I moved to China in late 2009, at the height of the Great Recession. I'd been unemployed for the better part of a year and was hopeful that teaching English in China would get me back on track.
The chief benefit of teaching in Asia, after all, is that English teachers earn substantially more than the local cost of living. The plan was to leave China having paid off the debt I incurred while unemployed with some extra money saved for travel.
What I didn't know is that living in China would unlock opportunities -- and, indeed, a renewed sense of optimism -- that would lead me to a level of personal and professional success I didn't previously think possible.
The Downsides of Living in China
Before I explain to you how living in China positively impacted my life, I should give you a disclaimer: Many aspects of living in China are unpleasant.
First among these is, not surprisingly, the pollution. When I departed Shanghai after having lived there for eight months, it was with bronchitis, severe acne and a lesion on the underside of my left eyelid that scratched my eye every time I closed it.
Additionally, frequent bouts of food poisoning had shaved 10 additional pound off my already skinny frame. I was pale -- there is basically nowhere in Shanghai to sun oneself, even if the sun is shining -- and felt almost as awful as I looked.
To be fair, I never once felt like my human rights were threatened when I was living in China. That being said, the fact that most Western social media is blocked in China was definitely obnoxious.
Paying Down Debt, Saving Money
Unpleasant effects on my health notwithstanding, teaching English in China helped me achieve my primary goal in having moved there: Paying off all my credit card debt and saving some money.
As I mentioned earlier, English teachers in Asia earn more than their cost of living. For me, this ended up being a split of approximately $1,800 per month in income to $700-800 per month in expenses.
Whether you teach English or work a corporate job, living in China will almost certainly allow you to reform yourself financially if, that is, you're willing to live like a local.
Indeed many foreigners move to China well aware of how much disposable income they'll have and live like rockstars. "Western" style bars and restaurant price their products and services accordingly.
Rather than dining at trendy spots along Shanghai's "Bund" or in posh Xintiandi, I opted for noodle and rice dishes at my local can ting. I rarely drank, and while taxis were relatively cheap, I always rode a bus or the metro, which cost just 2-3 yuan (less than 50 cents) per ride.
Expanded Professional Opportunities
If I had left China only out of debt and with a few thousand dollars saved, I'd have felt like my mission was accomplished. In fact, I left China with an income source I could -- and, incidentally, did -- take with me.
About a month after I arrived in China, I emailed the editor of Shanghaiist (sister blog of New York City's Gothamist) regarding a contributor position. Although publications and websites in the U.S. hadn't taken my inquiries seriously due to a lack of experience, Shanghaiist gave me a chance.
The following April, I made an even more ambitious pitch. This one was to CNNGo, a branch of CNN.com that caters to expats living in Asia. I was able to produce eight pieces for CNNGo, and a few even ended up on the CNN.com homepage!
I quit my job teaching in June with the intention of pursuing additional freelance journalism opportunities in Shanghai. I'd planned a two-week trip to Vietnam at the end of July as a gift to myself for having persevered.
As luck would have it, one of the my new gigs was "location-independent" -- I would be able to contribute (and get paid for) content from anywhere in the world I had an Internet connection. My trip to Vietnam therefore ended up being the start of a long, round-the-world trip back to the U.S..
Hope and Change
I would return to the U.S. with less debt, more money and an expanded resume. I was also significantly more hopeful than I'd been when I left.
My improving economic circumstances notwithstanding, the fact that Chinese people were willing to take me at my word had a huge impact. When I said I was aspiring writer, they responded by asking me which topics I liked to write about, rather than with the cynicism and doubt most Americans expressed.
Furthermore, the general mood of Shanghai was extremely positive. The media and indeed, public discourse was optimistic and forward-thinking -- the doom and gloom that seemed to dominate the national conversation in America was but a faint memory. I practically forgot the word "recession."
The extensive travel born out of my Shanghai experience inspired me to launch my website, Leave Your Daily Hell, and develop it into the comprehensive travel resource it is today. As a result, I live an independent, nomadic life I literally couldn't imagine three years ago.
But living in China didn't make me more capable or intelligent -- it simply reminded me that I was already capable and intelligent enough to live my dreams.