Living it up as a foreigner in Guangzhou, China – breaking free!

December 1, 2017

I graduated from law school somewhere in my twenties. I was broke, but thrilled nonetheless. No more papers and endless discussions about article so-and-so of the what-ever constitution. My bank account was in the red, but I had pulled it off. I was the man. The world was at my feet.

Living the Chinese dream.
Lots of opportunities in the Middle Kingdom. If you work hard, you can make it big.

Wanting to postpone cubicle life, I ended up living it up as a foreigner in Guangzhou, China. Guangzhou is China’s third largest city and – hence — packed with people and high-rise developments; as far as the eye can see.

AJ in Guangzhou, Guangdong.
Fresh meat in town (Guangzhou). Taken during my first week or month.

Looking back, connecting the dots, had I not met my Chinese roomies in Sydney, Australia — (where I did my graduate thesis) — I would likely not have gone to mainland China. It was them who’d gotten me curious about chopsticks and ancient Chinese civilization and whatnot. It was the Chinese folks Down Under who mentioned I could teach overseas as a “handsome” foreign teacher. I’m just saying.

So … no more than a few months after graduation I was in the south of China, teaching. My salary: RMB 6100 (about $740 at the time). It wasn’t a hell of a lot, but it was incoming as opposed to outgoing. Besides, life was affordable. My accommodation was covered and lunch was RMB 10 or less. It was fun; it was new; it was challenging.

Teacher and college student both happy.
Happy teacher and … happy student. Really perfect like that.

I felt like an entrepreneur. My students were bored easily and I had to somehow fix that. I had to be creative; from hangman games and handing out personal photos … to stories about the low-lying Netherlands. Class “numbero uno” is a walk in the park, but class number ten is a borderline clusterf*ck. I’m exaggerating, of course, but it is definitely much tougher! I’m telling you.

After a year of managing thirty to sixty college students at a time, I could hear myself going, “blah blah.” I was doing it on autopilot; the same jokes; the same ha-has — a clear sign that it was time to move on.

As faith would have it, I rolled into a new job rather soon. You see, I had interviewed a handful of business owners in Guangzhou during my teaching year. I had done so as freelance journalist for a Dutch magazine; just for entertainment purposes. Whereas that freelance thingy didn’t lead to anything in itself, other than a few publications, it did enlarge my network.

Australian magazine (billboard) at Sydney Airport.
Print publications are, unfortunately, a dying breed.

So, when at the end of my teaching year I got this call from one of these business owners to run this so-and-so business publication, I jumped on it. Needless to say, had I not done the unpaid freelance work, I would not have gotten the editor-in-chief position. It’s as simple as that. Sometimes you have to be a little curious and poke around a bit.

And it was a nice job. It was well paid and I learned so much, you know. I had to go out in full attire and interview all these CEOs and whatnot. Very interesting.

Most importantly perhaps, with low living expenses and a nice salary I was able to save up some more. Not knowing what to do with all the dough, I started investing too. Not that I knew much about it, far from it, but it had always been on my mind; the charts, the fast money. Even as a kid I loved to collect and count coins. So there you go. It was something I had to explore further. By the way, if you ever want to break free from conventional life, you’ve got to start compounding; the earlier, the better. Give your wealth time to grow.

So, that editor thing lasted for a bit and then I switched to sourcing. I started filling up sea containers, you know those 20 and 40 ft ones, and move them overseas back to the Netherlands. You’d find the right factory, (which is a big hassle in the world of fakes), and put down $20,000 — or so — before all of the handbags and whatnot are yours.

Loading a container in the Middle Kingdom.
Loading up containers is oftentimes done at the strangest hours. Tiring!

On paper this profession looks very cool. “So you a trader eh? You da man! You’re living it up! You must earn loads.” The reality is, though, that it’s super stressful and that factories love to outsmart you and save on materials and so on.

If I had to summarize my sourcing lessons, it’d be something like this:

• Both or all parties involved need to be happy. If you bargain too hard, you’ll lose out.

• As a rule of thumb, if a product is let’s say $10 in China you should sell it for at least double that amount elsewhere (e.g. Europe); just because you will always have a long list of expenses (taxes, shipping, and so much more). And if you can’t double it then maybe you haven’t found the right product.

• Expect factories to copy your designs etc.

• And most importantly, expect them to f*ck up. Why? Because they always do. Expect the unexpected. LOL.

Living it up as an extra in China.
Me and another foreigner as medical doctors in a Chinese TV series. Fun.

Would I ever start sourcing again? No. If I ever had to or wanted to spend more time in the Middle Kingdom, I’d rather sign up for some language classes or become a TV-extra once again. For the latter, though, you’ll need to have the right looks and … the right strings to pull. A “foreigner” used to be relatively rare in China, but that’s no longer the case — especially in the main, tier-one cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai. I am just saying, you know.

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