The Highs and Lows of Expat Life

Hello blog world!


I can’t believe it’s been over a month since I last posted. The past week all I’ve been able to think about is writing a post, but I haven’t been able to think of something that would be worthwhile for anyone to read. My mind has been overrun with work stuff lately as it’s exam time for the students, and I haven’t had the extra time (or energy) to sit down and think of what to write.


As I finished my work this evening at Starbucks (writing comments for student reports and graciously using their internet for the cost of a highly caffeinated beverage: 35 RMB), I started thinking about what I could write about. All I’ve wanted to write about recently has been emotional posts in regard to most people I know back home and their complete inability to even try to understand why I’ve chosen the lifestyle I have – it’s been a long, emotionally draining, irritating week, but I have amazing news and will share that here!


From that last sentence alone, I’m sure you can sense that there was a very low low and a very high high this past week. I started thinking about this during my mobike ride back to my apartment. And there came my idea. Want to know what it’s like to live as an expat? Think it’s all rainbows and sunshine? I assure you it’s not, especially in Shanghai during the rainy season. Rainbows don’t even exist here. They’re nothing but a wishful thought from a fairytale, in fact I’m pretty sure they’re just a myth to this part of the world.


In all seriousness, expat life in Shanghai isn’t that bad. However, it is, without a doubt, a rollercoaster of emotions. This is the hardest part about living abroad. Generally there’s not enough routine. At home, everyone has been settled in for so long. They know the area like the back of their hand, not to mention every single person living in the area and their business.


As an expat, you have to find a new place to call home, a new bar to frequent, a new favorite restaurant to go to when you’ve got nothing better to do, a new fitness routine (which may cost a fortune if you want to take classes or get a membership somewhere), a new place to get your groceries from, a new favorite place to do work, etc. This list goes on for ages.


After a chat with a friend in a café today, he mentioned he was talking to someone from Paris who has lived in Shanghai for two years, as long as both him and I have been here. She mentioned to him that being here in the beginning was really hard. Living in Shanghai, there seems to be a big adjustment period. It’s not culture shock, it’s just redefining your life. It’s not always easy to settle into a new groove here.


When I lived in France, it took me a few weeks to feel comfortable and happy enough to stay longer, like I could live there, though it was my first experience abroad. Shanghai took me a year and a half. A YEAR AND A HALF! I think for me it may have been longer than others, but still. I think this French lady has a point.


Settling into a place and establishing a routine really does offer sanity. Don’t take routine for granted. Spontaneity is great. Everyone needs a break. But there needs to be a balance. Until you find that balance in a new country, expat life can be even more difficult.


And even once you find your way, something happens and you hit a low or a high. There’s just no consistency here. And that my friends, that is the hardest part in my opinion.


Enough rambling for now. I’m sure your curious about these extreme highs and lows we experience. Let me just tell you some from my own personal experience. Some may be universal, plenty are location specific, and others are personal to me and my situation. Some are relatable, some comical, and some just downright hurtful.


The Lows


+ Your friends and family often don’t support your decision.

This is one I deal with a lot. Well too bad, it’s my life. I don’t tell you that I don’t support your choices just because you have different interests than I do. But of course I’m the bad guy for finding something I’m passionate about and chasing it. It’s one thing when people don’t support you. It’s another when they verbally (or via text) attack you, your character, and your priorities based solely on this one life decision.


+ Poor internet.

Just as you’re about to submit the work you spent hours on, just when you want to take an online class, or even something as simple as sending an email or uploading a picture to instagram, the internet will inevitably fail. Bye bye sweet fiber optic high speed internet. Hello DSL. Did I travel back in time? What is this?


*added note* The internet will fail right in the middle of your Spotify jam session, as it has just done for me. Great song too. It started 10 minutes ago. Only about a minute through the song. Awesome.


+ VPN failure.

This often coincides with the last one. Though even if the internet is working, odds are your VPN is not. Goodbye sweet social media, gmail, and 90% of the blogs you read. Oh, and if your default for when nothing else works is to watch Netflix? You can forget about that too, because Netflix won’t let you watch with a VPN anymore.


+ Paying for things you don’t want just so you can use the internet somewhere with a slightly more reliable connection.

Maybe you’re sensing a pattern here. Internet is a struggle in Shanghai. Sure, I could just not use it as often. But you try abstaining from all internet usage. It’s not easy, especially with work and a blog that you want to keep up with.


+ Getting elbowed or cut in line.

This is something that no matter how often it happens or how much I anticipate it, it still makes me mad. How is pushing and shoving and having a complete disregard for others not rude? I know the culture is different here, but that’s one thing that even though I understand where it comes from, I just can’t control how I feel about it. It’s one thing that is always frustrating to me.


+ Nearly crying tears of joy from eating a salad.

This one sounds happy, right? And probably a bit confusing? You know that you’re lacking green veggies in your life when you are overjoyed after taking one bite of a salad that tastes, well, good! And then when you go back to pick up one for lunch only to find out that they only carry them for four hours a day and you’re too early or too late. Bring on the crocodile tears and seemingly unwarranted whining.


+ Not seeing blue skies, rainbows, or sunshine for a while.

Due to the pollution, this is a big problem in Shanghai. It takes a toll on your happy attitude. My eyes welled up with tears in the cab in London last summer. It was raining and I saw a rainbow. I also got a sunburn in Scotland. Yeah, that’s talent. Though I suppose a vampire would also burn in Scotland. That’s what happens when you don’t see sunlight for a year.


+ Getting out of the shower to find that your hair has turned into one solid helmet of… grease? Calcium? Some other kind of build up…?

This happens a lot in Shanghai as well, and not just to me. I’ve known friends to pay loads of money to go to a salon for a treatment to remove all the build up. I’ve been fortunate enough that the DIY Pinterest remedies have worked for me, but it’s still annoying. And it happens rather suddenly. You get out of the shower and realize your hair moves as one, and no matter what you do it doesn’t seem to get any better. Not a pleasant way to start your day.


+ Even though your family gives you a hard time, you still miss the crap out of them.

Sometimes homesickness comes out of nowhere. You don’t know how long it will last or how hard it will hit you or how soon it will be back, but in those moments it’s not a great feeling and you start to question your own decisions.


+ Feeling removed from the rest of the world.

It’s weird. I still try to keep up with current events, but I feel so removed from all the things that are happening, specifically in the U.S.A. I still love America, but I don’t identify with it the way I used to. I feel very disconnected and don’t have much desire to live there again any time soon.


+ Saying goodbye.

Life abroad has an expiration date for most people. For some it’s just a few months, others it’s nearly a lifetime. Either way, the people you meet are most likely not on the same timeline as you. They come, they go, and you learn to let go of the people but hold on to the memories.


+ Dating.

It’s nearly impossible. Enough said.


The Highs


+ Getting to travel!

Weekends, holidays, summer vacation. Yeah. It’s pretty nice, and it’s what keeps me going. To me, this makes it all worthwhile.


+ Seeing your favorite performers in your new home.

This one is always exciting to me. It makes you feel less far away. It may take you back to a time when you were home and listening to them or watching them perform live. It closes the gap, making that disconnect disappear momentarily.


+ Trying new things.

Good or bad, it’s always quite an experience. I haven’t loved every experience I’ve had, but I’ve never regretted taking a chance on something new. It’s exciting!


+ Meeting people.

This is one of my favorite things, whether I’m home in Shanghai or away in a new city chatting with people at a restaurant or hostel. I love meeting new people. I love wandering into a bar on a street with lively night life and being asked by total strangers to join them in a friendly game. This brings me so much happiness.


+ Getting paid.

I don’t put a lot of pressure on money. I save a lot because there aren’t a lot of things that I feel like money can buy that could bring me happiness (except food and travel). However, I’m a million times better off financially in Shanghai than I ever came close to in the States. Living an affordable life in the States often means making a lot of sacrifices. It can be manageable, but with the impending doom of student loan debt always hanging over your head, financial stability seems like nothing but a farfetched dream.


+ Finding new places that you really like makes you feel like you’re on top of the world.

You’ve suddenly found an apartment, bar, restaurant, coffee shop, or park that you adore. You’ve now claimed this as your place to live, party, eat, work, or relax. It’s now part of home and you couldn’t be happier to have this place that brings you inner peace knowing that you’re not just some tourist.


+ Having amazing students with amazing parents who show you how much they appreciate you.

I feel that in a lot of work environments people are not told of how much their effort is appreciated. If you enjoy positive reinforcement, it’s hard to feel like what you’re doing is worthwhile if it seems like nobody is noticing. The best part about teaching abroad is the constant love and appreciation these students and parents show for the teachers.


These are just some of the highs and lows that I’ve experienced lately. I know I’ve forgotten loads that I experience often. Are you an expat? What highs and lows have you experienced? Any of the same ones as me? Anything different? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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