“I sat on my bed in a cramped flat in the centre of London and googled ‘Shanghai’. I browsed through pictures of skyscrapers and winding tree-lined streets with washing blowing in the sunshine. The juxtaposition amazed me, and I didn’t know which version of the city was the real one. Now I know… it’s both.
“Moving abroad had never been part of my plan. But I had lived in London for four years and was exhausted of being broke. I had just been offered a job teaching English on the other side of the world. I borrowed my best friend’s grandmother’s car—confusing, I know— and we drove myself and everything I owned back to Devon. I said goodbye to the people I loved, and my oldest friend sat at her piano and crooned ‘you’re leaving me for China…’ and with that, everything changed.
“I grew up on a farm close to Dartmoor in a tiny hamlet you won’t have heard of. North Wyke. Growing up in a farming family meant hard work was a necessity. I watched my Dad work tirelessly. My Mum set up her own business in the middle of the last recession and still runs it successfully to this day. I watched her check the lambing sheds in the pre-dawn, work all day at the office, come home and cook and clean for our family. This is how it always was and I never questioned it.”
Claire’s soft smile, and dark rimmed glasses, contrast with the beiges and greys of the hotel boardroom she is sitting in.
“I landed in Shanghai at night. A small nervous looking man, James, stood in the arrival’s hall with a handwritten sign with my name on it. We then swooped through the city on an alarming maze of elevated highways—my nose glued to the window. Every building was the tallest building I had ever seen. I was amazed by the brightness of it all; Shanghai glories in the darkness. James dropped me at a hotel. It was a putrid little place. It stank of mildew and cigarette smoke. I felt scared,” says Claire, her eyes wide.
“It was five in the morning when I woke up. I sat looking at the Chinese phrase book from the 80’s I had in my hands. I repeated the word for coffee ‘kafei’ over and over, waiting for the sun to come up so I could go on my first expedition.
“I found a little street stall and was going to try my best to order in Chinese, when the man that was running it turned to me and in perfect English said, ‘You want a coffee?’” My next mission was food and there was a lady selling steamed buns by the road. I pointed at one and then tried to pay for it with the equivalent of a ten-pound note. The woman laughed and gently picked a coin out of my hand. The steamed bun cost 15p.
“The school I was working at was terrible. I felt cripplingly lonely. At one point I was on the lookout for an apartment. A colleague suggested I take his because he was moving back to Canada. He told me he’d covered the rent, so I paid him for it—in China, you pay three months in advance. A few weeks later the landlord asked me for my rent money. My colleague had left the country. Now I was lonely and poor. I was starting to think about going home, but I didn’t want to be beaten.
“Then one day I saw an advert for a marketing intern position at a magazine. I applied and I got it. I worked all the time. I was working so much that I was close to burning out, but I found my stride. The magazine folded, but I was offered a job at another magazine. The Editor In Chief there was amazing, she took me under her wing and really mentored me. I worked there for over two years. It’s probably the happiest I have ever been.
“I’ve just been made Editor in Chief of two print and digital magazines. I’m also the Director of Social Media for a PR & Comms agency. We work with few high-end hotels, that’s why I’m sat in one now. China is still a difficult place for a foreigner to live in, but I’m doing it.
“I have an incredible group of friends here, my ‘Shanghai family,’ but sometimes I miss my mum. I miss the Devon countryside. I miss frosty mornings when the grass crunches under your feet and summer evenings sat outside with friends. You can’t see the stars in Shanghai—there’s too much light. When I come home I’ll sit outside and gaze upwards until my nose gets cold.”