It is my fourth time living abroad, and I think I have found the recipe for getting the most out of the experience. This is my third time living in China, and this time, I am a researcher in Nanjing University, which is one of the top-level universities in China.
Should you come prepared or just go with the flow?
I love making plans and lists. Before getting to China, I downloaded the local WhatsApp (=WeChat), a food delivery app and a metro map. I knew the official arrangements that were needed to be done during my first week in here (believe me, there is a lot!). I knew the language and contacted my research group in advance. However, I did not have a place to stay (only a hotel for the first few nights). I was able to check all the available apartments myself and found a nice one. For my research, I had plans A, B and C. That was fortunate, since I have needed them all. The research practices differ and there are several unknown factors when conducting research in a foreign research institute. Due to my flexible schedule, I was also able to participate some language courses. I believe it is necessary to plan ahead, but also to be able to change your plans and adapt swiftly.
I want to experience it all!
I have had my share of new and exciting. I have eaten cow’s belly (you could mistake it for noodles), duck’s tongue (tender and mild), sea cucumbers (absolutely delicious) and all the vegetables and animal parts (e.g., feet of the chicken, including nails) we do not eat in Finland. I have visited pretty much all the local attractions and traveled to other cities in China. To be honest, it gets overwhelming at some point. For me, the best mixture is something new, something weird and something familiar. This familiar can be McDonalds, Modern Family, rye bread or Finnish novels– but it keeps me inspired. After few mornings of eating oatmeal, I am again ready to try something new.
Live like a Chinese!
When living abroad, it is easy to stay in the circle of other foreigners. They are in the same situation as you, and they understand your worries and needs. I am happily a member of these expat communities, since they are great source of information (where can you buy train tickets / is it ok to drink tap water / how to extend your visa). I even accidentally found a new Finnish friend in here! On the other hand, I came to China to experience the Chinese way of life, so I try to find a balance between these two lifestyles. I live in a regular compound with Chinese neighbors and landlord. All my co-workers are Chinese. I fight the cold winter with a hot water bottle and ridiculously-thick fleece clothing. I am even picky when it comes to choosing the right sauce for my dumplings.
I encourage everyone to take the leap and go abroad, if you have the opportunity. But be warned – you might get hooked. When I came to China for the first time in 2008, I did not know that over the years, it would become my second home country. It seems I cannot get rid of it anymore, haha. I want to thank Outi Savonlahti fund for enabling this experience.
Kristiiina Väänänen, PhD, researcher