Michelle Chu on life and love in China

Travel | by James Weir
Posted: December 28th, 2011 | Updated: December 29th, 2011 | Comments

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Forbidden City, Beijing Keeping pace with the changing scenery of the Chinese blogosphere is no joke; here at the China Travel Blog, we do everything we can to keep our finger on the pulse, our boots on the pavement, and our slippers on the sidewalk, so that whenever a new face comes our way, we're ready to pick their brains about their time in China. Enter Michelle Chu, and her blog VPN or proxy in China to get around the Great Firewall). Michelle posts regularly on life in Beijing, cross-cultural relationship and practical advice for foreigners living in China. >>> Michelle first arrived in China to pursue a career in hospitality, but has since switched to digital media marketing. When we began our correspondence, she referred a few times to her boyfriend—the muse for her discussions on cross-cultural relationships (among other things, I imagine)—and I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate the two of them on their recent engagement. I've never had such a good reason to go back and edit a story. Read on after the jump to hear Michelle's thoughts on life, love and living in the People's Republic. Chinatravel.net: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be in China.

Michelle Chu: I grew up in California, and had only been to China once when I traveled to Hong Kong at age 11. My dad has worked in China for almost 20 years, and since I was in high school, he's been pushing me to come to study or work. Naturally, that made me even more opposed to coming. After I graduated from college, I was exploring hospitality as a career, and my dad happened to have contacts in two 5-star hotels in Beijing. Putting my pride aside (and my fear of squatty potties), I decided to give China a chance. Looking back, I'm really glad that I came. Especially during this period of time, it's amazing to see firsthand and experience China's rapid growth. I would definitely say my understanding of China has shifted. One of the things I hope to bring back to my friends in the US is a realization of how modern this country has become. In Beijing, we have everything from Coldstone's to sit-down Pizza Hut restaurants to Alexander McQueen!

China bloggers

CT.net: Did you write a blog back home or was it something you started here? How has blogging broadened your experience in China?

Michelle: I've been blogging since I was in middle school, but they were more like "Dear Journal, this is what I did today" type entries. Or emo blog posts about unrequited crushes. I would say that my blog now is definitely more intentional. It helps me to keep track of my experiences here, as well as share them with friends, family, and anyone who happens upon my blog through random Google searches. Some of my posts are more practical, such as giving advice on how to get a Z visa based on my personal experience. Some are based on my observations of Chinese people and their culture. I'm extremely interested in sociology across cultures, and I've found China's society to be particularly intriguing. Blogging has also broadened my experience by giving me a community online. I've even met with two of my fellow bloggers, Jocelyn Eikenburg and Melanie Gao, for dinner once.

CT.net: Have you had the chance to travel very much in China? What has been your favorite vacation thus far? And your worst?

Michelle: My first year here, I traveled extensively, mostly around the southern part of China. I would say that my favorite vacation thus far was when I spent last year's Spring Festival with my fiance's family in his hometown in Henan Province. Though it wasn't the most convenient vacation (going to the bathroom in the middle of the night entailed putting on layers of clothes, grabbing a flashlight, going outside, and making sure I didn't fall into the pee bucket), it was definitely the most eye-opening, because I was experiencing village life firsthand. The food was amazing. My fiance's parents grow and sell their own vegetables, so we had fresh cabbage, leeks, and fresh eggs from their chickens every day. We also had fresh chicken… but I'd rather not talk about that. I did miss the hustle and bustle of city life, but it was nice to take a break and just sit and do nothing. We spent a lot of time just chatting on their front porch. Oh and eating sugarcane! We ate lots and lots of sugarcane.

My worst vacation was not really a vacation but a Henan back to Beijing, and the next day I took an almost 14-hour bus ride to Erlianhoate (Èrliánhàotè, 二连浩特) Mongolia to get a tiny stamp that would allow me to stay in China another three months. Seriously, so mafan (mǎfàn, 马畈). It was cold, tiring, AND they cancelled the bus back to Beijing the next day because of some snow on the ground, so I ended up having to stay overnight in the motel adjacent to the bus station. The one thing I found amusing was that as the bus entered Erlian, there were what seemed to be scenes from Jurassic Park with fake dinosaurs attacking each other or eating the nonexistent grass. That was kind of weird.

rural Henan CT.net: As a Chinese-American now living in Mainland China, in what ways were your expectations correct/incorrect in terms of life here? What role has blogging played in adapting to this new environment, an environment that is linked to your heritage but still completely foreign to you (or not so foreign, if that is the case)? Michelle: To be honest, I didn't come with many expectations. In terms of being a Chinese-American in Mainland China, I definitely feel more American than Chinese because my thinking and culture is so different than the locals. It's funny though. When I first came, people would ask me "So when did you come back to China?" It confused me, because I'd never been to Mainland China before. But then I realized that because my ethnicity is Chinese, even though I was born in the States, they assume I'm coming back to the "motherland." It has, however, given me a better sense of who my Chinese self is. I'm looking forward to taking a trip to my hometown of Taishan (Táishān, 台 山) in Guangdong Province, where many of my relatives, including my parents, were born. [pullquote]Blogging is a cathartic release, and an outlet for me to organize my thoughts and feelings about being in this somewhat foreign environment.[/pullquote]Blogging is a cathartic release, and an outlet for me to organize my thoughts and feelings about being in this somewhat foreign environment. I think the least foreign part about living in China to me is the food. I'm Cantonese-American, and Cantonese people eat everything. Even growing up, one of my favorite foods was chicken feet (don't knock it till you've tried it!). Being able to not just blog, but also connect with other China bloggers, helps me to realize that I'm not alone in the things I go through, like the pain of getting a visa, the swarming subways and the smog that's cutting a year off my life with each breath I take.
Yangshuo China travel information Chinatravel.net: Where else do you hope to visit in China that hasn't yet made it onto your itinerary?
Michelle: Yunnan, for sure. I want to go somewhere with more minorities. I also want to visit Hangzhou, Xi'an, Tianjin (it's so close to Beijing but I've never been), and of course my hometown in Guangdong Province. Before I leave China, I also want to spend a month at the Shaolin Temple. I'm probably one of the most undisciplined people ever, so that would definitely be an enlightening experience.
Chinatravel.net: What do you miss most about America? If you were to leave China, what would you miss about your life here?
Michelle: I miss In-N-Out. And Hot Cheetos. And Jamba Juice. And also my friends and family. It's like my friends are living their own lives that I'm not a part of, and I'm living my own. I guess that's what happens when you grow up, whether or not you're in the same country. If I were to leave China, I'd definitely miss my Chinese friends. Two of my closest friends are Chinese, and they've known me since I first came and couldn't speak any Chinese at all. It's harder for them to come visit me in the US, so I know that I'll only be able to see them if I come back to visit (which I will for sure!). I will also miss cheap manicures and massages. I never get them in the US because they're too expensive, but I've made a habit of pampering myself during my time in China. It's also nice living in a city with great public transportation, if you don't count the excruciating traffic jams. I can go anywhere I want in Beijing by subway for only RMB 2! Thanks so much for sharing with us, Michelle! Keep up the great work, and we'll be keeping a close eye on My Beijing Survival Diary in the future!
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