China Expat Life: Steven LePoidevin, Wuhan, Hubei
The Expat: Steven LePoidevin
What is your blog url?
Where are you currently living?
My wife and I have been living in Wuhan, Hubei, China for the last four years. (Update 2013: After six years in China, Steve moved to Thailand. Read his story here.)
What’s Your Story?
I am originally from Quebec, Canada but lived in British Columbia for twenty years before moving to China. My wife and I met online almost eight years ago, took a motorcycle trip across Canada together a few months later (then another 40,000 km of motorcycle touring over the next few years) and got married in 2007. We haven’t looked back and life is great!
I have two sons from my previous marriage who are both also living in Asia, one in China and the other in South Korea.
I worked and lived in Scotland for one year in the late 90s, where my younger son began his obsession with music when he learned to play the agpipes and both kids learned that there was a whole world to explore outside of Canada.
When and where did you get the idea of living in China?
I never had any intention to move to China. In fact, it was probably one of the last places I would have dreamed of living. But fate has a way of deciding where we will end up.
Five years ago, in the middle of a cold BC winter, I did decide to apply for an international teaching job for the following school year just for a change of pace and to experience another culture. Two weeks before the big international school conference/job fair I had planned to attend, I received a phone call asking if I would like to teach in China. The representative had seen my resume online and they were looking for a Secondary Science teacher for the second half of the school year at a new international school in China.
We thought about it for about five seconds and said yes. So at the end of January, over a two week period, we sold everything we owned in Canada and packed our bags. Within three weeks of getting the phone call, we had moved to China!
I am currently a math teacher and department head at the school. We have grown from 12 teachers and 125 students the year I arrived to almost 1300 students and 200 teachers. The public school across the street has 4000 students.
I have a working visa and am a resident of the country for one year at a time. The resident and work visa needs to be renewed each year.
How’s your Mandarin Chinese?
How well did I speak before arriving? I didn’t even know how to say “hello” in Mandarin. We read “Chinese for Dummies” as we traveled here but it wasn’t written for people as dumb as us. And there was no way we would ever remember half the stuff in the book even if we could have learned it. After four years in China, I am finally using it as a reference.
Wuhan is not a tourist town. This is the real China and once we step out the door, very few people speak any English. We have learned enough to get around in taxis without little direction cards, shop, order food, and basically survive. I have a long ways to go before I will be having any deep conversations with anyone. It would be nice to speak fluently but I have not put the time and energy into learning the language that I should have. The longer I live here,the more I understand and pick up, and the easier it is to learn new things. The language is finally beginning to make sense. I suppose if I was planning to live here for the rest of my life, I would put more effort into it.
And as far as the characters are concerned, that really takes a lot of time and energy. There are 40,000 different ones and the average person knows 3,000. Talk about memorizing!
What do you do?
As I mentioned above, I teach Grade 11 and 12 Mathematics and I am also the Math Department Head at an international school. We teach the British Columbia curriculum and our students take the same courses and exams as those in Canada. Concurrently, they also complete their Chinese graduation certificate requirements. Although, it is called an international school, the vast majority of our students are Chinese and most are local.
How do you find the cost of living in China?
The cost of living here is ridiculously inexpensive. Because I am receiving a fairly good Canadian teaching salary in Canadian dollars, we are very wealthy compared to the average local resident. My salary is six or seven times that of a Chinese teacher. The average white collar worker in Wuhan makes about 2000 – 3000 RMB per month. That equates to about $300-500 Canadian per month. With that salary, they can pay rent, go out to eat, shop, and generally live a fairly decent lifestyle. That puts it in perspective.
Last night, a group of us went out to eat at a local restaurant. We ordered seven different dishes and had lots of beer. There was more than enough food for everyone present. Our final cost per person….20RMB, about 3 dollars! And that is pretty average for a really good meal at a small restaurant and drinks. A high-end local restaurant will set you back two or three times that but still really cheap.
We are spoiled brats and recently moved into a beautiful, new condo in a modern complex. We have three bedrooms, two large balconies, two bathrooms (with a jacuzzi). All the rented apartments and condos here are furnished and ours is not exception. It came with everything, including two large screen flat TVs. We pay about $600 per month rent.
Most of our friends are paying less than $350 per month for two bedroom places And our complex would be considered way too expensive for the average local resident. Most of the Chinese living here are fairly wealthy by local standards.
You can pretty much divide the price of anything by six to get its cost in Canadian dollars. Cigarettes can be purchased for as little as 2RMB but 10RMB is probably the average. Food, clothing and day to day expenses are incredibly cheap. The only items that are comparable in price to North America would be technology related. Computers, cell-phones, etc are about the same.
There is no English television but we purchase English pirated movies and TV series at the local malls for 10 RMB apiece (less than two bucks). Some of these are available before they hit the movie theaters!
What do you love about expat life in China?
China is one country where you know immediately you are in a foreign land. Nothing is similar to my hometown. The apartment complex we live in has a larger population than the town I left in Canada (pop.4,000). Wuhan is a rapidly growing, modern, chaotic city of 10 million people. It is dirty, noisy, lawless, and sometimes the air pollution is so bad
we cannot see across the street. People love it or hate it when they come to China! We love it…
It has been a wild and crazy ride for the last four years. Evey time we step out the door, it is a new adventure. Walking along the sidewalk is a challenge is some areas for fear of falling into bottomless holes that appear out of nowhere. We love the vibrancy and the energy that barely ever stops. People are opening up their shops in the early morning hours and don’t close until late at night. The streets are alive with street vendors and wonderful smells (mixed in with a few god-awful ones), Mercedes vying for road space with 50-year-old bicycles, families of four riding by on scooters, and constantly, the noise.
The daily construction and growth is astounding. I counted 40 building cranes on my way to the local mall one day, which is only a fifteen minute drive away. As I write, a subway system linking many parts of the city is being constructed and set to be completed by 2014.
I ride a motorcycle regularly and love the fact that anything goes. You can ride down road lanes the wrong way, go through red lights, enter highways on the off ramps and exit highways on the on ramps.
There are basically two rules of the road:
- Keep moving, and
- Whoever is ahead of you, wherever they are, has the right of way. If the front of the car beside you is 1 cm ahead of you, be prepared to be cut off!
BTW, you would not get away with this in Shanghai or Beijing.
We love the energy and the lack of obsession with rules, but most of all we love the food. Street food is everywhere and it is all delicious, whether it is fried bread at 3 in the afternoon or barbequed lamb at 3 in the morning. Wuhan is known for its cuisine and the huge variety of restaurants. Everything here is lip-numbing hot and spicy and we both love spicy. The number of different dishes in China is mind-boggling. There is no part of any animal or insect that is not available somewhere. We could eat a different one every day in Wuhan if we so desired. I have had pork, beef, and chicken as well as donkey, dog, snake, frog, bull penis, rooster testicles, fish heads and chicken feet. This is not a place for vegetarians although it is possible as some of my friends have discovered.
We have never felt unsafe here at any time. Crime as we know it in North America is pretty much non-existent as far as the average person is concerned. We hear about gang activities here and in other cities but it is not something that is of concern to the normal person going about their daily business. There are few places in the city that we would be afraid to be at any time of day or night.
Will I live here forever? No. Is it a fun time for now? Yes. I would recommend China to anybody who wants to experience a truly different culture. Be prepared to be shocked and excited at the same time. It is probably nothing like you have pictured. As my sister said when she visited us earlier this year, “Everything is big in China except the people.”