Korean-American expat Jisang tells me his story about moving from New York City all the way to Dongguan in China’s Guangdong province. He gave up a cushy job as an x-ray technician in the Big Apple to be an English teacher at a private language school in a second tier Chinese city. Was it all worth it? And how do the Chinese view an Asian-American of non-Chinese origin? Read the full interview below to find out (Ness in bold font and Jisang in regular font):
Could you start by telling us your age, nationality, hometown, ethnicity, and what kind of person you consider yourself to be (personality wise)?
I’m 37 years-old. I’m Korean-American. I was born in South Korea, but I moved to the US when I was five years-old. My hometown is New York City. I’ve lived in New York City since 1984. Personality-wise, I consider myself to be somewhat quiet and shy, but once I get to know people I’m pretty outgoing.
“Shy but warm up quickly” as they say. How long have you been Dongguan?
I’ve lived here now for just a little over a year. I came here in November 2014.
Do you have experience living in or traveling to countries other than China?
Yes, primarily Europe. I was in the United States Air Force for four years, and during that time I was stationed at the Lakenheath Royal Air Force base in the UK. During that time I got to travel to all parts of Europe.
You’ve seen to quite a bit of Asia as well, correct?
Yes, besides just China I’ve also had the chance to visit Taiwan, and I just went to Japan for a week this month. I’ve gone to South Korea twice now since living in Asia, and I’ve also visited Hong Kong. I went to Thailand with my family in 2013, too.
Nice! How much have you seen of China beyond Dongguan? Any favorite places?
I really liked Hangzhou, because even though it’s a big city, it’s not so crowded and overwhelming like Shanghai. There are a lot of nice places to see in that city, particularly a place called West Lake. It’s a lake area where you can see lots of temples and nice scenery.
I also like Guangzhou, because it’s the center of Cantonese culture and life. It’s a unique and diverse place. You won’t just see Chinese people living there, as there’s quite of number of Africans living there as well, which adds to the flavor of the city.
I’ve heard about the “Chocolate City” . That’s what the locals refer to as the part of Guangzhou with many African immigrants. Are there any places you went to in China that you particularly didn’t like?
Not really, but out of all the places I’ve been, Shanghai was my least favorite. It’s a really big and crowded city, so if you don’t like crowds, it might not be the place for you.
Understood. How do you make a living there in Dongguan, and would you mind telling us your salary?
I make my living here as an English teacher, and I make about 13,000 RMB a month excluding taxes. It’s actually a pretty good salary.
Not bad at all! That’s more than I was making in Dalian. Prior to being an English teacher, did you work in any other industries?
Yes, I’m a registered X-ray technician, which is what I did back when I was living in New York City.
Could you describe what you like the most and what you like the least about your current job?
I really like interacting with the students. Chinese students are really interested in learning English, and they really appreciate the time you give them.
The thing I like the least about my job is that you gotta put in a lot of hours to prepare for classes each day. But I do get two days off from work each week.
That sounds about the same as my teaching job here in Japan. What are the benefits of your current job as an English teacher?
I have plenty of vacation time that allows me to travel to many different places. I also like interacting with Chinese students. They’ll often invite me to free meals or to the KTV and such. My job provides many good opportunities to network with other people. Quite a number of the students are involved with businesses, so if you’re into that, it’s a good way to meet those kind of people.
How’s the cost of living to income ratio there in Dongguan? Do you feel your salary offers you a good lifestyle?
Definitely. Dongguan is a mid-tier city, so it’s not going to be as expensive as Shanghai or Shenzhen. It’s a little expensive here compared to smaller cities, but I definitely feel like my salary offers me a good lifestyle. If you’re frugal, you can save quite a lot of money here.
Seems like Dongguan is probably more or less the same cost-wise as Dalian. I believe they’re both second tier cities. 13,000 RMB a month would definitely afford you a pretty good lifestyle in Dalian. I only made 10,000 a month when I was there, and I felt like I saved plenty of money and could do almost whatever I wanted without having to be too frugal. But that was four years ago, so it could be more expensive these days.
As long as you’re not spending too much money on stupid things, you’ll save plenty of money in China.
I agree. What do you find is exceptionally cheap and what is exceptionally expensive there in Dongguan?
Like most Chinese cities, the food here is pretty cheap. Surprisingly, things like sneakers are pretty expensive. I was trying to find a pair here, and most were around 700 to 1,000 RMB – about the same cost as in the States.
Name brand items are quite expensive in China compared to what they tend to cost in developed countries. For example, Levi’s jeans and Calvin Klein shirts are both outrageously expensive in Dalian, but they’re totally affordable back in the States.
If you’re into brand names, they will be expensive here in China. Foreign goods tend to be more expensive than local goods.
What everyday items do you feel are the most difficult to find in Dongguan? Any rare items you think newbies to China ought to bring with them from their respective home countries?
Definitely clothes that fit! If you’re tall or a bit overweight, it can be hard to find clothes that fit you. For example, sneaker sizes tend to max out at 44 (US size 10.5), so it’s hard to find any sizes above that.
I’m a US shoe size 9.5, which I wouldn’t consider big at all, but it’s even hard for me to find fitting shoes almost anywhere in Asia!
On to the next topic. How’s your love life there in Dongguan? Do you feel being an ethnic Korean there helps or hinders you in regards to romance?
I found that being Korean definitely helps. Some Chinese women are fascinated by Korean culture, so once they find out I’m Korean, it kind of gives me an edge over local Chinese men and other foreigners.
Korean pop culture (K-pop) is gaining popularity throughout Asia. I noticed Thai people are paying more and more attention to Korea these days, so who knows, maybe being Korean in Thailand could help your love life there too.
Are there any comments you can give us on life in general as an ethnic Korean living in China (i.e. do you “fit” in, any discrimination towards you, unique experiences, etc.)?
I haven’t experienced any outright discrimination. There’s quite a number of Koreans living in China, and they blend in really well. It could be different for those who are non-Asian or at least don’t look like an Asian person.
It’s definitely a lot different for me and other white people! So I guess you feel like you blend in pretty well there, and you don’t stand out in any big way, correct?
What do you like most about life in China or Chinese society, and what do you like the least?
Starting with the least, there’s too much emphasis on money here. It can be a little bit discouraging for any foreigner living here. But what I like the most about China is once you get to know people, they can be really friendly. They’ll invite you to restaurants or the KTV, and they can be really good friends. But it takes a while for that to happen.
I agree with you. On the surface, it’s easy to think that mainland Chinese are very rude, but once you scratch beneath the surface, you can see their true warmth.
What are your tips to have a more enjoyable experience as a newbie in China?
First, try to learn some of the language. That helps you to communicate with Chinese people and to get around. Second, try to make friends with Chinese people. I notice that a lot of foreigners living in China only seem to hang around with other foreigners. They miss out on the cultural exchange and the excitement of having a friend from a different culture. Finally, try to learn a bit about Chinese culture before you come. Don’t just wait until you come here to start learning. You’ll get used to your surroundings much faster.
That’s good advice. What is your overall impression of Chinese and local Dongguan cuisine? Do you have any favorite dishes?
Dongguan cuisine is Cantonese food, and I’m a big fan of Cantonese food. My favorite dishes are the fried noodles and fried rice. Cantonese food tends to be sweet, salty, and a bit oily. Other regions are different. Overall I would say Chinese food is very similar to Korean food, so there wasn’t any big change for me. Whereas, if you’re only into Western food, it could take you a while to get used to the food here.
Are there any particular dishes in Dongguan that you can’t stand or that you would never even consider trying in the first place?
I don’t really like the chicken feet. They’re a popular snack here. I tried ‘em, and they’re not my thing.
I’ve tried ‘em too. I wouldn’t say I hate them, but they just aren’t for me. Nor do they disgust me, but I really have no desire to eat them again.
Moving to another topic, how’s the expat scene in Dongguan?
It’s pretty vibrant. There aren’t as many foreigners here as there are, in say, Shanghai, so once you get to know a few foreigners here, it’s very easy to get to know other foreigners as well. There are a lot of local events for foreigners here. Overall it’s pretty vibrant, but it’s not as big as other cities.
Where are most of the expats in Dongguan from? Starting with the Asian expats and then the Western expats.
As for the Asians, obviously there’s a lot of Chinese Americans, but I haven’t noticed many Korean or Taiwanese Americans. As for the Westerners, there are a lot of Australians and Brits in China, and even some Americans.
Where’s your favorite place to go in Dongguan? If someone were going to go on a trip there, what would you consider the “must do” thing or “must see” place?
For anyone visiting Dongguan, going to Songshan Lake is one of the first things they tend to do. It has a really scenic view, and you can ride a bike around the lake area. As it’s really popular on the weekends, I’d suggest going there on a weekday.
Cool! The name translates to “Pine Tree Mountain Lake,” or something close to that.
Where would like to be, location-wise and career-wise, ten years from now?
Location-wise – definitely somewhere in Asia. If I get married here, I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life in China. In terms of my job, I wouldn’t mind still being an English teacher, but I hope to maybe branch out and get involved in some kind of business. Hopefully I could start a trading business one day, like importing and exporting.
After it’s all said and done, would you do it all over again? That is moving to Dongguan? Any regrets or things you wish you did differently?
Absolutely no regrets! I’ve had a great time in China. One thing I did make sure to do was finish my degree before coming to China. It’s hard to go abroad without a college degree, so I recommend everyone get one before moving abroad.
But really no regrets at all. It’s been a terrific experience! Honestly I’d rather be in Asia than back home in the States, considering the situation back home.
I understand, and I’m in the same boat as you. Thanks for taking the time to do the interview, Jisang. I’m sure some day or another I’ll make it to Dongguan!