expat life

Ten things you need to know before moving to China

China isn’t the easiest expat posting but my time in Beijing embodied everything I love about living and working in another country: namely new experiences and the challenge of trying to comprehend them. If you are planning on taking the plunge and moving to the Middle Kingdom here are 10 things to think about before you go:


Ways in which living abroad changes you

If adventures won’t befall a young woman in her own village, she must seek them abroad.” So wrote Jane Austen in her novel Northanger Abbey.

Growing up in Watford - a town Lonely Planet once labelled as “the kind of place that makes you want to travel” - Jane Austen’s words resonated with me. 

There’s nothing really wrong with Watford per se but I couldn’t help thinking: there has be more to life than this corner of Hertfordshire?

So at 18, after finishing school, I escaped Down Under on a gap year. I followed this up by spending my university summers working as an au pair in Switzerland. 

At 25 I made my way to the Middle East where I lived and worked with Emiratis for three years, before swapping Arabia for the Caribbean. China came calling after the Cayman Islands, followed by Argentina and Hawaii.

Fast forward to 2017 and I’m finally back ‘home’ in London, by all accounts one of the greatest cities in the world.

Don’t get me wrong - I do love London’s bright lights, black cabs, cultural wealth and amazing restaurants and get where Sir Samuel Johnson was coming from when he famously remarked: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

But my experiences and adventures abroad have shown me that life outside of London is just as valid, as life in London. 

Here’s how living abroad changes you…

Always trust your gut instinct
“I really wish you’d reconsider your decision,” my friend Henry said. “I hear it’s dangerous down there.”
The decision he was referring to was the one I had, circa January 2015, to move to Argentina. Henry wasn’t the only one with concerns. Plenty of friends thought I was bonkers - why would I want to leave Britain? What was I thinking?
I was thinking a lot of things… In Britain it felt like it was impossible to achieve a work-life balance and as though everyone I knew was struggling with anxiety or depression. Maybe, just maybe, the happy go lucky South America lifestyle would be the answer? It was. The time I spent living and working in Argentina - where they treat strangers like Brits treat lovers and always have time to stop for a Cafe cortado or glass of Malbec with friends - was one of the happiest I have known


You become a stranger in your homeland
American author, Thomas Wolfe, once wrote: “I have a thing to tell you. That is you can’t go home again.”
Wolfe was wrong. You can, of course, go home but it will never be the same again. While you’ve been having adventures the other side of the world, friends and family back home have got married, moved house… In short, they’ve moved on, and all you can do is watch from the sidelines.
Admittedly you’ll never lose good friends and your family will always be family, but the emails and phone calls will lessen and you won’t be as readily included in social gatherings as you once were.
To them you’re not normal for shying away from settling down while, for you, normal is now nothing more than a setting on a washing machine.


Minimalism rules
Moving abroad makes you realise that “things” don’t equal happiness. In fact, you’ve learnt that more stuff simply equals more stress and you’ll start to favour a minimalist approach to life - and pride yourself on your ability to fit your home into a backpack.
What you thought was ‘home’ doesn’t exist anymore. You’ve learnt that home is not a place or a postcode. It is not made of bricks and mortar and never has been. Home is inside your head and your heart.


Freelance work is no longer to feared
The likelihood is you won’t be able to hold a steady, regular job on your return. Or, if you do, you’re daydreaming about jacking it in. You resent being stuck in a sterile office slaving away for someone else. You have your own dream and you’re working towards it but, for now, chances are you’re a freelancer earning a living from writing, teaching, film extra work, photography, leading walking tours…. anything to avoid working like a robot in a cubicle all day.


You’ll have more friends abroad than at home
You’ll find that the friendships that truly matter to you tend to be long and far apart. They may have been formed at airports or in bars abroad - basically outside of your comfort zone - but they are the ones that now mean the most.
These are friendships with people you’ll only get to see every couple of years rather than week in and week out, but they are the ones that will last forever.
Foreign friendships are for the open minded who are thirsty for new adventures and know that the best relationships are forged across borders, not in them.

Dating is difficult
Dating won’t be a walk in the park. The usual dinner and movie date won’t impress you after impromptu asados in Argentina and secret supper clubs in Beijing.
Neither will his/her new car or watch - you’ve chosen a life full of experiences as opposed to possessions.
And when it comes to holidays with your other half? Well you’re too independent and won’t care whether your partner travels with you or not. Lets face facts: you’ll be too busy talking to stranger and making friends with like minded people from around the world.

You learn to live without people
Living abroad thousands of miles away and in different time zones from your family and home town friends, you’ve come to the conclusion that presence is not a requirement for company.
You’ve also discovered that no matter how much you once depended on someone - maybe it was your Mum, your best mate or your boyfriend - you can live without them. You know how to not only survive but thrive in a foreign county. You are enough.


Routine becomes a word to be dreaded
Uncertainty and starting anew no longer terrifies you, conversely it thrills you. In the aftermath of your adventures overseas, you’ve become addicted to new places, people and challenges and afraid of regularity which, for you, is now synonymous with dullness.
Or as the acclaimed author, Paulo Coelho, put it in his novel Manuscript Found in Accra: “To those who believe that adventures are dangerous, I say: try routine. That kills you far more quickly.”

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland


Notes from a traveller: part 13

Kaye’s adventures in North and South America are over – for now. Read the final instalment of her ‘Notes from a traveller’ series, only on Just About Travel

Continued from last time

I’ve landed back in London – albeit, dear reader –  a little reluctantly. I left the UK in state of nervousness and excitement about entering the unknown. But returning to the capital – where it’s cold (even in August), grey and familiar– has proved to be the hardest part of the whole experience.

The last five months have been fantastic only now – as with any great party – the hangover has taken hold. I was aware that I wouldn’t fall in love again with London immediately and two tube strikes in as many months, plus engineering works every weekend on the much maligned Metropolitan line certainly haven’t helped matters.

But it’s more than this. Tube troubles aside, life in London – after my colourful experiences and adventures overseas – feels monotonous. It’s only been a month but already I am feeling stuck –  a small cog in a big machine – and can’t help but question: surely reality shouldn’t bite quite so hard?

Catching up with friends in Cahoots

Nothing appears to have changed: the Daily Mail still bangs on about immigration, the foul fly-tipping outside my flat hasn’t stopped (despite repeated cries to the council for help),  the cost of living continues to be crazy and it remains incumbent upon me to organise every single social activity for friends and family (whereas overseas my expat friends and I took it in turns). Outwardly I might be smiling but inside I am screaming: London show me a little love!

And yet, while on first glance everything seems the same, the reality is that life at home has moved on without me. I’ve had adventures – new sights, sounds and smells – but I’ve missed out on seeing friends and family marry, move house, become parents, get promoted….

But arguably what’s changed most… is me. I used to get my strength from London. Once upon a time, an afternoon spent wandering around the capital – with its brilliant bars, restaurants, parks, carnivals, museums, theatres and art galleries –  energised me. I spent my first weekend back in town revisiting old haunts but alas – far from feeling alive and thrilled, I just felt jaded.


It’s dawned on me that while I do love multicultural London – nowhere else in the UK even comes closes –  I am no longer in love with the capital. My time abroad has shown me that that life outside of London is just as valid, as life in London.

Bottom line? The logical and personal conclusion of everything I have seen and experienced in recent months is this:  London is simply better from a distance.  Or in the words of the late Chinese writer Lin Yutang: “No one realises how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.”

High Society at the Old Vic

I know now that I was born a wanderer – I feel caged when confined with the same people and surroundings. I don’t know where I will be when my life ends but it won’t be in my hometown of Harrow.

This recent epiphany is one of the things I love most about exploring: on every trip I learn something new about myself and it’s this that makes travel so personal and exciting.


The American Bar at The Savoy

All of which means that I am beginning to think very seriously about taking a leap of faith and relocating to either Buenos Aires – the heart and turbulent soul of a great country – or Honolulu (my happy place).

Is this normal behaviour? No. Normal, as the American journalist Ellen Goodman, put it “is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it”.

But then again normal has never held much appeal for me. Or as JR Tolkien termed it: “Not everyone who wanders is lost”…


Kaye loves London but she is no longer in love with London

Working remotely overseas is hard work, but immensely rewarding. Here’s five things I learnt…

Travel light
Locals have to buy clothes as well you know and they’ll be more climate/culture appropriate and cheaper too. Lugging a heavy backpack on and off buses, trains and planes isn’t fun. It’s better to own little and see the world, than own the world and see little of it.

Drink bottled or boiled water
And plenty of it. I got a little too gung-ho in Colombia, inadvertently drank contaminated water and contracted giardia, a parasite that subsequently saw me suffer from sickness, severe abdominal pains, diarrhoea and dehydration. Grrrr!

Go with your gut feeling
Trust your instincts. If the taxi driver seems shady, he might be. If the bus driver seems drunk, he probably is. If the Airbnb owner strikes you as being untrustworthy, find an alternative – even if it’s more expensive. Speaking of which if a deal appears too good to be true, chances are it is.

Treat your hosts and yourself
There will be days when you feel a long way from home and a little treat can make a big difference. If dorm rooms are becoming a drag, a night in a private room can restore your sanity. Body battered and bruised from too many overnight bus journeys? A massage works wonders!

Reverse culture shock
Be prepared for this. Coming back home to the drab, grey and familiar was the hardest part of my whole ‘working remotely’ experience. Have some funds set aside while your abroad (and resist from touching them) to smooth your way.


London, it’s over

To read part one of Kaye’s ‘Notes from a traveller’ series, please click here

To read part two click here and here

To read part three, click here

To read part four, click here

To read part five, click here and here

To read part six, click here and here

To read part seven, click here and here

To read part eight, click here

To read part nine, click here and here

To read part 10, click here

To read part 11, click here

To read part 12, click here

Travel tales

I was born and bred in Watford, a town labelled by Lonely Planet as “the kind of place that makes you want to travel.”They weren’t wrong. I spent five years living and working abroad before returning to motherland in the run up to the 2012 London Olympic Games. Here's a snapshot of the destinations that I have called home..

As recently as two decades ago few Brits had heard of, yet alone been to, Dubai. Now the emirate is a permanent fixture on the winter sun scene thanks to its promise of guaranteed rays, without the need to fly halfway around the globe.

But while it is a challenge to do so, prize yourself up off your sun lounger so as to see glimpses of ‘traditional’ Dubai. People, perhaps understandably given the emirate’s penchant for publicising its outlandish projects, have the wrong idea about Dubai – believing it to be all about  malls and modernity. On the other hand, these popular misconceptions only go to show that there is an awful lot to discover about Dubai beyond what you know from the glossy brochures.

Scratch beneath the shiny surface and you’ll find another side to the ‘city of gold’. Alongside the skyscrapers like the Burj Al Arab (the self proclaimed seven star hotel, shaped like the sail of a dhow) and the Emirates Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road, sit historical sites such as Bastakiaand the creek – arguably the heart beat of Dubai.

Here you can watch abras and dhows weave their way across the water, as they have done for centuries. For further local flavour, factor in a tour of Jumeirah Mosque before sauntering through the bustling souks.

For more glimpses of the ‘real Dubai’, explore ethnic residential districts such as Satwa and colourful Karama where you’ll get to mingle with the melting pot of cultures – there’s an incredible influx of expats from all over the world – that make up modern day Dubai.

Cayman Islands
Like most things that are worthwhile, reaching Grand Cayman can be hard work (there are no direct flights from the UK) but the pay-off is pure heaven. For while the island’s association with offshore banking and the rich and famous means that Grand Cayman is often thought of as an over the top sort of place, it isn’t like that all.

Rather it’s a small island (despite its name Grand Cayman is just four miles by 22 miles and home to a mere 45,000 people ) whose pristine powder fine beaches and balmy waters offer a welcome charm for travellers tired of city life.

Any tour of the island is bound to include a visit to Seven Mile Beach – a five and a half mile (don’t ask) stretch of sand that glints in the sunshine with the sparkle of a newly wed’s solitaire and is pictured on every postcard. Nonetheless for all its fame, Seven Mile Beach remains remarkably unspoiled (the government does a good job of keeping the temptations of development in check and no hotel is allowed to be built higher than the tallest palm tree).

A boat trip to Stingray City Sandbar, a sandy shallow spot where you can meet the Cayman Islands’ most famous residents – southern stingrays – is another must. On any brilliant day, you’ll find hundreds of black, velvety stingrays doing what they have done for eons: feeding and frollicking in the waves.

All told, Cayman is one of Caribbean’s top treats and a great place to call home whether for a week’s vacation or a whole lot longer…

Few cities exude such a tangible sense of up to the minute cachet and cool and everyone from your dentist to your best friend and their old flame, has a trip booked to Beijing. And rightly so. While the rest of the world has been feeling the chill of the economic recession, Beijing – capital of the country that everyone is talking about – has come out relatively unscathed. Sure Shanghai (the more foreigner friendly city) may dominate the headlines but if you want to see the real China, you come to Beijing. The Imperial capital is significantly richer in local colour than its southern sibling: Beijing’s bustling streets are alive with rickety tuk tuks and vibrant smells of food stalls and English is most definitely a foreign language.

Beijing is also a historical treat and archaeology buffs will be astounded by the thousands of years of history at their feet from the ancient sites of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. Yet while it’s steeped in history, Beijing is striving forward and cutting edge architecture abounds signalling Beijing’s intent to become a world city. Check out the CCTV building and the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium for starters.

Of course China’s capital has its problems – corruption and pollution prevail, while historic hutongs are being destroyed forcing families out of homes they have lived in for generations. Nonetheless there is a real reason for optimism and to overlook Beijing is to miss out on the big travel destination – China – and its most dazzling city.

And last but by no means least: London! The UK capital has everything you could want in terms of activity and accessibility. Brilliant bars and restaurants catering to every palette and pocket? Check. World class carnivals, museums, theatres and art galleries? Check.  Gorgeous gardens and parks? Check - 30 per cent of the capital is given over to green space. Sure London can be eye wateringly expensive but I figure - usually after visiting my relatives in other cheap but not especially cheerful parts of the UK - for good reason.

I adore seeing the old and the new side by side: the London Eye towering over the Thames, the tatty fabric shops in Broadwick Street market nestling between Soho’s multi million dollar film companies. I love waking up in the mornings and knowing that the rest of the city is waking up too. The hustle and bustle… the healthy cosmopolitan (37 per cent of the population were born outside the UK and over 300 languages are spoken) mix. To see the streetlights! To hear the taxis! The sheer, unadulterated energy of it all!

Or in the words of Samuel Johnson: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Read more of Kaye’s work at www.kayeholland.com

Top tips for first time expats

It’s that wet, miserable time of year when thoughts turn to paradise - and plans for 2014. Thinking about a fresh start - perhaps somewhere sunny? Former expat, Kaye Holland, has some advice to help you realise those overseas ambitions

Every year, thousands of people quit their jobs, pack their bags and move abroad after becoming disillusioned with UK life. I should know: eight years ago I was one of them. The start of 2006 saw me suffering from a severe case of the January blues. Cold, tired and broke, I began to dream about living in a place where the sky wasn’t permanently the colour of porridge and subsequently made my way to the Middle East – with its promise of year round sunshine. Stepping on the plane I believed that, after a fun filled year in the sun, I’d be back in London. Little did I know then, that five years would pass - via stints in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the Cayman Islands and Beijing - before I would ‘properly’ return home. For me, moving abroad was a life enhancing experience but before you uproot, here are a few things you need to know...

Do your research
Find out all you can about the country you intend to relocate to. For example it’s well known that it’s a punishable offence to drink, or to be under the influence of alcohol, in public in the UAE. However not everyone knows that the UAE and its Khaleeji brothers - take a bow Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia – deem homosexual acts unlawful. (It’s illegal to be gay in 78 countries - the aforementioned included -  with lesbianism banned in 49). Meanwhile even seemingly innocuous films such as the Adam Sandler vehicle I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry were banned by censors while I was living in the UAE. My message? It’s not great - something a couple of my former Time Out Dubai colleagues can attest to - for gays living in the Middle East. Do your homework before you travel.

Visit first
If you can afford to do so, visit the destination you have decided on first to get a feel for it before you jack everything in the UK. I took a step in the dark in relocating solo first to the UAE and then to the Cayman Islands -  having never previously stepped foot in either country. I was a little more familiar with my third posting - Beijing - having backpacked around China in my early twenties, but far from clued up. Time and funds permitting, my advice would be to do a test run before committing to moving to check that the location is a good fit for you - and your family. During my time as an expat I met many people who realised soon after landing that the UAE (too blingy), Cayman (too quiet) and China (too alien) wasn’t for them after all and consequently caught the earliest flight back to Blighty. A costly mistake to make...

The grass isn’t always greener
The days of lucrative expat contracts are - sadly - long gone. Once upon a time companies offered annual return flights home, all expenses paid accommodation and often covered expats’ shipping costs and childrens' school fees. Not so in the noughties - or at least for anyone wanting to work abroad in the media. I had to find and finance my flight to both Cayman and China, and likewise was on my own when it came to accommodation. Salaries too aren’t all that impressive. A deputy editor in Dubai and Cayman can earn around £2,400 tax free in 2014 which is substantially more than a similar position pays in the UK but not wonderful when you consider that, save for petrol, everyday goods are more expensive: 90 per cent of food in the UAE and Cayman is imported, meaning that even a jar of marmite can be pricey. In China I was on just under £1,000 a month, as an editor. I was able to get by on this in Beijing but had to forgo flying home (one return economy flight to London can cost upwards of £900) for family and friends’ weddings. So why go? For the chance of living and working - especially when job opportunities are thin on the ground in the UK - in another country, the challenge of trying to comprehend it, better weather and the opportunity to mix with people from all over the planet. In my mind, that's something you can't put a price on.

Be bank savvy
Before you up sticks, pay off any outstanding debts - credit cards, loans and the like - as you’ll need a letter of reference from your UK bank in order to be able to open an account abroad (and thus be paid). Furthermore make sure you have some savings. In the UAE and China, I had to pay six months accommodation up front. In Cayman this wasn’t the case but l still to cover the first month’s rent and deposit, electricity and water bills plus car hire and other extras such as setting up a local phone contract, all before the first pay cheque arrived. Additionally anyone emigrating also needs to be prepared to pay for health care. We Brits may whinge about the NHS but at least it is free - unlike the system in say America which leaves millions of people unable to afford basic healthcare. Check what healthcare services are available and how much you will need to pay. Lastly you’ll need money for socialising - especially in your first month. It’s important to integrate yourself with both locals and expats alike from the get go, so as to avoid suffering from loneliness. If you’re relocating en famille, you have an advantage in this area as you’ll meet others without even trying through the school run and so on. If you’re going solo, as I did, you’ll need to make more of an effort. Try Internations which connects expats in more than 390 cities, across all countries of the world. I went to several Internations events on arrival in Beijing and met like minded people, many - hello Em, Geraldine, Amanda , Anna and Fernando! - of whom have become firm friends for life. In Cayman, I joined the local amateur dramatics group and in Dubai I signed up for a PADI diving course. My passion for deep sea diving didn’t last but happily the friendships I forged on the course, did.

Learn the lingo
I’d recommend learning the local language. It’s not always necessary - particularly in the UAE where English is the lingua franca -  but will help integrate you into the community. In China, mastering at least some Mandarin is a must if you want to be able to eat and explore with ease. Don’t worry about pronunciation if - like me - you’re not a natural linguist. Too many of us panic about pronunciation and fear that we will look like a fool. But, in my experience, most locals will be impressed that you’re making the effort to learn their language - always remember that you are a guest in someone else’s country -and forgive you for any pronunciation mishaps. The most important thing is just to get the basics down pat.

Be adaptable
It was while living in Beijing that I discovered the benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which, in my mind, is one of China’s biggest gifts to the world -  right up there with the noodle. Throughout my 20s, I struggled with severe IBS and ‘coped’ by popping painkillers to alleviate my symptoms. Unable to afford the crazy prices that western hospitals were charging for medication in Beijing, I decided to see a TCM doctor. Ihad my tongue and pulse points checked and was advised to avoid over processed western food, and follow an oriental diet. For while Chinese food has a bad reputation in the UK, conjuring up images of deep fried, fatty dishes such as sweet and sour pork and prawn crackers, real Chinese cuisine is super healthy: the majority of the meal is made up of stir fried vegetables and washed down with green tea.  One week after my first TCM session, my swelling had subsided and happily I haven’t had any stomach problems since. All of which has helped me realise that the most effective cure for complaints isn’t always to be found on the shelves of the pharmacy, but within ourselves. I now actively seek out TCM, as opposed to pumping myself full of pricey pills and chemicals. On another note, prior to arriving in Beijing I’d never been to a karaoke bar but in China, karaoke - aka KTV - quickly became a way of life and a wonderful way to relax and unwind after work with colleagues. When in Rome... Be flexible and make the most of your expat experience.

Prepare yourself for going home
Returning home can - in many cases - be tougher than moving abroad in the first place. As an expat I expected to feel like an alien overseas, but I didn’t expect to feel like one in my home country. While away, I looked back at life in Britain through rose tinted glasses and romanticised how wonderful it would be to return to the comforts of home. However after the initial honeymoon period, the creature comforts –  clothes that fit, familiar food, faces and surroundings – quickly became monotonous. Don’t expect repatriation to be a breeze and give time, time. It took me at least 12 months to truly readjust to life in London and even now, two years down the line, I still have days when I dream of living abroad again. Be prepared for 'reverse culture shock'.