1 August 2016

Michael Venske - Expat in Zibo, China

Michael Venske - Expat in Zibo, China

Michael Venske is an English teacher living in the Zhangdian district in the city of Zibo, located in the Shandong province in China. Originally from the state of Minneapolis in the U.S., Mr. Venske was offered a teaching job in China in July 2012 by a friend who liked his passion for teaching theatre skills to kids. Mr. Venske declined at first, but accepted the offer due to a fear of saying no to a new opportunity.

Presently, Mr. Venske has been living in the city for two years. He feels that living in China has been an overall positive experience, as the culture and people interest him greatly. “When you live abroad you're exposed to a whole new world! Different customs and food and people – oh, so exciting!” Mr. Venske also admitted that he procrastinated with the paperwork needed for his move to China, such as his passport and other government-issued documents. “With less than a week to go before my departure to China I still hadn't mailed the necessary paperwork to the visa processing center in Chicago. It wasn't that I didn't have it, because I'd had the invitation letter from my Chinese employer and other such documents at the ready for two weeks or so before flying out. I'm just lazy,” Mr. Venske said.

It can be difficult for expats to handle all the paperwork that comes with a move overseas, as work permits and visas can take some time to process. To handle this common problem, it is advisable for expats to contact their nearest embassy for advice and assistance. In addition, expats can consider looking for aid from professional immigration services, which can put them on the right path when it comes to managing important documents that are needed for overseas relocation.

Find out more about Michael Venske’s experiences in China in his full interview below or check his personal blog.

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I am originally from my parents. I was born into their loving arms at 7:04PM in Waconia, Minnesota, USA. During my youth I resided in Watertown, Minnesota, USA. Prior to moving abroad I lived for ten years in Minneapolis, MN, USA.

Q: What made you move out of your home country?

A: Fear of saying no to a new opportunity.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: Currently I live with my partner in the Zhangdian district, Zibo, Shandong, China.

Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: I didn't choose China. China chose me. In July 2012 I was on tour in Washington, D.C., and a friend of mine happened to be teaching at a summer camp in Zibo, China. Familiar with my passion for teaching kids theater skills she reached out to me and asked if I'd be interested in moving to China for a year to teach English. I said no. A few days later the fear of (potential) regret got the better of me and I recanted.

Q: How long have you been living in China?

A: I have been living in China for two years.

Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had when you were new in China?

A: Three weeks elapsed between agreeing to move to China and landing in Beijing. With all the last minute preparations I failed to do any research about where I was going to be living for – at the time – appeared to be one year. In the back of my mind I imaged I'd be living in a village the middle of nowhere. I'd sleep on dirt floors and go without showering for weeks at a time. I would live off rice and tea and enjoy a simple existence.

When I arrived, however, I found a third-tier Chinese city with a population well-over 4 million souls. Not only that, but of the city's five sprawling districts, I would reside in the “downtown” district. Large modern buildings loomed overhead with advertisements displayed on monstrous LCD screens. I knew I was in China, but it reminded me a lot of home.

But it wasn't home. I was new in a foreign country I'd never thought of visiting, let alone living in. I didn't know the language, customs, or have a social support network. Sure, life was novel again, but I couldn't shake the feeling that everything was upside down and backwards. I didn't feel like I belonged. I didn't feel a part of the community.

So I went for a walk. Every day. I strolled around the neighborhood for a few hours taking in the sights, sounds, and yes – even some horrifically memorable smells – of the new community and began to feel like I belonged there. Like I was part of the community.

Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance was particularly difficult in China? What was your experience with these?

A: I'll admit it: I'm a procrastinator, especially when it comes to forms, paperwork, and the mailing government issued documents like my passport.

With less than a week to go before my departure to China I still hadn't mailed the necessary paperwork to the visa processing center in Chicago. It wasn't that I didn't have it, because I'd had the invitation letter from my Chinese employer and other such documents at the ready for two weeks or so before flying out. I'm just lazy.

Or perhaps it was my fearful subconscious hoping I wouldn't get a visa in time and thus unable to move abroad. I'm not sure. Let's just go with lazy procrastinator.

After I finally shipped my documents I received a call the following day from the visa processing center. They wanted to upgrade my service for rush processing due to the short time I had given them. I agreed to the higher service charge, but it still wasn't clear: would I get my passport back in time?

My flight was scheduled for departure on Monday afternoon. The rep at the visa center said my passport would be delivered to my home on Monday afternoon. As I'd already donated my car and put my motorcycle (which aren't the best vehicles for luggage) into storage the plan was to bus it to the airport. A two hour and a half hour bus ride. With three suitcases. The window for error was nonexistent.

I don't know if there's anything worse than waiting. The email I received from the visa processing center on Saturday said my passport was en route to Minnesota with a Chinese work visa. They included a UPS tracking number which helped me follow the passport's 656 kilometer journey from Chicago to Minneapolis. For some reason when the passport finally made it's way to Minnesota on Monday morning it just sat at the UPS distribution warehouse in a northern suburb of Minneapolis. I contemplated stealing a friend's car and just driving there to pick it up.

Instead I'd nervously check on the package using the UPS website and my smart phone. No change in location. No package movement. Next to waiting, sitting on the front stoop chain-smoking cigarettes was all I could do. Waiting is the worse.

A little after 2PM the signature brown box van rounded the corner onto my street: the passport had arrived. I hoofed it from the stoop with my luggage to the bus stop and eventually made the flight with twenty minutes to spare.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: During the latter part of my first year in China I developed a relationship with a woman I'd met at church in America. We exchanged hundreds of emails and chatted via Skype for hundreds of hours. It was during one of those epically long Skype calls where I asked if she'd be interested in coming abroad. To my surprise she agreed. I started my second year living with her in China.

Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialize with other expats in China? How did you manage to find a social circle in China?

A: Initially my social circle consisted of other expats I met at a bar in Zibo. Like most people you meet during a night of drinking, the quality of the friendships isn't always stellar. After a few months I found a group of expats who shared my values and sense of humor. While the bar scene isn't an ideal place to develop lasting relationships it allowed me to feel part of a community and that sense of community is what I was searching for.

Unfortunately it's been difficult to break into Chinese social circles. There's a statistic floating around on the internet that China has the most English speakers in the world. That may be true for “hi, nice to meet you, goodbye,” but certainly not fluent conversational English. I know it's different in cosmopolitan westernized Chinese cities, but the citizens of Zibo who never have to use English don't practice and their confidence drops. Rather than try to engage a native English speaker and potentially embarrass themselves they save “face” and remain silent.

I'm not a fluent Mandarin speaker and that puts us in a sort of “no man's land.” This doesn't change my belief that every stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet. As a teacher I do my best to encourage students – and the people engaging with me on the street – to try, to be patient with themselves, and not worry about making mistakes. Despite language barriers the Chinese are friendly, kind, hospitable, and patient with me when I speak Mandarin.

Some Chinese people want to be your friend solely based on the fact you're a foreigner. Other Chinese people want to use my white face for their marketing campaigns. Employers and acquaintances have invited me to fancy dinners – not because of our friendship or relationship – but to build “face” with their Chinese friends. While I'm a fan of chasing new opportunities and meeting new people, I don't want to be taken advantage of or placed on a pedestal because of my nationality or the color of my skin.

As I'm beginning my third year in China I have a core group of friends, evenly mixed with Chinese nationals and expats. Due to the number of students I have and parents I've developed relationships with I know if I ever needed anything I could contact them for help. It's taken time and removing unhealthy friendships along the way, but now I feel supported and loved in my Chinese community.

Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: As a writer and performer observing people fascinates me. I love finding busy intersections and people watching. There's an amusement park and ropes course east of Zhangdian worth a visit – especially if you've never been to a Chinese amusement park. The city has wonderful restaurants, a handful of malls and movie theaters. There's a roller skating rink and an ice skating rink just opened too! The city got a Starbucks and Pizza Hut last year. This year two – yes, two! – Burger King's opened. There's a few museums in Zibo, which I've never been to, but I hear they exist. You can take walks, participate in a dance class or paddle around the lake all in Zibo's People's Park. If you're looking to find a needle in a haystack, head to YiWu: a genuine labyrinth of shops and vendors guaranteed to tickle your fancy. Or you could just watch the world go by with me at a busy intersection somewhere.

Q: How does the cost of living in China compared to your home?

A: A cup of coffee varies from 12 yuan to 35 yuan. A meal in an inexpensive restaurant is about 4.5 yuan. Then a meal in an expensive restaurant will cost 400 yuan. For a bottle of wine, it varies from 19 yuan to 700 yuan. A pack of cigarettes is about 7 yuan.

Q: How do you find the local culture and people in China?

A: Both the culture and people intrigue me. In school we learned such basic things about China and it's culture. Now that I'm here I feel like I learn something new everyday. I love it!

In over two years I can count on one hand the negative experiences I've had with the Chinese. Bad experiences with locals are few and far between. The Chinese are kind, patient, and friendly.

Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in China?

A: When you live abroad you're exposed to a whole new world! Different customs and food and people – oh, so exciting! Travel in China is relatively cheap compared to America so you can explore a bit more than you'd usually do in the States. It also helps that China's trains go every which way.

Working for Chinese employers, however, can be frustrating. In my experience schedules change last minute and details aren't properly communicated because – it seems – everyone assumes someone else will tell the foreigner the pertinent information. If you're located in a smaller city like I am you'll get a lot of stares. At first it's exciting, then it gets old, and finally you'll learn to ignore the pointing and it will cease to bother you. Occasionally the internet is slow to non-existent, even with the help of a VPN to keep you connected to sites blocked in the mainland.

Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes?

A: Of course!

Q: How do you cope with homesickness?

A: During the first year whiskey helped. For the second year cuddling in bed with my partner, eating imported foods, and watching trashing American reality-TV seemed to do the trick. Currently I'm distracted planning for the return home in ten months and don't get homesick.

Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: At the end of my partner's contract, we'll return to the United States. She will attend school working toward her doctorate in psychology and I will tour the country with two shows I've written about living in China.

Q: What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: Oddly, returning to America. Reverse culture shock is difficult to get around if you plan to be abroad for an extended period of time.

Q: What tips can you give other expats living in China?

A: Be patient, kind, and open. Learn language basics to help you get around and feel comfortable. Befriend locals. See as much of the country as you can. Listen to native music, eat local specialties, and if you don't understand something about the culture do some research or ask the locals. Share your culture with the locals and let them share their culture with you.

Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about China?

A: Sure, here you go:

Shanghaiist - http://shanghaiist.com/

English China News Service - http://www.ecns.cn/

eChinaCities - http://www.echinacities.com/

Middle Kingdom Life – http://middlekingdomlife.com/