I’m generally someone who likes a schedule. I am happiest with an 8am-5pm work day. I like the rhythm of a busy work week opening up into a chill Friday and an open weekend. Of course, I can’t say I love having to get up at 6am every week day morning, but I do like the satisfaction of arriving at work with coffee in hand ready to get going. In undergrad and grad school, I had busier but similarly regimented schedules- I filled up my days with classes, studying, stressing, writing, and occasional downtime with friends and Amaury. My life has always been full and has usually been structured.
With that in mind, this past year of flexible employment/unemployment has challenged and stretched me. I’ve always considered myself a motivated person, but I’ve realized that without a clear schedule to contain it, my motivation can bubble up and quickly disappear into, what feels like to me, laziness and lack of purpose. As spouse joining my significant other overseas, I’ve had to create my own projects, develop my own work-week, and motivate myself to get up early in the morning for my own edification.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that my ability to not have a full-time job and basically do whatever I set my mind to, is an enormous privilege. I wake up grateful every day and spend my morning yoga sessions channeling that gratitude into my limbs, my intentions, and my actions. So yes, I’m extremely thankful for the space in my life right now. At the same time, I work hard to create purpose, nurture my mental health, and build resilience.
While long stretches of open days are blissful for a vacation; a year of unstructured, empty, and potentially lonely hours in a foreign country can seem like a long, dark, and narrow tunnel. That tunnel feels more threatening when faced with lower paid and lower-skilled freelance jobs, daunting and unrealistic telework options, and assumptions about spouses (IE that we’re 1950’s era housewives who relax at home all day, host/attend parties, and are less qualified then their spouses… despite the fact that some of us aren’t wives at all, but husbands joining their working wives overseas and that most of us have masters degrees, significant work experience, speak multiple languages, and often are the primary care givers for children… I’m not bitter at all, really).
Incidentally, I did actually vacuum yesterday after spilling a bunch of paper shreds all over the living room while using the paper shredder to prevent the Chinese government from reading our junk mail from various credit card companies. I vacuumed for a bit until I accidentally pulled the cord out of the wall, as ALWAYS happens when vacuuming, and then decided that was enough house cleaning for one day.
As new people arrive in Guangzhou, it’s caused me to reflect a lot on my self-created schedule that is usually filled to the brim with outings, classes, projects, and work. Lately, I’ve had a relatively structured week, though it does shift as needed to accommodate outings, errands, volunteer projects, and Skype dates with friends and family. A few people have asked what my daily routine is like here, so let me take a moment to walk you through it.
Most weekdays I get up between 7-8am and usually check my email and Facebook over VPN. I start the day with at least 30 minutes of yoga and sometimes another fitness thing like swimming or dancing around in my living room. Then I chug my horrid Chinese medicine and make my usual breakfast of yogurt, granola, and coffee (all imported, because none of that is standard Chinese fare). I either read the news (and then talk myself out of writing undiplomatic, angry Facebook posts) or get some freelance research work done, either reviewing other peoples’ work or vetting client requests. I enjoy plugging into Wonder’s online Slack community and usually say hi to some friends, catch up on the latest office chatter, or answer some questions from other freelancers.
On Mondays and Fridays, I head off to my 10am Chinese class at the Consulate, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I head off to teach my 10am French class there, and on Wednesdays I either get more work done or meet up with friends for coffee, tea, or an outing. Basically, Wednesday is an open day for social or errand time if needed. I either have lunch with Amaury, friends, or at home. Then I spend the afternoon completing a research request or doing other freelance work like reviewing, vetting, planning, or on-boarding. Sometimes I go to my favorite local coffee shop to work. That means that I usually end up putting in 20 hours of freelance work a week by working at least 4 hours every afternoon. If I get done with work early, I go grocery shopping, take a nap, clean, or have free time for music, reading, TV, writing, or travel planning. During the summer, I usually work till 5:30pm when Amaury gets home and then we spend the evening together, with friends, or at activities like choir and Zumba.
It’s taken me a while to get my schedule this structured, and it doesn’t always work out so consistently. This week, for example, I’ve slowed down my freelance work to write this post, study more Chinese, and rest as I’ve been a bit under the weather and suffering from migraines. That said, having at least some structure has done a lot for my mental health and general well-being. I generally know where I am at any given point in a day. I’m also always ready to improvise and tend to carry my laptop around with me so I can duck into Starbucks or another coffee shop with good internet to get in some work or study Chinese. At any point in my schedule, there’s potential for sudden downtime while waiting for class, for lunch, on the metro, or for the internet to come back online, so I have lots of strategies for filling my time. Living in China is thankfully a constant language learning lab, so even if I have nothing specific to do, just walking around or taking public transit provides opportunities to practice reading signs.
It’s helped that I’ve mainly been in Guangzhou this summer, which has allowed me to create more of a routine. That will soon come to an end though, because I’m heading off to the UK next Wednesday for a much-needed trip home. I realized that other than seeing friends and family, I’m most excited for green, open spaces and fresh air. Guangzhou is great for us, I’m sure you all know by now how much I truly love living here. But living in China can get heavy. The food doesn’t seem to nourish me; the air is hot, humid, and often gritty with dirt, cigarette smoke, and pollution; I have more days with headaches than without; and, I deeply miss wild, natural spaces. Lately, I’ve been suffering from a general malaise where I feel tired all the time and can’t seem to shake a perpetual sore throat. The Consulate nurse told me that my body’s immune system is on overdrive, fighting off real or imagined viruses.
I shouldn’t complain too loudly about being stuck in the urban jungle though, because the weekend before last Amaury and I joined some friends on a junk boat trip in Hong Kong and then went hiking along the Dragon’s Back. Being on the boat out in the bay was so refreshing and recharged our batteries.
On the junk boat
Leaving Hong Kong Harbor
Although the hike threatened to melt us in the hot Hong Kong sun, it was amazing to put the city out of mind and focus on the beautiful natural surroundings. The Dragon’s Back trail takes you along the ridge overlooking the Bay, so has spectacular views. We ended up walking the whole length of the trail and ending our hike in Shek’O Beach for well-deserved seafood by the shore.
View from Dragon’s Back
Amaury left for his work trip to Buenos Aires last Thursday evening and safely arrived there after over 48 hours of travel. Last week seemed to be full of bad travel juju. He missed one of his flights, had to reroute most of his trip, and spent a night in Hong Kong airport. Meanwhile, my friend K who just arrived at post ended up going through five different airports trying to get here after a series of delayed and missed flights. And another friend Y had to rebook her flights to Japan when she and her kids came down with a terrible flu right before their trip. I always say things come in threes, so I’m selfishly hoping that’s the end of travel woes for now and my flights to the UK will be smooth sailing. I probably just jinxed myself!
It’s been so wonderful having our friend and colleague K here. I’m very thankful that she arrived right as Amaury left, because showing her around this weekend was a lovely distraction from worrying about his travels and missing him. I’m not quite used to being apart yet, but as we’re both very independent people, I think the time to ourselves will be good for us. It’s nice to have some individual adventures. I find myself taking the long way round on my walks around town and enjoying setting my own pace.
As I prepare to leave for the UK, I find myself starting an impromptu and belated summer vacation from Chinese. Both of my classes are coming to an end and will need to be renewed once I get back. I recently hit a wall in my studies, feeling that after all this time, I know absolutely nothing. Then I realize that this probably means I’m finally getting somewhere with this puzzling, challenging language. Walking through the park today, I realized I could read longer signs I’d never been able to translate before. I find myself overhearing and understanding snippets of conversation before being lost in a sea of babble again. At YumCha today, I could pick out a few things on the menu and successfully ordered a fruit-infused green tea solely by talking with the helpful server. I’ve been directing cab drivers and engaging people in conversations about how hot and muggy the weather is. Then sometimes I fall into a deep abyss of language nothingness where I can’t understand a thing. Language learning is so affirming and so humbling at the same time. It is often two steps forward one step back, and sometimes one step forward two steps back.
Finally, I made an interesting self-realization this week. I’ve been utterly engrossed in the show The Fall in which Gillian Anderson plays a London detective trying to catch a serial killer. I absolutely love her, she is always amazing in everything I’ve seen her in, so I decided to read up on her a bit. I was so interested to learn that the reason she changes between American and British parts so flawlessly is that she naturally speaks both accents due to her upbringing in both countries. I was further surprised to learn that several sources describe her as being “bidialectal.” I had no idea that was a defined concept. For most of my life, I’ve struggled with my accent/non-accent and my identity of being both British and American and also not fully either. I often feel embarrassed that my voice changes depending on where and with whom I am. Currently, it’s almost completely American, because I’m in an American community, but Amaury will attest that when I talk to my family, it shifts more British with very little conscious thought.
Many friends of mine have described the same phenomenon, such as a friend who is from the South and suddenly finds herself pronouncing things completely differently when she’s around family from there, or my friend who usually has a pretty standard English accent, until she’s home in Scotland. Do you experience the same thing? In my experience, English is generally described as having accents, not dialects, but that’s not really accurate. I recently watched this beautiful video of Shetlandic poet Christine De Luca discussing the Shetland dialect/language. I find language so fascinating. I have to be careful when in conversations about language learning, because I can seriously ramble on for hours about it. Perhaps I should’ve been a linguist.
China is a particularly interesting place for language, because it has so many distinct dialects that often could more appropriately be termed different languages. Mandarin and Cantonese speakers cannot understand one other and migrants from all over China show up in Guangzhou with diverse languages and varying levels of Mandarin ability. It is incredible. The average person in Guangzhou grows up learning at least Cantonese and Mandarin and then usually English. Despite all my years of studying French and other languages, I can never claim to be bi-lingual. It makes me wonder about the future of English speakers. On one hand, we are privileged to speak what is becoming a somewhat universal language. On the other, we have little motivation to learn other tongues and thus, are at a disadvantage. Speaking multiple languages opens up new and powerful pathways in the brain. I’d be so interested to know more about what happens in my brain when I’m in the UK vs. the US; what deep mental shifts are taking place across my synapses? Or is bidialectalism not really a thing? I am enthralled.
With that I will leave you friends. Next time I write, I will be in England and saying tomahto instead of tomaydo.