Living in China has been one heck of a change. After living in Saudi Arabia for six years, moving to Shanghai felt like moving to Mars. In celebration of this past year, I’m sharing four things I learned from my first year in China.

Less is more.

If you would have seen my closet in Saudi Arabia, you would have laughed if I said I’d embraced minimalism. The truth is, I’ve embraced minimalism out of sheer necessity. The longer I live abroad, the less I want to schlep around from place to place. During our move to China, we had suitcases, air freight, and sea shipments. Although I thought that I had minimized my belongings, we were both completely unprepared for the average size and cost of Shanghai apartments! Our new minimized digs combined with the late arrival of our sea freight (six months after we landed!) changed our perspective on what was necessary.

Minimizing my belongings hasn’t been an easy journey, but it helps me put my priorities and values front and center. Plus, it is much easier to enjoy your belongings when they aren’t piled up to the ceiling!

Build your life around your priorities, not someone else’s.

Being a stay at home wife was the biggest culture shock of 2018. After working so hard to build my credentials and identity as a writer, I had no idea what to do at home alone in a new country. After I finished working on my first novel, I panicked and began desperately searching for a job. I hopped on that bandwagon and nearly worked myself into the ground! I had just moved to another continent…why didn’t I think I deserved a breather?

Since I hadn’t taken any time to plan my next move, the job was a disaster! Long hours, unfulfilling job duties, and my energy was completely drained. Because I didn’t take the time to build my life around my own priorities, the ten months I was at that job felt wasted.

What did I learn from this experience?

Examine your core values and decide to treat them as priorities.

For example, as Muslims, our first priority is supposed to be about pleasing God. However, praying on time is a common struggle. It sounds super simplistic, but if something is important to you, act like it! Instead of eating first on your lunch break, pray first. When you come home, don’t attack a pile of laundry or zone out to Netflix. These tasks require a lot of energy, but the return is of low value.

Instead, spend time with your kids. Ask your spouse how their day was. Call your parents. Write a letter to someone you lost touch with. Laundry will always be there. And hey, if you find yourself constantly behind on laundry, refer to #1 and get rid of some of your clothes!

Never have time to write, draw, work on your side business? Get up early and pray Fajr, then give yourself thirty minutes to an hour to work on it before you start your day. You are supposed to be up anyway! And this way, before the day has even started, you’ve already contributed to your goals.

We all have tasks to complete: the “have-tos” we don’t want to do that rob us of our time. But there are ways to fight back, to tip the scales in our favor. When you spend time on something, you are saying in reality that it is important enough to take your time. Outsource what you can. If you can afford to outsource cleaning, hire someone to help you. Have older children cook a meal once in a while, invite family over for a potluck to share the load, batch cook, or simply eat simpler meals to save time. There are plenty of ways to save time/reorganize your day. No one else is going to do this for you. If you keep choosing other people’s priorities over your own, don’t be surprised when they achieve their goals and you don’t. Inaction only allows other people’s agendas to swallow you whole.

One of the things that were blocking me up was this wrongly held belief that I “had” to make a certain amount of money to be successful. I was pouring all my time and energy into making more money and wondering why I wasn’t happy.

I found that, for me, happiness is reading a book, traveling and discovering new places, or writing a story to share with the world…and my life didn’t reflect that reality. However, there are always sacrifices involved. In order to get more time, I had to give up a paycheck, a set salary amount, the set schedule and the security of having a company to “validate” my skills.

Small decisions determine how we spend our days. These small decisions tell the world what is important to us.

Take care of yourself.

2018 was the year of health crisis. In early 2018, I hurt my back. I was a part of a running club and was doing very well, and then all of a sudden I was couch-bound. My weight went up, my anxiety skyrocketed and then we had an international move. So. Much. Change.

One of the biggest changes between living in Saudi Arabia and living in China is the difference in lifestyle. In Saudi Arabia, all social gatherings revolve around heavy, rich food. Taxis and private cars are essentially the only means of transport. To get exercise in Saudi Arabia, especially as a woman, you have to prepare for a battle. Battle the weather, your driver, the dangerous roads, the extremely expensive gyms, society — there is a lot to wade through!

However, in China, exercise is baked right into your day! Shanghai has a fabulous public transportation infrastructure. We only take taxis to the airport! You can walk, bike, or take the metro and trains everywhere else. This does mean that you walk a lot! I average 12,000 steps per day without even exercising!

The sweets in China also use significantly less sugar than in Saudi (or in the United States). People here are careful about eating fruit because of the sugar!

One negative about working in China is that work/life balance doesn’t exist naturally. The commitment to your job that is expected here is more consuming than I have ever witnessed. People are always in the office. I’ve had to reevaluate what I wanted from my career and my time in China because of how difficult working full-time is here!

Being an expat can be very stressful. No matter where you are in the world, take care of yourself. If you don’t, who else will?

Keep an open mind.

My first year in China was a year full of firsts. I never thought I would eat snake, snails, or frog. Becoming a social media manager was a step outside of my comfort zone. Learning Mandarin renewed my passion for language. And working for a creative agency forced me to become a better writer.

Year one wasn’t easy, but China is already a part of me. Just like Saudi, each experience good or bad is a mirror to my true self. And for once in my thirty-one years, I like what I see.