In 2013, I moved halfway across the world to Xi’an, China, and my arrival landed with quite a bump.
Siting in my hotel room, I felt rather shut off and isolated from the rest of the world. I turned on my laptop and could access three websites: LinkedIn, Outlook and the BBC (at that time it wasn’t banned).
But that wasn’t much good for keeping in touch with friends and family, especially the ones that use Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp.
I decided to take action and look for a way of getting around the Great Firewall of China. Upon finding a VPN I attempted to download it. And then my computer crashed. The screen went blue and the error message “People’s Republic of China code violation” flashed across the screen. This didn’t look good.
This was just one of the major culture shocks about my sudden expat life in China.
Everything just seemed so difficult.
Within days i’d downloaded Viber and WeChat and was back to talking with family and friends. Using these apps was just one way my phone became a vital tool for being an expat living abroad.
Honestly, i’m not sure how people used to live without phones before they were around. Was life harder? Did people travel around with big backpacks full of maps, notebooks and pens, a camera and some stamps?!!
Here’s some of the ways my phone was essential during my time abroad.
Maps: When I lived in Beijing, the subway system was so overwhelming, I used an app on my phone to help plan my journey and work out how long journeys would take – in some cases an hour and a half!
Read more: How to travel by train in China
WeChat: This app is the app you MUST have if you live in China. It’s the one in which you communicate with all your local friends, have work chat groups and post pictures from your adventures. It’s basically Whatsapp with a Instagram feature (in the loosest of terms). It was also the app I chose to use to speak to family and friends. It worked a lot better than Skype and allowed me and my mum to have hours and hours of conversations on Sundays.
Language apps: If you live in China then really you need to learn the lingo. I used my phone to download apps such as Pleco (which helps translate Chinese characters for you!!) and Mindsnack (a language game app that really helped me memorise important vocabulary).
Confidence: I had several solo adventures during my time in China and I felt a lot more comfortable as a solo woman knowing that I had the ability to use my phone when I needed. I have a rule – as long as you have a phone, purse and passport, there’s nothing else you really need!
Photos: I am a big photography nerd but can’t always travel around with my chunky DSLR. My phone allowed me to document life in China from the hutongs to the bizarre things i’d see every day on the streets and all of the exciting food I tried.
Work: When I worked in China as a freelance journalist, my phone was vital for informing my editors about events happening and for them commissioning articles from me. When I covered a tennis tournament in Shanghai, it was important to let co-workers know when I was filing a story and when they needed me to phone them for an on-air interview.
Blogging: It was at this time that my blog started to get a good following. So you’d often find me in a Costa Coffee in Beijing blogging away using the WordPress app on my phone.
Since returning from China, I still think my phone is a valuable tool and when I was freelancing for various publications I used to use it for a number of things such as Facebook Lives (although i’m not sure they’re as popular as they were).
I remember one time I used it to interview the cast of Black Panther at the UK premiere. I worked with a co-worker who asked the actors questions as I filmed and then edited and posted the videos on Twitter, all with a phone! Thinking back to that, I think that’s quite impressive. Although it was very stressful at the time!
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For journalists, phones are important for phoning people abroad and in my line of work, that’s something I do quite often especially on Whatsapp.
And of course, I haven’t stopped travelling so I still use it for that too. When I was at the French Open this year, the app was very handy for finding out what games were on and how long to expect matches to go on for. It also helped us figure out how to meet some of the players! When we weren’t watching the tennis, Google Maps was very handy for getting around.
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Not to mention, now I have friends in China, I still use WeChat to communicate with them – I miss them so much!