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“What’s that noise?” I ask Josh, referring to the constant pounding I hear, which almost sounds like a gigantic woodpecker coming from the kitchen. “Ah, CJ is chopping the meat.” he replies. I glance over but I don’t see CJ standing in the kitchen, then I’m surprised to see that he is down on the floor! Pounding away with two giant meat cleavers, he is vigorously chopping away a giant wooden block with meat on it. “It’s a tiring job, but CJ told me that he wants to do this the old fashioned way!” Josh adds. The two of us laugh and turn our heads down to the dough in our hands, which we are rolling into balls to prepare to make traditional Chinese dumplings for the New Year celebration. Our new friends here in China, Gigi and CJ, invited us over to their house to participate in this special tradition for the holiday, as they have done numerous times since we moved to China.
From the States to China
Arriving in Guangzhou, China back in 2014, my husband and I had just finished backpacking around southeast Asia for some time. But coming to China was always our plan. A couple years prior, we had decided that we were unsatisfied with our lives and our jobs back in the States. Even though we had a comfortable life and great jobs, we wanted to see and experience the world in a closer way…more than you can get from just a 2 week vacation!
So we decided to sell it all and hit the road. We traveled extensively for a few months, but then grew tired of the constant moving and wanted to go slow. We knew that teaching English would be a great way for us to stay in a country for a longer period of time, and really get to know people. After finishing our TEFL training for a month in Thailand, we were actually surprised how easy it was for us to find great teaching jobs in China. And before we knew it, we were off to Guangzhou!
Friends Become Our “Chinese Family”
We had no idea what to expect in China. In fact, we didn’t really know much of anything about Guangzhou, the city we were moving to! Upon arrival, we were greeted by some locals who we would be working with — and we never would have guessed that they would become some of our very best friends.
CJ and Gigi are both from China and are roughly our age. They are married with a young daughter. Stephen is an expat from England, but he had been in China for years and just recently got married to Wendy, a Chinese girl. Immediately, we hit it off with these two couples and they were immensely helpful in getting us to feel comfortable in our new lives in China.
From helping us with our internet issues at our apartment, to showing us how to use the local transportation, and pointing out the best restaurants and stores. We also really enjoyed their company when we went out on our days off and in the evenings after work.
We had a lot of fun with these four, but it wasn’t only about the fun. They were also there when we needed their help, like when we were sick or if we needed someone to translate for us. There was even the time that I hurt myself badly and needed to go to the hospital. Gigi jumped right in and took care of me as if she was my mother, even though she was just my age! They were always there to help in any way. So for us, it really seemed like they were our “Chinese family” — much more than just friends.
Similarities and Differences from the USA to China
Talking to Stephen, there were a number of similarities in our backgrounds and personalities because he was from England. But it was always really interesting to talk with CJ, Gigi, and Wendy because being Chinese, they were alike in some ways but completely different in others.
For example, as young couples we found that they all had similar interests as us and perspectives on the world. None of them had been married very long, and so we all liked to talk about married life’s challenges and rewards, as well as our homes, and future dreams. We also shared stories about our families, and expressed frustration at the conflicting attitudes of our older parents. And we all shared an optimistic vision for the future of the world, and our two different countries.
But for all the things that were alike, there were so many things that were different. Childhood was an area that was interesting to talk about because it was apparent to us how much more pressure was put on them as Chinese kids. Whereas, my husband, myself, and Stephen talked more about our carefree (and sometimes foolish) childhood experiences!
Through our relationship with our new Chinese friends, we gained a new appreciation for our freedoms and lack of family expectations, which they definitely had in China. For example, we learned how much pressure is on a man in China to not just have a good job, but traditionally he must buy an apartment before he can get married. He also needs to have space in his home for both his wife and future children, but also for grandparents to move in (yes…that is the norm in China!).
And for the women in China, their family’s approval of their husband-to-be is critical (if the parents didn’t pick out the groom themselves!). Then there was also the expectation of having children…immediately after being married. Whereas Josh and I were able to travel the world freely as a married couple and live our lives as we want, we realized our Chinese friends didn’t have that luxury.
In these ways, we really learned to appreciate the freedom we had to make our own decisions and live our lives in the way that we wanted. We don’t really worry much about doing as our parents want us to, or feeling a pressure to take care of our parents financially. But for our Chinese friends, this struggle is very real — and it is at conflict with them as they personally ascribe to more Western ways and make friends like us from other countries.
Experiencing Life in China With our Local Friends
While we loved having good friends in Guangzhou to help keep us from being lonely, they also gave us a way to enjoy ourselves in ways that other expats may not have been able to. For example, they took us to their favorite restaurants and helped us buy tickets to local sporting events. In fact, one of Josh’s favorite memories of being in China was going to Guangzhou professional football matches with our friends – cheering them on and sporting the team jersey! CJ and Gigi also had a car, a luxury in China, and took us out into the countryside for short trips to places we had never heard of, and would never have known about without them.
We were also able to get an intimate peek into Chinese culture and the local traditions during holidays through our Chinese friends, because they would share them with us and invite us to join in. Our favorite memory was the Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival as they call it) where they invited us to their home to make traditional Chinese dumplings the “old fashioned way.” Making dumplings was so much fun (and difficult), but they tasted amazing and I remember us laughing and joking as we ate dumplings until it felt like we would explode.
They also took us to the Dragon Boat festival and stayed with us on an excruciatingly hot day while we enjoyed the races for the first time. We also got to hear old folk tales about the Mid-Autumn festival and eat mooncakes with them. But it wasn’t just their holidays, we got to show them our holidays too! On Thanksgiving we cooked an enormous feast for our Chinese friends (using chickens instead of Turkeys) and they loved learning all about the different foods and traditions that we would have with our families in the States too.
Our “Chinese Family” Made All the Difference
It was this cultural exchange, as well as having friends who could guide us around, that really added to our experience in China. It not only made it more enjoyable, but it helped us become really close to our friends and gave us fond memories that we will hold close to our hearts for the rest of our lives. Our outlook on China is completely different from this experience, and that really is the whole point of being able to travel or live in another country. It’s these memories and close connections that make the experience so special.
Liz and her husband Josh have been living and traveling around Asia since 2014. Currently they split their time between the USA and China, working on their travel blog and assisting those who are interested in living and working in China.