For those of us who move abroad, even for shorter periods of time than I spent in China, expat communities can be an important part of adapting to life in a foreign country.
Co-workers are your first expat community
When I first arrived in China, I had an immediate community of about 20 foreign teachers at the private school. I arrived two months later than almost all of them, so I learned from their experiences. We generally hung out at the neighborhood restaurants and occasionally went out to other parts of Shenzhen (usually the expat hangout of Shekou). We even shared in shopping trips to Walmart (and later to Carrefour when it opened). Of course, we also explored on our own and shared anything exciting we found, such as cheese appearing on the shelves of Walmart.
Many of those co-workers were integral to my adapting to life in Shenzhen. A few helped out when locals wanted to toast the foreigners with beer or baijiu until someone passed out at the table. One in particular was very comforting when my uncle passed away a month after I arrived.
Exploring other expat communities
Towards the end of my first year, I began branching out into other expat communities. When Passover rolled around, I wondered how I could participate in the holiday. I found information on Jewish organizations in Hong Kong, but that was almost a three-hour trip from my home in Bao’an district. Considering the school didn’t provide days off that weren’t national holidays and penalized teachers for taking days off (at a rate higher than the actual daily pay), I would’ve had to return home afterwards, putting my return to Shenzhen at sometime after 2 am.
About a week before Passover, I was told that Chabad had just sent a rabbi to Shenzhen and that there would be a seder in Shekou for the first night. I don’t follow Chabad’s traditions — a bit too religious for my liking — but I thought it would be worthwhile to check out. At least I’d get food and possibly meet people.
I was right about the food and meeting people — I was also happy to discover that the rabbi was inclusive, knowing that most expats were not that religious. I have kept in touch with a few of those people over the years as well. There were people who showed up for holidays and never returned because they were only in town on business. But there were regulars — the long-term expats who had some great stories about China from the 1980s and ’90s. Because of the people I met, I returned for all holiday events that I could possibly attend — there was always a ton of food and drinks to keep me happy.
One of the friends I met that first night, and multiple times after, steered me to apply for the teaching job that he was leaving at the graduate school in Shenzhen. That turned out to be the most rewarding job I had in China (it also had great co-workers and a wonderful boss). Others tried to help with career options when I moved back to the US (unfortunately, nothing panned out then). I also met up with a few of the expats from that group in other settings — dinner, drinks, or just running into each other on the street. Unlike some businessmen in China, the people at Chabad never looked down on me for being a teacher.
Social media to find other expats
Later on, in 2008, I joined Twitter — I had been reading some writing- and China-focused blogs that talked about it, so I gave it a try. I soon discovered a large contingent of users from China, some of whom wrote blogs that I read frequently. I managed to meet a few of those connections in China. I first met a few expats in Guangzhou; I introduced them to my favorite restaurant, Danny’s Bagel — the owner was a great guy from New Jersey. I also met my Malaysian friend when she visited Shenzhen — I found out later that she graduated from college in New Jersey.
When I moved back to the US, I met social media entrepreneur @michelini in Hoboken. I found out that he lived down the street from me in Shenzhen, but we never ran into each other. I also met Lonnie from Veteran Travel in New York — we were supposed to meet a few times in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, but timing never worked out. There was also a meetup of former China expats in Chinatown — most of us were connected through Twitter while we were living in China.
There was also Raoul’s China Saloon, a forum for expats in China (mostly teachers). Unlike other China teachers’ forums, Raoul’s was much more friendly and interesting. When I had questions to post, there was always someone with a helpful answer. Members provided some useful classroom materials and ideas, to which I attempted to add my own two cents. I never met anyone from the forum, though stories floated around about many of the forum members meeting up (quite a few lived in Suzhou).
Overall, I discovered that the online expat community in China was sometimes more supportive than the in-person communities. There were more than a few who offered technical advice and moral support when I set out to start the China-focused literary journal, Terracotta Typewriter (I put the idea together before leaving China, but the first issue came out after I moved home).
Whether it was the friends I made through the physical expat communities or the ones I only met through the virtual interwebs, I had people who kept me sane when the world around me seemed crazy. Of course, the best support group consisted of my close friends with whom I could grab a few bottles of Tsingtao. Nights of Tsingtao and Xinjiang barbecue usually helped relieve the stress of grading student essays.