Written & Photos by (作者, 图片来源): Timothy Ulrich?
Every expat faces this issue when living in China: the comfort zone. Once you’re settled in, your daily schedule becomes a ritual, and the walls start to close in. There’s no need to be ashamed. It’s only natural. Despite our experiences in China, we like to be comfortable.
Here are some tips I’ve come across—ranging from little tweaks to big changes—that can make all the difference in the way you spend your time in China.
Tip #1: Just Drive
My first tip: just drive. Even if you don’t have an e-bike or a car, you just go. Hop on a bus and get as far away from what you know. On my most recent adventure, I skipped town to drive out to the ancient city Cicheng and Baoguo Temple.
The ancient city of Cicheng was spectacular. It was a great little excursion. The village around the ancient city had plenty of restaurants and little stores lining the cobblestone roads. It was the perfect place to get some lunch at a noodle shop, where the friendly owner served me a bowl of beef noodles (niúròu lāmiàn).
It was upon visiting Baoguo Temple that the real fun started happening, however, as my battery was dying. I decided to travel three kilometers back to Cicheng. My mighty e-bike crawled as far as it could, until all it could muster up were a few jolts of acceleration.
The thing about tiny setbacks on adventures like these is that the anxiety is part of the story you tell later. I eventually made it back into Cicheng with two hours to kill. I even headed back to the noodle shop for some delicious shuǐjiǎo (dumplings), sharing my story with the owner. We had a good laugh about it, which made me feel better about having to trudge back into town with a dead scooter.
Tip #2: Just Try
The local noodle store in Cicheng brings up another way in which you can broaden your horizons. For those like me who don’t have the best grasp on Mandarin, it only requires a couple of phrases to order up some of the classics—or even the cook’s favorite. My next tip: Just Try (food, of course).
There was a small village near my apartment in Qingdao. It always piqued my interest as I passed by on the bus that took me to work. One day I decided to go there, and it was as if I were an alien that crash-landed in some distant realm, far away from my home. As I lurked past the dozens of eyes fixated on my visible out-of-place self, I heard a voice trying to get my attention. “Laowai, laowai,” the voice beckoned. I turned my head to find a warm, smiling face. As she churned out jiǎozi, she turned and asked if I was hungry. Not being one to turn down dumplings of any sort, I obliged and sat down, hunkering away from the blinding sunlight that scorched my poor, extraterrestrial soul.
Several other friendly faces soon early greeted me, hammering me with questions about where I am from, what I was doing in China, how I like it, and even if I had a Chinese girlfriend yet. One outrageously warm fellow even asked if I liked baijiǔ— a strange question to ask at lunchtime. As I had nothing else to do that afternoon, I indulged his query, and we finished the entire bottle. Their hospitality and warm smiles soon made me feel as if I wasn’t really an alien, but a lost soul who desperately needed some dumplings and some company.
I soon parted ways with my new friends, promising to come back soon. There really was no downside to this adventure. I made new friends, ate some great food, got to practice my Chinese outside of the classroom, but more importantly: I was able to find out how far I could go outside of my comfort zone. After that adventure, I soon became more confident when I went out, knowing that somewhere out there more experiences like that were waiting for me.
Tip #3: Don’t Just Get By
These tips have one important factor in common: language skills. It’s one thing to be able to skate by your life in China, needing to know only a few phrases to live your life, but it’s an entirely different story when you can use language to open new doorways. If you’re working full-time, you might not have time to go to work, attend classes, then study on top of that. Chances are however, if you’re working in China, your boss might agree that picking up some classes could make you a more valuable employee (if suggested correctly).
It’s important to consider how much more enriching living in China is when you’re able to communicate with others. It’s like you get let in on a huge secret that you were once not able to be a part of. Random conversations on the bus soon become short glances into people’s daily lives; blocks of hanzi soon become funny stories. What’s more, you become aware of another culture from such a rudimentary form that slowly eases your mind into another way of thinking.
Really though, the last step in this process is to not stop. Even if you’re at the level of a Ming Dynasty poet, keep learning. It will make it so that your view of China becomes clearer, and less unnerving. Plus, you’ll surprise the locals, which in itself is a reward.
There are many ways to get out of your comfort zone. These are just a few. What’s most important at the end of the day is that you get out and try. You never know what lies beyond your comfort zone. It could be something as simple as finding a new jiaozi place or as difficult as attempting to mastering Chinese. Regardless, if you’re stagnant, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Timothy Ulrich is an American journalist and adventure-seeker who is currently studying for a Master’s in international communications at UNNC.