What Happened: How I Survived On $500 For Two Months

Now that midterms are coming to an end, I wanted to take a moment to sit down and talk about what the f*ck happened to me in China and how everything fell apart.  There is tragedy, lies, espionage, even MURDER… of my dreams.  All of which I finally feel comfortable sharing for two reasons: first, I’m no longer stupidly broke and second, I am no longer at risk of being deported.  I’d also like to preface this story with the following tag line:

please don’t feel sorry for me.

I got myself into this mess.  I choose not to ask for help.  And I got myself out.

I came to China fresh out of undergrad looking for adventure because I was incredibly bored with my life in America.  I was on the law school track, I had a consistent relationship, and my friends and family loved me to no end; poor me right?  I was going stir crazy!  It felt like my entire life was planned out for the next 10 years for me and I had actively participated in the creation of the master plan.  I recognize that I sound like a spoiled American brat, but that’s the REAL reason I left.  Boredom was the catalyst that drove me to abandon my western life completely and start over; super funsies.  So I packed up everything I owned into two suitcases and headed east to a country I had never been to before, that speaks a language I didn’t understand.

I mean how hard could Chinese really be, right?

The first three months were a mess.  I wasn’t able to speak a lick of Chinese so I constantly couldn’t defend myself when things inevitably fell apart, again and again.  I also contracted nearly every stomach illness known to the western medical community.  But the icing on the cake was the fact that the teaching program I came with kept trying to place me in schools that were located in the farthest corners of Beijing; so every minute of every day I felt alone, misunderstood, and helpless.

But that’s not what broke me.

In December I decided to “make a run” for it and leave my teaching program.  In the past, they had bullied other teachers who tried to leave early with paid police officers and threats of deportation.  They forced one girl to make an advance cash withdrawal of $3,000 USD, with the help of local police, the day before she flew home.  Honesty doesn’t pay in China.  So I told my company that I was going to go home for Christmas, but I would be back in January.  In reality, I stayed in Beijing and the “Merry Christmas From Los Angeles” pictures I sent them via email were over a year old.  Then, I faked a family tragedy and said I had to go to Mexico with family for an undisclosed amount of time.  I needed them to believe that I was physically unreachable and off the grid so they wouldn’t chase me… but I also needed them to believe I was going to come back so they wouldn’t cancel my Visa.  For a feel weeks, I was constantly paranoid that I would run into someone from the company on the street or subway system.  I would even wear sunglasses and a hoodie with the hood up whenever I was walking within two miles of their office  Eyes down. Dark colors.  Don’t draw attention to yourself Vanessa. It felt like I was a fugitive.

But that’s not what broke me.

Once my plan was in motion, I started furiously looking for a new job and Visa.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t speak any Chinese at the time and that was the non-negotiable requirement for most of the jobs I wanted to apply to.  I did some modeling and temp work to get by, but since I plan on staying in China long-term, I knew I had to go back to school and start studying Chinese full-time.  So what I needed was a part-time job, where I didn’t need to use Chinese, and I would have the flexibility to go to school for four hours a day, every day.  Basically, I was screwed.

But that’s not what broke me.

A guy named Peter broke me.  He was a charming, good-looking dude with tons of China experience (or so he said) who was looking for a developer and designer for a new website.  Great!  I do shit like that.  He told me he was launching a new education start-up in Beijing and could give me a decent salary if I could build the online presence.  So I signed the contract and hit the ground running.  It felt great to be doing something I loved and to get my life back on track.  Since the foreigner community is so close in Beijing, it never occurred to me that one of our own could possibly betray me.  In reality, Peter was completely full of shit, had no capital to back up the start-up idea he pitched me (when he said he did), and still owes me 10,000 RMB for the work I did.

The names in this story have not been changed been changed because fuck you Peter, that’s why.

And then China came crashing down on me.  I had gone two months without a “real” job, three months without a paycheck, and I had to dump out my savings account to pay three months worth of rent, my student Visa, AND tuition for school.

That’s when the cold hard truth hit me: I had $500 dollars left for the next two months.

And so began the “Dark Ages” as I like to so affectionately call them.  For the first time in my life, my will to keep fighting was completely broken… actually, shattered would be a more appropriate term.

To cope with the stress, I started hiding from China in my apartment more and more.  I stopped seeing my friends and going to CrossFit because I was terrified about what would fall apart next once I stepped outside.  Nothing can hurt me as long as I stay inside right?  Because I couldn’t afford to keep Paleo anymore, I started eating dirt-cheap Chinese food instead to get by.  Unfortunately, I’ve been Paleo for years now and my body immediately started rejecting my extreme diet change so I started choosing not to eat sometimes instead.  I couldn’t’ afford to eat the good stuff I needed, but my body physically couldn’t process what I was giving it. It was a classic Catch 22 situation.

I had the option to borrow money, but I never could go through with it.  All of my friends were basically shoving money down my throat and I probably could have asked my parents for help too, but the idea of owing someone anything makes me sick.  I cannot and will not be owned, ever.  Instead, I consider myself to be a free-range pit-bull; I am stubborn, tough, and incredibly adorable.  I would rather sit here, starving and grinding my teeth against a meatless bone than ask for help.

Thankfully, I contracted salmonella in February.  Crazy lucky, I know.  I was quickly running out of money to even buy shitty Chinese food and I was coming close to borrowing money from my friends… but then the universe decided to bless me with salmonella, which made it literally IMPOSSIBLE to eat or interact with humans for long periods of time.  I finally had the excuse I needed to hide out until the storm was over.

However, all blessings come with a price.  At my western hospital, the doctors were struggling to figure out what was wrong with me.  They kept saying it was prolonged food poisoning, but that didn’t explain why my body refused to even take water without feeling nauseous.  I was checking myself in and out of the doctor’s office constantly, missing a ton of Chinese classes, and on the third week, I fainted on the subway and was admitted to a hospital for malnutrition.

And then the clouds finally opened up.

Once they finally figured-out I had salmonella, they hooked me to multiple IV’s for a few hours and gave me the proper medication.  The week after, I finally got paid for the three jobs I’ve been working in Beijing, and four weeks later, I’m finally all caught up with Chinese and crushing my midterms.

To commemorate the darkest experience of my life, I’ve splurging on a mini-trip to Shenzhen and Hong Kong.  Hong Kong has always held a special spot in my heart because it’s where I want to live for the rest of my life.  I love Beijing, but eventually I want to do imports/exports and Hong Kong is a financial mecca for that.  Hong Kong is super international, something interesting is constantly happening, and all of Asia is accessible from this tiny island.  Hong Kong could be considered similar to Manhattan, if Manhattan was relocated to Hawaii, and then made 1000 times safer… and purged of all its hipsters. AND there are multiple CrossFit gyms.  Enough said.

Sometimes you need see the finish line to remember why you started the race in the first place.

 

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About Vanessa Elizabeth

Vanessa Elizabeth is a cultural chameleon currently based in London. She enjoys sports (such as CrossFit and dating), cooking, and demolishing her savings account. When she's not busy blogging about her feelings, she works full-time and practices Chinese with her English/German friends.

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  • Divya

    Very inspirational! I live in NYC and have a similar outlook on money and toughing it out. You have seriously embraced all these challenges with such a tough mentality. It’s really impressive and make me think to be strong here too. Although, I hope I don’t meet a Peter. Screw you Peter…

  • Sam

    Thank you for this. I’m in a similar situation in Beijing – going on month #4 with little to no money and looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. Glad to see you made it through stronger and hoping for a similar success story soon!

    Met an American guy on the subway last night who suggested that every week here is like months of real life experience back at home. And we will be better for it, as far as I’m concerned.

  • aloe vera vitamins

    You actually make it appear really easy with your presentation but
    I to find this topic to be actually one thing which I think I’d never understand.
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  • sindhu

    wow!! You are officially one of my role models. I don’t feel sorry for u. heck, I’m jealous of u!
    Good luck with all ur future endeavours. 🙂

  • Raphael Alexander Zoren

    When there’s will, there’s power! Great story, glad everything turned out to be alright! 🙂