Tayler Cox is an associate at ZhenFund, a Chinese venture capital firm, and maintains a blog about living and eating healthy in Beijing. She was kind enough to talk with us about her varied experiences in China.
When and why did you first come to China?
I first came to China in the summer of 2008 for a three-week seminar on Health and Education Development through Stanford. The next year I came back on a Boren Scholarship through the U.S. National Security Education Program for language studies in Beijing.
What cool projects have you worked on in China?
I had the privilege of doing an internship with the Rural Education Action Project (REAP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences one summer, where I got to research and create educational materials on anemia prevention for elementary school students in rural China. One cool personal project I’m doing now is a bilingual food blog on eating green and living healthy in China called Suluku, for which I spend time visiting markets and organic farms around Beijing.
When I first came to China, I experienced several severe bouts of food poisoning and had difficulty distinguishing which foods were safe and healthy. I thought that by sharing tips online I could help other Beijingers with these choices and help make the food system just a little more transparent. That’s why I started Suluku.
What are the biggest challenges you faced here, and how did you try to overcome them?
Language! When I first arrived three years ago, I remember struggling with simple things like checking into a hotel room and finding the grocery store. It took a while to get comfortable with navigating the city on my own using Chinese. Fortunately, I had a about one-and-a-half years of full-time study at Beijing Language and Culture University to establish a foundation, and now I have a job where where the predominant office language is Chinese. I think repeated exposure is the best way to improve, which is why I’m hoping to stay in China for at least a few more years.
Health was also a huge challenge. Between traffic accidents, food poisoning, and infectious diseases, the first couple of years here were rough. My immune system adjusted over time, and I’ve also learned strategies for staying healthy, like avoiding certain restaurants or cooking at home, keeping plants in the house for air filtration and keeping the hospital ER on speed dial. Beijing can be hard on your body so I try to pay attention to my health.
What do you like about living in China?
Since the cost of living is relatively low here and you can fall back on part-time English teaching to support yourself, you have the freedom to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. I’ve done a stint in a Russian samba troupe, been a dance instructor, started blogging, and even done voice recording work.
There’s also an inexhaustible supply of places to travel both within China and in Asia, again at a relatively low cost. The chance to explore and adapt to new situations has given me a new sense of self-confidence. For example, I once had the bright idea of buying a 17-hour standing train ticket to Shanxi province in the winter during Spring Festival. It was unpleasant, but having survived that, I feel like I can survive anything!
What are you up to now?
Last year I took up some private English teaching to help pay off my educational loans. One of my first students happened to be one of China’s leading angel investors, and I now work as an associate at his company, ZhenFund. I get to meet with hundreds of Chinese start-ups each year and participate in strategic decision making at work. This is especially exciting as Beijing is at the epicenter of internet entrepreneurship in China, and innovation is increasing at a rapid pace.
It is also a unique company because many of the key employees are women, which is unusual in the finance or venture capital industry. I got lucky with this job, but these opportunities are not unusual here. I think it was Woody Allen who said that eighty percent of success is showing up. In China, I would add that showing up AND putting effort into studying Chinese language and culture will give you a good shot at succeeding.
Based on your experience, what do you think is the biggest misconception about China?
China is often metaphorically and symbolically represented as the behemoth ”Chinese dragon” in the international media. But living here puts a human face on the situation. China is becoming more wealthy but also more unequal. I live in an area where people drop hundreds of dollars on shoes and right outside migrant workers are putting in 14-hours on a construction site for ten dollars a day. You can get the best international cuisine here but still worry about severe food safety risks (recycled gutter oil is one recent example). Modern buildings dominate the skyline but somedays you can’t see them because of the giant cloud of “fog” enveloping the city. Obesity is as endemic in cities as malnutrition is in the countryside. Living here provides a more nuanced sense of China’s rapid development in a very visceral way, and it makes China’s rise as a global superpower much more complex than is sometimes portrayed.
The other misconception is the “get rich quick” mentality that draws some to China. This is not a place to seek quick fame and fortune. Life is hard even when you have adequate finances. As a foreigner, you will get frustrated, cheated, sick, and lost before you “make it.” But if you can stick it out, it is also an incredibly vibrant and rewarding place to live. There really is a sense that you are living in one of the most interesting periods of one of the most important countries of the 21st century.
Can you describe one of your favorite or “most memorable” China experiences?
Camping on the Great Wall was definitely one of the best. It’s a fantastic place to stargaze and get a break from the city. Funnily enough, that night my friends and I had the impression of being the only people out in the “wilderness,” but we were interrupted around 2AM by three American hikers passing through. I guess that’s what happens when you sleep on the trail!
What is your favorite hangout spot in China?
Sanlitun Village. It is sort of a typical expat hangout, but has some of the coolest urban space design in Beijing and is one of the only pedestrian-only walking zones in the city. It is also a great place to people watch, as Beijing’s fashionistas tend to congregate there.
Photo courtesy of Tayler Cox.