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Don's ESL Journey
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The Man ...
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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I can’t help but reminisce on all of the good, the bad, and ugly experiences I’ve have during my time in China. Seriously, it’s been one hell of an adventure over the past 4 years.
I’ve met and made friends with people from all across the world, picked up some Mandarin, explored numerous tourist destinations in-and-around the country, taught hundreds of students as an ESL teacher, made an appearance on the local news, ‘starred’ in a local TV series, been in a stable relationship with a Chinese girl for over 2.5 years, practiced MMA, and have been called “wai gou ren”, or foreigner, nearly 1 million times and counting.
Yep. Everyday has literally been a stimulating escapade since my arrival, and like most foreigners living and working in China, I have tons of intriguing and amusing stories to tell that people back in the West wouldn’t believe.
Looking back, I’ve come to realize that many of my awesome experiences in China have largely been due to several reasons: 1. Having a stable job, 2. being in a stable relationship, 3. surrounding myself with mostly positive people, and 4. having Kunshan as the foundation for all of my adventures.
I arrived in China back in January of 2012 as a young adult—I was 25 at the time—from the USA that was eager to take on the world, and if you're reading this, there's a good chance that our stories are the same. How so? I barely new anything about the China before I landed. Let's see, locations? There was the Great Wall, Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Check. Entertainment? I had watched Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Rush Hour, and of course everyone knows of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and Donny Yen. Cool. Rounding out my short list? Chinese take-out food, chopsticks, nunchucks, Panda Express, and Kung Fu. No kidding, THAT WAS IT!
But as fate would have it I pressed ahead, signed a 1-year contract with an English training center in Kunshan, and quickly settled into my new home. Within the first few weeks I began traveling, making new friends, learning about Chinese culture, trying new foods, and racking up a ton of memorable experiences. Fast forward half a year later and I had already determined to extend my stay--my overall reasons at the time being the same as they are until this very day.
Pros of Living & Working in Kunshan
Here are the major sticking points:
It's Convenient ...
First up, living in Kunshan is very convenient. I’ve traveled to many large cities and metropolitan areas across China like Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Shenzhen, and in a land filled with roughly 1.4 billion people, Kunshan earns point for being less congested, less fast paced, more organized, and easier to navigate.
Additionally, Kunshan’s landscape is a pretty well-blended mix of spacious rural area and bustling city life. Heck, that means you'll find everything from tranquil parks, vast stretches of untapped land, fewer skyscrapers, and wider roads, to lively shopping streets, jam packed public squares, and rapid developments taking place at every turn.
It's this fusion of landscapes that makes living in Kunshan far better than residing in a Chinese city where one side dominates the other.
Low Cost of Living
Any foreigner in Kunshan will probably tell you that the best aspect of living in the city is its low cost of living. A nice apartment will cost anywhere from1,500-2,500 RMB a month, whereas a basic studio in Shanghai may start out at around 4,500 RMB if you’re lucky. I’ve never paid more than 2,000 RMB a month during my 4 years in town, though I’ve only lived in 2 apartments.
What's more, transportation in Kunshan is dirt-cheap. Taxis start at 10 RMB and increase after the first 3.3 kilometers, and buses are only 1 RMB. That’s right, freakin' 1 RMB! E-bikes vary depending on preferences, but prices tend to run about 1,800-3,000 RMB.
Living in Kunshan has allowed me to save a big chunk of my monthly earnings while still maintaining the fun and adventurous lifestyle of an expat in the country. I could store a few bucks in the bank and pay off the bills, then eat and drink what I want, travel where I want, and party where I want, without any hesitation.
Location, Location, Location
Do you know that Kunshan sits on the Shanghai-Nanjing intercity railway line? That means you can easily explore the other popular and larger cities nearby without having actually to live there. Heard of Shanghai? Of course you have! Shanghai and Suzhou are just a mere 15 minutes away from Kunshan by high-speed train. It takes about 40 minutes to arrive in Wuxi, 1 hour to Changzhou, 1.5 hours to Zhenjiang, and 2 hours to Nanjing. Living in Kunshan has allowed me to explore countless nearby destinations with ease.
Kunshan is and has been developing at a good pace. More foreigners are entering the city and like any Chinese city there are just so many new buildings and housing communities being constructed on every couple of blocks.
The area near Kunshan South Railway Station, for instance, is currently in the process of laying the foundation for the city’s tallest building. A water park opened earlier this year in Bacheng, and there's Duke Kunshan University on the westside of town.
With that, Kunshan has not only brought in more English speaking expats from across the world—typically working as English teachers, engineers, businessman, or import and export supervisors—but it has also maintained a growing presence of wealthy locals. In fact, did you know that Kunshan is one of China’s most economically successful county-level administrations. That’s a pretty impressive feat right?
I've also had the chance to witness close Chinese friends of mine start their own profitable business in Kunshan within a matter of a few months. My time in Kunshan has even personally inspired me to become an entrepreneur and start my own business as well; thus, welcome to Don’s ESL Adventure!
Cons of Living & Working in Kunshan
On the flip side, living and working in Kunshan has not been without its challenges. After all, there have really been several major factors that have led to intense feelings of regret in renewing my residence permit for another year.
For one, despite witnessing a pretty decent growth in the number of foreigners moving into Kunshan over the course of the past 4 years, I’d still consider the amount of "wai gouren" to be relatively small. Unless I’m passing down Qianjin Road or making a trip to the few popular places where expats usually congregate--Heilongjiang strip, Oasis, or Swissotel--it’s unlikely that I’ll bump into any foreigners.
In the past I attended a number of successful events put on at a lounge called Fubar, and the Kunshan Expat Association managed to organize some great mixers, but both have since shut their doors for business.
This void is extremely disappointing, especially considering that in larger cities like Shanghai the expats seem to be putting on stage plays, musicals, concerts, parties, picnics, and sports clubs just about every other hour of the day!
The Entertainment ... or Lack Thereof
Kunshan. Kunshan. Kunshan. Where are the diverse range of entertainment and attractions? Sure the city is riddled with ancient water towns, KTVs, a few track and fields, malls, movie theaters, bowling alleys, a new water park, and an occasional musical at the KCAC, but living in Kunshan has still sometimes felt empty and very repetitive due to the shortage of creative things to do.
Heck, I'm from Los Angeles. I could hit Capoeira classes 2x a week, head to Venice Beach any time of day, visit a theme park on the weekend, stroll down Hollywood Boulevard on a Thursday night, and watch a live professional sports game on a Tuesday. Now that's what I'm talking about!
Of course, Kunshan is not LA and will NEVER be, but I’ve always felt that the city's government could help do more to develop and promote more social, cultural/, and leisure activities geared towards the expat community. That way Kunshan would receive a MAJOR boost in overall like-ability if done effectively. And I mean MAJOR! What are some examples? Well, how about creating city sponsored cultural exchanges, sports tournaments, seminars, cycling groups, concerts, art shows, comedy nights, festivals, dance competitions, and the list goes on.
Then again, maybe it’s up to the expat community to take initiative and get organize. I’ve done my best to catalog most of the things to do in Kunshan as well as provide information on developments and upcoming events. If you come across anything new, feel free to contact me and I’ll post it in the Kunshan Expats Group on Facebook. Sharing is caring!
In the End ...
Looking back over the past 4 years, I’d say that living and working in Kunshan has been great a experience overall.
It was Kunshan that introduced me to China back in 2012, and since then I’ve been fully able to immerse myself in Chinese culture, pick up some Mandarin, meet and make friends with people from around the world, date, explore popular mainland tourist hubs and nearby countries, work at a decent company, teach hundreds of amazing students, save money, create the foundations for a future business endeavor, and go on crazy adventures that I can’t wait to tell my grandkids some day. And yes, I've had plenty of challenges along the way, but my overall experience in Kunshanhas been mostly positive.
Has living in Kunshan been positive for everybody? OF COURSE NOT. Heck, I've met people that couldn't wait to escape, and it's typically for the following reasons: 1. Their job sucked, 2. they found Kunshan boring, 3. they could not make friends, and 4. they were extremely jealous of all the action going on in Shanghai. Hey, it happens. Everyone's experience is different in the city, and I guess I've just been fortunate.
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To all the newcomers and current residents in Kunshan, I encourage you to take full advantage of the benefits, opportunities, and attractions that the city has to offer. Get to know as much as you can about Kunshan and allow it to be the foundation for your adventures and endeavors in China. And while you’re at it, grab a pen, notepad, a camera, and get to writing. After all, I hope that someday I’ll be reading up on your very own unique experiences in the city. Safe and happy travels!
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->