In 2013 I moved for my thesis to China. Not to one of the modern, exciting, dynamic cities as Beijing or Shanghai, but to a small 300k village in central china (and believe me 300k is very small in China!). This village is called Feixian, in the province of Shandong and this is here:
When I moved there I was a 22-year old party girl out of Munich and in the very beginning of my travel-career. Actual the only thing I wanted from my time abroad was having crazy parties and fun. I never really thought about how live outside of the modern western world can be and I just assumed life would be the same everywhere (I am exaggerating a bit but you get me point!).
When I got provided with the opportunity to go to China for me thesis I just saw all the cool pictures of people living the good life in Shanghai, Beijing and Hongkong. The typical expat life as I imagined it. With this in my head I didn’t even thought about it a minute and agreed to move to China. Well I think you all can already foresee what happened:
When reality hit me
Arriving in this small village I felt like I was set 100 years back in time. Everything was really basic, no real restaurants, bars or nightclubs, no gym.
No permanent hot water, no permanent electricity, no supermarket where you could easily get all the stuff I knew from back home, no one I could easily talk to (beside my one fellow student who was also set on the project), no infrastructure or cultural and freetime activities. Also it got a little bit akward as most of the locals had never seen a white person before. So we got followed around everywhere, photos were made in every situation of us and people werer starring at me all the time.
This was the picture I had for myself from this place after one week and I thought I am in my personal hell. It took me a bit to figure out that life is much more than what i used to know.
After a time I got used to my new life. I figured out what and where to eat, made friends on the streets and got pretty good in improvising things.
As I still couldn’t speak Mandarin, besides a few words and almost nobody could speak English besides a few words, I needed to find another way to communicate and to integrate myself.
What was this way? Sports!
How sports helped me to integrate in a foreign life
I always was a sports person. Sport is a very big part of my life and I have trained several kind of sports through my life. I didn’t had the intention to stop my training in China. First I began to run through the streets and do some exercises in the morning. Also I got myself a bike to get around. There was one bike shop with Chinese bikes where I bought mine. Me buying the bike there, raised the attention of the other people in the bike shop.
A guy in my age who could speak a bit better English came over and started asking me questions and translate what the other people were trying to tell me. We began to talk and I got invited for some dinner and drinking in the night. As I was desperate for some fun and social interaction I agreed. They told me also of a biker group that is going on a tour through the mountains every Sunday and that I can participate if I want to, to which I also agreed.
From that point on things changed a lot. Even if there was just “little black”, that’s how he called himself, speaking English, through him I found a door to communicate with others. While biking with the group on the weekends it was not necessary to talk, we just drove up the mountains, enjoyed the nature, laugh and ate together. I always good invited ti try something different and they showed me the most beautiful places of the area.
When running captures public attention
While running in the morning one time I met a guy from the local college. He just spoke a few words in English but he made me to understand that there was a basketball game going on every afternoon after his classes and that I should join him and his friend. I did so the same day and found a group of male students playing basketball on the court. They integrated me from the first second and I started to play several times a week with them. Also here it was not necessary to have a common language.
While doing sports you always have a common goal and the general rules are international valid. There is no need to have a fluent communication going on. You can have a fun time with eachother without talking. I made friends and they taught me some Chinese words and I taught them some English words. We got to know eachother.
For sure for some of the locals it was weird that the western girl is training alone every morning or with the guys in the evenings. Chinese girls in this village didn’t participate in the games or the bike tours and I never saw one doing sports. I for myself never even thought about this fact. Just as our German boss came to me and told me that the locals were talking about me I started thinking. I didn’t had the intention to stop what I was doing. Finally I started to enjoy my time in in this village so I just kept on doing so. It never really became an issue beside some strange looks.
Not thinking about what others might think and just doing what was right for me, was the beste decision at this point. It provided me with several unforgettable experiences which taught me more than my whole studies in university were ever able to.
What I learned from my time in a small village in China
- Life can be different
- Not just the life I know is a good life
- Speaking different languages is not a problem
- Not being open but full of prejudices is a problem
- Sports helps you to integrate in new groups
- Trusting strangers
- A thing I call “the kindness of the strange”
- To improvise
- To make myself comfortable in strange circumstances
- Strange food is good food
- Strange alcohol is not so much good alcohol
- You can drink the tea with the sleeves in it
- Drinking hot water is good and healthy
Not just did this time set the starting point of my travel career it also let me grew up a lot. From that point on my heart was open for the world. I started backpacking through all continents of this world. Even if this time in China was not an easy one I am grateful for this opportunity. It taught me so much and opened myself up for the world. Sometimes you have to go through hard times, to discover new things, to grow and to embrace what the life and the world can offer.
Get lost, but don’t get hurt!