Dear Self

A few things you’ll learn when you move halfway across the globe

By Alexis Engelhart

I made a selfish choice.

I packed my bags, kindly and quickly — due to a last-minute decision — said my goodbyes, and sipped on that American Airlines red wine all the way to China. To do what? I had accepted a job teaching English at China and America Foreign Language School because I had just turned 23 years old and had no idea what I wanted to do. I did know, however, that I didn’t “just” want to teach. I craved meaning out of it. I wanted more, an experience, and no matter how you look at it, that’s exactly what I got. 

I learned soon after arrival that everything I thought I was getting myself into in my new foreign territory prior to stepping foot on Wutong Shan was actually undeniably false. I had visions of living in downtown Shenzhen, meeting a wide variety of new coworkers and friends, quickly being enthused to learn survival Mandarin, becoming a yogi, buying a bike to cycle around the city, obsessing over my new job, and doing everything my heart and mind told me would improve myself as a person while really digging deep to find my inner soul. 

In reality, I stepped out of the airport and immediately felt the overwhelmingly uncomfortable atmosphere — a mix of being the minority in an extremely overpopulated area of people speaking a completely different language plus the massive heat wave that instantly drenched my armpits as if a tsunami had just gone through. I left my cozy comfort zone of Cape Girardeau on one side of my Apple maps and landed in the most humid little mountain village in a moldy, ant-inhabited dorm room on the opposite side. My jet-lagged eyes burned, and my body ached due to the two-inch thick mattress I had contracted myself into sleeping on for the rest of the year. “Damn, Alexis. What did you get yourself into?” I wondered to myself.

But dear self, here is what you didn’t know then: the process of a big move is hard. It daunts you for months, weeks and days before you wake up in utter shock that you’re about to leave everything you know for a world of confusion and mistrust in hopes that you quickly evolve into your new life and are accepting of the journey. The worry may consume you, but you smile and tell yourself to “be yourself, Lex; let loose and enjoy the opportunity” because your old coworkers told you to and your new coworkers are all you have. You lay awake at 3 a.m. every morning talking to your family and friends 14 hours behind you, holding back your tears because you don’t want swollen eyes in the morning and can’t even make it back to the airport alone due to fear — so leaving isn’t an option. Your job is frustrating; communication seems like it doesn’t exist, and you constantly feel unappreciated.  

But time does go on. Life gets easier. You begin to appreciate the little things. The things that you never thought you would even think twice about and smile about at the end of your journey.

The two-minute walk each morning to school will leave your hair a curly, frizzy mess and your clothes with drops of sweat. You will feel cheated and lied to by your weather app: 98 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity?! The heat is a nightmare that you will never wake up from. You’ll teach your 7th grade students the phrase “Please turn on the A/C” before you ask, “How was your winter holiday?”

No matter their behavior, your students mean something to you. You will remember their faces and names forever. 

Your schedule will be posted one day with all of your classes. Classes you never thought you’d be able to teach: for example, drama. You’ve never had experience in a drama class, nor do you like it. But the kids somehow get you through it, and you feel extremely accomplished.

Privacy doesn’t exist in China. Your space bubble bursts as soon as you walk into the country, and your connection to the outside world gets lost in the air because even though you downloaded and purchased a Virtual Private Network (VPN), the majority of the time it doesn’t work. Appreciate the time off social media. Cherish the present.

Save your money. For booking a cheap flight during a Chinese holiday. For a good, fat, greasy Western burger instead of $0.14 fried rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For weekend Dameisha Beach getaways to binge watch free hotel movies and sleep on a thick, heavenly mattress.

Everyone will say, “Do not eat the street food.” But listen to me: do not be scared of the barbecue. It may treat you wrong once or twice, but it will do you right in the end. Enjoy it, but beware. Experiment with new foods.  

Always take that hike. The journey is hard, but the extra steps are always worth it, no matter the degree of the hangover from the night before. There’s always a fresh, total off-brand hot dog waiting for you at the top and juicy pineapple sticks or whole cucumbers (which are actually incredibly refreshing) along the way. Keep on trekkin’.

Eat the cheap ice cream every Friday afternoon. You deserve it after a 50-hour work week. The 1¥ banana pops are actually the best according to price and taste. 

Make friends with the local shop owners. They’re going to be the first people you see each morning as you run out the door and the last you see walking back home, always with a smile on their faces and a new fresh fruit in hand for you to try. 

Be uncomfortable. Strip from your comfort zone. Be willing to change and unwilling to accept less. Give yourself time to welcome the struggles and appreciate the growth.

You play your last game of UNO with your students on your final work day in China, reminiscing about your journey, excited for your future. Coming home to normality is difficult. I’d say it is almost more difficult than moving abroad, away from everything you know. Things at home have changed, but so have you. The dollar is worth more, and the items cost more, too. It was challenging to stay in touch with family and friends while you were away, promising a blog you never quite kept up with so they were never in the loop, and now it’s difficult to catch them up. You think explaining your journey when you’re finally home after eight months will be less complicated, but it is just as tough as keeping them updated when you were gone.

The process is challenging but rewarding. I’ve said it once before, and I’ll say it again — through our location-limited comfort zones is our true break in life. There will never be a right time to do things in life. Follow opportunity, and keep your adventure going. The person you become through the process of stepping out of comfort is definitely worth it.