Getting a New Start in Guangzhou, China with Jeff Hall

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Getting a New Start in Guangzhou, China with Jeff Hall by Expat Empire
Jeff Hall

Episode Description

In this episode of the Expat Empire Podcast, we will be hearing from Jeff Hall about getting a new start in Guangzhou, China. After deciding to take on the Chinese language as a new personal challenge, Jeff soon took the leap to move to China to restart his undergraduate studies. Through the ups and downs of daily life in China, relationships, friendships, and his eventual return to the US, Jeff discovered more about himself and had the once-in-a-lifetime abroad experience he was searching for. His story is one of considerable adversity and perseverance, so sit back and enjoy this thoughtful, exciting, and remarkable tale of four years in Guangzhou, China.

In this episode, you will learn:

✔ How to get your new start abroad by becoming an international student in a foreign country

✔ What it’s like to start your life abroad with little money and far from ideal living conditions 

✔ What it really takes to become truly proficient in a difficult language like Chinese

✔ Some of the more challenging aspects of Chinese culture that you may encounter while living in China

✔ Honest tips on facing hardship abroad and how to come to terms with it

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Video Episode Transcript


Welcome to the Expat Empire Podcast, the podcast where you can hear from expats around the world and learn how you can join them.

Hey guys, before we get to the interview, I want to remind you that we’re offering free 30-min consulting calls to anyone interested in moving abroad. 

Whether you’re thinking about retiring somewhere warm, starting an international career, or becoming a digital nomad, we’re ready to help you think through the next steps in your journey. 

Send us a message at to schedule your call today!

With that said, let’s start the conversation.


David McNeill: [00:49]: Hey Jeff, thanks so much for joining us today on the Expat Empire Podcast.

Jeff Hall: [00:49]: Yeah, Dave, I appreciate it. I’ve been looking forward to it.

David McNeill: [00:53]: Yeah, me too, I know we talked a while ago back about your time in China, and I’m super excited to talk about it today. I have wanted to get you on the podcast since then, but for one thing or another, just scheduling difficulties on my side, it hasn’t happened. So really happy that we had the time to catch up today after so many years, and also to really dive into your story because I think I found out a lot about it. I learned a lot about you and about your opportunities and your experience, but I think our guests; our listeners will get a ton out of it as well.

Jeff Hall: [01:19]: Yeah, absolutely.

David McNeill: [01:20]: Great, so if you could tell me a bit about your background and where are you originally from, where around the world you’ve lived so far, and where you’re living right now, that would be great just to get us started.

Jeff Hall: [01:29]: Yeah, absolutely my family was actually from New Orleans, Louisiana here in the states. And I grew up there until I was about 5 or 6, and then I moved over to a small town in Alabama called Spanish Fort. This is towards the Gulf coast and this is actually how we got to meet each other.

David McNeill: [01:53]: Exactly.

Jeff Hall: [01:53]: And so anyway I grew up here in Southern Alabama for most of my life. And it wasn’t until I was 25 that I decided to move out to China which I’m sure the reasons why we’ll get into in a little bit, but anyway, so I lived out there for 4 years and I just recently returned. I say recently I returned back in the fall of 2019 and I have since; I moved to LA in August of last year and I returned to Alabama around Christmas time and that’s kind of where I’m at currently.

David McNeill: [02:38]: All right, good stuff. So yeah, for all the listeners out there, so Jeff and I basically grew up together, I guess it’s fair to say that at least I feel like it. So we went; at least for me, I lived in Mobile Alabama Spanish Fort, for what was it first grade through the start of, or through the end of seventh grade. So through that time, I don’t even remember how we met, obviously, it’s too far back in the day, but we got to be friends lived down the street from each other. And so it’s really awesome to be able to reconnect with Jeff, but also to be able to hear his story and all of those experiences abroad. So from my perspective, knowing you back in the day, and obviously, people change a ton and there were so many years between when I left that area and when you went to China. But while you were, you know, maybe it’s probably too hard to figure this out when someone’s in seventh grade, for example. But while I saw you as kind of a, you know, a fun, interesting, curious person, I wouldn’t have pegged you at that point as being the guy who would have gone all the way to China. So even from my own, you know, interest and perspective and understanding that transition, it’d be great to just to hear about the reason that you decided to move there. How it all came together, where your interest came from, and just those first months when you were you know deciding to move to China and then when you were getting set up there.

Jeff Hall [03:56]: Yeah, and actually to be fair, I never pictured myself to do what I had done either, honestly, I would have never predicted that. Yeah, because prior, you know, prior to 2015 or at least, you know, growing up middle school, high school, and even in my early twenties, I had no connection, no relationship to anything in China. The way that it came about, actually I believe; so I was actually, there was a time and I believe I would have been roughly 23, roughly 23, 24 years old. And I actually was helping a friend of mine that was living in New York City at the time. And he was actually teaching ESL to students usually from Southeast Asia, but you know, also China and some other areas across the world. And he had a student from China and he teaches online by the way. So he had a student from China that was trying to pass the oral portion of the aisles exam. And she was definitely kind of having a hard time just reaching that certain level that she was trying to hit. And was curious if, you know, if I had any extra time on my hands if I’d be willing to, you know, to kind of help her out a little bit anyway, of course, I agreed. And so after work I would occasionally have a session with her and, you know, it was a very casual affair there where I mostly; we just talked on topics, I helped her with grammar and things like that. And however, I remember the; I recall the first lesson we ever had, she said, you know, do you know any Chinese?

And actually I was embarrassed to say, I didn’t even know how to say hello and that’s just the truth. I don’t even know how to say hello in Chinese, you know, and I told her that, I said, no, unfortunately, I, I don’t really know any Chinese. And she said, you know, you should really look into it, it’s a beautiful language and just, just to kind of; and I said, yeah, you know, maybe if I have some free time I’ll check it out. So I remember after our first lesson that weekend, just to amuse her, I decided that yeah, you know, I’ll, I’ll study a little bit and see if I can surprise her for the next lesson. And so anyway, as I’m looking it up, I’m just immediately just intrigued with the language and I found it to be extremely fascinating. And ever since I was little, you know, even, probably since you and I were great friends and we knew each other best that I’ve always been into things that are very challenging. I’m always intrigued by a challenge, and of course, that was just naturally Chinese presented that challenge for me. And so I started to; from that point, I started to learn Chinese kind of as a hobby, something on the side. And I believe she had, you know, gone on and then passed her exam but even after those sessions that we had, I was still the learning on the side. So that was the first puzzle piece that was the first, you know start there. And then the next big I’d say chapter would be; again, I’m still working at this music school.

And like I mentioned previously that I’m from a small town. And I remember we had gotten a new student registration online with the last name of Joe. But not like you know the common English spelling of like JOE we’re talking about the ZHOU and so I knew that was a Chinese surname. So I thought maybe it’d be kind of at least entertaining for me if I kind of welcomed them in Chinese on their first day. And sure enough, they came by, I welcomed them in Chinese and they were, you know; I remember speaking specifically with the mother of the student whose name, her English name is rose. And, we hit it off immediately we just became great friends. She was really impressed with how far I’d come, just kind of on my own. Yeah, we became great friends; I would go over to their house. And you know I started to; of course, because they were also new to the area too, they had just moved from China and their English proficiency definitely was not that great. So there are a lot of obstacles that I was kind of able to help them with. But yet also kind of, you know, this was never really spoken or agreed to, but I think kind of, in turn, they started to help me learn and work on my Chinese. And that was like a once-a-week thing, I’d kind of come over after work, I’d start to learn a little bit of Chinese. And then that turned into 3 times a week and then that turned into every day, I’d come over every day and just start studying really hard. And it was at this point that I knew this is something that I wanted to do, I knew this is what I wanted to do.

David McNeill: [08:58]: So how long was it until that transition from when you first learned the word of Chinese until you decided that you were…

Jeff Hall [09:06]: You’re probably talking about maybe 6, 7 months or so, you know, of kind of learning on my own and then I start to befriend this family, and yeah, we became very close. And it was through kind of her tutelage and just, you know her inspiring me, I knew that because there’s one thing that I was kind of paired with this whole transition, is I’ve always had this feeling that I don’t want to be that old man on my deathbed with regrets specifically of what I have not done or what I wish I did, but I didn’t do. I could live with things I’ve done, you know, wish I did things differently, but the things I haven’t done, those are the worst. So I knew that, at that time, I think then I was going on 27, I believe I was 26 at the time going on 27 and I had to make a decision. I was like, well, because at the time I’d already finished my 2 years at university and I decided that sure, I could attempt to go to China and just finished my bachelor’s. However, I knew that studying a language it’s going to require more than a 2-year stint. You know, I wanted to get fully immersed; I wanted to come out with as high proficiency in Chinese as I could possibly get.

So yeah, that’s when I decided, okay, I’m going to look into universities in China and so that was kind of that first step, but even that of course has a backstory. So, you know, now I need to decide where to go, you know, which university which province do I want to go to. So that actually opens up another really big chapter of my life, there is where I roughly once a month to give myself a native environment to practice my Chinese, there was a Chinese Christian fellowship that would meet up once a month. And my connection with this fellowship was through rose and I met a girl that girl there by the name of Shan Mei. And was she and I became great friends immediately she was originally from China, I think she was doing an au pair stint here. And, you know with this area being a relatively small town, I think she didn’t have many friends, or many opportunities to make friends. So we became great friends right off the bat and she was very intrigued that I was learning Chinese. And that’s kind of how, of course, we became so close so, so quickly, she helped me also a little bit with my Chinese and I kind of showed her around the area.

And, you know, we did some fun things together to make a long story short. That relationship definitely blossomed into a fully-fledged relationship. So at that time we were already starting to make some plans because her stint there with that au pair gig was coming to an end and she was going to have to move back to China. But meanwhile, at that time, I think I roughly 6 months away from having to join classes for the fall semester there at a Chinese university, so I was already in the process of deciding where to go. Now for her, she graduated from a university called Sun Yat-sen University in Mandarin it is Zhongshan Dashuwei, and at least it was and I think it still is a top 10 university in China; it’s a very prestigious school. And she highly suggested that I tackle this first, I go after this university first. Luckily for me, I found out that the application process, especially for an exchange or not exchange student but for a foreign student was pain-free and easy. It is more or less like, hey, are you, are you willing to pay tuition, you are okay, come on. Their requirements have since changed however, at that time; I guess I got lucky; I did not have to take such as the HSK proficiency exams.

I didn’t have to provide any of that so I was able to go with a fairly elementary base, you know, comprehensive but still, I’d say elementary base for the Chinese language. But that worked out perfectly for multiple reasons, I would say that for one the climate is very similar to my hometown. So I knew that I don’t have to; it’s not like I’m going to someplace cold, I’m not going to like Beijing or someplace like that, where it’s really cold and frigid. For me, you know, like that would feel nice, it’s a hundred percent humidity every day, so I’m used to that. However, the other reason too, is that for her, she’s originally from a province called Hubei, which is in central China. However her family had moved to; or her 2 older sisters had moved to Shenzhen, which was also a stone throw from Sun Yat-sen University, which is located in Guangzhou China. So I thought this is perfect, let me go after that, and anyway, the application process, like I mentioned, was easy. I got accepted right away. And before you know it I was off, you know, I said; and then that’s when I knew I had my direction, that’s kind of how that at least started

David McNeill: [14:24]: No, it’s a wonderful story and you can see how like you’re saying the different puzzle pieces come together to form a bigger plan, right. And sometimes if you’re in the right mindset you can just start to attract those things, you can start to find those opportunities, those puzzle pieces, and then create that opportunity for yourself. So I’d love to know what it was like in your first couple of months there just, I guess you hadn’t even been to China before, right.

Jeff Hall: [14:49]: Well actually, and that’s something I fail to mention. I had been to China once too because I and Shan Mei were at the time were separated for, I believe, 5 or so months. And so we took the opportunity which worked out brilliantly, honestly, where we decided, well, how about I go out to Shenzhen? I fly to China, go ahead and you know dip my toes in the pool and get a feel for it, meet her family, things like that. And so I did do that for roughly 2 weeks and of course, that was where the culture shock came from a tourist standpoint. Now there was way more culture shock waiting for me once I moved of course.

David McNeill: [15:31]: Of course.

Jeff Hall: [15:31]: But so anyway, before truly moving out there, yes, I was there for 2 weeks, which was definitely fun. But yeah, once I eventually moved out there actually that’s a story in and of itself you couldn’t have really painted a worst scenario. Where, you know, I’ve got everything set to go and I’m ready to fly out and move to China for the next 4 years of my life. And I remember waking up the morning at the time; I think I was flying out of the New Orleans, Louis Armstrong International Airport. And that morning I woke up and I remember having kind of like a scratchy throat kind of not feeling that great. But you know me, I’m not thinking much of it, at the time it felt fairly harmless. However things started to escalate pretty quickly as we got to the airport. I was definitely not feeling that great, but again, you know, I was not to be deterred. Plus things are already in motion at this point, you know, I just need to get my butt on the plane. 

So anyway, I remember I bought a hoodie there at the airport and, you know, I’ve got my carry-on and everything, and I hop on the plane. Well, for that very long flight, without question, I’ve got the flu, as this escalated very rapidly. And I had just a terrible fever on the plane, I’ve got chills, I’ve got aches, I’m like shivering on the plane, I was miserable. And meanwhile, I remember thinking that Shan May is going to receive a very sick me and I know she’s excited, she hadn’t seen me in months, but she’s going to receive a very sick me. And so I arrived there, and anyway, luckily you know, when I got there, I’m already experienced like I’m half sick, half, like experiencing some crazy culture shock because the location; because she was also tasked with finding a place for us to live. You know, we were not living with her folks or her sister or anything like that. 

So, yeah I remember, you know, being on the plane and feeling extremely sick terrible, I’ve got aches. I definitely have the flu; I know I’ve got the flu high fever. I’ve got, you know, I’m shivering practically for half the flight couldn’t sleep. And I remember thinking, you know, I know that Shan May is so excited to receive me, we haven’t seen each other in months, but what she doesn’t know, and I have no way to actually tell her is I’m extremely sick, you know? And so anyway I arrived, she sees me, we embrace and I immediately just kind of told her, you know, I said I am not doing well, I’m like quite sick. And at the time I don’t think she knew or could understand the gravity of what I was saying, I think she just felt like, oh, like I’m a little under the weather, but I’m like, no, I feel like death. But anyway you know, at this point we’ve got my entire luggage in the taxi and we’re already heading to our apartment. 

Now previously, I kind of tasked her with finding us a place to live, I wanted to find a place that was relatively close to the university. And you know, that way, ideally I could walk to work or at least, you know, maybe it’s a subway station or two, a couple hops away. And so anyway, she had found a place that was within our budget, which was very low at the time. And I remember it being late at night and the taxi is pulling up to our community and I’m so out of it, I’m so sick that I’m not really paying attention to where we are, like, what things look like. And I remember, you know, thinking that this is already a kind of a nightmare scenario. But it didn’t get better because I remember like, you know, getting out of the taxi and helping the gentlemen get my luggage out of the back of the car. And then I see this dingy, like, you know, extremely old looking building and she’s like, well, we’re up there and I’m like, okay. And we’re walking through these really dark, like hallways, I think our place was on the second floor. And I’m seeing just like running wires, exposed wires everywhere, it was just, it was nuts, it was very chaotic. And then, you know, I remember we had the steel gate that was blocking our way to; in the hallway, some guy installed a steel gate so we had to open that up. And then, you know, of course, we’ve got the door to our unit, we opened that up, it’s extremely tiny. It looks extremely old and I remember the only thing I want to do is I just wanted to lie down, I just want to sleep.

[20:14]: And so I lay down and luckily, you know, that night I was really concerned because I think all the pharmacies were closed at the time because it was really late at night. The only other option would have been to go to the hospital. However, you know, at that time I definitely was not exactly in a hurry to test Chinese hospitals out at that time. You know, so I was like, well, let me just see if I can kind of wait this out for a little bit, and let’s just see how this evolves. And luckily later that night, my fever broke, you know, as far as like, I think the roughest part was absolutely that night. But the next night I think or the next day, Shan May had so much planned that we were going to meet the family. The family had already had stuff being prepared and her family lives in Shenzhen. So this means we have to take a train and I’m already like, you know, I’ve flown across the world, I’ve got crazy jet lag, I’m sick. But you know, apparently that that still didn’t really hit home with her, she’s like, you know, let’s go, go, go. So anyway, you know, probably against my better judgment, I didn’t protest too much and off we went to see her family and everything. So obviously like my first experience was awful, it was absolutely awful. I’m thinking this is where I’m going to live and this is going to be terrible. I feel terrible, you know, I’m not, I’m not regretting it, but I’m like, oh my gosh, I’m really in for something.

David McNeill: [21:34]: Right, so how much do you think it’s worth to read into those types of signs if you want to call them that? Or is it nothing at all and it’s just a bump in the road? I mean, of course, you can look at it in different ways, but I feel like when things are supposed to happen, the pieces fall together. Like you’re talking about, on the one hand, the puzzle pieces that came together on the other hand…

Jeff Hall [21:55]: It really came together.

David McNeill: [21:55]: You know, you have this really difficult introduction, which you can’t really control getting the flu or this or that. But do you read into it any further than that or is it simply just a bump in the road?

Jeff Hall: [22:08]: No, I’ve, you know, it’s funny because I’m actually going to contradict this a little bit later, but I’ve never been a superstitious person, I don’t read into science too much. However, without a doubt, I definitely picked up on, you know, what a blessing it was to have so man; like you mentioned those, and I mentioned those pieces that came together. Every single one needed to come together for me to be where I was, to do what I’ve done. But that first experience, it was almost; to me, it almost felt like a test, it’s all like, you know, do you really want this? But I remember always having the mindset of, and I still to this day, don’t understand how I was able to do it. But I remember telling myself to; you know, the days leading up to moving out to China, I remember telling myself that, don’t back out of this. And if anything, don’t even think about it, you know, just put your butt on the plane. And then once you’re in China, whether you hate it or you love it, you’re there, you know? And then, you know, I’ve done that with a lot of things in my life where if there’s something that I knew I wanted to do, that I had a way of just not thinking about it too deeply. Or try giving myself any area to talk myself out of it instead, it’s like, you know, put yourself there, deal with the things you’re going to hate because you’re going to get past it and I always did. And I think that was another one of those cases is that I had no idea that’s what was waiting for me, but it felt like a test and of course it’s something that I did overcome. But without a doubt, I would say my first year in China was the roughest, not only from being exposed to culture.

Jeff Hall: [23:50]: The fact that my language wasn’t really as proficient as I’d like it to be, but it was the worst living conditions I’ve ever had in my entire life, bar none. And I doubt I’ll ever have worse living conditions than the first place I lived.

David McNeill: [24:05]: Let us hope not.

Jeff Hall: [24:07]: So to paint the picture is, and this is a typical day, you know, not just a bad day, this is a typical day. You know, we’ve got a couple of issues going on all the time; we’ve got roach issues that we cannot fix. We’ve got, for example, most of the windows had these iron cast frames that I think had rusted to the point that they couldn’t quite shut. This led to a lot of mold issues, we were fighting mold all the time, and this was another terrible thing. We had a faucet in the bathroom that had pressure issues, that it could be in the middle of the night and you’ll hear just a screaming sound that probably could wake up the entire community. It was that loud, not even being dramatic, it was terrible. And so of course, we’d have to go there and I have to get a wrench and I’d have to tighten it and, you know, that was definitely a nightmare. But one of the worst parts about it is we had rat problems and so I’d have to set rat traps. You know, these sticky traps over the floor every night before I went to bed, I’d wake up and, you know, on my way to school, I’ve got my backpack on and I’ve got like two rat tacos. You know, these flypapers, I’ve got them folded and I’ve got to throw them away and this was every morning, you know, that we’ve got, I’m waking up to rats. We’re having mold issues, it was terrible. It was definitely a, you know, an older community. We were not paying much for it, you know, and I think there’s a lot of people that would absolutely hate this experience.

And there are parts of it, you know, that absolutely I hate it to be honest. But you know, the one thing that I’ve learned through a lot of the things that I experienced in China was just my ability to adapt which is something I never knew about myself. And I think that you know you know even you too, that you could maybe relate that there are some things just traveling abroad and going out into the unknown, either you discover how adaptable you are, or you see yourself evolving. Like, you know, for your own eyes that adaptability, you know, in my experience, as far as my living conditions it always got better year to year. We moved out; in fact, I remember this is almost like a perfect send off a perfect ending to that chapter. Actually, towards the end of that first school year Shan May and I came back to the states, visit my family for a little bit for the summer. We came back; our entire unit was flooded, like just, just to cap it off. And I remember we were exhausted, we were tired, but actually that day where normally the only thing you want to do is sleep. We actually just dropped, there’s a little dry patch right in front of the door. We dropped off our luggage and we just went apartment hunting immediately. And we moved that day; that day we moved like, so we’re like, no, we’re done with this place officially, but…

David McNeill: [27:01]: Do you think it was related to having been back to see your family and realize sort of the severity of the situation by comparison? Or what do you think it was?

Jeff Hall: [27:10]: Are you talking about like?

David McNeill: [27:11]: Yeah moving, like, why didn’t you move earlier, I guess is my question.

Jeff Hall: [27:16]: Well, the main reason why we didn’t move earlier is it was definitely for financial constraints. You know, we said early on that we were going to be financially independent. We’re not going to rely on family; we’re not going to rely on anybody. And so of course, like for me, I had to look into finding work. Also, she was teaching Chinese online at the time, which was always, it was very rocky, it had highs, it had lows where, you know, she had many students to maybe 1 or 2 students a week, you know? So, things were definitely rough to starting out, without a doubt, things were kind of rough financially. So we just didn’t really have that financial freedom to just say, you know, what we’re done with this place. But, despite how bad it was in that first year, there were some amazing things that not only happened of course, in that first year. But even within that community, that was the first time I remember I was great with my neighbors. I love my neighbors. We were really close and they were great people. And I remember also it was the first time that I ever had, like the most famous liquor in China is called Baijiu, which is, it literally translated this white clear liquor. So anyway, I’ve heard a lot about it and stuff, and actually, this is a pretty good story too, where they had this convenience store within our community. And the owner there, he knew me because I’m the only foreigner in the entire community, which by the way, foreigners were not allowed to live there, which we did not know prior.

And that was a really long discussion with property management and the security guards. Because originally I think that the entire area was supposed to be somewhat of a dormitory situation for a government-owned company that they kind of lease out. So that was a whole issue in and of itself. But anyway, so everyone knew me because I stuck out, of course. I remember one night I believe Shan May was visiting her family in Shenzhen, I was alone and I went down to the convenience store within the community to grab a drink. And I remember that they were sitting on these plastic little stools, which you’ll find like in every convenience store in China. And they were just sitting there just having a couple of drinks, you know, it was late at night there wasn’t really much business coming in and they said hey have a seat and join us. And they said, have you ever had Baijiu before and I said no and they said, well, tonight’s your night. And I said, well, all right, fantastic. And so anyway, I remember, you know, having a couple of glasses with them and I think after every glass they’re looking at me. You know, they’re like, they’re testing me, they’re saying like, okay, how’s he holding up? And then after like my third or fourth one, they were just like, absolutely shocked, like, wow, like you can really hold your liquor. And I said, well, I suppose I said, to be honest, I’m a little underwhelmed, you know?

And I said, I hate to say that I had to be honest, you know, I had to be candid. And I remember I eventually just said, you know, guys it’s been fun, but I guess I’m going to go back to my place. And I was walking back to my building, walking up the stairs to that second floor, which is where my apartment unit was. And I remember starting to feel a little bit of something, a little bit of buzz. So I’m thinking, and I remember actually clapping a little bit and saying out loud, oh, there you are. You know, because I remember being so disappointed, the next thing that I remember, I woke up halfway on my couch. The other half is on the floor and my front door is wide open, the entire night door’s just wide open. And so that was kind of a funny experience that was my first introduction to Baijiu, but not the last. But yeah, so the first year of course had some very difficult tests, some very difficult trials, but also had some just amazing memories that I’ll never forget for sure.

David McNeill: [31:07]: Yeah, so how was it to be focused on studying your Chinese there, I guess that was most of what you did with your day? But to actually go and then be in a formal program and taking your sort of comprehensive, but elementary Chinese and try and turn it into the level that you want it to be. Can you talk us through what that process was like for you?

Jeff Hall: [31:26]: Absolutely so like I mentioned previously that I had a nice foundation and the one thing that I’ll always be grateful for is not only for that foundation that you know, I cultivated, but also Rose, my friend back here stateside helped me out with so much. But also they are originally from Northeast China not too far from Beijing, so that usually means that their Mandarin is pretty standard. And one thing that I’d like to say, and you know, some people may disagree with me on this, but I like to say that manor Chinese is not any one’s mother language. Most Chinese mother language comes from a dialect and this is honestly, you’re looking at, I mean, roughly 90, 95%. And the reason why I say this is, you know, not only do they grow up in an environment where they are speaking their dialect in the house. But also due to the working constraints in China that most parents will leave the small town, China and go to the big city, China, leave the kids with the grandparents or the grandparents can only speak their dialect.

And then the kids have this exposure for many years, so most Chinese grow up with a heavy influence from their dialect and not from Mandarin Chinese. So the reason why I like to highlight this is that what’s nice about having, you know, Rose helped me learn Chinese, is that because she’s from Northeast China, their dialect is very, very similar. It is a very close neighbor to Mandarin and what this allowed is for me to develop a pretty good accent, a pretty believable, natural pronunciation. So day 1, I knew, you know, looking at my fellow classmates, which came from all across the world that I definitely had a leg up on everybody when it came to pronunciation. And so the very first semester in the year, in general, was basics. They start off with what’s called pinyin, which just means it’s like a Romanization of the Chinese language.

And then it allows you to mostly focus on both pronunciation and tones, so Chinese is a tonal language. And so we started off with some basics, we started off with basic grammar. But the one thing that I was a little shocked about is at least at my university, not a single class was taught using English. 

It was Chinese from the get-go, it was a very sink or swim environment, which I believe in, I wholeheartedly believe in. And so, you know, and like you mentioned, yes, Chinese was absolutely the biggest focus of my day-to-day routine, it’s going to school, and it’s being a full-time student. And so the first year was; I’d say the first year was, if anything was exciting, it definitely was challenging. There were definitely some challenges; you know at least for me personally, I’ve always found Chinese grammar to not be too tricky outside of a few small points. The biggest issue is just, you know, rote memory, remembering how to write characters. You know, not only how to pronounce something, but the tone for each word has got to be correct. You know, all of these things require so much rote memory and I think that was definitely the hardest part starting out, no question. And of course, with every subsequent year things really ratcheted up, it definitely; but another thing that also was; I think was good for me. It was healthy for me is it was actually the second year we had a whole new wave of classmates that tested into the class. And most of these are, you know, Chinese ethnicity, but they are from other countries. So maybe they speak Chinese at home with mom and dad, but they were raised in and in say, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, places like this.

So then I went from feeling like I’m ahead of my class to like, whoa, okay, now I’ve got some serious competition. And which was definitely good for me, but yeah, without a doubt the first year was tricky, but it was fun, it was only fun for me, you know. I think that it was exciting because anytime that you go somewhere and you’ve got a mission, the moment you get your hands dirty, I mean, that’s when you’re having fun, you know? And so that’s definitely how I would describe my first year educationally speaking was that was fun. But I still felt outside of those school walls, I still felt that my Chinese was not proficient enough to converse very comfortably. Of course, I could say I could order food, any of the just rudimentary day-to-day things, I could do more or less some things I might struggle on, some things I had just gotten used to. But that was probably the most stressful part of the first year was the fact that you know, my proficiency just wasn’t adequate enough. My language wasn’t adequate enough to just live comfortably and ask things comfortably. And sometimes you even made sacrifices where you want to ask something in more detail, but you don’t have the ability to express it. So you sometimes kind of; you live life by connecting dots, you know, by getting only a partial picture, which of course only improved over time.

David McNeill: [37:00]: So how would you say it improved then after the first year? And when did it get to the point where you were able to converse more in-depth or say the things you want to say and do the things you wanted to do?

Jeff Hall: [37:12]: Yeah, so that’s a great question. I would say my second year in China, my second school year was definitely I’d say a big improvement, I’d say almost my entire first year I felt like I had learned a lot. But maybe, you know, for anyone that has studied language you’ll know that, that first leg of the study, you feel like you’ve consumed so much knowledge, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. And I know that it can be frustrating for a lot of people, including myself, where I felt like you know, I’d really grown my vocabulary. But yet here I am, you know, going through my day-to-day life and I’m running into issues where I can’t express myself or I can’t understand what’s being said to me. But once the second year rolled around, you know, I definitely felt a difference. You know, now it wasn’t like the flip of a switch, it was definitely a very gradual process. But I would say in my third year, that’s when things definitely started to become more comfortable for certain I felt a massive leap there. And also I would say at about that time, another thing that helped me greatly was the fact that I was doing a lot more what they call it jiajiao, which Is Actually Going Other students’ homes, traveling to their homes and giving them a face-to-face one-on-one lesson where previously I’d mostly done it online. And what this did for me is I had a lot of extra time conversing with parents and things like that, I had better exposure to using the language Where I’m by myself, I can’t say, rely on my girlfriend, you know, a native Chinese to help me, you know, it’s really, you know, on my own. And, you know some of my classmates would point out like, oh, you know, studying Chinese must be so easy because your girlfriend is Chinese.

David McNeill: [39:10]: They love to say that don’t they?

Jeff Hall: [39:13]: They love to say that and unfortunately, no, I mean, without a doubt, I’ve got some things that I just don’t get, I’ve got access to, you know, someone that can definitely right the ship. But the other thing though, and I think this goes with any relationship, trying to teach a loved one, how to do something, you know, your patience is paper thin and I could definitely say that about hers. And so, you know, as far as like, you know, getting any kind of tutoring sessions from her, we tried at a time or two, it did not work. So really, you know, I had to, despite the fact that you know my girlfriend was Chinese, I still felt like I had to go through that natural, just like I’m on my own growth. And it was in the third year that I felt a major improvement. I had way more independence, you know, which was a very gratifying feeling. Because, you know, there are some things that I would leave up to her just because of, just for logistics reasons. You know, that she can do them way faster, way easier without any hiccups and the third year, you know and I was doing just about everything.

And so it was about that time that I really felt I made a massive improvement. But now that I’ve gone through the entire university or almost the entire university experience there in China, I can still say that at least in my opinion, I feel like 4 years isn’t enough. You know, I think even if I look at the top 2 or 3 students of our entire class, which were, you know, ethnic Chinese to begin with Even they absolutely had their limits of things that they could do, especially, you know, on a professional level. And the things like that, you know we still felt like we had a good way to grow. And I would argue that our education that we received at Sun Yat-sen University was high level, it was competitive, it was high level and they demanded a lot from us. And even going through that, you know, I still felt like there was some serious room to grow, you know. And even in some situations where even I, you know; be it just my listening ability, there are still certain scenarios where maybe I’m a little confused in conversation. You know depending on the topic, of course, the more niche, or more professional conversation lines, then definitely you’re going to find that you’re not as adequate as you wish you were in that moment.

David McNeill: [41:41]: Of course; and you mentioned before some of the challenges on the financial side and of course with your first department and so on. So you mentioned as well doing some, maybe house visits, was that really related to your job? Did you find work there? How did you make ends meet essentially between the two of you?

Jeff Hall: [41:59]: Sure; so I remember, you know, even before I flew out and moved to China, I remember telling myself that I don’t want to be like every expat and just teach English. I don’t want to do it, I want to find maybe some other means, you know, but it didn’t take long at all before I realized that this is absolutely the route. It’s absolutely the route for multiple reasons the money’s good and China education is highly valued, it’s an extremely valued industry. The second thing is that I was able to be my own boss, which was important because I’ve already got a hectic schedule with class and school. So to be able to teach and, you know, and actually control my own schedule was definitely, it was crucial. And for me, I feel like I definitely feel blessed, I took some chances on a couple of opportunities that ended up taking care of me for the rest of my stay there in China. So I started off on a website called Italki that’s

And this was a platform that you can not only take lessons like actual, formal you know, language lessons, but you can also find language exchange partners and things like that. So I started off teaching English on that portal in my first year and the income was not great, not only that, but it was very hard to get to my Chinese bank account. You know, by the time that I had had things transferred, transferred I’ve been nickel the dime and dime to death. However, it was on that platform that I met; and this is a very fateful meeting, but there was and at that time I was teaching, like, I may have mentioned people all across the world, not just in China. But I did have a tiny student on that platform that actually happened to live in the same city that I was living in Guangzhou. And they were one of my most consistent students, and we took; I taught both the daughter and the father 4 times a week, and that was really good for me. And actually, that was absolutely my longest student, I kept that going for I think, 3 years.

But also it was reaching a point where, you know, Shan Mei and I had some serious financial pressures where we are having a hard time making ends meet. She was also teaching on Italki and her enrollment was dropping and it’s just the way that the website works out is that they will kind of advertise you in waves and so like you have these dips. And so she had this huge enrollment dip and things were getting kind of tough for us. I remember I lost a lot of weight during that time, not only from the stress but also we were eating, we were not eating lavishly, I can say that much. And I remember thinking something’s got to change, I can’t, you know, I can’t just rely on this one teaching gig. So I remember seeing in our university halls, there was a giant poster board and someone posted up you know, looking for an English tutor and I decided to message that person. And they eventually, you know, said like, oh, I’m actually looking for a nephew of mine, however, let me get you in touch with his teacher, I said, well, okay, sure. And it was actually through this method that I was able to get amazing teaching gigs for the rest of my time there.

So I met a gentleman there who was able to get me consistent teaching gigs. But this is about the time where I started to teach actually go out to students’ homes and give one-on-one lessons. And at that point, you know, not only could charge RMB and not installers, I’ve got to worry about transfer fees, but also I could definitely charge more. And for that face-to-face experience; and so that absolutely changed things, I was able to bring in a lot more and it required more work, I would say because you have to account for the travel time. You know taking the Metro to and from, and some days or some evenings, I had multiple lessons. So I’m traveling all across Guangzhou, which is a massive sprawling city to get to those lessons. And yeah, I would say years 2 and 3 were definitely the busiest years of my life there, for sure. Both just, you know, with the combination of school getting harder and also my employment demanding more of me, but that was; I really lucked out there. I think that I’m glad that I; you know, I remember I’d walked past that ad a time or two and I’m thinking, I think I’m okay. And then finally I just, I just jumped on it and I’m so glad I did because it definitely gave me plenty of opportunities down the road.

David McNeill: [00:47:05]: Yeah, so it sounds like it was a big benefit for you to be a native English speaker to use that as a way to make money. But what was it like to be one of the few, I suppose, foreigners in that not only maybe in the place that you were living? But perhaps in the broader city or community as well, or were there a lot of other foreigners that you can interact with?

Jeff Hall: [00:47:23]: Great, because actually, I’ve got a lot to say about that, without a doubt, it came with obvious advantages and some disadvantages. Some of the disadvantages, of course, were you would see some very mild forms of discrimination in some, you know, but it’s very mild and it’s seldom. However or also it could be, for example, in the first community that I live in, I mentioned that for foreigners, it wasn’t really allowed. And I think I got harassed often by the guards, although they knew the living situation, they knew I’m a resident there, they harassed me off and I’m saying, no, I don’t live here. You know, even though I’m like, hey, we just talked yesterday and I know you didn’t forget me because I’m the only foreigner that lives here.

David McNeill: [00:48:07]: Yeah, you’re probably pretty memorable.

Jeff Hall: [00:48:09]: Pretty memorable, yeah. So, you know, that’s some of the downsides is, you know, and I think that goes for any traveling abroad situation is that you’ll run into little instances of that. But the pros were that I’ve always said that China is all about brands without a doubt, they’re all about brands. And one thing that I noticed and, you know, we touched upon a little bit before we started recording. Is that for me although I taught so many gigs and it wasn’t even through an agency or another company or a school? I was just completely, you know, self contractor, and not once did a parent, a student or even a corporate organization that I would help tutor or prepare not once was I asked about my educational background. I mean, I potentially could have, maybe I don’t even have my GED, there’s no way to tell, but they never asked, they never care. The fact that I was from America was enough and they wanted, you know, either them or in this case, their daughter or their son, you know what a luxury to have a Native American English speaker to teach. And so that’s one thing that was definitely a great advantage. I do know, you know, I think that the cop; the police in China are definitely notorious for not being very helpful people. However, China also really cares about its image and this is a giant concept, even in general, in Chinese, that’s called mianzi. And it means face; you know keeping face, giving face.

And so one gentleman I knew actually at the university, he was in a completely different department than I was. He actually had a little side hustle where if a student; like a native Chinese student lost their bike, if that native student went to a cop and said, hey, my bike was stolen, they’d say, forget about it, sorry, kid. But then if you know who you are, this American, this obvious foreigner, and you go up to the cop and say, someone stole my bike, they’d get right on it, they started investigating it. And so this one guy had a side hustle where he’s like, hey if you’ve lost your bike, come to me, I’ll say that, you know, that I lost it. And so anyway, it was crazy, but it’s a thing, it’s definitely a thing that foreigners definitely get a lot of favor in certain situations. And this goes all the way up to the corporate world that there are often times where you find that there are definitely some discrepancies in; you know, as far as payment and earnings and things like that. So those are definitely, I’d say the most obvious advantages that you’ll get. And of course, you’ll get a lot of stares, you get stared at a lot.

David McNeill: [00:51:11]: Does that get old to you?

Jeff Hall: [00:51:11]: No, well, I mean, it got old to me in the sense that I was truly oblivious to it after a while, I don’t even see it. I don’t even feel it because, you know, sometimes, in the beginning, you notice how many people are staring at you, wherever you go, and not only can you see it, but you can feel it. You know, I think that’s something ,that’s definitely palpable, you can really feel it. But after like, I’d say maybe going into my second year, you’re just so used to it just from pure exposure that you don’t even notice it anymore. At least I never did, it was kind of no big deal. And I think I got extra looks because my girlfriend was a native Chinese too. So, you know that would also draw some looks as well being, you know, an interracial couple definitely gets some looks. But yeah those were the most obvious benefits and kind of downsides to being a foreigner.

David McNeill: [00:52:12]: So it sounds like things were progressing well from your first year to your third year, you were, you know, moving into better apartments. You were getting your situation set up, you were improving your Chinese, and you were finding work and getting better work opportunities. So what was happening going into your fourth year and ultimately at the end of the day, why did you end up back in the United States? I guess to ask that direct question, but it would be good to hear kind of the process of how things went from there.

Jeff Hall: [00:52:38]: So going into my fourth year, and that would have been 2018 was definitely the worst year I’ve ever had in my life bar none. At that time, it, everything started off very exciting, of course going into my; you know, I’ll be going into my final year. And in China, the way that at least, you know, at the university level, the way that it works is your final year is solely spent on your graduation thesis. And I remember also that you’ve got to apply and to get the professor, the mentor that you really want, you know, and the ones that have a lot of clouts can maybe only just take 1 or 2. Meanwhile, I think the ones that were not so desirable; they had to take the rest, so they were left with like 3 or 4 students. But anyway, I remember being very excited, I got my favorite professor, but I was confident I was going to get; because he and I had just a great rapport. And yeah, I remember starting, you know, work on that and being very excited to know that I’m a year away from just stamping off my entire journey. And saying that, you know this is mission complete and very excited, but unfortunately, some unfortunate events unfolded. The first big thing I would say that definitely was the start of a lot of the mess was, you know, Shan Mei and I, we eventually split at that time. You know, we had been through so much together; there are still a lot of good memories. But due to, you know, some people ask oh did that end due to cultural differences and things like that?

And I could say partially, but I think the main issue was definitely more on just the personality level. You know, I think our personalities had pushed each other to the brink where we knew that you know, we probably don’t really have a future that’s going to work out well. And so, but unfortunately, that breakup was absolutely messy, super messy and, you know, kind of at the drop of the hat, I have to deal with moving out, getting a place on my own, and things like this. Which at the time, you know, luckily was my final year, you know, I’m more than capable of doing. And so I moved out to a new location, even closer to my university and, you know, a little modest place. And I remember first going to an agency to help me find a location. And you know, I gave them as far as my budget and everything and my ideal locations and I found a great unit. And I remember telling the agent that I said, you know, of course, being a foreign student, I said, it is absolutely crucial that this landlord can legally rent out her location to me. I said you know, otherwise, I’m looking at a lot of trouble because the way that it works is all of my classmates, all of us, all of our visas expire every September 20th and we’ve got to get it renewed every year.

However, we usually come back to China after summer break roughly around September 1st. Anyway, and at that time, of course, coming back, you know, I’ve got to get a new unit and I’ve got to get everything all settled to go and get ready for this new year. Anyway, talking with this agent I kind of painted the picture for her, and she said that, yes, she says, okay, I understand that you’ve got roughly 20 days to renew your visa. And yes this landlord, she has, you know, rented out to foreigners before she has all the proper documentation. And I said, that’s, that’s great, that’s fantastic. And so, I think the next day I signed the contract, unfortunately the actual landlord herself could not be present. She worked in Beijing at the time, so she had just someone represent her. And, you know, and I remember talking with him and kind of confirming that they can legally rent their unit to me and everything like that.

So, and this is key, this is a really important detail because I think maybe the next day or the day after I took all the paperwork my contract, everything to go to the local police station. And this is where you have to apply for a temporary residency permit and you need this documentation to renew your visa. And this is very strict. I think that China has this in place, they want to assure that all of their foreign students are staying in places that are legal, clean, you know, you name it. Now from my previous 3 years, this was not too much of an obstacle because if you are living with a Chinese, then there’s no issue. You go to the Police Station, they go with you and they say, oh, okay, I see this is your living arrangements. Fine, you get your stamp; you get your temporary residency permit. And then you move on to the next step, which is going to the entry-exit Bureau or the entry Bureau and then you can apply for or to renew your visa. Well, this time things were a little different, obviously, I’m on my own, you know, I’m now moved into my new place. I bring the documentation and they said they said, well, you’re missing a document. And I said okay, which document is that?

And they said that you are missing it’s a little strange to translate; essentially, it is a documentation that proves that this landlord actually uses her property to rent out to other people. And like in almost all Chinese know that 90% roughly, and I’m just spitballing here, but roughly it feels like 90% of landlords in China don’t have this. And it’s to avoid taxes, it’s to evade taxes and this is a very common thing, so if you lease out your unit, it’s always kind of under the table, but you do it through contracts. You can protect yourself as a landlord, but yet you, you know, as far as documentation, you definitely do things under the table. So whenever I found that out, I immediately called my landlord and I told her my situation. I said, hey, you know where this document is; this is the document, this is a crucial document. And she said, what is that? You know, just kind of playing stupid with me, and I realized from that moment, I’m in a situation. So I said, okay, I see what’s going on here, so then I told her, I said, look, I’m too familiar with the situation. I understand that you know, you don’t have this because you don’t want to pay taxes, I get that. I said, how about this, how about I give you a couple extra hundred RMB every month to cover those taxes?

I don’t mind, I said that right now I just need a location and I’m on a time crunch at this point. And so we came to an agreement, she said that, yes, I’d be willing to do that. She said but because I am not in Guangzhou, I have to go to an agency to help me apply for this. And you know, she says, it’s going to take a couple of days, but she says, I’m going to do it tonight. And I’m going to send you a confirmation and I want to update you with the entire process. And I said, thank you, you know, I’m glad that we could come to an agreement. Now, in the meantime, I’m looking at roughly 15 or so days before my visa expires, and to try to cover all my bases, I contact my university’s foreign student office. And there are 2 teachers there that their sole job is to help foreign students renew or apply for their student visa, it’s their sole job. I contacted both of them to let them know my situation, I said that you know, I’ve been more or less cheated by my landlord here, but we’ve come to an agreement. She’s working on getting this documentation finished; it’s going to take a little bit of time. I said, meanwhile, you know, I’d realized that I’m on a clock here. You know, what do you advice? You know, I really need your help here. And you know, all of this is through an app called WeChat, which is by far the most common chatting platform in China. And so I remember conversing with them telling me my situation, and they all said the exact same thing.

They said Jeff, look, don’t sweat this, I know that you’re really sweating it and I understand this is very, you know, this is very concerning. And they said, you know, trust us, we know how things work, they said that this is not an issue. Just wait until she finishes the application process, you get your document, go to the police station, get your temporary residency permit, and come back to us. We’ll get you a scheduled meeting with the exit interview Bureau right away, you’ll be fine. And I said that, however; I said what happens if my visa expires you know, and I said, what? Then I said that that’s got to be terrible. And they said, no, not in China, it’s not that big of a deal, they said, trust me that probably won’t happen. But if it does, you know, we’ve got your back and things are fine. So I said, okay and then from that point, a lot of weird things happened. First off, I think the highest recorded typhoon in history hit in 2018, at first hit the Philippines, and then in that week hit us. And that slowed down everything, businesses had to shut down, the school had to shut down. There was damage everywhere.

And so that definitely made things very precarious, where I lost some time, through that, where everything was shut down. And then it’s coming down to crunch time, we’re now roughly 2, 3 days away and my landlord messages me and says, Jeffrey. And again, she’s been sending me screenshots overtime of her application process and everything like that. She said that Jeffrey, I don’t know what happened, they said that it’s due to a clerical error, but my application for this document failed, and I’m going to have to do this again. I’m going to have to go through this process again. And I told her, I said like, I don’t have the time for that and she said that I’ve rushed this. They know that I need to have this now , so that they can get it to me in 2 days and they promise, so I said, well, they better, you know, because like I’m running out of issues. Now anyway, to go ahead and just fast forward, I do reach doomsday, which is the day that my visa expires.

David McNeill: [01:03:25]: Could I ask one quick question first, did you consider or try to find another apartment that would already have that setup? That’s just the only thing that I would have thought of, and I’m sure you thought of that, but…

Jeff Hall: [01:03:37]: Yeah, so that’s the issue is, like I mentioned previously that 90% of landlords don’t have this documentation. So yeah, it’s a wild goose chase; it is a wild goose chase and it is things that I looked at. And it’s one of those; because like even finding an apartment in general, even finding that one took a lot of time. So I knew that I don’t have the luxury of just going on the hunt again, you know? And so there are a lot of things that kind of went into that decision because also at that time I had spent a lot of money to do the move for the down payment. All of these things that went into it, that for me to get that money back and then move, it was just a logistical nightmare and the time didn’t really allow for it. So then we reach the like I mentioned, doomsday where my visa expires and I’m almost kind of sitting there like, you know, am I going to poof and disappear? And you know, and I’m messaging my landlord, she says that like, you know they promised they’d have it to me, I don’t know what’s going on. And on one hand, I do feel like, I mean, I was already more or less cheated by her, no doubt to a certain extent. But when it came to this particular process, she showed a lot of documentation that she was doing this. You know, unless you went through a lot of photoshop effort that, you know, this was a process that was underway and just reached a lot of hiccups. But anyway, I went through the entire day and nothing, you know, like it seems like things are going to be fine.

You know, I’m trying to remain calm about the situation and it wasn’t until 10:30 that night I got a call from one of those 2 teachers that I consulted with about my situation. The ones whose sole job is to help assist students to apply for their student visa, she called me, I think she had a crying baby in her arms, she’s not even in the office. She calls and says, Jeffrey, you’ve got to leave the country right now; you’ve got to leave before it strikes midnight. And I said, what are you talking about? And she said that Jeffrey just, I’ve gotten a call from, you know, our office leader, they have just discovered your situation. And they said that it is extremely serious and you’ve got to leave right now, or else there’ll be some serious consequences. And I said, what are you talking about, I said, what, what consequences are we talking about here? I said that, I thought we talked about this very clearly and she said that all I can say is that it is highly likely that the university will expel you. And I said, you’ve got to be kidding me, you absolutely had to be kidding me, and this is not what we talked about. You know, we didn’t talk about this, I also spoke with the other teacher, there were no talks about this. And we talked in-depth and you know you promised to me that there’d be no consequences and just trust me. And I said that this is ridiculous and I said that not only that but from my location to get to the international airport is already a 2-hour drive.

I said, logistically, I cannot do this and she said, you’ve just got to find a way. You’ve got to find a way and I said that I’m telling you, it’s impossible, I said that the best thing I can do is I can leave tomorrow. And she said, you know, you got to do what you got to do. And you know, but she said like, just please try to find a way to get out of there. And I’m just shocked at this point, I’m absolutely shocked, you know, and I’m panicking. I’m like, what’s going on and so the next day I raced to the exit-entry Bureau and I just told them my situation. I said, look, you know, I’m a student here at Sun Yat-sen University, I said that you know, I’ve been keeping tabs with them, updating them on the entire situation. You know, I’ve been advised to do this come to find out how the situation is, you know, is that, and you know, what do I do? And she said, you know, Jeffery, she said the officer that I was speaking with, she said, don’t worry about this. She says, honestly, you’ve got about 2 weeks where you can leave through the Baiyun International Airport, or you can take a train to Hong Kong. And you will not be stopped, you will be fined, you know nothing like that. So I said, okay, okay, that’s good to know, so I immediately raced back to my; same day I raced back to my university and I go to the foreign student office. And I’m just telling them my situation, I said, look, I’ve spoken with them, I said, I’ve already got a flight heading back to the United States later this evening, it’s the earliest one I could get.

I said that you know, I’ve spoken with the exit interview Bureau, they said, there won’t be any issues that won’t be fine, etc. And at this point, you know, previously I had always felt like the foreign student program was the red-headed stepchild of the university. They didn’t want us, they needed us for national rankings, it was a requirement in China, but I could tell they didn’t care, I know they didn’t care. And we’d always felt that, but it wasn’t until this moment where I’m fighting for my educational future, that I realized how little they cared about me or about any of us. And, you know, I am trying to talk to any leader teacher that I can find, and I can’t find any help anywhere. And not only that but the university did a great job of hiding all their leadership, any leader, or any figure that has any kind of power in the university is hidden. It’s just the man behind the curtain, a steel curtain that you can never get past. So anyway, I bounced around to multiple teachers, professors you know, office workers, you name it, and no one could help me in this situation.

So I eventually flew back to the United States and from the United States, I fought, I just fought and fought. I sent emails, I made expensive phone calls, I tried everything I could to get to any kind of leader. And that’s where the next big change in my life happened, I found that I’m being completely ignored, which is kind of a thing in China in general. It’s like, if you can’t handle something in person, no one’s going to get to you, no, one’s going to care about you. You’ve got to be in someone’s face to get, to get things done. And I realized this, but now it’s tricky because I need to stay in China for an extended period of time and I need to fight for this. I can’t get another student visa because you know, that is sponsored by the university, which is already discussing expulsion. So then I’m thinking, what can I do; and this is where those 2 students I had that father-daughter duo, that I’d had for 3 years came in. And at that time I’d already grown very close with that family. I visited them multiple times and the father’s name is Mark. And he and I had always considered each other to be just great friends, not just a student-teacher relationship, but just great friends. And he was actually starting his own company in his home city of Xi’an and he said, Jeffrey, why don’t you come and work for us? You know, come over here and he says, I’ll permit you to fly down to Guangzhou, every once in a while, and see if you can’t take care of your business.

And, and I was so grateful, I said this is fantastic. So in Chinese, there’s an idiom that goes sai wong shi ma, which means it’s actually, there’s a story behind the idiom. But long story short, it’s an old man who had a son that there was a war at the time. Every son of eligible age had to go off to war and which actually broke his heart and he didn’t want that to happen. However one night a terrible storm came in, like, absolutely just burned down as stable and all the horses just ran off. So he lost like all of his horses, which were, you know, very prized possessions at the time and which was a terrible thing. But it made it so that his son couldn’t go off to war, come to find out that after the war ended, every son of the village had died, but his son. And so this idiom is often brought up in times where something really terrible out of just disaster is born also incredible alternate opportunities. And this is absolutely one of those things that were something that I’ll be forever grateful for, where I was able to go to Xi’an and work in his company.

And this is kind of a whole side story, but the important thing is that I was given opportunities to go back and fight, and I fought for 6 months. They did not give me a decision for 6 months and then they finally just expelled me, which to this day, I can’t explain. I can’t understand how the university could have abandoned me; especially it wasn’t like I just dropped this in their lap. I had, you know, kept with those that needed to be kept in touch with; I did it to the T to the letter. And I even, you know, I even fought by using our, you know, saved logs on WeChat. I mean, I had proof that this is how I was advised by the university by professionals and the university. This is how his advice and I followed it to the letter. And now you’re saying that I’m going to be expelled, you know, like this, this is absolute insanity. So anyway that was heartbreaking, it was devastating, you know, and absolutely crushing. And that was a big blow that was definitely a big blow that has had a ripple effect even today. But on the flip side, I did gain incredible, just invaluable experience working for Mark’s company which was an IOT tech development company and he needed help. They were going to expand into some international markets and they really needed my help and that’s where I came in and did a lot of translation for them.

I did a lot of market research for them, and I even flew to the headquarters often to kind of help with some international sales and kind of, you know, connect dots and things like that. And it was an unforgettable experience, I got to learn Chinese business culture, which is something normally you don’t get to touch. And, you know, because even those, even expats that do work in China, if it’s a very international company, you may not touch real true Chinese business culture. But for me, I was able to do that. It was an incredible experience, but, but even that allowed me to get close with Mark and his family. And I got to do a lot of amazing things through that too. It’s just unforgettable things that you know I’m just so grateful for. But eventually what led me to come back to the States was a combination of things. First I wanted to finish my degree and that was the key. The second thing is that I left China maybe a little bit earlier than I wanted to. So we’re now looking at 2018 and the trade war between China and the United States was at a fever pitch. And at this time; and to give a little bit of background, I was very close with all of my coworkers, great people, and fantastic people. We did a lot of things outside of the work, we were just had a great relationship. However, it wasn’t until 2019, we’re looking at roughly May, June around May, and June of 2019 that things started to change. Where I believe you know, former President Trump had made some executive orders that were going to change the landscape of tech and sharing of tech from American companies to Chinese companies.

And one area that this was going to at the time looked like it was going to be threatened greatly was the android operating system. Which was, you know, a product of Google and Huawei, which is one of their biggest phone companies, a massive company in China, their operating system is completely android based. And so this was going to really handicap them and, you know, working in a tech firm in China, I think that that especially hit home to them that they felt like this was a very ugly blow. And so, you know, and I’m the sole American, the sole foreigner in this company. And all of a sudden in our; even like our outside of work and actual work-related WeChat groups, they are starting to send videos with anti-American sentiment with boycott American products with, you know, a lot of things like this. And at first, yeah, it was uncomfortable, I was, I felt, you know, like these are my good friends and I still to this day, don’t think there was any ill message or ill will in these acts. But it did make me wonder at what point this will evolve into something that may be worse. So that’s what kind of pressed the envelope for me and said, I think let’s try to move back to the States, you know, this summer and which I did. I talked with Mark and I let them know that you know, that I think that I’m going to head back. And he knew that we were going to do, he knew I wasn’t going to stay long-term, you know. He knew that I was there to fill a role and to help them with their international expansion and which I had had, you know, I definitely accomplished. And so he knew that my days were running short and that’s eventually what kind of really pushed me to move back to the States.

David McNeill: [01:17:05]: Yeah, I mean, so an amazing story, and obviously, it must’ve been quite crushing at different points. I’m glad you were able to find some silver linings out of all of it, but it’s, it’s really, yeah. I’m sure it’s intense to take in as a listener, but I’m sure it was a hundred or a thousand times, world challenging.

Jeff Hall: [01:17:24]: It was world-rocking for sure.

David McNeill: [01:17:26]: And so how do you look back on your time overall in China? I mean, if you could sum it up, which I’m sure is really hard because you’ve had so many different experiences. And even within those years, let alone the relationships and your schooling and the housing, and, you know, you’ve had the great times drinking the Baijiu. But you’ve had all these amazing stories and experiences, but how do you sum it up, how do you think about it when you look back at it now a little bit removed?

Jeff Hall: [01:17:52]: My impression of China has definitely evolved over time, now that I’ve been removed. You know, initially, there was a lot of bitterness there was, and I can’t lie. You know, there was a lot of bitterness, and yeah, I experienced some terrible things that I wouldn’t wish upon anybody. That, as I said, still has lasting effects today, you know, but I think without question, I’m so glad I experienced those 4 years. It is the highlight of my life, for sure, thus far, it is the absolute highlight. I would say that there are incredible memories that I’ll keep with me for a lifetime. There are so many adventures that I went on, there are so many funny stories, incredible people that I’ve met. But also if anything, I can look back at that, and although I didn’t get the outcome that I had wished for that, for me it showed perseverance. It showed adaptability, which is something that I always believed I had in myself. But until you really test it, you don’t know yourself. But in that time I saw myself fight harder than I’ve ever fought. I saw myself accept any consequence, any burden to keep fighting on. And I can’t hang my head on that. I mean, that’s something that I think is an absolute, huge and positive.

And even if I could market China as an experience to someone else, I’d say, even if you could have the experience that I had, that it would be the best thing you’ve done with your life. I still strongly believe that I’ve met people that will forever change my life. I’ve changed for sure, you know, usually for the better, but you know in times that maybe the bitterness creeps up again. I think about that, you know, and I remind myself that what I did was fantastic. The alternative would have been instead of, you know; because what I’d done is I decided to take those 2 years that I studied here in the States and just drop them really. Because I started as a freshman in China, that was a sacrifice, I sold my car, I sold everything I had to go to China. So it was an all-or-nothing situation. But if I hadn’t have done that, who knows, maybe I’d be working in some office in accounting, I think that’s what I was taking at the time, in a cubicle. You know, I can’t guarantee I’d be that happy with it; so without a doubt, it was a fantastic experience. And something that no other place could give me, no other place could give me, so…

David McNeill: [01:20:39]: Did it strike you the fact that you went so far from American culture; like you went maybe not as far as possible, but maybe potentially as far as possible, like you went in the deep, deep end.

Jeff Hall: [01:20:56]: I went in the deep, deep end. Yeah; no without a doubt, you know, without a doubt, you often hear that getting out there and traveling is always good for the soul. It’s always good for exposure, you know, to learn different cultures of course and the clichés. But for me, China felt like another planet, it didn’t feel like another country, you know, because I’d been to some of the countries before. I’ve been to Mexico, I’ve been to Italy, I’d say Canada, but I mean, let’s be honest, you know, you couldn’t come any closer. And they all felt fun, exciting, different, but China was a totally different planet to me, completely different.  There were hints of Western culture, hints, but at best, those hints are like in brands. Like you see maybe familiar brands, you see a McDonald’s maybe, but outside of that, the way that they live, their values, the education system, business, their culture. I mean, it’s…

David McNeill: [01:21:50]: The food.

Jeff Hall: [01:21:50]: The food totally different, but you know, I think one of the more; the most foreign thing that I could touch was there are 2 different instances, for Chinese New Year. I went to a village and I spent the whole thing in a very rural rundown village and talk about stares. It’s one thing to get a couple of eyes and looks in the big city, but when I went to the; I’m pretty sure I’m the first American maybe even foreigner, to go to these 2 villages, lived in. Arguably just as bad as situations as my first year, it was pretty rough. But you know, seeing just that quiet, rural Chinese life was amazing. You know, it gives you appreciation, it gives you perspective, and you get to see a work ethic in a totally new definition. You know and that was like the deep end of the deep end if you could add no doubt, so that was pretty wild. But, yeah, I did, I went to, you know, maybe next to say North Korea, I mean, you’re talking about a place that’s pretty different from the States.

David McNeill: [01:23:08]: Yeah, and just, I want to actually, I think as a closing sort of part of this to go back to one thing you said at the very beginning of our conversation. Which was really about when you get to be an old man, you know, grandpa 80 years old and whatnot, you want to be able to look back and really have no regrets. And this is exactly, I mean, this was not something we talked about before and I missed bringing it up in the beginning, but this is exactly how I feel about my life. And I mean, at this stage, I don’t know if there will be the kids or the grandkids to be able to share the stories with. But I always thought of it as when I become if and when, if I’m lucky enough to become an old man that I can look back on my life and really think that I’ve gotten the most out of it that I possibly can. There are no regrets, I’ve done everything I wanted to do, even if I don’t even view it as regrets for having done stuff that you “regret.” But as you’re saying regretting not doing something, so it sounds to me like you’re on a good path toward that, would you agree?

Jeff Hall: [01:24:06]: Oh yeah, no question, I mean, despite the trials and tribulations, I do carry a very positive outlook. You know, it’s a tough time in general, going through 2020, which was rough. 2021 seeming to have its unique challenges, you know, yeah, times are tough just in general. You know, choosing Chinese as a background its awkward right now, I won’t say it was a terrible choice. But it is awkward now with the geopolitical changes and COVID and you know, you name it, but in due time there won’t be any regrets. And like you mentioned, even the things that maybe even out loud, you may say as regret, you know, it’s a package deal. You know, and I think once you realize it’s a package deal, you realize that you don’t understand what regret really means. And so I can’t call those things that may be in bitterness I might say like, man, I regret this or going to that university. And I heard the other universities treat their students better, etc., etc. I mean, you know, your life is unique to you. And you know, this experience, although not what I had hoped and not how I would have authored it, is still an extremely positive experience in that. Absolutely, if I’m lucky enough to grow old, I definitely won’t look back at this and say, man, was that a mistake?

David McNeill: [01:25:28]: Yeah, sounds like it’s not. Yeah, exactly, not something you would think of course. And just to wrap it up here, so what are you thinking about in terms of your next plans? I mean, obviously, it’s a tumultuous time, it’s hard to know what the next day holds, and as you said, it’s difficult with your Chinese background right now. But if you were given the opportunity sometime down the road in the next few years to go back to China, would you take it or? You know, how do you feel about it as you think about it as potential and having an impact on your future as well?

Jeff Hall [01:25:57]: Sure no question. I wish I could go back tomorrow, even if it’s just a visit, you know, I miss the food, I miss the culture and I also miss the kind of life there too, for sure. You know, I still have a lot of friends, a lot of expats that do live out there still. And I’ve heard reports that you know, there are definitely more cases of discrimination against specifically Westerners and I’ve heard multiple accounts now. And so I do think that right now with just tensions being high, I don’t know if I would go anytime very soon. But I would absolutely want to return, you know, maybe even take some friends with me or take some family and just explore some of the places that I didn’t get to explore. I mean or even just show my old stomping grounds and you know, so yeah, without a doubt I already miss it. And I absolutely plan to go back for certain and as far as the future yeah, you know, like we mentioned that it’s a tumultuous time. It is very tricky and you know, currently, I’m still out there, job hunting, looking, and doing everything I can to, to gain employment. So, you know, right now that’s kind of the first step, it’s kind of hard to plan for the future. But you know, I do have some loose plans that I hope to carry out, but I’m trying to take it one step at a time.

David McNeill: [01:27:20]: Right now, sounds like a great strategy and a good way to think about it. So how can our listeners find out more about you and keep up to date with your trials and tribulations, your travels all that good stuff?

Jeff Hall: [01:27:32]: Yeah, well, to be honest, I’m not on social media that often lately I’ve noticed. But you know you could follow my Instagram if you want, I rarely use it, but that’s jeffhall87 and my email is actually the same handle. It’s [email protected] so, you know, if anyone wants to shoot me a question or if they’ve got any questions about China or Chinese or anything, I’d welcome any and all inquiries.

David McNeill: [01:28:06]: Awesome, well, thank you so much for sharing the story today, Jeff, it’s been great to catch up on a personal level. But also to really get an even closer view into the amazing times that you had in China the highs and the lows. And I really appreciate you sharing that with us. So look forward to keeping in touch and talk to you soon.


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As the founder of Expat Empire, David McNeill is focused on inspiring people to move abroad and showing them how to do it. David started Expat Empire because he has a genuine passion for living abroad. He left the United States in 2014 and has since lived in Tokyo, Berlin, and Porto.