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Movie lover. Growing Capoeirista. Space enthusiast. Dedicated craftsman. And best of all, homegrown Los Angeles native. Wait, how in the hell did I end up in China!?
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Teaching English abroad in China has been an adventure of a lifetime. I’ve taught hundreds of young and passionate ESL learners, experienced new cultures, met people from all walks of life, and explored numerous regions around the world that I had once only known from television and movies.
Yet, my journey overseas hasn’t always been paradise, for I too have often fell victim to the mind-numbing pain of feeling homesick, stressed, pessimistic, anxious, bored, disconnected, alone, jealous, and yes, angry at the world for having to slave another day teaching English while the bosses at the top reap in the profits pouring in from the ESL industry. Aargh!
But looking back over my 5 years in China, I think I’ve managed to cope with the steady stream of adversity I’ve faced pretty well, and I’ve narrowed it down to just over a dozen sources—aside from pure luck—that have been key contributors to making my life abroad a little easier. Here’s my list of the top 15 things that have kept me sane while living and working abroad as an ESL Teacher in China.
1. Great Colleagues & Work Environment
I was lucky enough to land myself in a great working situation with my first ESL teaching job. Though I was the only full-time foreign teacher when I arrived, my colleagues made sure to invite me out to dinner, join me in exploring nearby cultural landmarks, take me to the movies, KTVs, to play basketball, you name it.
As more fresh foreign teachers arrived our staff steadily grew bigger and, thanks to everybody’s combined effort, we managed to grow as a family and experience life in China together. We made jokes, debated and traded ideas at work, explored tourist attractions, grabbed dinner and drinks on a frequent basis, and participated in a wide-range of cultural exchange activities. It wasn’t always cloud nine, and I definitely encountered a few knuckleheads along the way, but I can’t stress enough how spending my first several years with a great group of people made my overall experience as an ESL Teacher in China all the more enjoyable.
I’ve always loved to travel and see the world. Today, I can proudly say that I’ve explored many of China’s top attractions and regions, including Shanghai, Beijing, Guilin, Rainbow Mountains, Shaolin Temple, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and the list goes on. I’ve also managed to travel to nearby countries such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand, with plenty of more to go. Interacting with different cultures, learning new languages, meeting people from around the globe, discovering new attractions, and laying eyes on some of the most breathtaking man-made landmarks and natural scenery across new territories has brought about some the best experiences ever in my life.
I've discovered that when living abroad, one of the best ways to keep your sanity is by constantly challenging yourself and creating both achievable and far-fetching goals. I started practicing MMA back in 2014. I trained in a wide assortment of striking and wrestling techniques, with a main focus on Jiu-jitsu, a Brazilian martial art that I’ve since grown to love.
Looking back on it, my one and a half year stint doing MMA from 2014-2015 is probably the best time frame that I’ve had in China. After all, I was having fun learning a completely new hobby while making new friends and challenging my mind and body 2x a week. I also became more optimistic, more confident walking the streets, more focused and attentive, healthier, and I took pleasure knowing that I had a fun activity to look forward to on a weekly basis. Learning and practicing MMA was one of the best things I’ve ever done while living abroad.
I’d like to thank God for the people that invented, and still invent, all these awesome methods of getting around: airplanes, cars, buses, subways, boats, trains, motorcycles, bicycles, skateboards, scooters—where would mankind be without them? And in China, a country with just a mere 1.3 billion people, convenient and efficient transportation is an absolute necessity. That’s where electric bikes/scooters—usually referred to as E-bikes—come into play, and China is loaded with them.
I bought my first E-bike just 8 months after I arrived in China and it completely changed my life, no kidding. It was 1900RMB, or a little over $300, required no gas, and it could get me pretty much anywhere in the city that I needed to be at anytime. To charge the E-bike, all I had to do was bring it up into my apartment via elevator and plug it up in my kitchen. If I ran out of juice while out and about, there were charging stations that can give my E-bike enough power to get home for a small fee. What’s more, I didn’t even need to have a license to buy one! How awesome is that!?
5. Westcoast Hip-Hop Music
“La-da-da-da-da, it’s the motherf**king D-O-Double G…” I love Westcoast hip-hop! Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Kurupt, Ice Cube, Westside Connection, Dogg Pound, Game, and Nipsey Hussle are just a few of my favorite artists that have stayed in heavy rotation since I arrived in China. It’s fun, lyrical, hip, trend-setting, gangsta'. You can chill and vibe out to it or just leave it on in the background while hanging out with friends, working out, or getting some work done. Westcoast hip-hop has some flavor for every type of occasion, and that’s why it’s one of the most played genres on my Itunes’ playlists. P.S. I’m currently bumping Anderson Paak’s Malibu album!
6. Bootleg DVDs
Yep, bootleg movies and TV series have saved my life while living abroad in China! No, not really, but they have helped keep my sanity. Bootleg DVDs are readily available across most cities in China. With such lax enforcement of international copyright laws in China, bootleg DVD stores have thrived in top-tier cities like Shanghai where expat populations flourish. I can find everything from crystal clear copies of 90’s hits like Jurassic Park and Independence Day to modern day Netflix series such as House of Cards and The People VS. O.J Simpson, all for usually between 6 or 13RMB per disc (about $1-$2) depending on the town.
My favorite investments include seasons of The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Entourage, Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League: The Animated Series.
They say laughter is the best medicine, so what better way to keep happy than adding a little comedy into your life? With that, Seinfeld not only reigns as my favorite comedy series of all-time, but is also my favorite television show of all-time, followed by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. For a ‘show about nothing”, it sure had everything: unsurpassed comedy, hilarious story arcs, loveable characters, popular catchphrases, you name it. I bought the complete set of Seinfeld, seasons 1-9, from a bootleg DVD store for less than 100RMB (about $15) shortly after I arrived in China. Since then, I’ve probably seen every episode of Seinfeld at least 5 times. What's more, the show is home to my all-time favorite TV character, George Costanza, played by Jason Alexander. The series’ “short, stocky, slow-witted bald man” has made me laugh more times than any other TV personality in history. What’s your favorite TV show to watch over and over again?
Facebook, Google, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram--they're all blocked in China. VPNs, or virtual private networks, allow expats in China to connect with these websites blocked by China’s Great Firewall, also known as the Golden Shield Project, and for about $100 a year I could sign up to use VPN software that could reroute my internet service to another region around the world and use the internet as though I am living in that region. Thanks to VPNs I’ve been able to connect with friends and family back at home via Facebook and Instagram, create and watch videos on Youtube, build upon my blog, and stay up to date with important news stories across the globe. Trust me, nearly all foreigners in China have one!
9. Online Radio
One of the best investments I made living abroad in China was downloading online radio apps. I found a few that not only offered commercial free music, but also featured my top favorite musical genres such as Oldies, Hip-Hop, R & B, and Pop. If you’re a music lover like I am, I highly recommend adding a few online radio apps to your tablet or phone. Try the Radio.net app for instance!
My Capoeira journey began back in 2010 with Mestre Amen Santos at Capoeira Batuque in Los Angeles, California. But in 2012 I moved to China and had nowhere to consistently train.
Fast forward several years later and I now live and continue to work as an ESL Teacher in Shanghai, where I’ve been able to practice Capoeira at Capoeira Brasil. Moving into the big city—some 24 million people by the way—it’s like I had to start all over again: making friends, getting to know my new home, adjusting to my new working space, setting new goals and challenges. Capoeira has managed to help me settle into my new life in every way possible. For one, it’s an activity just brimming with positive energy and people in good spirits, which is a great way to offset the stress that can sometimes come along with being an ESL Teacher and living abroad. Two, it’s a fantastic way to learn something new while challenging my body and staying in shape. Three, doing Capoeira has allowed me to connect with a great group of people from all walks of life, which is key to countering the feeling of being isolated in a massive city such as Shanghai.
In 2014, I got a small tattoo dedicated to Capoeira on my arm at China Ink: Suzhou. I know that no matter where I end up in the world, I can always find Capoeira and know that it will bring with it the energy I’d need face any obstacles that life may bring. Salve!
Basketball--it's actually my favorite sport to play. There are a million reasons why of course--it's fun, I can make friends, it's competitive--but I'll focus on one of the most important: Aerobic exercise. I repeat, A-E-R-O-B-I-C E-X-E-R-C-I-S-E. I hate running, I don't usually cycle, and haven't been into popular recreational sports in China like badminton and table tennis (ping-pong). But I do love playing basketball, and health wise, it's a high intensity, long duration aerobic exercise that gets the blood pumping and endorphins shooting, which helps make working in the ESL industry all the more easier to deal with. Take it from me, getting some adequate aerobic exercise—cycling, swimming, running, football—is one of the top ways to keep sane when teaching English abroad!
12. Black Entertainment
I for one think it's true: seeing people that look and speak like you in the media has a positive impact on people’s overall mental health. Don't you agree? As an African-American, keeping up with black programming and movies from the US while living and teaching English abroad in China has done the most to help me keep in touch with my roots and culture back at home.
I’ve watched and re-watched Black-led series from the US such as Atlanta, Power, Luke Cage, Blackish, Roots, Empire, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Chappelle’s Show, along with movies such as Think Like a Man Too, The Best Man: Wedding, and Ride Along. From them I’d get plenty of characters, situations, themes, and story arcs covering the African-American experience in the States, which covers everything from afro-identity, history, biographies, political perspectives, and economic issues, to slang, hip-hop culture, relationships, family drama, celebrity gossip, and urban and pop-culture references. I’d either grab bootlegs or download the movies/shows from Youtube, upload them to my PS3, watch them on my flat screen, and feel like I never left home. What a great way to stay connected!
13. Family Success
One of the biggest challenges about moving abroad is leaving your family and friends behind. Sure, I’ve been able to keep up with a few people in my inner circle via WeChat, Facebook and Instagram mostly, but it’s nothing like seeing and chatting with loved ones face to face. But one of the best things that has kept me motivated during my time living abroad has been hearing and reading up on success stories from my family and friends back at home.
Over the years, for instance, I’ve watched my cousin attain personal growth, popularity, and wealth as a health and fitness coach. I’ve followed another cousin as she published her first novel and won numerous awards. I’ve also learned that my oldest brother, a successful financial consultant, has decided to go the independent route and start his own business. Additionally, I’ve seen plenty of my friends become entrepreneurs, join blossoming relationships, get married, and have babies. Even though I haven’t had the opportunity to chat with family and friends as much as I’d like, catching up with their success stories via social media has done good keeping me sane while living abroad.
14. Those Trips Home
And then there's when I've actually had the chance to make trips home--3 times thus far to be exact. Ah, there's nothing like taking a 2-3 week vacation from the ESL life to hang out with family and friends, hit my favorite hangout spots in Los Angeles like Venice Beach, Hollywood, Runyon Canyon, Fox Hills Mall, and Universal Studios, and chow down on the top food from the States I've missed the most: tacos, burritos, nachos, hot dogs, and butter-laced movie theater popcorn. And I mean the kind with the butter oozing out of the bottom of the bag! Yep. Those trips home can really make all the difference.
One of the first things I did after arriving in China was start a blog. I was keen on sharing my new adventure with my family and friends back at home but hated having to upload hundreds of pictures of my experiences on Facebook. With that, I created a free blog at Weebly where I could discuss my life as an ESL teacher, share pictures and videos of my travels, offer informative and visually in-depth coverage of the city I lived in, and post interesting insight into Chinese culture and lifestyle.
It took about 2 years before I decided to expand my website and cover more of my travel adventures and experiences as an ESL Teacher in East Asia. Blogging was and is an excellent way to capture my journey, share it with family, friends, and strangers, and inspire others to take the same leap of faith I did by traveling abroad to teach English. And thus, I welcome to Don’s ESL Adventure!
And there you have it folks, my list of the top 15 things that have kept me sane while living and working abroad in China as an ESL Teacher. What do you think? Did you find anything in common with my list that has helped you maintain sanity as an ESL Teacher abroad? Or is your list far more extensive than mine? Let me know down below. Safe & happy travels!
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->
12/2/2019 08:14:56 am
Haha that’s the BEST way to vent, especially after teaching kids all day!
1/11/2023 07:55:32 am
Hello mate greeat blog post
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