc. All these things took a bit more effort as nobody spoke English in the offices and service centres. None of the contracts were available in English, so goodness knows what we have signed for over the last 6 months! We did manage to enlist the help of some of our students and Wechat groups were invaluable.
How did you find somewhere to live?
Accommodation was our first priority after securing our teaching positions. Once we established where our school centres were located, we simply wandered into an estate agency close to our small hotel. Our assigned agent spoke English and she arranged to show us three apartments the next day.
We viewed a couple of older properties and another recently completed property in a large modern complex. Our decision to move to China was based on our desire to experience a totally different culture. We quickly decided against the towering, newly built apartment blocks that cater mostly to the 1 million expats now living in Shenzhen.
I have nothing against other expats, but we really wanted to live in a predominantly Chinese community. It was an easy decision to opt for one of the older apartments that had an amazing view across the sea to Hong Kong, and only a handful of westerners in residence.
We insisted that the landlord was present with the agent to negotiate the price and sign the rental agreement. This personalised the negotiation and we were able to get a much better price using the agent as a translator. We agreed the rent, completed a fairly rudimentary inventory of the furniture, secured a further discount to cover the cost of replacing the non-existent curtains and signed a piece of paper we couldn’t read! That was basically it. Then we encountered the challenge, as mentioned above, of getting all the basic services and utilities connected!
Are there many other expats in your area?
There are a lot of expats in the Shekou area of Shenzhen. We are on the fringe of huge gated apartment complexes and more and more are being built all the time. People work in Shenzhen from all over the world in various industries, including finance, technology, manufacturing and of course teaching. The infrastructure here caters well for expats – there are international schools, western supermarkets and plenty of bars and restaurants. There’s a good support system if you take the time to find and interact with it.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
I would say we pass no more than pleasantries with the local Chinese residents in our apartment block, but we’ve made friends with some of our students and regularly go out to share meals and practice their English and our Chinese!
Staff working in the local shops and cafes try their best to get to know you and are always happy to see you. They remember your names and attempt to make some conversation. It’s a mix of their Chinglish and our bad Chinese, but we seem to get by with some added sign language. We find the Chinese to be very social, very kind and very friendly. If we had more time, I know it would be very easy to build a good network of long lasting friends.
What do you like about life where you are?
In comparison to other 1st tier cities, Shenzhen is relatively unpolluted. We haven’t experienced the smog of Beijing and life is not too difficult here. This is a very modern city with a Starbucks on every corner.
The Chinese that live here are very tolerant of outsiders because they’ve all come from different provinces within China. By their own admission they are much more accepting of foreigners than in some other cities, because they have all experienced being outsiders themselves. There are very few native Shenzhen residents now in what was just a small fishing town 30 years ago. The expansion in Shenzhen in this short time has been remarkable.
We don’t experience the “celebrity status” that other expats in China speak about. There are a lot of well educated, middle class Chinese in Shenzhen. These are the people we work with in the schools and many own expensive properties, have travelled, and their kids often go to International Schools. They have more money than I am ever likely to acquire. They are not so in awe of westerners. I expect that we will have very different experiences when we finally leave Shenzhen to travel around China.
I love watching the Chinese with their children. The kids are adorable – I can’t really explain what is different. I think they are just more innocent, with less peer pressure and generally happier than a lot of kids I now see back in the UK.
What do you dislike about your expat life?
Not a lot to be honest. I do hope that China maintains its authenticity and doesn’t succumb too quickly to the consumerism of the west. I so dislike seeing Pizza Hut, MacDonalds, KFC and Starbucks at every turn. But that’s the price of westernization, growing wealth and the huge amount of development that’s happening in China. I would prefer to be in a smaller city or a rural area, but then we would not earn 1st tier city salaries!
What else? Well, I guess the summer heat and humidity is tough, especially when the air conditioning breaks down in the school. The constant noise is also something I would not want to experience long term. It’s never completely quiet here.
Finally I would say the lack of activities. The Chinese way of life is still all about hard work, study, homework and gaining security – all of which take priority over the simple enjoyment of life. There are very few organised activities here – no mountain bike tracks, no sailing, no canoeing, very little natural hiking etc. We are outdoor people so we do miss this in our current lifestyle.
What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?
It’s hard to know where to start – almost everything here is culturally different to the UK! To enjoy living in China you have to develop a level of tolerance, otherwise it will send you insane! I’ve learned to live with and see as amusing, rather than irritating, some of the things that happen here. I even found myself recently quietly praising the ability of my taxi driver to spit at great distance from his window!
The Chinese could be perceived as rude – I don’t think they are they just haven’t ever been taught politeness in the way we are in the west. I don’t mean that in any way to sound condescending, it just hasn’t been a part of their culture. For instance, they don’t wait for you to alight from a bus or train before piling on.
But they are trying to address this – repetitive soundtracks on the metro remind them that “disembarking precedes embarking” and officials with instructions such as “beware of stampeding” will undoubtedly redress this over time.
Eating habits are the other thing I struggle with. The Chinese will eat almost, or maybe even everything, that moves. I remember my grandfather eating pig’s trotters, and other offal when I was young, but as soon as food became plentiful and cheaply available it was removed from the daily menu.
However, the Chinese seem to delight in eating animal parts that I would struggle to consume even in desperation! Chicken feet are sold absolutely everywhere – even as packaged snacks. I found it quite amusing to discover that chicken breasts are considered the least tasty part of the bird. They can be bought for less than $1.50 dollars, yet the chicken feet cost twice as much!
Tipping doesn’t exist in China (yet) and I find that very refreshing. However, that goes hand in hand with the fact that there’s very little service. But still, I’d prefer to pour my own wine and not have to pay a hefty 15% tip that might never reach the waiter or waitresses pocket! Watch out though – there are some Hong Kong and American run restaurants that add a 10 to 15% service charge!
How does shopping (for food/clothes/household items etc.) differ compared to back home?
I find it very difficult to shop for clothes here and especially for shoes. The Chinese generally have smaller body frames and so it’s difficult to find western sizes if you aren’t a UK size 10 or below. There are many designer brands here – in fact I have just returned from a trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai and there was a striking similarity to the shopping malls in both places!
There’s an IKEA in Shenzhen, as well as Carrefour and Walmart so it’s not difficult to buy household items. And there’s any number of small Chinese stores selling everything you could possibly need. We prefer to support these smaller shops whenever we can.
Some foods like butter, bread, bacon and cheese are very expensive because they are mostly imported. Good wine is also very expensive. We’ve tried the “Great Wall of China” wines, but they have a long way to go to compete with European and New World wines, and tend to leave you with a terrible headache!
What do you think of the food in your new country?
We both really enjoy Asian food and there are so many interesting fruits and vegetables to experiment with. We try to eat local Chinese food as much as possible. It is much healthier and a lot less expensive. The Chinese love eating out and every other outlet is a small restaurant. Our favourite is a small local Chinese fast food restaurant, where we buy a bowl of rice, some vegetables and maybe duck or tofu, for around $2.00!
It’s lychee season at the moment and the fruit grows locally in the parks. There are many local fruit sellers and it’s easy to get vegetables from the small Chinese supermarkets. I do sometimes worry, along with the Chinese, about the pesticides used here in China, but I have found some small organic groceries to minimise this health risk.
But this is Shenzhen and pretty much any style of food is available from all over the world. You could happily dine out on western style food all the time – if that’s what you want!
What are your particular likes or dislikes?
Likes – I love the people and I will miss them when we finally leave. I love the chaotic nature of China, the fact that you always have to have your wits about you. It makes me feel alive in a way that living in England doesn’t anymore. I also like that you can get anything done at almost any time. Need a new lock – a guy arrives in 20 minutes and charges just a few pounds.
Dislikes – cockroaches! They are big and they fly!
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
Before you pick a location in China, do your research. China is a little bigger than America and experiences very different climates east to west. It can be freezing in Beijing in winter, but in the same season, Shenzhen’s daily temperature didn’t dip below 20 degrees this year.
Think carefully about your reason for moving here and what it is you most want out of your stay. There’s a huge difference between living in a 1st tier city with 20 million people, to living in a much poorer, less developed 3rd tier city or rural location.
Get a good VPN for the internet (pay don’t go for free) and get a wechat account as soon as you can. We found wechat the best resource for networking and joining expat groups. It has an instant translation for Chinese text, and if you get stuck with anything the Chinese are always more than happy to assist. They will talk to taxi drivers on your behalf, text you directions, and even accompany you on more difficult tasks!
What are your plans for the future?
We came to China to top-up our funds so that we can travel again in 2016. As well as teaching, we’ve been developing ways of securing a residual income by working remotely on the internet. After some travel in China, we plan to move onto Australia at the end of the year where we will be house-sitting for at least three months in Victoria.
House sitting is a great resource for long term travellers and we’ve just developed an online course on the Udemy platform to help other travellers learn how to save money on accommodation costs.
After Australia who knows. We may return to China for more teaching before we head back towards America for another road trip. We find it hard now to think more than three months ahead!
You can follow our ongoing adventures and expat lifestyle on our website: www.HouseSittingMagazine.com