How Life in China Painfully Made me Grow up (in My 40s)

Buildings in Haikou China with red lights and Chinese Characters on them in city scape

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Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Discover the transformative journey experienced while adapting to life in China.

From small-town Canada to bustling Beijing, follow a path of resilience and lessons learned.

Explore the unexpected challenges and rewards of embracing a new life abroad.

Opening Up to Unexpected Growth

If you had asked me ten years ago whether I saw myself living in China, I would have said absolutely not.

Fast forward to today, and I’ve been living in China for almost four years.

It’s been a wild ride and definitely not what I expected.

In fact, it has opened my eyes to the painful reality of life in China that has made me grow up in my 40s.

Growing Up in a Fast-Paced World

I moved to China in my early 40s, expecting to start a new chapter in my life.

But I quickly realized I still had much growing up to do.

Life in China is incredibly tough and competitive. The pace of life is much faster here, and the expectations are much higher.

From Small-Town Canada to the Megacity of Beijing

With its staggering population of over 21 million, Beijing starkly contrasted with my small-town Canadian roots.

Moving to a city of this magnitude was a culture shock in more ways than one.

Contrasting Worlds Apart

To appreciate the magnitude of my transformation, it’s crucial to understand the stark contrast between life in Lethbridge, Alberta, and my new home in Beijing.

These two places are worlds apart in nearly every aspect.

The Tranquil Hometown

Lethbridge, Alberta, was where life unfolded at a pace akin to the gentle flow of the Oldman River.

Nestled in the heart of the Canadian prairies, this serene city boasted a population of approximately 106,550 in 2023. Life is marked by wide-open spaces, friendly faces, and a sense of community enveloping you like a warm embrace.

In Lethbridge, you know your neighbors and chirping birds often accompany your morning coffee.

The pace of life is leisurely, and traffic jams are a rare occurrence. Lethbridge is a place where time moves steadily, allowing for contemplation, long walks by the coulees, and leisurely visits to the local farmers’ market.

The Metropolis of a Billion Dreams

On the other hand, Beijing is a metropolis of a staggering 21,766,000 people in 2023.

It is a city buzzing with energy 24/7, where the streets teemed with humanity, and the skyline seemed to stretch into infinity.

Beijing is a place of ambition, where dreams soar as high as the skyscrapers punctuating its skyline.

Life in Beijing is marked by a relentless pace, where the metro system runs like clockwork, and the rush of daily existence is palpable.

The air is thick with anticipation, and the city’s history and modernity coexist in a captivating dance.

In Beijing, you navigate a labyrinth of alleys known as “hutongs,” dine on Peking duck and marvel at the grandeur of the Forbidden City.

Contrasts Shaping My Transformation

The contrasts between Lethbridge and Beijing are geographical, cultural, social, and even philosophical.

I went from the tranquility of small-town Canada to the vibrancy of a global capital, from the simplicity of a close-knit community to the complexity of a bustling metropolis.

These contrasts are the crucible in which my transformation occurred. Here, I learned to adapt, appreciate the beauty of diversity, and grow in ways I never imagined possible.

The juxtaposition of these two worlds painted a vivid backdrop against which I embarked on a journey of self-discovery and growth.

With its vibrant chaos, Beijing became a catalyst for growth, where I learned to navigate the unfamiliar, embrace change, and grow into the person I am today.

In contrasting these two worlds, I found the opportunity to contrast and expand the boundaries of my own self.

Lost in the Whirlwind of Beijing

I’ll never forget the day I lost my wallet at the Beijing airport.

It was a jarring introduction to the rapid pace of life in the city. As I stood there, surrounded by the bustling crowds of one of the world’s busiest airports, I realized I was suddenly alone and vulnerable in this unfamiliar metropolis.

The feeling of panic was overwhelming.

My wallet contained money, crucial identification documents, credit cards, and my sense of security. I retraced my steps mentally, and it dawned on me that I had left it at the security checkpoint.

I felt a sinking sensation in my stomach as I contemplated the consequences of my carelessness.

In distress, I contacted my real estate agent, who had become a lifeline in this foreign land. She kindly picked up the phone, called the airport, and miraculously, someone had turned in my wallet.

Relief washed over me, but I knew it wasn’t over yet. It would be three long days before I could retrieve it.

This incident was a stark reminder of how fast-paced and demanding life in Beijing could be.

There was little room for error in the whirlwind of daily existence, and even the slightest oversight could have significant consequences.

It taught me the importance of vigilance, responsibility, and the need to adapt quickly to survive in this dynamic environment.

Lessons in Trust and Adaptability

Three days later, my real estate agent, with her unwavering kindness, took a train trip to the airport and returned my wallet to me.

It was a small act of kindness carrying profound lessons. In a city known for its frenetic pace, individuals still took the time to help a stranger in need.

This incident taught me about the speed of life in Beijing and the depth of human connection.

A reminder that amid the chaos, there was kindness, and amidst the rush, there was trust.

A Priceless Lesson in Adaptation and Resilience

Losing my wallet in the whirlwind of Beijing was a wake-up call, a sudden plunge into the frenetic rhythm of this city.

It taught me that growing up in my 40s meant adapting to a world that moved at lightning speed.

I learned the importance of being vigilant, the value of trust, and the significance of the helping hands that emerge when you least expect them.

Beijing might be a city of relentless pace and high expectations, but it’s also a city of resilience and compassion, where even in the most challenging moments, you can find a lifeline that pulls you through.

In my 40s, I realized growing up is a journey of adapting to the whirlwind of life, even when it threatens to sweep you off your feet.

Dealing with the Language Barrier

My journey in China began with a shock. The language barrier.

Arriving in Beijing, I was surrounded by a sea of Mandarin characters and a babel of voices that felt like an alien symphony.

I went from being a confident communicator in Canada to a bumbling foreigner who could barely order a meal. It was humbling, to say the least.

At first, the language barrier was a source of frustration.

Simple tasks like buying groceries or asking for directions turned into elaborate pantomimes.

I vividly remember one embarrassing incident where I attempted to order a dish at a local restaurant, and the waitress burst into laughter at my mispronunciation.

My pride took a hit, but it was a valuable lesson in humility.

But something remarkable happened as the days turned into weeks and weeks into months.

Appreciating the beauty of communication beyond words. I learned a smile, a nod, and a genuine attempt to bridge the gap and create connections transcending language.

I made friends who spoke some English, and we communicated through a delightful mix of broken sentences and animated gestures.

Adapting to a Different Work Culture

The workplace was another frontier I had to navigate.

Chinese work culture is unlike anything I had experienced before. It’s a blend of formality and camaraderie, punctuated by long hours and a relentless pursuit of success.

Meetings often stretched into the evening, and hierarchy played a significant role in decision-making.

At first, I struggled to find my footing. The pace was relentless, and the expectations were sky-high.

However, I realized my preconceived notions of work needed a makeover. I learned to embrace the hustle and flow with the tide of the office culture. I adapted to the concept of guanxi (relationship-building) and found that nurturing connections with colleagues was just as crucial as delivering results.

Over time, I began to appreciate my Chinese colleagues’ dedication and work ethic. They welcomed me into their world, teaching me the intricacies of tea ceremonies and the art of patience in negotiations.

I discovered beauty in the blend of tradition and modernity and grew to respect the deep-rooted values shaping their work culture.

Learning to Navigate the Nuances of Chinese Society and Etiquette

As I settled into life in China, one of the most intriguing and challenging aspects was understanding and adapting to the intricate tapestry of Chinese society and etiquette.

Embracing the Red Envelope Tradition by Gifting with Grace

One of the first cultural nuances that captivated me was the tradition of giving and receiving red envelopes, known as “hongbao.”

In China, these vibrant envelopes filled with money are gifted during holidays, weddings, and celebrations.

Initially, I found this custom puzzling, akin to giving someone an envelope of cash on their birthday. But I soon realized that it’s not just about the money. It’s a symbol of well-wishing and goodwill.

I learned to appreciate the thought behind these red envelopes, understanding they signify a bond of care and friendship.

Dining Etiquette

Chinese dining etiquette is a world of its own and a fascinating culinary journey.

I discovered that meals in China are communal affairs, and sharing is integral to the experience.

The lazy Susan became my best friend, as it gracefully rotated dishes around the table. But the real challenge was mastering the use of chopsticks.

At first, I was clumsy, often sending morsels of food flying across the table. However, I persevered and transformed into a proficient chopstick wielder with patient guidance from friends.

Moreover, understanding the subtleties of ordering dishes and respecting the preferences of my fellow diners became an art form.

It wasn’t just about satisfying hunger but fostering harmony and connection through food.

Navigating Conflicts with Tact

Saving face is a concept deeply embedded in Chinese culture.

It involves maintaining dignity and avoiding public embarrassment or confrontation.

This meant learning to address conflicts with tact and discretion, even when my Western instincts urged me to be more direct.

I discovered gentle communication and finding compromises were key to resolving issues without causing anyone to lose face.

A Tapestry of Lessons in Chinese Society and Etiquette

Learning to navigate the nuances of Chinese society and etiquette has been an enlightening journey.

It was like piecing together a complex puzzle, each cultural nuance revealing a new facet of Chinese life.

What initially felt like a minefield of unwritten rules and customs gradually became a rich tapestry of insights and connections.

Through red envelopes, communal meals, and the art of saving face, I learned embracing a foreign culture’s traditions and etiquette is about building bridges, forging friendships, and deepening one’s understanding of the world.

In many ways, these cultural lessons were a masterclass in empathy and adaptability.

They taught me that the beauty of life lies in its diversity and the willingness to embrace and learn from it.

In my 40s, I discovered growing up is about growing wiser through cultural experiences to expand our horizons.

A Welcome Change of Pace

After six whirlwind months in Beijing, I embarked on a new chapter by moving to Haikou, a city with a population of 2 million.

This transition was a breath of fresh air, a shift from the frenetic tempo of Beijing to a more manageable and tranquil “small town” feel.

Haikou is Known as The Island Gem

Haikou, situated on Hainan Island, felt like a hidden gem when I first visited in July 2020.

It’s a city where the air is warm, the pace of life is gentler, and the sea breeze whispers tales of serenity.

In this coastal paradise, I discovered a sense of calm that had eluded me in the bustling streets of Beijing.

The city had an inviting ambiance. The streets are lined with palm trees, and the locals warmly greet you.

Time seems to slow down in Haikou, allowing for leisurely strolls along the pristine beaches and moments of contemplation in tranquil parks.

The Palpable Difference

The palpable difference between Beijing and Haikou is evident in daily life.

In Haikou, the rush hour is a subdued affair compared to Beijing’s chaotic symphony of horns.

The culinary scene is a delight, with seafood markets offering fresh catches of the day and open-air eateries serving delectable Hainanese cuisine.

A Breathing Space for Growth

This move provided me with a much-needed breathing space for personal growth.

It allowed me to reflect on my lessons in Beijing and appreciate the diversity of China’s urban landscapes.

In Haikou, I can immerse myself in a different facet of Chinese culture, embracing relaxation and harmony with nature.

It was here, in this tranquil oasis, I continued to grow.

The change in pace allowed me to internalize the lessons of adaptability, resilience, and cultural understanding I had acquired in Beijing.

It was a reminder that growth wasn’t confined to the frenzied energy of a megacity and could also thrive in the serenity of a smaller, coastal haven.


China continues to shape and mold me, showing growth could thrive in diverse settings, each offering unique lessons and perspectives.

As I embraced the tranquil rhythm of life in Haikou, I realized growth is a journey with no fixed destination.

It’s about adapting, learning, and evolving in response to the ever-changing landscapes of life, wherever they may lead.

Thanks for stopping by!

Until next time,


We all have unlimited potential.

Hi! I’m Suzanne and welcome to my blog. For more than two decades of teaching, writing, and public speaking, I’ve been inspiring children, teens, and adults to cultivate their potential.

With proven experience and being a published author of conflict management and children’s books, you’ll find practical strategies for personal development.

Most importantly, you’ll discover life lessons for living a fulfilled life.

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