A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #17: Edna Zhou

You know what I haven’t done in yonks? Interviewed someone, that’s what.  I’m not sure why I re-start the series when I do. It keeps popping up again at odd intervals. I think it may be due to a peculiar combination of my own writer’s block and an annoyance (or impatience) with what I’ve created for myself in Shanghai. I’ve started then shelved a half dozen posts over the past month because I refuse to allow this site to degenerate into a broken record that bellows, “Shanghai is grim! Shanghai is rainy! Why am I here? What am I doing with my life?”

Instead, I’ve been doing a ton of cooking, so Wok With Me, Baby is buzzing with new additions, perky and keen with excitement over so much experimentation. Fancy some fresh cheese?  Toaster oven focaccia?  Non-gross sauerkraut?  Go where my current ADD has taken me— but first, read this interview.

Amidst March’s appallingly grey grimness I wanted to bring you someone who presents a much brighter vibe, someone whose expattery is still lovely, fresh and keen. I think my 17+ years of awayness makes it hard for me to appreciate what I’ve got so it’s good to hear from someone who has been to where you are and took away overwhelmingly positive memories.

Also, she’s currently living in Paris, which is making my travel tastebuds drool with envy.

Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you the lovely and talented Edna Zhou, of Expat Edna fame.

Ladies and gents, I bring you Edna Zhou

Leaving

Hello Dalian!

I have been living in Paris for almost two months now.  I moved here after 15 months in Singapore, and prior to that I’d spent a year and a half in China (Dalian and Shanghai). I came here because I love living abroad, but also because I’m chasing a career in international sports media (think Olympics, World Cup, etc). I was told by some contacts in the field that I’d have a much stronger chance if I knew French, as the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is based in Switzerland and operates bilingually (if you’ve ever watched an Olympics you’ve probably noticed everything is in both French and English). So I figured, I’m young enough, I’m dedicated to this field, hell I’ll just move to France and learn French.

I’d previously been traveling for a while, from my Singapore base. I first moved to Singapore after graduation on a whim, and ended up finding a job as the ‘digital strategist’ for a reality tv show. It was run by an extremely small Singaporean production studio, which was definitely interesting, and a good learning experience, but ultimately I quit after nine months (even though they offered me a proper work visa and an extended contract) because I hated how superficial my job was.  For the next six months, I stayed in Singapore and lived off my savings (and some support from my wonderful boyfriend) and traveled around Southeast Asia.

I’d lived abroad before, I first moved overseas at 18 as a student in Dalian, China. It was only meant to be for a semester but after only two or three weeks I was so in love with being abroad that I extended my stay to a year (leading to a nasty argument with my home university and I ended up having to withdraw for the semester!)

I’ve never found the transition to be difficult when I move countries. I think it’s because I never quite felt like I fit in at home in the States, yet whenever I’m abroad I become incredibly confident, social, and outgoing. I don’t miss my family because we were never close growing up. I was quite independent and emotionally closed-off growing up, which I think is why I don’t depend on them for emotional support, because I never have. So even though my family and I are much closer now, I very rarely ever feel homesick. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been homesick in over three years of living abroad.

Singapore New Year Lanterns

I love the feeling of moving to a new place – in fact, prior to Singapore I’d had a very short attention span, and couldn’t stand the thought of living somewhere for more than six months. I’d only planned on staying in Singapore for four months, but now I’m glad I stayed as long as I did – it’s made me see the advantages to living somewhere for a longer period of time and becoming more ‘settled’. I also don’t struggle with meeting people, as the internet makes it so easy to make friends in a new city – the first thing I do when I move is check 1. Twitter. 2. the expat forums and 3. if there is a local gaelic football team. Between the three of those, I usually end up with friends to start with (and then they introduce me to their friends, and my social circle starts to expand more organically from there).  In fact, I’d say of my best friends that I’ve met abroad, the majority of them I originally met online.

The only struggle I have in living abroad is when I know I have to leave a good place. I don’t like to get too comfortable, so I force myself to leave, but it’s obviously not easy. Life in Shanghai was good, but I left because I didn’t want to get stuck in the “China bubble”. Life in Singapore was possibly even better, and I left because I could see myself already falling into the “Singapore bubble”.

There are lots of little unexpected joys about living abroad – although I suppose it’s the expected unexpected I enjoy. I love getting to know my local neighborhood, I love when the fruit juice man recognizes me and my “usual”. Whenever you move you know there will be holidays you don’t know about, new foods to try, unusual experiences to have – and I look forward to finding those ‘unexpected’ joys of living abroad.

There is one unexpected joy though that really was unexpected – I met my boyfriend in Singapore, after we moved into the same flat together. When I left the US after graduation to start my life abroad, I thought having a relationship while traveling was a silly thing to do, so I didn’t date at all (and wasn’t even looking). But then I met Mike… we’ve been together for over a year now.

Staying

Paris!

I’ve been in Paris for two months, and I’ve signed a 12-month contract so I’ll be here for at least ten months more – but I can already tell I’d like to stay longer. There is so much to explore in Paris that I know a year won’t be enough; also, my French isn’t progressing as quickly as I’d like so I will definitely need more than a year of study to become fluent.

My move here was both a choice I actively made, and one that was decided for me. When I decided that I wanted to learn French, I actively made the decision to leave Singapore, and started searching for jobs in France, Switzerland, Belgium – any Francophone country. However, my job found me, and it happened to be located in Paris — so in that respect it was decided for me (although I only had two weeks to get the visa, and the fact that we pulled it off, despite the bureaucratic French red tape involved, was nothing short of a miracle — so I took that as a sign that I was meant to go to Paris!)

When I arrived I didn’t know any French – I would even blank on the word merci. I’ve been taking lessons for four weeks now, and my comprehension is slowly progressing — I love the feeling of accomplishment I get when I can read an advert in the metro or a sign in the supermarket. However my speaking skills are still non-existent. I can get by in a taxi or restaurant, but I wouldn’t even come close to calling it conversational.

I don’t have too much stress about being here, but I’m still only two months in. The one gnawing worry in the back of my mind is, what happens if my contract ends in ten months and it doesn’t get renewed? Will I try to find a job so I can stay in Paris, or should I try to move elsewhere? My problem is that I plan long-term, but I’m not so great at the short-term. When I left Singapore, I had travel plans for the next six weeks, but absolutely nothing lined up after that. I was extremely lucky this job found me when it did, because otherwise I would’ve been stranded jobless in Australia after I finished my six weeks of traveling! So, I have no plans for after Paris yet, which is how I’ve always rolled – but while that was fine when I was younger, I guess now that I’m a little older the uncertainty is starting to scare me a little.

As I mentioned earlier, thanks to the internet (and gaelic football) I don’t find it hard to build up a support network when I move to a new city. But expanding on that, thanks to technology I’m also able to keep my already existing support system around the world. Between the support system I have online to the new friends I make offline, I very, very rarely feel lonely.

My boyfriend is also a fellow expat; but he’s a Brit living in Singapore. We’re currently doing long distance, but just because he isn’t physically here doesn’t mean he didn’t help me adapt to my new life. Again, thanks to technology, I know I have a support system 24/7 – and just having that knowledge, that reassurance that someone is there, really helps in feeling confident about going out and doing whatever it is that I need to do solo, whether it be explore a new city, learn a new language, or play a sport with a new team.

Plus, it helps that he’s still doing the expat thing in Singapore, because it makes me feel like I’m still connected to my life there through him. Like I mentioned earlier, I like to leave places while things are still going well, and that’s hard to do. (I’m one of those sentimental fools who enjoy living in the past and holding onto memories way past their expiration date.) Seeing him hang out with our friends, go to our same favorite snack spots, do the same activities we used to on weekends (like dragon boating), makes me glad at least one of us is still enjoying the Singapore expat life, and makes me feel I haven’t left it all behind.

My feelings about Paris have been slowly developing over the last eight weeks. I’ve never been a Francophile, I was never even that interested in Europe (other than my slightly out-of-control Hibernophilia, but that’s it for the European countries). When I arrived, it didn’t help that it was the dead of winter – the city was freezing and I didn’t want to go out and explore that much. But now that I’ve walked through the city, am starting to understand the language, and the weather’s warmed up, my love for Paris has slowly started to blossom. I can see now why people are obsessed with this country – the food is amazing, the arts are abundant, the culture is rich, the people look good, and well, the city is just beautiful. I’ll never be a Francophile, but I am definitely appreciating more and more what a great opportunity I have to be here, and realizing how good life truly is at the moment. I imagine at the end of the year, if I really do have to leave the city, I will be just as devastated as when I left Singapore and Shanghai.

Maintaining stability

Shanghai!

I know I don’t want to properly “settle down” until I’m in my 30s. I see too many of my friends getting married, having babies, buying houses, advancing the corporate ladder – which is all well and good and I’m happy for them, but when I see that all I can think is, But they don’t get to travel or experience life abroad! and I’m horrified. I couldn’t do that.

However, I’m sure in some way you could argue that I ‘settle down’ by being an expat for a year in this city or that city. I have an apartment, I have a strong social circle, I have “locals” and a metro pass and a bank account and all those other indicators of being settled somewhere.

So it depends on your definition of “settled” and “long-term” – for me, at 22, my life in Paris is settling down a bit. I’d never signed a year-long contract before, and committing to a full 12 months in one place, when before I wouldn’t plan my life more than six months ahead, was a huge step for me. For all the time I spent in China and Singapore, I never once opened a bank account or got a phone plan (meaning I spent 15 months in Singapore paying month-to-month, and without data!) – I think in my mind, those steps meant I’d “settled” and I wasn’t ready to admit I was doing that, because I certainly hadn’t planned on staying in either country so long.

I think whether you want to ‘settle down’ depends on your motivations. In my last two countries, I never quite knew where I was headed (geographically and career-wise), so I stayed on my toes, never unpacked my suitcase, was ready to move to another country on a moment’s notice. Coming to Paris, I have a definite goal in mind, with an enormous payout (chance at my dream career) if I succeed, so I don’t mind ‘sacrificing’ my wanderings for a bank account and a closet full of unpacked clothes.

I think you can pack up and head off as many times as you want in your life, it’s certainly not something that comes with age. I was 18 when I moved abroad the first time, 20 when I graduated university — and by then I already knew I was going to move abroad and not return to the US for at least ten years…if ever.

Everyone’s tastes are different – some people want to backpack round the world, some people just want to have their two-week vacation; some people stay abroad, and others never ever want to leave their little hometown crop circle. I don’t think it’s a matter of age; it’s just a matter of personal preferences. And people’s tastes change, which is why you’ll see people suddenly decide to move abroad after years at home, and vice versa.

Personally, I know moving – and staying – abroad was the best decision I’ve ever made. I never felt quite like I fit in at home in the States, despite being born and raised there. I loved and am grateful for my American upbringing, but I really feel like I come out of my shell, like I’m truly alive and free to be myself, when I’m outside the US.

Of course, there’s your usual bonuses to living abroad that I’ve also gained – I’ve met and hung out with people I never would have in the US (for both good and bad), tried new foods, traveled to exotic locations, experienced other cultures, celebrated new holidays, expanded my horizons, yada yada yada (don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to downplay what I’ve gained — but I’m sure everyone says the same exact things about living abroad, and do they really sound any different coming from me?).

I don’t think I’ve lost that much by moving abroad — and even so the benefits definitely outweigh the negatives. Around November, I do miss the American holiday season, as ridiculously long and commercialized as it is. I’m sad to miss the occasional friend’s wedding. I know I’ve lost out on my old dream of getting my master’s by 22 and my Ph.D. by 28 – but I’m so glad I spent the last two years traveling instead of cooped up in some university library writing abstracts and hating academia.

What I really love about being abroad is that it has taught me to seize opportunities, explore the unknown, and take chances (and make mistakes, and get messy). For example, I wouldn’t be on this track to chasing my dream job if I hadn’t seized a random volunteering opportunity when I first moved to Singapore. So I guess relatedly, I’ve also learned to talk to as many people as possible – you never know who you’re going to meet, and how someone unassuming might just change your life two years later.

At home I used to be a lot more cautious and self-conscious; now I care much less about what others think of me, because ultimately I’m only living for myself. I don’t want any regrets. An example of this on a micro scale would be my approach towards photography. I used to not take photos when I was in certain situations (especially taking photos of food) because I didn’t want others to think I was some photo-happy Asian stereotype. Now I just snap away, because the people who know me don’t care, and the people who don’t know me don’t matter, as I’ll never see them again and I’d rather look back on the shot I have with happiness, than be bitter about the shot I don’t have because I cared more about what some strangers thought of me at the time.

I do feel at home here in Paris – and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have doubts, because I believe everything works out in the end (let’s be clear, I don’t believe in fate, that’s different). It’s definitely not the location but my mindset – for me, home is anywhere I have a place to crash and a social life. Maybe that sounds a bit simplistic; maybe it’s just my youth speaking. But I don’t need a fancy furnished flat or a family around to call somewhere home.

I have no regrets about moving, living, staying abroad. Every day I love the fact that I am waking up in Paris, or that I would wake up in Singapore or Shanghai. The excitement never gets old; even after 15 months in Singapore I would still sometimes just stop in the middle of the street and think, Holy crap, I am living in Singapore. I have “life is good” moments a lot.

The Future

Oooooo, Australia!

Ultimately, I’d love to be working in any job that allows me to be a part of the Olympics and international sports scene, whether it be in journalism, media operations, or even working for a sports federation. So I’ll keep chasing that dream until I either get it, or I don’t. And if I don’t, well by then I should be trilingual in English, French, and Chinese, which is pretty handy. I have a couple backup plans as well, but they all involve travel in some capacity. I’ll never stop traveling.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.