Lessons From Your Country

Five Lessons I Have Learned From Living in China

June 1, 2017


Lesson 1: Manage your frustration

If you came from a place with an easier transition – any big expat city really – then China brings frustration to a whole new level. Other than Hong Kong, most Chinese citizens do not speak English, there are ever-changing bureaucratic regulations to stay up on, and even taking a cab is a challenge when drivers regularly reject you or change the fare.

In my first few weeks in China, I would often plan a wonderful day out to explore and end up coming home early, tired and angry.

But there’s so much to love in China and so much to see. Instead of getting frustrated, China has taught me to redirect my frustration into patient curiosity. Instead of a cab driver ripping me off and getting angry, I try to find a clever way to win the situation without letting my temper rise – that might mean using my few words of Mandarin to say childish things like “No,” “I don’t like,” or “Too expensive.” Sometimes it also means just accepting the circumstances you’re in, moving on, and laughing.

Lesson 2: Smartphones save the day

Given the frustrations above, you need life hacks to navigate without losing your mind. There are now apps that you can speak into in English, and Mandarin comes out of your phone (and the other way as well). Google Translate can translate Mandarin characters with enough accuracy to understand the context, and there are apps for finding your way around the subway, bargaining at the markets, renting bicycles, paying at stores, and of course for learning the language.

Owning and mastering a smart phone makes your life exponentially easier. Staying up to date on blogs that showcase apps, or reading expat newspapers giving tips and tricks, is a worthwhile use of your time. And when you find out something, share it! On Facebook, in the workplace, wherever. I’ve found that many of my hacks are new to the people who have been here for a while because they just found a different way to deal with their needs.


Lesson 3: Explore your country

China has to be one of the greatest countries to travel in. The Gobi desert, the Yellow Mountain, the Tibetan Plateau, and the Mongolian Steppe are so vastly different and so worth your time and energy. Not to mention the monuments in Beijing, the water towns outside Shanghai, the walled city and warriors of Xi’an, and the pandas of Chengdu. Did you know that James Cameron’s movie Avatar was inspired by the landscape of Zhangjijie? China is seriously beautiful and my list could go on and on.

To truly understand and appreciate China, you need to explore. Meet the Muslim cultures in the Northwest and the Buddhists in the Southwest. Visit ice castles in the North East or go to beaches in the South East. Eat Sichuan Hotpot in Chengdu or eat roasted Scorpion in Beijing. The landscape changes, the food changes, the people change, and your perspective on China will change.


Lesson 4: Don’t always listen to what you hear about a country

I know our first source of information on a new home is to talk to those before us.   I also understand the irony of this lesson as I write a blogpost telling you what it’s like to live in China. But here me out: your experience will be different – often in a good way.

I was told, and believed, that China was crowded, polluted, pushy, and dirty. To me, none of those claims stacked up to the level I expected. Is China crowded? Yes. But not if you know where and how to avoid the crowds. I regularly am walking in downtown Shanghai thinking to myself, this sure doesn’t feel like the most populated city on Earth. Is China polluted? Yes. But my home has an air purifier, and in Shanghai from Spring to Fall, the air is similar more to a big city like LA or New York. Are the Chinese pushy? At times. But you can predict those times like when you’re boarding or exiting a plane. The rest of the time, the Chinese are thoughtful and observant. Is China dirty? It can be. But it’s much cleaner than you would imagine, particularly in the cities.


Lesson 5: Love where you live

After moving from the glitz and glam of Dubai, Shanghai felt like a downgrade. It felt like we had lost the amazing lifestyle and the ease of living we were so fortunate to have in the UAE. That thinking held us back for several months and stunted our adjustment. A year later, we’ve finally formed a new appreciation for our new home. We’ve bought locally made furniture, hired a local to help with our housework, explored the alleys and temples of small towns, tried 1000’s of local dishes, met locals in our neighborhood, and fallen in love with the uniqueness of China. In one year, we have stories that can last a lifetime and I know after summer break we will be longing to return.


This article was submitted by a guest contributor living in Shanghai, China

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Lessons From Your Country

How to Enjoy Life in Japan (Part 2)

April 8, 2017

What does Japan have to offer expats that other Asian countries don’t? It doesn’t offer much bang for your buck. Even a position at a major, affluent international school in Tokyo can’t offer a salary that compares to Singapore. Nor will your salary take you as far as it will in a place like Laos or Thailand.

So why choose Japan?

The depth and breadth of culture in Japan is unparalleled in Asia. China might be older, but thanks to the Cultural Revolution and the current penchant in China for tacky modernity, you’ll have a harder time finding it. But in Japan you can easily find it, at almost any street corner. Japanese are proud of being Japanese, and will bend over backwards to show off their culture to foreigners. There’s a surplus of Japanese TV shows that capitalize on this theme. “Why did you come to Japan?” follows Japan-obsessed foreigners on crazy odysseys throughout the country. It starts by following gaijin as soon as they land at the airport, often with the intention of backpacking to some remote area, studying some obscure Japanese art, or attending something unique. More often than not, the locals take great care of these vagabonds, inviting them into their homes, taking them great distances, and generally honoring these guests. Japan is very hospitable.


But not always.

You’ll probably have a few experiences like this at first. But once the honeymoon wears off, you’ll notice that in daily interactions, especially big cities, Japanese are actually avoiding you. They don’t want to sit next to you on the train. No small talk at the bus station. They aren’t interested in talking about politics. You’ll hear the dreaded, “Ah, nihongo joozu, desu ne!” This means you speak good Japanese. It sounds like a compliment, but when you’ve heard it for the tenth time in one day, you’ll realize it’s an insult. A micro-aggression. Yes, they are complimenting you the same way you would a trained dog. Congrats, you can badly pronounce several words of our language, now piss off. You’ll discover you have few Japanese friends, and feel isolated from society.

What do you do?  How do you get past this hump and enjoy a long-term stay?

Make Japanese friends. This sounds odd, but many people have difficulty doing this. Many expats don’t have any close Japanese friends, or even a loose circle of Japanese acquaintances. These are the people that have the most difficult time in Japan and leave the soonest.


This is because most Japanese people generally won’t make friends on the street. Japan is a very group-oriented culture, and Japanese grow up learning to make friends within strict confines. From the moment a young Japanese child enters school, they are taught that the group membership is paramount, and individualism is not welcome. They spend all their school life dressing in uniforms and following tight regimes, only to graduate into the even more regimented world of work. Uniforms become unofficial dress codes, and the company they work for takes over their life. You strictly socialize within your company. You even vacation with them. Having worked at a Japanese company, I’ve had the weird experience of going on a company sponsored vacation with my co-workers. After many all-night bouts of drinking, we all literally took a bath together. (Google Japanese public bath etiquette after you read this.)

Herein lies your hope. Once you find a group to belong to, you’ll never lack for want of social contact. You will be invited to do everything with your group. The Japanese, familiar with this way of socially orienting themselves, open up like flowers. Indeed, you may find that some get too personal with you, too quickly.


So how do you maximize your life in Japan? How do you truly experience the beauty of Japanese culture? Join a club, organization, social circle, team sport, or group activity. Find a special interest group. Go to those late night drinking parties. Go flower blossom viewing together. Join the cheesy group vacations. Learn ikebana (flower arranging). Practice chado (tea ceremony.) Choose any Japanese art, join the classes, let the group take you in. Join and become Japanese. You will not be disappointed.

This article was submitted to us by an International School Community member guest author.

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Lessons From Your Country

How to Enjoy Life in Japan (Part 1)

February 23, 2017

Japan is unique among Asian countries. Many expats, even those who have lived in Asia for years, struggle living in Japan. I’ve seen families leave after only a year. What makes Japan so difficult? Is it the culture? Some secret only known to the initiated? The answer, while it may seem obscure, is simple.


Japan is not Asian.

I don’t mean this literally, of course. Metaphorically, however, it is true. Japan is the America of Asia, and the key to enjoying life in Japan is to understand this. It’s not that Japanese speak English well. Most can’t. Nor is it that Japanese eat mostly Western food. They don’t. In fact, culturally, Japan is perhaps one of the most enigmatic countries in the world. You can spend a lifetime in this country and still not understand all of the intricacies of a simple business transaction.

So what is it that makes Japan un-Asian?

It’s economically Western. Things aren’t cheap here, and it pisses people off. Yet no one bats an eye at the high price of living in Western Europe. Why? It’s a trade-off of salary for lifestyle. Yes, your salary might not go far in Vienna, Paris, or Stockholm. But generally international teachers move there for the culture, not the money. Asia, in contrast, remains one of the premier locations for expats wishing to live a lavish lifestyle. A typically international school salary puts you in the top 1% in countries like Thailand or Bangladesh. Top salaries in China soar over top salaries in Japan. Working at a major international school in Tokyo or Osaka, you can expect to be firmly middle class, at best.


The teachers I know who leave Japan after a few years are those who are used to having nannies, hired help, frequent vacations to beach resorts, and people catering to them as something special. This kind of lifestyle is unaffordable in Tokyo. Take traveling, for example. In Japan, hotels charge per person, not per room. And it’s not uncommon to be charged $200USD per person, per night. Nor is transportation cheap. Bullet train tickets from Kyoto to Tokyo run upwards of $150, one way. Just accommodation and transportation for a weekend trip could be well in excess of $1,000. You can live a good life in Japan on an international school salary, but not the same expat life you could in other Asian countries. Much like living in Copenhagen, this means going local. Don’t buy all American products at jacked up prices in Costco. By local, Japanese products. Eat, drink, and live like a local, and perhaps you can live an upper-middle class lifestyle.

Coming to Japan from developing Asian countries, expats lose considerable social and economic status. They find themselves unhappy, and return to the Asia they know and love. Cheap Asia. English Friendly Asia. Cater-to-foreigners Asia. So why stay? What does Japan have to offer, if not generous salaries and a super affluent lifestyle?


The answer is, of course, culture. Part II coming soon…

This article was submitted to us by an International School Community member guest author.

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Lessons From Your Country

Five Lessons I Have Learned From Living in Indonesia

April 20, 2016

I have lived in Bekasi, Indonesia for two years now. This is my second international teaching position and hopefully not my last.  Indonesia is a Southeast Asian country made up of thousands of islands, with many different languages. It’s known for its vast and rich natural beaches, volcanoes and jungles with elephants, tigers and Komodo Dragons. The country is so vastly different that it ranges from a vibrant sprawling capital of Jakarta to an ancient World Heritage Site of Borobudur Temple and to places very small and remote that only a few people live there.  There are many things to see, places to visit, and culture to explore. This is just my perspective from living in Bekasi (small town just southeast of Jakarta) and should not reflect an entire nation.

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Street view of traffic from my taxi.

Lesson 1: TRAFFIC

According to the research Java, Indonesia is the most densely populated area in the world. Most of those people live within the capital of Jakarta, and most of these citizens, in this crowded city own a car.  Making Jakarta one of the worst cities in the world for traffic. Now, I researched this before I came, but until you live it you really don’t know what that means. It can take three hours to get to a location that is 30 miles away.  When you do want to go somewhere take a friend to talk with or take a book to read. I have spent relatively more time getting somewhere in a taxi then at my destination.  It’s also ‘hit or miss’, so you never know when there is “macet”.

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A real view from a mall.

Lesson 2: MALLS

Do you love to shop? Well then you will love Jakarta. There is no shortage of malls. I cannot count the number of malls there are between Jakarta and Bekasi. I have been in 13 different malls myself. Want to exercise? Go to the mall. Want to go to the grocery store? Go to the mall. Want to get a massage?  Go to the mall. Want to get a mani/pedi? Go to the mall. Want a nice meal in a nice restaurant? Go to the mall. Want to go see a movie? Go to the mall. You name it and a mall somewhere in Jakarta will have it.

Lesson 3: TRAVEL

If you don’t like malls; you can go sight-seeing. Within Jakarta you can visit historical places and outside of the Java Island there are great places to visit.  Travel costs can vary depending on where you go or where you want to stay. I have paid a lot for my vacations inside Indonesia, but the experience was worth the expense! I have seen: elephants, orangutans, birds of all kinds, tropical fish, and Komodo dragons in their natural habitat. There are gorgeous waterfalls, great beaches, peaceful mountains, and wild jungles. I have tried to explore Bali, Flores, Sumatra, Lombok, the Giles and Kalimantan. If wildlife is not your thing, it is very easy to travel to other countries. I have been able to see Thailand and visit Singapore. My friends have traveled to Australia and Hong Kong with ease.

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View of the beach from Gili Air

Lesson 4: BAHASA

Learn the language! I teach in an English-speaking school so, I never mastered the language. I have found myself in many frustrating and confusing situations because I do not speak the language. There are some places that speak English and you can pay for guides that speak English. However, in the local community of Bekasi there is a very limited number of people who speak English. I was very ill and hospitalized in Bekasi and not being able to communicate with the nursing staff made that experience even more difficult. Avoid the frustrations of getting food orders wrong and learn Bahasa Indonesian.


I live in a suburban area that is surrounded by rows and rows of houses. There is no shortage of stray cats. I have a soft spot for animals and feed them often. I currently have a momma cat and two kittens. If you cannot guess by now I am an animal lover. So, the coolest thing for me is the stray momma monkey with baby that hangs out on my porch. I do not know where she come from, she just showed up one day. She is not friendly and likes to show her teeth if I get too close.

Screenshot 2016-04-18 21.07.33

Monkey that visits my house

These are just a few things that I have learned while I have lived here. There are lots of other things I have learned like how to eat street food, getting food delivery, finding an Ojek and how to use the toilets, but that would make this article even longer. I have described my lessons in a general way and kept out personal feeling because these experiences are my own. I cannot say how you will feel if you choose to make Jakarta your home. I have had my ups and downs and will walk away with this two-year experience as a permanent part of me. I have a friend that loves Jakarta and wants to live here forever. On the other hand; I had a friend that could not make life work for him here and he left. The locals have strong family values and are generally friendly people, which is a positive to me. There is also the negative side or rather the reality of the situation. Jakarta has a high poverty rate and the pollution is abundant. In the end, I can say that Jakarta has made an impression on me that will last a lifetime.


This article was submitted by guest author Wendy Christen Davis who currently works at Sekolah Victory Plus school in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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Lessons From Your Country

Six Lessons from Living in Venezuela: Apply Liberally

November 17, 2015

Having lived and taught high school students in Venezuela since July of last year, I have had time to reflect on all that Venezuela and its people have taught me. On a recent beach side run, I compiled my lessons into categories that might capture what this experience in South America has helped me learn.


Lesson 1: PATIENCE

Venezuelans spend a large amount of time waiting for things and they do so quite patiently. I have joined them in long lines for hours where I observe their tiny children waiting almost as patiently as the adults do. I have not yet witnessed a single toddler meltdown or an angry customer.Venezuelans regularly wait in lines outside stores to buy whatever products are in short supply (flour, sugar, milk, toilet paper). Not one person lost it last October, waiting 40 minutes inside a sold-out sealed-up airplane on the tarmac with no air-conditioning (where a woman two seats behind me fainted). We simply sat there and sweat buckets and waited patiently knowing that eventually “this too shall pass.” I have become significantly more patient while waiting.


One bit of cultural advice I received during the first week here, was that upon entering a social gathering, it is customary to make the rounds and greet each person—even if I don’t know them. This took some getting used to.  I was forced to reflect on how often I arrive at a party in the United States, and typically talk to the folks I know first. Eventually I meet some of the new people but only when the opportunity presents itself or if I’m actually introduced to them. In Venezuela, we greet everyone as if they are new friends to be met and the inclusive atmosphere sets the tone for each social gathering.

The same custom applies upon leaving a party;there is no slipping out the door when no one is looking. We make the rounds and say “goodbye” to each person there. And we accompany both the hello and goodbye greetings with a light cheek-to-cheek press while making a soft kiss sound with our lips.  It is downright decent and human. It’s not just the adults who greet others this way; my students do it, too.  Before heading to the airport for our Model United Nations trip to Boston, a school van met all the students whose parents had driven them to a central location and I watched as student after student arrived in their parent’s cars. It was 5 am and each sleepy student greeted every other student AND every parent who brought their son or daughter to the location AND greeted the two of us teachers—all with the same warmth and kindness. It was lovely.

Venezuelans do a lot of greeting each other warmly: when they see each other at the office, out for a run, at the market,etc. At work, my colleagues actually take the time to exchange a few pleasantries before launching into a request. This extends to e-mail and phone conversations as well; it’s not considered polite to simply say, “Hello, Joe. I was wondering if you could attend a meeting today.” No. Much better to start out with, “Hello, Joe. How are you doing today? That’s a terrific looking shirt, is it new?” And THEN you can get to the business portion of your request. It’s been a good reminder to actually SEE the person you’re talking to; to ACKNOWLEDGE the receiver of your email or phone call. At times it’s been a challenge since we Americans tend to be fairly rushed and all business and “who has time for all this chit-chat, just let get me to saying what I need!!” Taking the time to start with a greeting is a habit I hope to hang onto when I return to the rushed pace of the U.S.


Lesson 3:  SLOWLY, SLOWLY.

There’s not a lot of rushing here–especially on the roads. Driving in Venezuela is chaotic and borders on the lawless.Unprotected intersections are often clogged with gridlock but with the proper combination of tenacity and generosity, everyone appears to get to their destinations. I have seen surprisingly few accidents and the key ingredient seems to be going slowly. It’s sort of a “You’ll go first; then I’ll go next—trust me!” game of roulette, but the game can be successful if we all inch along carefully without too much rushing.

I haven’t observed a lot of Venezuelans rushing through anything; it’s as if they have all the time they need to be present to each other more authentically. When it comes to language acquisition, a valuable phrase our Spanish teacher taught us was, “Puedes hablar despacio, por favor?” Could you speak slowly, please? And, really, what is the all-fire hurry? What exactly are we racing towards anyway?


If we get through a weekend in which there is a consistent supply of water, electricity AND Internet, it is an unexpected bonus. However we have learned to live within the limits of having the water turned off during times of rationing. When the power suddenly goes out, we have spontaneous candlelight dinners. If there happens to be a pint of ice cream in the freezer, we traditionally get it out and eat every last bite because who likes ice cream that’s been melted and re-frozen? We put down our phones and Ipads, break out the paperback books, do a little writing on paper, take a walk or take a nap.

The scarcity of products is a condition we have learned to accept. This has been true at the market as well as at school. When I got my classroom stapler from the school secretary in August, I was given TWO ROWS of staples (not two boxes—two ROWS). I’ve been forced to get creative by using whatever book titles and supplies can be found. One “splurge” food for the first few months here was bacon and we found it in the stores every week. Oatmeal,on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. Upon returning from Christmas break, we loaded our suitcases with oatmeal (which sadly burst open and scattered into every nook and cranny of our bag). And then the month we returned, we couldn’t find bacon anywhere, but lo and behold, there was some oatmeal on the shelves.We have learned to get by with whatever we find and get along without what we cannot find and we do just fine.


When your colleague has two children under 2 years of age and she can’t find milk but you have an extra carton, it’s a no-brainer. You share. The beauty of it is, that same colleague has the sugar you haven’t been able to locate and the exchange benefits everyone. Mention that you’re down to your last tablespoon of coffee and no store seems to have any, and the next day a friend arrives to your classroom with a pound she didn’t need. Can’t find flour? Someone else has two bags, and only needs one–so there you go. When my swim goggles broke the first month here, my friend who forgot to bring bug spray made an exchange with me. We share everything from meals to rides to tips for survival. As most of us are far from home, we are each others’ families; one young family with children the same age as our two grand kids, helps fill the ache of missing our little ones during mid-week dinners and weekend boating excursions.

We come back from all of our trips laden with gifts for the people who care for us. Secretaries, guards, maids, custodians,assistants and friends are thoughtfully considered and when they receive the gifts we bring them, we are liberally showered with gratitude and appreciation.



Before we came here, our superintendent told us that living in Venezuela would be a “bi-polar” experience. He was right. We stand on the balcony of our luxurious apartment overlooking an infinity pool and the Caribbean and boom–the power goes out. Or we come back from a morning run or an afternoon of snorkeling and all we want is a shower but —DANG–there’s no water. Or as in the example our administrator used when he hired us, “You might come home from work and all you want is a cheese sandwich, but your maid ate your last piece of cheese. The good news is you have a maid; the bad news is she ate your last piece of cheese.” We choose to see
the beauty.

There is so much to celebrate in Venezuela—the views are magnificent, the weather is spectacular and, oh my god, we LIVE at the beach. But the beaches are littered with trash, the city’s buildings are dilapidated, street dogs and stray cats are everywhere. Sure we could focus on the things that break, the food borne stomach-bugs that can lay us flat, or the crime rate. But instead we choose image1-1to see a culture that nourishes our souls—and in so doing we have been treated to a school year that has given us an opportunity to travel throughout South America and has re-energized our passion for work and for life.

These have easily been the most memorable months of our lives. Without a doubt, we better understand our own lives by immersing ourselves in another culture to provide us with lessons we never imagined we needed to learn.

This article was submitted by guest author Connie Finnegan.

Bio: After 25 years of teaching in Wisconsin, Connie Finnegan taught high school English at Colegio Internacional Puerto la Cruz in Barcelona, Venezuela between 2013-2015.

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