Irai in Changchun: "It takes time to adapt well"

  • Irai in Changchun
Published 9 months ago
Californian expat, Irai settled in China in 2007. She opted for a change in her life and seized a job opportunity. She now lives in Changchun, where she enjoys teaching English.


I teach all over...2007-2008 assignment Yangchun, China, 2008-2009 assignment Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2009-2011 back to Yangchun, 2011-present Changchun.

Introduce yourself: who are you, where do you come from, what were you doing before and what are you doing nowadays?

Well, who am I? I'm just a "normal" girl from California, who fell down a "rabbit hole" one day and ended up in China. I was self-employed, and feeling like a hamster trapped in a plastic ball, then one day, opportunity knocked and I wound up teaching English in China.

Why did you choose to move to China?

I didn't choose China; rather it chose me.

As a US national, what were the procedures you had to follow to move there?

That's an interesting question because there were no procedures in my case. The employer took care of everything and all I had to do was have a passport and show up. Back in 2007 it was much easier than now. I flew into Hong Kong and my employer changed my tourist visa to a business visa, then, once I was on the mainland the process was to change the business visa (short-term) to one year. The process today is very different and much harder. It also depends where in China you choose to live. Currently in the Northeast the process requires, (if you want to teach) that you have a Bachelor's degree (minimum) and be TEFL certified (120 hours minimum). You also need to have a background check done by YOUR local police department, stamped (official) that you must bring with you. Your employer will do most of the paperwork and if they don't, find a better employer! DO NOT come to China on a tourist visa and hope to then change it into a work visa; that WILL NOT work and only cause you many problems later on. Also don't try to work without a valid work visa; that too is a headache.

How long have you been in the country?

I have lived in China now for 8 years. I lived in Guangdong Province the first 3 years and I've been in Jilin Province the past 5 years.

What has attracted you to Changchun?

They offered me a job! Seriously, I never liked the humidity of southern China; and when I was offered a chance to move north I took it. I managed to survive three years in the heat and humidity only because I loved my students and of course the good food was hard to give up. However, after three years of suffering with mosquitoes, and cockroaches (the size of a hamster) and rats... never mind, the prospect of snow and ice looked great. I love the climate here but hate the food.

What has surprised you the most at your arrival?

Actually, not much has surprised me. I expected the north to be very different from southern China and it's just that, different. The southern people are just like their weather warm and welcoming. The northern people tend to be like their weather cold and harsh. However once you get to know them they do warm up.

Was it difficult to find accommodation there? What types of accommodation are available?

Once again this wasn't something I had to deal with because my employer took care of it. Eventually (in the north) I found my own place because I wanted to have something different. My employer had found me an apartment which was okay but after a year I wanted something that was more "me". The area where I choose to live is very "trendy" so rents are high. I was lucky to find a nice place in an older building so my rent isn't too bad. I choose to live more like a local person. My place is very "typical" Chinese, with the exception of a "western" toilet (that wasn't my choice to be honest). Because I choose to live more like a local my cost of living is kept rather low. If I wanted to live in a more "western" style I could, but the costs for that choice would be much higher.

In which field are you working? Is it easy for an expat to find a job there?

Like most expats here I'm an English teacher. Finding work depends on you. The company I work with always has jobs. Foreign teachers tend to come and we are always looking to replace someone. There are other jobs but finding work in other fields isn't as easy. For the time being, native-speaking English teachers are still needed, but in a few more years the requirements will be much stricter and fewer jobs will be available. The educational landscape is changing quickly in China and it's hard to keep up, let alone really predict.

How do you find the Chinese lifestyle?

Well that's an interesting question... I'm actually more comfortable living in China than I am living back in California. I suppose I've adapted after 8 years.

Have you been able to adapt yourself to the country and to its society?

See the previous answer... but in short yes. The only thing I will never adapt to, are the crazy drivers here. The Chinese in general are the WORST drivers in the world. Chinese have only been driving for around 10 years. Many of the new drivers had no clue how to drive. They make up the rules as they go and it's rather scary at times trying to walk down the street. No joke, I've nearly been run over several times just walking on the sidewalk! I've also considered starting my own driving school with an emphasis on "how to parallel park"; I'm sure it'd be very successful.

What does your everyday life look like in Changchun?

In short it's "normal". Not really different than anyone else's everyday life. I get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to sleep, repeat. I guess the only real difference is I'm living my "normal" life in China as opposed to being in California.

Any particular experience in China you would like to share with us?

There are just too many. Someday when I retire I'll write the book, but by then no one will really care. I try to find something special about each day and I do keep a journal. However, I lived this way in the US too... it isn't the place where you live that shapes the experiences; it's how you live that matters.

What is your opinion on the cost of living in Changchun? Is it easy for an expat to live there?

I live really cheap. I can live on about $500 (USD) a month. That includes rent, utilities, and food. As long as you budget well you can live well here. I'm not in "want" for anything; I just have few things I want. My rent is low $300 (USD) per month; my utilities are next to nothing, $5 (USD) per month. My costs are very low but that's not the norm. Other expats pay much more but then it's a choice. I find everything I really want is available and if I can't find it I probably don't need it.

How do you spend your leisure time?

Leisure time? I'm not sure what that is...LOL. I work a lot but that is my choice. I love what I'm doing so I love to do it. Currently I write course books for a college prep program. I also teach the courses (that I create). My job is something that took 5 years to develop so I'm passionate about it, and seeing it become successful. Remember I was self-employed before coming to China. I'm an entrepreneur at heart so this fits me perfectly. When I do have "downtime" I like to play mahjong with friends, (no gambling), and go out to dinner, or just have coffee, and chat.

Your favorite local dishes?

The best food in China; well, that's anything from the south! I love Cantonese food best and until you've eaten real Cantonese food, you have no clue. However, since coming north I've found little here that I really enjoy as much. I do like a local dish called goba rou (not sure of the spelling) but its deep fried crispy sweet and sour pork that's to die for.

What do you like the most about Changchun?

The ease of getting around the city, it's so simple. I can get anywhere I want, it may take a while but I can do it and without having any language skills. The bus system is simple, and pretty convenient. The "subway" system isn't great but that will change once they complete the project. However, I can get to the airport for under $2 (USD) just by taking a city bus, and then a short train ride. It's over $30 if I hire a taxi and takes longer. The airport is International so flying anywhere isn't difficult, it does however cost a little more. The trains connect to everywhere in China, but it can take a little longer traveling by train. I enjoy living in Changchun because it's like being in a small city and yet there are many "big" city conveniences.

What do you miss the most about your home country?

Actually I miss very little. I miss seeing some of my old friends, but I don't miss much. I've been away from California now for 10 years so it's not really "home" anymore.

Would like to give any advice to soon-to-be expatriates in China?

Yes, be flexible! I highly recommend that before you pack it up and move anywhere, learn the culture and customs. You are the guest, but that doesn't mean anyone is going to be inviting you to stay. You need to show respect, and be patient. It takes time to adapt well; it also takes a willingness to be open to learn and not expect people to favor you because you're the foreigner. You also need to learn the rules. Don't think because you're from another country that you can do what you did back home. Be considerate, even when others are not. Be polite, even when others are rude. Be patient, even when you don't feel like it. Be kind, even when you want to kill someone! In the end if you can do those things you will be welcomed and accepted.

What are your plans for the future?

At my age, just waking up each day is enough! I'd like to stay a few more years in China and then throw a dart at the map and see where it lands.

8 months ago

Hi! I'll be moving for work in Changhun next month and I'll be bringing my 7 month old with me. Do you have ideas about nurseries or childcare? Is it difficult to find good one that isn't that expensive? I've heard good things about Changchun and I'm kind of excited as well. I'm just worried about my baby when I have to go to work. I'm scared of hiring a local nanny because of the bad things I heard from the news. Being there for quite a while, can you give me suggestions and tips, please? Good morning!

8 months ago

Dear Gabbybillones: There are some good places for you want a Chinese environment? A foreign environment? A religious environment? It all depends on you. Also there are good nanny solutions, a husband/wife teacher team at our company has one and it's worked out great. Their child was born in Changchun and it now about a year old. Let me know more and then I can give you some ideas. When do you arrive in town? It's very cold currently so be prepared. Good luck and I think you'll like our "little" town in China... LOL

9 months ago

Dear Jack and Brook: Thanks for your comments. Yes, I have been in China a while, it wasn't planned but happened that way. I hope to move on in a few more years but the work I'm currently doing is very exciting so it makes sense right now to stay. I really enjoy living in Changchun and meeting with local people. If either of you are ever in the city pop me an email and if there's time we can get a cup of coffee at my favorite Starbucks. Rock on wherever life takes you. lrai

9 months ago

Should be a very long time for you to stay a second country,but I'm sure that there must some unforgettable moments left here. And life is just like a box of chocolate,takes bitter but happy! And it's been a special experience for your whole life! End, hope u have a good mood every single day!

9 months ago

I am from Changchun, China. Wish to meet you one day!

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