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The only foreigner for miles…

[ 17 ] March 20, 2010 |

The day I was shoved on a Chinese public bus destined for my new home for the next 4 months was the start of a string of lonely and emotionally turbulent days.

Beijing Map

Cold, lonely and worried I sat in Shaoxing bus station waiting to be picked up after an hour’s journey from Hangzhou.  I arrived at the station feeling that my journey had been much to short and hoping that I had ended up in the right city.  Without my ticket (left with the educational institute that sent me off) next to no mandarin and no documentation what’s so ever all I had were three phone numbers that could hopefully help me.  After wandering around the bus station saying ’bu yao’ (not want) to numerous hotel offers I still had no clue where I would be picked up from and who I should be looking for, would they have a sign?  After 15 minutes I called the contact at the school to tell them I had arrived and was waiting, from what I gathered over the dodgy line and through broken English someone was on their way.  After two hours waiting in the freezing cold feeling caged in like an animal in a zoo with nowhere to go and everyone staring I was finally picked up.  It turned out they were given the wrong pickup information and went to the wrong station.  The stress of trying to find me must have worn them out because no sooner were we in the taxi he was sound asleep.

After the trauma of being stuck in a bus station where no one spoke any English all I wanted to do was curl up in a nice warm bed, eat a nice meal and watch a movie.  But alas no that was not to be my fate.  When I arrived at the school, Shaoxing Experimental Primary School I was swiftly toured around briefly interrupting the principle in a meeting only to be quickly ushered out.  I momentarily met my future students and then was whisked back to my apartment where I was left to spend the afternoon cold and lonely wondering how I ever would survive the next few months! 

My apartment was freezing, the heater was pumped up to maximum capacity not that it made a difference.  The whole place had a foul smell that lingered in the air.  When I entered the bathroom to my horror I was confronted by a squat toilet with the shower over the top! Noooo how would I possibly survive squatting over the next few months! This was turning into my worst nightmare; everything I knew was a possibility had come about but it was not what I ever believed would become my reality.

The squat toilet that will never be as clean as i would like.

The next day I turned up to my classroom at 8am sharp like I was told for what I was under the impression was going to be some kind of orientation.  I assumed that I would be given a syllabus, shown my office and around the school, how wrong I was.  What I didn’t expect was for them to say that I didn’t have an office, that I was to use the desk in classroom and that low and behold today I would be teaching my first class.  It was to start in less than 45mins!  I didn’t have time to panic I had to think on my feet and the result was the obvious tell the students about myself and find out as much about them as I could. 

My first day of teaching went incredibly smooth especially considering I had no lesson plans.  The kids were great, they were so entertaining, such characters and they were so amazed by me. They were hanging onto me like barnacles on a whale.  I couldn’t get a moment to myself.  How could I possibly feel lonely. 

In the afternoon when I was in my apartment with only myself for company I felt incredibly lonely, isolated and just plain sad.  The ladies who looked after the boarding students were so kind and friendly even though I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me.  They would knock on my door to remind me to go to the cafeteria for meals using the universal language of mime to communicate.

I had great students and I had friendly people around me yet I couldn’t help but feel sad. I was stuck in a major rut!  I sort comfort in speaking to my parent’s back home and reading emails from people in more dire circumstances than mine.  All I wanted to do was get on a plane and go back home.  I had never felt like this before when I had travelled.  I had always treasured the moments when I was alone and the excitement of being in a whole new place but for some reason this time the magic just wasn’t there.

Day two of teaching, this time I was armed with lesson plans and again I had another great day of teaching.  I decided that I really needed to get out and find myself a supermarket and stock up on some comfort food.  Luckily for me the sun was shining, finally I was getting that much needed Vitamin D that I had missed out on for weeks.  Within 10mins of walking around the area everything turned around.  I discovered that there was civilisation, that I didn’t need to feel like I was a prisoner and that in fact I was in an incredibly beautiful area.  The magic and exhilaration of travel had returned. To top it off I discovered that just 15 mins walk away I could indulge in my western desires for fast food and department stores with KFC, Mc Donald’s and Wallmart shinning like a beacon beckoning me to spend away my sadness.

My apartment that I now love!

Things have picked up incredibly since those few very low days!  I’m loving teaching, I’m loving the neighbourhood and I’m even loving my apartment squat toilet and all.  By getting out there, exploring and rediscovering the magic of travel I was able to completely turn around my mindset to see all the positives of the situation. I can even see the advantages of a squat toilet, after all it saves me from working squats into my exercise regime to get those fantastic legs!

Read my tips for getting the most out of your experience living abroad in Survival Tips for Living Abroad!!!  12 things I did that turned around my whole experience.

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About onurwaytravel: Colin has been travelling the world with his young family for the past 2 and half years. He runs a couple of websites all revolve around travel, family travel and digital nomadism. His websites include,, and now View author profile.

Comments (17)

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  1. tucky says:

    good stuff sash

  2. Sally says:

    Wow, what a transition! Being an ESL teacher, I’ve had similar experiences… but I’ve never had to LIVE with a squat toilet in my apartment (at work, sure, but never at home!). I think I would have been boarding the airplane as soon as I saw that. You are definitely a braver woman than I! Good luck!

  3. [...] up on culture and other people’s experiences cannot truly prepare you for what is to come. Being the only foreigner for miles can be incredibly stressful and lonely, but with the right outlook it is an incredibly exciting and [...]

  4. Sue McShane says:

    Oh Gees Sasha, that must have been awful. I’m glad to see though that you have settled in now and that things are looking up. I will email Jacqui and perhaps you could go to Shanghai for a weekend and stay in her posh lane house for some spoiling and some comfort. Take care. xx

  5. Sasha says:

    Thanks Sally, Really I just had to keep telling myself why I came and it certainly wasn’t to use the toilet so really that’s just a minor glitch in the whole experience!!! I look forward to one day telling my grandchildren back in my younger years i spent 6 months with a squat toilet!!! lol

  6. Sasha says:

    Thanks Sue, i think it was mostly the shock that made it so bad!!! But it’s just my life now!!! Plus i’m too tired after spending all day running around to give it much thought!!! Although I weekend of luxury would be welcomed!!! I know a few people in Shanghai seems like it’s the place to be, they have cheese there!!!

  7. Lauren says:

    Sash! So glad to hear that you have been able to find the exciting positive side now. Your first few days did sound like a nightmare girl!!!! I ran away from my teaching placement in Japan after only 9 days, the rewards for seeing it the lonely parts will be huge I’m sure. Feel free to write me a big email if you are feeling bored and lonely… Good luck my friend xoxoxo

  8. I can’t lie, this has always been a fear that lost dizziness feeling after being dumped off at some spot in a whirlwind of confusion that beats down your initial high hopes/expectations only to be left depressed and lonely. I’m glad you found your bearings though, I hope that in my future endeavors I’m able to get over the situation/self worry/pity/etc. and enjoy what the experience has to offer and not lament in what it lacks.
    .-= Cornelius Aesop´s last blog ..New Brew Tuesday: Sapporo =-.

  9. [...] You can check out pictures of my apartment on campus in a Chinese school here. [...]

  10. JH says:

    G’day mate !

    How are you ? Hope you are adapting well there ! Haven’t been able to catch up here, was out of action for about 1 month and counting still.

    Looking fwd to read more of your adventure there !

    .-= JH´s last blog ..Have U Google Yourself ? =-.

  11. [...] I first ventured out after being cooped up and feeling depressed at being the only foreigner for miles I came across this slum only 100m from my home.  When I saw this public toilet block (green [...]

  12. Sasha says:

    Hey JH! Yeah I’m adapting really well, love it here!!! :) I think I’m still in the honeymoon faze (despite the first few hiccups), everything is still so new and exciting!!! :) You will certainly be seeing much more about my adventures and misadventures!!!

  13. Matt

    Way to wait it out to see the good through the bad! Sounds like a shocking situation to get thrown into, but you handled it better than I think I could!
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..Dealing With the End of Your Travels =-.

  14. Sasha says:

    Thanks Matt, It certainly wasn’t an experience I ever thought I would have!!! I think maybe all the camping I did as a child had me kinda prepared, at least for the squat loo LOL

  15. [...] on this topic.Powered by WP Greet Box WordPress PluginSick of being cooped up in my apartment in Keqiao with cold showers on the weekends and a less than cooperative squat toilet, I decided that it was [...]

  16. [...] Ikea is your new best friend! Make your house your home!  Moving to a new city is stressful enough made even more stressful by adjusting to a whole new apartment. Decorating even just a little can make the place feel more like your home. Want to know how I dealt with the shock of moving to China and being dumped in a tiny city that no one had ever hearf of!? Check out The Only Foreigner For Miles. [...]

  17. [...] up home in tears just 3 weeks into my time in China.  I had just arrived at my new school in Keqiao rural Zhejiang province, dumped in my freezing, damp, musty apartment with a squat toilet. It was [...]

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