What It's (Actually) Like Moving Halfway Around the World
Many of us dream of adventure--packing up our lives and setting off for new horizons halfway around the world. But who actually pursues these wild and crazy whims? We find excuses that hold us back: our job, our family, the comforts of home. But Kelly Johnson didn't let that stop her from uprooting her life as a teacher in Charleston, South Carolina and moving to the other side of the globe with her husband. Newly married, they were supposed to be settling down, buying a house, and having a baby. Now they live and work in Shanghai, China, where they've added the newest member of their family, Oscar. Below, Kelly shares her experience leaving behind America to live as an expat abroad, what it's like raising a child overseas, and her advice for anyone considering moving abroad (hint: you should do it).
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you come to be in Shanghai? What made you decide to make this big leap?
I was an educator in Charleston, South Caroline for twelve years, teaching both college and high school, before my husband and I moved to Shanghai. We actually decided we wanted to move abroad while we were on our honeymoon in Vietnam; we were in the city of Hue, enjoying a drink at a roadside café, and we started talking about how great it would be to live in a place like Vietnam. The idea started as sort of a “what if” fantasy, but we quickly realized it was something we really wanted to make happen for ourselves. My husband, Van, was in law school at the time so we knew that we had another two years until he graduated; we used that time to research our options, and I prepared myself for a job search since my career as an educator would be our springboard to a life abroad.
We did not initially consider China as a possible destination, but it just happened that the perfect job offer for me came from a school in Shanghai. I really do believe that sometimes things in life happen for a reason, and this was one of those things. Shanghai has turned out to be so much more than we expected, and our life here has become so much more than we ever could have hoped for, or imagined, during the initial conversation in Vietnam. Our biggest impetus for moving abroad was a desire to travel and experience the world; life as an international educator affords you those opportunities. The opportunity to live and work in a foreign country, to really get to know that country and its culture – that was what we wanted.
What was the reaction from your friends and family when you told them you were making this move?
I’m fairly certain almost everyone thought we were crazy. We were in our early 30’s and married. We were “supposed” to be settling down: buying a house, having a baby. Instead we were moving to China. I think the “China” part of things was more shocking to people than the fact that we were leaving the country. China is portrayed in a very specific (and largely incorrect) way in the US media, and so the word conjures up all sorts of images, many of which I think were disconcerting for our friends and family. Everyone was ultimately supportive of our decision, but I am not sure everyone was happy about it. Many people also assumed that we were going for a specific amount of time and that we would come home when the “contract was finished”. We explained to everyone that we were actually trying to transition to an expatriate life, with no intention of returning, but this idea seemed foreign to a lot of people.
Did you ever feel guilty or selfish for deciding to do this?
No. I have, at times, felt sad and disappointed by certain things, but I have never felt guilty. We are fulfilled, happy, and thriving in a way I don’t think we could be in the US. We are literally “living our best lives”, as clichéd as that sounds.
What was the hardest part about leaving your home in America?
The hardest part, for me, was the knowledge that the huge physical distance we were putting between ourselves and our friends and family would ultimately take a toll on those relationships. It was also hard to make the move knowing that it was absolutely the right thing for us, but also knowing that some of our friends and family did not understand that and could not see things from our perspective.
What were the first few months like in Shanghai?
Madness. Utter madness. I was starting a new job - essentially a new career – and we were getting settled in a new home, in a new city, in a new country, and neither of us spoke the language. The school community is incredibly supportive, but it was still the most challenging few months of my life. We were basically experiencing all the major stressors in life at one time, except for having a baby (although that came later!) We would have been totally lost without the support of my colleagues and the school community. The learning curve was incredibly steep, but we survived and are better for it. It really took until the beginning of this year, our third, for us to feel like we had “mastered” living in Shanghai.
What was the biggest culture shock about living here? Any major changes you had to make?
We expected that there would be at least some English spoken in Shanghai – it is one of the biggest cities in the world – but we quickly realized that hardly any of the locals speak English; communicating day-to-day was very difficult. The other huge adjustment was to the internet: we had read about the “great firewall” before we moved here, but when you live in a place with free, uncensored internet you can’t truly understand what it is like not to have that. I remember trying to load my email our first night here and not understanding why it wouldn’t work, but then I realized it was because my e-mail was Gmail, powered by Google. I literally had to revert to searching for things on Yahoo because that is the search engine that is allowed here. We had to purchase a VPN (virtual private network) to install on our devices in order to access Google, Instagram, Apple TV etc. from home. The school has a government-sanctioned VPN since we are an international school, but private citizens have to circumvent the government censors on their own, and technically break the law in doing so.
Living here has really forced me to focus on what actually matters; there are so many things that I can not control here, either because it is China or simply because I am foreign; that was really hard for me at first since I admit to being a bit of a control freak, but ultimately it has been liberating. I believe the experience has made me a better, more empathetic person, and I have been forced to grow in ways I never would have in the US, both personally and professionally.
What’s the best part about raising a child overseas? The hardest?
The best part about being overseas with Oscar, at this point, is the fact that we can afford to have an “ayi” who takes care of him in our home. He is exposed to Mandarin all day with her, and then he gets English from us when we come home. I love knowing that he will grow up in another culture, truly bilingual, surrounded by a diverse community of locals and expats. The hardest thing about having a child here is that some things are more difficult here than they are in the US, and when a child is involved things become extra difficult. One example would be his vaccines: we sometimes have trouble getting the imported vaccines we want and so we either have to wait or get him the vaccines while we are travelling. It is also sad being so far away from friends and family; they see pictures of him on Instagram, but they don’t get to spend time with him like they would if we were in Charleston.
What’s the biggest impact this move has had on you?
I think the impact has really been the realization of just how difficult life in the US can be, especially for educators, and how complicated it is. I have realized just how grateful I am for the life we have now: I bike to work every day (we don’t own a car or have to worry about one); we can afford to travel during our school breaks; I have an ayi who cares for my child, cleans our home, AND cooks dinner for us; I also now live in a culture that values and respects teachers. We talk all the time about how grateful we are for this life and its simplicity.]
What is it like teaching students abroad? Is it ever hard to relate to them as an American?
All of the students at my school have to hold a foreign passport according to Chinese law, so a lot of them are American citizens, although most of those are Chinese-American; fifteen percent of our students are Korean. Chinese citizens cannot attend international schools, although we have a few here whose parents a very influential and so they were given special permission by the government. The biggest change for me has been the high-stress culture surrounding school here. The students put immense pressure on themselves and often their parents are putting just as much pressure, if not more, on them at home. Every parent here expects their child to attend an “Ivy League” college, and so I spend a lot of my time trying to convince my students to relax and stress less. It is typical for our students to spend their vacations doing test prep classes and tutoring; it honestly makes me sad. With all of that said, I love my students here; they are incredibly talented, interested, and hard-working, and it has been a great learning experience for me to get to know their cultures and see my culture from a more objective point of view.
What advice would you give to anyone considering moving abroad?
Do it! Taking that leap is terrifying but it is SO worth it! I only have one regret: that I did not move abroad sooner.