Most people only dream of moving abroad because there are so many practical obstacles that get in the way. The logistics, the finances, and their personal circumstances make moving abroad seem like a fantasy. The reality is that just like anything else if you really want something you will find a way to make it work for you. If you really want to move abroad, it is possible and you can do it successfully.
In this post, I’ll share how I started my expat career. Despite my lack of language skills, limited funds, and not much experience overall, I was able to make it work.
When I first ventured out to Hangzhou, China 20 years ago, traveling to China wasn’t a popular thing to do. As a matter of fact, my mother begged me to reconsider. My uncle called me crazy. Some of my friends even teased me. Not many Americans were signing up to travel to China in 2000. And there were even less black women raising their hand to do so.
At the time, I didn’t have much going on in my personal life. I was single and in my junior year in college. I was an economics major and very interested in geopolitical affairs. Spending a summer in China teaching English seemed like an obvious choice. I often read articles in the Economist and Financial Times predicting what would happen to China in the next 20 years. It would give me a chance to experience the mystery of China up close and I might even learn a bit of Chinese along the way.
When I first traveled to China, my intent was not to leave the U.S. for good. I wasn’t trying to move abroad. I didn’t even speak Chinese at the time. I was just looking for adventure, something new.
Well, that desire for adventure landed me a 13-hour plane ride from JFK to Beijing International Airport. I still recall being on that flight with about 10 other university students setting out to discover for themselves what China was all about. None of us spoke Chinese at the time, although now I’m fluent. I had purchased a small book to help in translating basic phrases, but it didn’t help at all. Learning Chinese without having a native speaker to practice with is tough!
Abroad and Far from Home
When I landed in China, I experienced the most intense heat of my life. It was a sweltering July in Beijing. I had a jam-packed itinerary put together by the organizing group. Their goal was to make money off of English-speaking foreigners. We were essentially free labor; we taught English, sang songs, and did photo ops on demand. They got paid.
I was a broke college kid. So I didn’t have many options about how I was going to travel or where I was going to stay. I distinctly remember staying in a hostel that I wouldn’t even dream of staying in today. I used “showlets“, hole- in- the-ground squat toilets, you name it. We took long train rides between cities – there was no budget for flights. I remember the highlight of one of my 16-hour long train rides being some cheap bai-jiu (白酒 ) and a deck of cards. It was the epitome of budget travel.
Failure is part of the process
I failed many times during that trip. Firstly, I couldn’t understand anything that local Chinese were saying. Being kept out of conversations that were most likely about me was frustrating. I made a concerted effort to learn as much Chinese language as I could.
Secondly, I had no clue about Chinese culture. I made so many social situations awkward by not being aware of how my actions would make others feel. I didn’t know how to politely refuse alcohol at dinners. So I ended up drinking way too at times and feeling horrible the next day. I also didn’t know that refusing an invitation to certain events was rude – I’m sure I offended a few people by “politely declining” dinners.
So don’t beat yourself up if you are struggling to learn a language or understand a foreign culture. You will make mistakes and you will learn from those mistakes. It’s part of the process.
It can de done
Despite my not speaking the language and not having the budget to experience China in comfort, it was a start. It was the beginning of something much greater. If I had never taken that first trip, I would not have gained all of the amazing, wonderful experiences I have today. The point is that we will always have challenges in obtaining our dreams and our goals. There will always be something that makes our goals seem unreachable. But if you take the first step, in spite of the limitations you will soon realize that it can be done.
Moving abroad is no different. Start with your vision of where you want to be and what you want to be doing. Find a mentor. Do your research. And finally, act on it. In conclusion, If a 19-year old black girl from a small farm town in Connecticut can do it, so can you.