I left home to travel on my own for the very first-time in 2011. Back then I was still a student, completing my Master’s degree and I had been awarded an Erasmus scholarship to study abroad in the small town of Nijmegen, NL. I had travelled before on holidays with my parents… in fact, ever since high school we had been doing overseas family vacations at Christmas, but these six months abroad was quite different. There was no family around me to make me vigilant of any dangers, no mum to hold onto our passports and no sister to talk too.
I was spending my first full 6 months abroad and alone.
Learn more about Erasmus Scholarships here.
Even though I was studying, that experience opened me up to a whole new world of travel and independence that I never knew existed.
Fast forward to 2013, I’m 27 years old and I’m ready to leave home again. This time, I had just graduated from University with my Master’s degree. After spending a few months looking for a job in my field, I was starting to get frustrated at all the rejection emails (or just no emails) I was receiving. I was mentally exhausted from a two-year long research project, frustrated from sitting at home and annoyed at the South African job market. I had some money saved from my MSc bursary and my part-time jobs as a research assistance and student tutor. By then my dad had seen how frustrated I was getting at searching for a job so he suggested I look into taking a gap year and teaching abroad in China.
The thought had never crossed my mind.
I started reading up about what teaching abroad was like and it seemed like a fun opportunity. There were ESL jobs being offered all around Asia! It seemed like the only cost to me would be an initial TEFL course and the money I needed to survive until I received my first paycheck. I signed up for a 140-hour course through i-to-i TEFL and within two weeks I had completed the online portion of the course. I had a 20 hour in class session that was scheduled to take place that weekend and before I knew it, the course had been completed and I was ready to start applying for jobs!
The next Monday after my course was done, I spent some time updating my resume and sent out a few job applications on the TEFL job board. I applied for various teaching positions, focusing on the teaching jobs that were aimed at students studying science subjects around various parts of China.
Beijing…. Dongguan… Shanghai…. Chengdu…. Nanjing…
Afterwards I made myself a coffee, ate some breakfast and took a shower. By 11 am I was ready to head out the door to visit my gran and I heard my phone beep. I had received an email response to one of the jobs I had applied to! They wanted to set up an interview via Skype. The rest… as they say… is history! The start to me leaving home and travelling for 2.5 years had just begun and I didn’t even know it!
What was that saying again? What’s meant for you will always find you?
By the end of that month, I was well on my way to spend a year teaching in China. Most of the costs were covered by the company offering me the teaching job – that included my visa, flight tickets and accommodation. I had about $2000 dollars left in my account which I took with me to cover any living costs in that first month before my first pay check (and heaven forbid, any unexpected emergencies).
Now if you’ve known me in the past or if you’ve been one of my regular readers, you will know that China was an unexpected life event that I had never planned for. It was only meant to be a year of travel.
That year turned into 2.5 years of travelling across China.
Moving to Dongguan – part 1 of travelling for 2.5 years
The job was easy. The kids were great and during my teacher orientation I made some new friends who were eventually placed in the outskirts of Dongguan.
In that first year, I travelled more than I ever did in my life. We were off every weekend, for all the Chinese National Holidays and every single school holiday. What that translated to was more time to travel!
In that time, we did a trip up North to Beijing, numerous trips to Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
In fact, in that year of traveling and living abroad, I managed to save around $5000 USD. I only worked for 9 months out of the year and earned a fairly average salary in relation to the other teaching jobs I had seen advertised. I knew I wanted to save and I did my best to be vigilant about the money I was spending, but I wasn’t strict about it.
We ate out almost every day only because eating out in China was so cheap (and delicious!). We went out to bars every Friday and travelled almost every weekend.
We still shopped for groceries. I spent money on so many cute things I wanted and clothes whenever I could find my size. I wasn’t extravagant though and didn’t spend money on things I didn’t need. I even bought art supplies and started sketching again.
Moving to Beijing – part 2 of travelling for 2.5 years
I had planned to come home after that first year of travelling and living in China – but I didn’t. Instead, I moved to Beijing with one of my friends from Dongguan and spent another year and half living and teaching up north for Disney English. There was something that had changed in me – it was like I had this new found zest for life and I was just so… happy.
My life in Beijing was so much more different to my first year in China. Beijing is more westernized with so many more people speaking English. Afterall, it is the capital city and cultural hub of China.
Joining Disney English meant a higher salary and more benefits. My friend and I decided to share an apartment and looked for a bigger one outside of the city centre. We found an amazing two-bedroom apartment in an estate across a theme park with a view to die for. We did have to pay rent this time. Western apartments in China are a little more expensive to rent but having a roommate meant an even bigger apartment at a lower individual cost that if we had rented separate apartments. Our rent was around RMB7000 per month which meant an individual cost of RMB 3500. That’s a lot lower than some of my friends who had found a small one-bedroom apartment closer to the city centre.
Our basic salary was just over $ 2000 a month and that’s without all the added benefits of health care, pension and a monthly travel allowance. If I add that up, our total package was much higher.
Life was lavish.
Our living costs in China were so low that it meant we could save money, travel further than we had anticipated and spend on anything we wanted.
Somewhere in there we flew business class and spent a week in Japan, explored the history of the terra cotta warriors and the silk road in Xian. We went to the grand pre-opening of Shanghai Disneyland and climbed the Simatai section of the Great Wall hidden in the Gubei Water Town.
I had also saved more money than I had ever done in my life.
It was the most amazing, eye opening and life changing two and half years of my life. I returned to South Africa in 2016 and boy, I did a lot of talking about the experiences I had, the places I’d seen, the food I’d tasted and the people I’d met. This blog is a testament to that where I continue to share my experiences in the hopes of inspiring others to take that leap too.
Now, I live in South Africa and I’ve since moved away from teaching English. I re-joined the science field, branched into healthcare and somewhere along the way I wrote a few academic books. I continue to travel and have as many adventures as my work schedule will allow, but no matter what I do, I still go back to those two and half years spent wandering in China. It seems my lifepath had taken an unexpected detour and it was for the better, teaching me things about the world that I never would have seen if I had just stayed home and found a job after graduation.
I’m a different person for it and for the better. I knew after those two and half years, I’d never be the same again.