Beijing china

5 Years of Living in China as an American Expat

Hi, I’m Rachel! I’m 27 years old and I’m an American who has been living in China for 5 years.

To celebrate my 5 year China-versary, I wanted to reflect on the past few years and some of my favorite memories and important moments that have happened here in China.

During my time here I’ve:

  • Lived in 3 different cities: Hengyang, Guangzhou, and Beijing
  • Traveled to over 30 places in China and many countries in Asia
  • Taught English to students of all ages from kindergarten through university
  • Created Rachel Meets China and worked with many media companies and tourism brands in China

I never thought I would be in China for 5 years. The plan was to teach abroad for a year then go back home…which obviously didn’t happen!

This is my journey in China and how one year turned into five.

First: Why did I move to China?

There are a few different reasons, but the biggest one is that I was looking for an adventure living in a different country. I wanted to teach abroad for a year and experience a new culture. I had studied abroad in Europe for 3 months as a student, and wanted the chance to do that again, but for longer. So after I graduated, I packed my bags and moved to China.

Before moving to China, I hardly knew anything about the country. I spoke no Chinese, could barely use chopsticks, could name a handful of cities. I definitely had some preconceived notions about China and ideas from the media, but was open to seeing what would happen.

1st Year in China: Hengyang, China | 2015 – 2016

In August 2015 I landed in China and moved to a small city in the Hunan Province called Hengyang with 4 other Americans from my university. We were going to be teachers at the University of South China, or Nan Hua DaXue.

Moving to a small city in China of course was hard at first: There was a lot of unfamiliar foods with names we couldn’t pronounce, signs everywhere that we couldn’t read, and not many people who could speak English. People would stare at us when we walked around and they would snap photos of us on the street. It was all so bizarre, but also really new and exciting.

Teaching at a University in China

Life became much easier once we started teaching. I loved teaching at the university. I taught oral English to 8 classes of freshman students, and would help them practice their English through fun discussions, interactive activities, and games.

I remember my first week so clearly – I was treated almost like a celebrity. Most of my students came from other small cities in the Hunan province, and had never had a foreign teacher before. It was strange, but also so exciting to talk with them.  For my class they had to pick an English name, and many of them picked really interesting ones like Green Tea and Magical Mountain, or made up their own, like Gonicy haha.

My students were amazing at helping me adapt to China. They would show me their favorite restaurants and dishes in the city, invited me to their hometowns to meet their families, and let me call them anytime I needed help. My students and I had many hot pot parties together at my apartment, which are some of my favorite memories of Hengyang. The students would teach me funny games from their childhood, and we would show them how to play UNO and other American games.

I became especially close with some Chinese friends: Emily, Mervin, Andy, and Young and to this day, 5 years later I still talk with them!

Living in a Small City in China

Once we adapted to small town life, living in Hengyang was great. The cost of living was very cheap, and our apartments were provided for by the university. It was difficult sometimes living in a small city because there was no metro, and not many western restaurants (aside from Starbucks, McDonalds, and pizza hut of course!) But having less international options helped me embrace and enjoy the local China experience. I’m so grateful I had the experience of living in a small city first and met the people I did.

Fun fact: Hunan food is VERY spicy! At restaurants we had to say wei la “little spice” otherwise we would end up crying through our meal. Eventually I adjusted though and LOVED it. To this day it’s still my favorite type of Chinese food.

I learned a lot about Chinese culture while living in Hengyang. I tried taiji, played mahjong, and learned how to make dumplings. I danced with the Chinese ladies in the square outside, drank a lot of hot water, and sang at KTV. Lots and lots of KTV! I listened to Chinese music and fell in love with the Chinese pop star zhangjie. I also went to Chinese clubs. 39 was the famous one in Hengyang at the time, and us foreigners would rock up there on a Saturday night at 8:30 to get a table then find people to drink with.  Oh, and I tried Baijiu for the first time – but certainly not the last.

One really fun memory: while I was visiting a rural area outside the city, a TV crew came over to interview me and ask what I thought about the scenery. I was surprised but gave some answers, and my students saw me later on the news that night.

During my first year in China I also traveled alot. I hiked the Great Wall in Beijing, visited the Bund in Shanghai, saw the pandas in Chengdu, and rafted by the karst mountains in Yangshuo. I traveled with my American friends, and also some Chinese friends during these trips, which was really special.

Curious about life and traveling in China? Start here:


2nd Year in China: Hengyang 2016 – 2017

After several months of teaching and traveling, I knew I wanted to stay longer in China. There was so much more I wanted to see and do. So I stayed for a second year in Hengyang.

My second year was a wonderful continuation of the first – and even easier since I was already used to China and living in Hengyang. I was teaching new freshman students, traveling, and learning more about Chinese culture. Also, throughout my first and second year in China I had started Rachel Meets China and was blogging about my experiences living and teaching abroad, firstly as a way to keep family and friends back home updated on what I was doing. Eventually I started doing it more regularly and learning more about blogging in China.

Overall, life in Hengyang was incredible – the students, the university, the food, the small city life. It was an amazing introduction to China.

Thinking about teaching in China? Check out these posts about teaching English and my students:


3rd Year in China: Guangzhou 2017 – 2018

I loved my experience teaching at the University of South China, but also felt there was so much to see in China, so, I moved to Guangzhou to teach at a kindergarten. It was a new city, new culture, new job, new environment.

Guangzhou is well known for its Cantonese culture and influence – people speak Cantonese as well as mandarin, and eat food that is more sweet than spicy. Guangzhou is also a giant city – there were so many skyscrapers, metro lines, and people, and so many international places as well. Big city life in Guangzhou was definitely a change to small city life in Hengyang.

Teaching at a Kindergarten in China

Teaching at a kindergarten was a totally different experience than teaching university students. Instead of teaching oral English to 18-year olds who could speak and debate in English, I had 28 little 3 year olds who were starting their first year of kindergarten. They had never been to school before, let alone had a formal English class. I sang and danced and played lots of games about animals, colors, and shapes. I sang a lot of baby shark. It was challenging in some ways, but it was also so fun and rewarding! Seeing their sweet faces and getting hugs and high fives everyday was the best! We had a daily routine that consisted of morning exercises, breakfast, English class, PE class, lunch, and various Chinese lessons.

Check out these other blogs about teaching kindergarten in China:

While living in Guangzhou I took Chinese lessons and became more serious about writing, taking photos, and making videos for Rachel Meets China. I also started traveling solo more – I went to Hong Kong several times to go hiking and to explore the city life. Later I went to Zhangjiajie the famous Avatar Mountains in the Hunan province as well as Furong, a beautiful ancient town nearby.


4th Year in China: Beijing 2018 – 2019

After one year in Guangzhou and 3 years total in China, I knew I still wasn’t finished with China, but I was ready for a new experience again. As much as I loved teaching and loved my students,  I wanted to develop my career goals with digital media, which is what my degree is in.  I was offered a job doing digital marketing and media for a company in Beijing called Career China and jumped at the opportunity.

So in August 2018, I moved to Beijing.  

Beijing: the capital city of China. After visiting once, I never imagined myself living there. I thought it would be too big and too international, and I thought I would miss the small city feel that I had in Hengyang. But I quickly found that Beijing was so diverse and the perfect mixture of traditional culture and modern life. Its so different living in Beijing than being a tourist in Beijing.

Read more about Living in Beijing vs. Guangzhou.

The historical and traditional Beijing attractions are a must-do of course, like the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall.

If you’re traveling to Beijing, check out my other posts to plan the best trip! 

Fun fact: I’ve been to the great wall 13 times (and counting!) There are so many different sections to visit – if you need advice on what section to hike, I’m your girl! Read my guide: Which section of the Great Wall is Best to Visit?

Also, expat life in Beijing is amazing. Whatever community you want to get involved in, you can find. There’s a group for everything here – sports teams, language exchange groups, trivia nights, book clubs, hiking groups – EVERYTHING. I joined a volleyball team and met so many wonderful people in the Beijing community. While my first 3 years in China felt more like I was living in a foreign place, living in Beijing felt more like I had made a home here in a foreign country. I loved Beijing, my job, my friends, and the community I built here, and couldn’t imagine leaving, so I stayed for my 5th year in China.

During my time in Beijing I’ve even traveled more – I rode horses in Inner Mongolia and hiked Huangshan, the famous Yellow Mountains of China. I drank Tsingtao beer on the beach in Qingdao, saw the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, went to Chongqing for spicy food and temples, and traveled to the far north of China to Harbin for the largest Ice Sculpture Festival in the world.

I also took a 3 week long solo trip in southern China. First to Furong Ancient Town, a beautiful waterfall village in Hunan province. Then to Xijiang Qianhu Miao Village, a small traditional village in Guizhou. Next I went to Yunnan Province and spent time in Lijiang Old Town, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and Shangri-La.

During my 3 week trip I met the friendliest people and saw some incredible places. I highly recommend visiting smaller villages and lesser known places in China – every place in China is so unique with different foods and cultural traditions, and I love seeing more of that.

Throughout time in Beijing I also began doing more media collaborations with companies who wanted to promote travel and culture in China, such as the Shanghai Tourism Board and Ctrip. I attended several promotional events for different cities in China, and was selected to be a Huangshan International Citizen and a Zunyi International Citizen. It has been amazing to be able to share my passion for Chinese culture and traveling in China with other people at these kind of events.

Living in China for 5 Years

It’s been an incredible 5 years. My ideas about China – the culture, the people, and life here – have totally changed from what they were before I came. Even after 5 years though, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of China – there is still so much more I want to do and see and learn here. I don’t imagine I’ll stay here forever, but for the time being I’m not done with living and traveling in China. It’s my goal to visit every province or region here – I’ve crossed 20 off but still have many to see!

If you’re thinking about moving to China, I think the most important things is to be flexible and have an open mind – China will amaze and surprise you with all the opportunities and experiences.

Thanks to everyone who has followed me on my China journey so far. You can follow me on social media to see more about my life in China and daily updates. I can’t wait for the next adventures in China – See you on the next one!

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

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