It is Thursday and time for another post in my November series Boss Girls Around the World. So far, I’ve featured Danish Christina who lives in New York City, Ukrainian Ira who lives in Berlin and American Meredith who lives in Berlin as well. This week it is time for Jenn.
Jenn is the essence of an expat. She is always on the go, living all over the world. Originally from Ottawa, Canada, Jenn has lived in Beijing, London and most recently she has been housesitting in Scotland and Kenya, where she spent a month in each place. #Goals. Jenn is a travel blogger at A Map, Fork & Cork, and our paths crossed through a Female Digital Nomad group on Facebook and I was lucky enough to ask Jenn a few questions.
In the following, Jenn answers what was the biggest cultural difference in living in Beijing, what she misses from there and what she misses from home.
What was the reason for moving, first of all?
I always wanted to travel and before I decided to move abroad, I had only been to three countries. Since I had nothing tying me down like a mortgage and kids, I thought it would be great to spend a year living abroad in China.
Not only is China an amazingly beautiful country on its own to explore, but it’s also very close to a lot of South East Asian countries that I always wanted to visit. I went with the intention of staying for a year but I ended up living there for over three years, moved to London after for a year and now I’ve been traveling Europe and Kenya for the last five months.
What do you miss the most about home?
My family may get upset if I say this but it’s the food! Don’t get me wrong, living in Beijing and eating Chinese food is amazing but you won’t find amazing cheeses, meats, and wines in the grocery store. I also love to cook but it’s challenging to make western dishes in Beijing because Chinese shops don’t usually have the products (unless you are willing to pay exorbitant prices at the foreign market), so something as simple as making spaghetti means you’ve got to make the sauce and meatballs from scratch. Every time I go back home, I get so excited to be in a grocery store and see all the choices.
What do you not miss from home?
I definitely don’t miss having to drive to get anywhere. Beijing and London were amazing because I could easily walk to the market, restaurants, gym, and movies. If a place is too far, I could just hop on the metro which is cheap and doesn’t take long.
What has been the most different and the most challenging in living in another country?
Living in Beijing was the most challenging and different country I’ve lived in. First, you have the language barrier. While many Chinese people are learning English, the everyday person you encounter will have little to no English so you’ve got to learn enough Chinese to survive and do a lot of miming to get people to understand.
The other biggest challenge is the major cultural differences. There’s such an importance placed on respect for peoples feelings (known as saving face), that it can be challenging to have a conversation even when someone can speak English! For example, saying no is never straightforward. It’s rare you will hear them say no flat out. Instead, you will get a lot of maybes or ‘let me think about it’. So, you need to be able to read between the lines to understand what they are saying and that only comes with the experience of living there.
Living in London on the other hand, was a breeze after Beijing. My only challenge was the common greeting ‘you all right?’ which is just another way to say hello but I initially took it as my colleagues being concerned something was wrong with me!
What is the best thing about the country/city you live in?
The best part of living in Beijing was the food. There are eight very different regional styles of cuisine in China and all of them taste amazing. Every morning, there’s street food hawkers selling fresh soy milk with bread, eggs, and other tasty things. You could wander the streets and everywhere you look there would be some little hole in the wall spot with tantalizing smells drifting your way.
In London, I was living in a very tiny flat so absolutely loved their beautiful and large parks. Anytime it wasn’t raining, I’d be out there with a picnic. Best of all, they sell little disposable barbecues that you can take with you to grill some burgers and hot dogs on. My favourites were Hampstead Heath with its views overlooking the entire city and Regents Park.
How often do you go back home?
There’s been a summer wedding every year since I’ve lived abroad so I get to fly back home every summer and see my family and friends.
What do you like the most about living abroad?
The best part of living abroad is meeting different people from yourself and experiencing new cultures.
Do you try to culturally adapt to your new home?
I think you need to culturally adapt in order to successfully live abroad. In Beijing, you can find expat neighborhoods where everyone speaks English, stores, and restaurants with all the food you are used to, and everything is much easier in general, but what’s the point of moving there? Making friends with the locals was key for me and just opened my eyes to a world of new experiences.
Do you speak the language spoken in the country you live in?
Luckily for me, London is an English speaking city. However, getting used to the accents is another story. My first day on the job, I was in a meeting and didn’t understand anything the director was saying even though it was in English!
In China, I had to take Chinese lessons to get by but I’m nowhere close to being fluent. I have enough to survive, order food and to get a great deal negotiating at a market.
Do you find it difficult to ‘blend’ in with the locals and the culture of the country, you live in? Do you feel like you live a ‘parallel expat life’?
London’s a cultural melting pot with people coming from everywhere so it was very easy to blend in.
I was also lucky that I’m part Chinese so I look similar enough to the locals that they don’t stare at me like they do with other foreigners or ask to take my picture. I was also able to learn a lot through my local friends the important ways of living like a local. They taught me how to cross a street through insane traffic, order at a restaurant and catch a cab. By the end, I totally felt like a local myself. I actually feel a bit like I’m living a parallel life when I return home because I’ve changed so much from living abroad and had so many different experiences that it feels a bit strange to slip back into ‘my old life’ when I visit.
Will you ever move back home or are you looking to move to another country or city?
I’m actually looking to move back to Beijing at the beginning of next year! Canada is still my home though so I’d like to move back someday although I have no idea when.
What is your best ‘expat’ advice?
Make friends with the locals! You’ll walk away with the most amazing experience and have some lifelong friends from it.