IES Abroad Alumni Advice on How to Go Back Abroad: Alexa Penton, a U.S. expat in China

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Studying abroad in Beijing impacted Alexa Penton (IES Abroad Beijing | Spring 2014) so much that she returned to China after graduating from the University of Mississippi as a Resident Advisor at the IES Abroad Beijing Center. Currently, she is teaching English at a Chinese-French preschool, while pursuing her passion for writing and the arts. Alexa was also the first-ever IES Abroad Study Abroad Film Festival Winner in 2014 for her film East of Here, and was also an IES Abroad video blogger.

IES Abroad: Tell us what you’re up to in Beijing.

Alexa Penton (AP): I am a front-of-house manager for Slow Boat Brewery, a craft beer brewery, at our brewpub in Sanlitun District, Beijing. I also teach art and English part-time at a French-Chinese bilingual Montessori preschool. In my free time, I make mixed-media art prints, design creative curriculum for international preschools and kindergartens, and write poetry, some of which has been published by the Beijing-based literary magazine Spittoon.

IES Abroad: When did you decide you wanted to work abroad in China?

AP: I knew pretty much from the moment I left Beijing, back in May 2014. I got hooked on Beijing during those four months as an IES Abroad Beijing student, and I knew I was nowhere near done with the city when I left.

IES Abroad: Why did you want to return to Beijing?

AP: Reasons innumerable. After I graduated, the question on my mind wasn’t whether I would go back, but when, and in what capacity. To some extent it was a pragmatic decision—I spent many years and a lot of money learning Mandarin, and I knew I would make a good return on that investment if I simply put myself in the way of China-related opportunities. But more than that, I was in love with Beijing. The city is hard and gritty and will run you down if you’re not careful, but it’s also the most inspiring place I’ve ever been. “Opportunity” is a word you hear in most conversations surrounding China, and there’s a reason. The opportunities for growth and creating value are endless for those who are willing to work. Jeremiah Jenne, former Center Director of the IES Abroad Beijing program, and long-time Beijing expat, has a saying that sums up life here: “China: It’s where everything is forbidden, and anything is possible.”

IES Abroad: What is it like living in Beijing? What is it like to be back?

AP: It’s the same city at its core, but of course things change at a rapid pace here. An example is something called Kai Qiang Da Dong, a recent government initiative to demolish illegal structures, and improperly licensed business, primarily within the old part of the city. We’ve seen our favorite bars and cafes disappear overnight, and I’ve heard friends lament about the government destroying “the Beijing we know and love.” There are merits to both sides of the argument, but I have to remind myself that Beijing’s history goes back much further than any of our initial experiences of the city, and it was never really ours to begin with. We are guests who must adapt to the ever-changing social and political landscape of China. If you can vibe with uncertainty and upheaval, this is the place for you. But it’s equally important to know that Beijing is not always the city that is depicted in the Western media. Yes, we have pollution, and yes, it sucks. But that’s not where the story ends. I encourage people to look past media indictments and ask questions about what China is doing right.

IES Abroad: How did studying abroad influence your desire to go back? How did IES Abroad help you in your decision to go back abroad?

AP: I returned to Beijing as a Resident Advisor for the Beijing program, so in that sense, IES Abroad completely facilitated my move back to China! What really made an impression on me during my time as a student was the strength and diversity of the IES Abroad alumni community in Beijing. I met many alumni, including former RAs, who were not only surviving in Beijing, but thriving. I was fascinated by this community of people and their individual pursuits and accomplishments. They were killing it, each and every one of them. Their Mandarin was impeccable, and they were working in interesting industries or creating new businesses ventures. Moreover, they were the most supportive group of people imaginable. I knew that if I moved back to China, there would be this amazing safety net of people who would guide me through acclimatization, integrating socially, future career endeavors, and any other obstacle I might come up against.

IES Abroad: How did you find a job overseas? Tell us about the process of getting a job in China.

AP: I was determined to make it back to China, so upon graduating college I applied only to jobs in China. My mantra for the past few years has been simple: “If you want it to happen, make it happen.” That seems intuitive, but I so often hear from friends about endeavors that they would embark upon if only they had the time, money, courage, qualifications. There is always, always an avenue to what you want, whether that means taking an extra job or working long hours or ending a long-term relationship. When I decided to move back to China, I reached out to every contact I had in China. I’m a natural introvert and not convinced of the idea of “networking,” but capitalizing on connections and relationships is a huge part of getting what you want in terms of career.

IES Abroad: In your opinion, why do you think it’s important to try and live, work, and/or study abroad?

AP: I can’t offer any better insight than what you’ve heard others say about studying and living abroad: it changes your perspective, broadens your horizons, and makes you smarter and more adaptable. But for me, perhaps the most important benefit living abroad can provide is a capacity for empathy. In this age of political turmoil and division, that’s the best tool that any of us have. Living and working in a foreign country has developed my patience, understanding, and empathy in ways that a life back home never could have.

IES Abroad: What advice would you give to study abroad students who want to work or study abroad? Are there any challenges to consider? Are there tools or resources students should be aware of?

AP: As I mentioned before, explore every conceivable avenue back to your country of choice. More often than not, you won’t find the really good opportunities until you are physically back in the country. This is especially true of China. So, go ahead and take the English teaching job or join that volunteer program. Prove that you are dedicated to the country, its people, and its goals. Show up, be respectful, and chase opportunities relentlessly.

IES Abroad: Best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?

AP: Be kind and grind.

IES Abroad: Is it hard to be away from friends and family in the United States? How do you make it work?

AP: It is difficult at times, but I have an incredible family who has never been anything but supportive of my endeavors wherever they take me. In some ways, being away from home has given me a greater appreciation for it. I grew up and went to college in rural Mississippi, a place that has a deeply complicated relationship with race, religion, privilege, and gender identity, among other things. Like most, I was ready to get out once I graduated. But living abroad for two years has given me new perspective on Mississippi and the U.S. as a whole. In this respect I’m glad to be away from home; hopefully, when I do move back, I’ll be better equipped to help these communities and to serve as a cultural interpreter.

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