Your twenties are always a time of immense change, and for me, I wanted to start 2020 by thinking back on the most pivotal moments of the last decade!
In the last ten years, I went from a teenager just graduating high school to a married woman with her own business. I took risks, moved abroad, had adventures and picked up a few degrees along the way.
So join me as we look back on my biggest life moments of the 2010s!
1. Graduating with a Degree in International Affairs
At the start of 2010, I was a bright-eyed freshman studying international affairs at the George Washington University in DC. I was a solid 5-hour plane ride away from my hometown of Seattle, and I showed up that first year knowing absolutely no one.
In my first year, I joined a Sorority (Pi Beta Phi) and got involved with my university’s competitive ballroom dancing team. Less than four years later I graduated with a degree in International Affairs from the Elliot School, along with a double minor in Mandarin Chinese and Sociocultural Anthropology!
The four years I spent at GWU had a huge impact on my life. They sparked a strong interest in domestic and global politics, encouraged me to be even MORE of a type-A overachiever, and pushed me towards my eventual career, helping people move to China.
GWU is where I met some of my best friends (and future bridesmaids). It’s also how I met the girl who would convince me to study abroad in China (and not Egypt, like my original plan). It’s crazy to think about how different my life might be if I didn’t study at GWU!
2. Moving to China for 5 Years
When I got on that first plane to study abroad in China, I was terrified. I’d never been to Asia, let alone China. I knew absolutely no one, and I felt completely in over my head!
But after seven months of studying abroad in Beijing and Xi’an, I couldn’t wait to go back to teach English. Just one month after graduation I hopped on a plane to China and ended up staying for FIVE YEARS. If you would’ve told my 18-year-old self that I would swap out Arabic for Mandarin so I could go on to live in China for half a decade… I probably would’ve laughed in your face.
In those five years, I grew so much as a person. I had some really high highs and low lows. At some points, I reveled in how amazing and adventurous my life was, while at other moments I felt incredibly alone.
In these five years, I became conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese. I worked a variety of education jobs, some of which I loved, others I dreaded. I lived in a cosmopolitan city center and the absolute middle of nowhere. I traveled all over China and the rest of Asia too.
Finally, China is where I grew my relationship with my now-husband Chris. We eventually moved in together in a tiny apartment in Beijing where we lived with his brother, sister in law, and their toddler son. Talk about an adventure!
3. Starting Adventures Around Asia
I originally launched Adventures Around Asia as a crappy WordPress study abroad blog in 2012 to document my life while studying abroad in Beijing and Xi’an. If you really want to go back, many of those old posts from 2012 are still there (man… I need a content audit).
I knew right away that I was very passionate about sharing my adventure with others. I liked the idea that people could learn more about China by reading my posts, and I liked connecting with people I didn’t even know who read my stories!
I immediately signed up to be a student blogger for my study abroad program, Alliance for Global Education, where my posts were frequently shared by their social media and on their website. When I moved back to China one year later to teach abroad, I brought the blog back out of retirement and started writing about my teach abroad experience.
Eventually, I discovered the world of travel blogs and decided to try my hand at making Adventures Around Asia more professional. I switched to a self-hosted platform, redesigned my blog and got rid of that horrible red background, and launched a few social media platforms. I had no intention of becoming a “professional travel blogger”, but I wanted to create something I was proud of.
EIGHT YEARS LATER, I’m still writing Adventures Around Asia! I’ve become somewhat of a China expert, and I’ve helped hundreds (possibly thousands?) of people travel and live in China! How crazy is that?
4. Teaching English Abroad in the Middle of Nowhere
My first year teaching abroad in China was kind of a disaster. I ended up on a factory-lined highway in the middle of nowhere where I was the only foreigner for miles. Oh, and if I wanted to leave my school early, I could owe them up to $8,000 USD which was my entire salary for the ENTIRE YEAR.
I thought I knew exactly what I was doing. I spoke Chinese, I’d studied abroad in China, and I even tutored English part-time. But I trusted the wrong people and got way in over my head.
This year was a really tough year for me. I felt extremely lonely and was super jealous of all my friends who lived in the city. I felt taken advantage of by my teach abroad program, and I was angry at my own naivete.
But this year was also pivotal and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I had to push past my loneliness and depression, and make the situation work for me. I realized all my Netflix binging and wine drinking was not helpful and poured myself into this blog instead.
This year also gave me the passion and fire that inspired me to make sure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to anyone else. Without this year, there’s no way my course Teach Abroad Squad would exist.
5. Getting My Master’s Degree in China
Fun Fact: I got a Master’s degree at a British University in China! Way back when I thought I wanted to have a career in International Education, I realized I would need a Master’s degree to be competitive in the workforce. I wanted to have a new expat experience in China (not in the middle of nowhere), so I started looking at Master’s programs that might apply if I wanted to move back home to the US.
I eventually settled on the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, studying International Communications. This university was actually just 30 minutes from my teach abroad job in the middle of nowhere, but it might’ve well been another world away! The program was also only 1-year long and cost a grand total of around $14,000 USD for my tuition. My room and board was just $1,700 for an entire year. That’s right… I paid $1,700 for 12 months for a private room in a shared apartment-style dorm.
To be honest, my Master’s program wasn’t really what I was expecting. I didn’t realize that in the UK Master’s degrees are more like pre-PhDs, which is not really a route I wanted to go down. Basically, I feel like the only thing I really learned was how to research and write academic essays extremely quickly.
But I do have a Master’s degree which is a major accomplishment I can be proud of!
6. Working as a College Counselor in Beijing
For the next 2.5 years, I worked as a high-level college admissions consultant in Beijing. This was my first professional office job, and to be honest, it was super intimidating signing a contract for a solid two years when I’d never had a job that lasted longer than 10 months!
At just 25 years old, I had my own private (purple!!) office with a view, a cute downtown studio apartment, and a pretty solid salary with 20 vacation days. While admissions seasons were pretty hectic and the workdays were long (I worked 10 am to 7 pm), overall I had a pretty good gig.
This position showed me what a good job in China can really look like, and helped me teach other people how they could do it too! I also made some great friendships and had that Beijing expat life I’d always been dreaming of.
However, there was something within me that wouldn’t allow me to stay. I had a dream of traveling the world and starting my own business, and sitting at a desk from 10-7 every day was making me stir crazy. So eventually after my contract ended I slowly transitioned to working for myself.
7. Saving $40,000 in Two Years by Working in China
Working as a college counselor in China allowed me to save approximately $40,000 USD in just two years. This not only helped me pay off my $20,000 in student loans from my Master’s it also allowed me to save another $20,000 to feel comfortable quitting my job to start working for myself!
Overall, I’m really proud of myself for saving this much money! In a way, I feel like I did it without even really trying since the cost of living in China was so low, but there are definitely some steps I took towards saving this income. Firstly, I moved into a shared apartment with 5 roommates so I could pocket half my housing stipend. I also mainly took local transportation (buses and the subway), ate Chinese food, and traveled on a budget staying in hostels and searching for cheap flights on Skyscanner.
This isn’t to say I spent all my time clipping coupons either! I still got Starbucks coffee a few times a week. I drank $8 cocktails, took Didi (Chinese Uber) home from work if I was exhausted and I managed to travel all over Asia during my holiday time!
Overall, I felt like a real adult making a nice income, paying off my loans, budgeting and being responsible. I also appreciated my Master’s degree and quitting my job, even more, knowing that I was funding all of it.
8. Launching Teach Abroad Squad
About a year after quitting my job in China, I launched the Teach Abroad Squad, my course and community to help people rock their first year teaching abroad in China! I’d been dreaming of launching this course for years, and it was definitely a huge process to put everything together.
Teach Abroad Squad has 12 different modules, each with 1-5 videos that are all around 30 minutes long. I’ve also got a Facebook group, bonus intro Mandarin course, downloadable checklists and worksheets, and more! Designing and creating Teach Abroad Squad, as well as building up my audience to actually launch my program, was over a year in the making. It doesn’t help that I actually recorded all of my modules TWICE since the sound quality of the recordings I made in Tanzania was awful!
Before I launched Teach Abroad Squad, I was basically drowning in emails and Facebook messages from people asking for my advice and help when it comes to teaching in China. It was basically to the point where I was AFRAID of my email.
Now I’m so happy that I have a platform to actually give people all of the help and advice they need to teach in China as my full-time job!
9. Becoming Location Independent
Leaving my job in China to travel the world with Chris was a huge change. While I was used to living abroad in China, hopping from country to country every few months is a totally different experience! Over the last few years, we’ve spent time in the US, Australia, Tanzania, and Vietnam, and soon we’ll be heading to Tbilisi Georgia!
Working from home on my own time was a huge adjustment for me, especially since I’m a bit of a procrastinator. I really had to learn to tune out distractions and sit down and get my work done (still working on that…). I also had to contend with the age-old dilemma: it’s impossible to be a travel blogger while traveling. Seriously, if you’re traveling and exploring it’s all but impossible to get anything but the bare minimum done!
Being location independent has given me the ability to be flexible and say YES to opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. Two weeks hiking through rural Japan? Yes! Drop everything and move to Vietnam? Of Course! Two weeks traveling with my family around China? You bet! Move to Tanzania and do social media for a safari company? Okay!
I’ve also had the ability to attend so many weddings, holidays, birthdays and spend more time with my family than I ever did when I was an expat in China.
However, I’m also a bit burnt out on moving around from place to place all the time. I’m really dying to pick a place and live there for a year or so, and then take smaller trips from that base, even if it means paying rent while I do it. I’m just not one of those people who can live (and work!!) out of a small backpack forever, and I guess that’s okay.
10. I Got Married!
Last but definitely not least, I got married! A few months ago Chris and I tied the knot in Bellingen, Australia. It’s crazy to think that just a few short years ago I was complaining about how travel was ruining my love life as a perpetually single girl who hadn’t been in a committed relationship for FIVE YEARS (thanks China).
As a “left behind woman” by Chinese standards, I honestly thought that I would have to choose between my love of travel and adventure and the love of someone else. I didn’t think I could have both, and it was devastating. I didn’t want to have to choose. Couldn’t I just find someone who wanted to experience the adventures of life with me?
But then eventually Chris came along. We met at a travel blogging conference in Bangkok Thailand and bonded over our mutual love of China. Eventually, friendship turned into something more and he moved up to Beijing to be with me.
I moved into a tiny apartment with him, his brother, his sister in law, and his toddler nephew. Eventually, I quit my job and we traveled the world together. We lived in a tiny house covered in mold and surrounded by mud in Tanzania. We starred on an episode of House Hunters in Vietnam, we spent time bonding and living with each other’s families. Oh… and we got married!
How I’ve Grown in the Last Decade
Looking back, I can really see how I’ve learned and grown over the last decade.
Firstly, I’ve stopped trying to plan out every detail of my life. Rather than focusing on what society wants me to be (go to a top university, get a fancy job, make lots of money), I’ve transitioned to focusing on my own passions, even if they’re not what people expect.
Next, I learned that failure isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes making mistakes can lead to something great, and failures can put you on the right path. For example, Adventures Around Asia and Teach Abroad Squad would not be where they are today without that year in the middle of nowhere!
Finally, I’ve become comfortable sharing my life with someone else. I’ve always been pretty independent and determined. I do what I want to do, and if you’re along for the ride you can come too. Looking back, I always went on solo adventures whether it was moving to DC on my own, studying abroad in China knowing no one, traveling around Asia by myself or dropping everything to move to China to teach abroad.
But over these last few years, I made my life fit with Chris. At first, it was strange, because I was very used to putting on this confident and independent facade. But eventually, the two of us formed a partnership. We travel the world together, work from home together and look out for one another. I’ve realized that I don’t have to do everything on my own and sometimes it’s nice to rely on someone. We work towards our shared dreams together.
Big Plans for 2020
While I definitely don’t have the next decade all planned out like 18-year-old Richelle might have tried to do (I was wrong about everything), I at least know what I’m doing for most of 2020!
At the end of 2019, Chris and I flew to the UK to attend one of his friend’s weddings. We then stayed with another friend (and groomsman) of his to ring in the New Year. After traveling around London, Milan, and Lake Como, we hopped on a plane to Tbilisi Georgia, where we’ll be living until the end of May!
After our four months of living in Georgia, we’ll be heading back to the US for a friend’s wedding. Chris and I will then have our SECOND wedding in Seattle so that all of my friends and family can celebrate with us. After that, we’ve got a few months before I’ll be a bridesmaid in another wedding in October (yes my friends, I am 28 years old and all my friends are getting married).
For August and September, we may live in Mexico for a bit, we might get a year lease in Tbilisi if we’re loving it and just fly back for the October wedding… who knows!
Let’s Hear From You!
How has your life changed in the last decade? Let me know in a comment below!
Also, if you have any major questions about moving to China or living life as a location independent digital nomad, let me know in the comments and I’ll be sure to get back to you!