Conversations with Immigrants and Expats
Interviews with people who live and work in a country other than the one they grew up in. Learn about their experiences moving, integrating, and being productive in a foreign land — while keeping in touch with friends and family back home.
Hello and welcome to Conversations with Expats. I'm your host Patrick Donahue here at Cloudflare.
I've been here about five years. I'm joined with Andrew Schafer. Andrew and I go way back.
We started around the same time. He was one of the first folks to welcome me to the company.
Today we're going to talk about what it's like to live and work in a country other than where you grew up in.
So I'm hoping to talk to a whole bunch of people, get their experiences, tips and tricks and sort of what went through their head from a thought process.
So welcome Andrew. Good to have you.
Hey, thanks Pat. So where are you joining me from today? I'm currently in Singapore.
Got it. But that's not where you've been working, right? No. A little bit of a long story.
I was in Beijing. I moved to Beijing with Cloudflare in March of 2019.
And I took a trip to Tokyo with a friend of mine during the spring festival. I left on January 23rd.
And I just haven't been able to go back to Beijing since given the global situation.
Got it. Got it. So take me back to that process. First of all, how long had you been in Beijing before you went on this trip?
So I was there for 10 months.
And I was there for a year and then moved to Sydney. But it's been a pretty crazy experience.
So I left. I was in Tokyo and then Kyoto with a friend.
It was amazing. And then I just couldn't go back to China because of all the coronavirus developing there.
So I ended up staying in Tokyo for a bit longer, which was awesome.
And then after that, I basically had to be outside of the mainland for something like past 15 days, or else no other country would accept me.
Then after that time period, I was able to come to Singapore and I stayed here for a moment.
Then went to Sydney, Australia. I'm supposed to move to Sydney. I was supposed to move to Sydney actually in March.
I was in Sydney for about 10 days, then came back to Singapore.
And then Singapore went into lockdown. So I've been...
Singapore's been gracious enough to host me for the last... I don't even know anymore.
I don't have the data. Got it. But you had kind of been living and working in Beijing for a while, right?
You had been there. And so I kind of want to get into your experience of what that was like.
So first off, how was your Mandarin before you moved there?
Yeah, my Mandarin's okay. So I was an American Peace Corps volunteer in rural China for two years from 2011 to 2013.
So during that time...
So the Peace Corps, they do amazing things with language acquisition. So we flew to Sichuan province, and then we all studied at Sichuan University in Chengdu, in the capital of Sichuan province.
So for the first three months of our service, we lived with host families and had language class seven days a week for hours and hours.
And that was to basically give us functional Mandarin, because we're going to be sent out in the countryside where no one speaks English except for our students.
So it was a great crash course. And I had two years with a tutor.
So basically, the US government through the Peace Corps gave us money for books and podcasts and tutoring.
So it was amazing. It was amazing. All that stuff is obviously not very expensive in rural China.
So I showed up in Beijing with rusty Mandarin, but I can still hold my own, hold a conversation, get around, so on and so forth.
Good, good. So how have you found it since you moved? How was it getting fluent and getting up to speed as much as possible and sort of integrating yourself there?
It was intense. I brought my textbook from the Peace Corps back to Beijing with me.
So I ran through the lessons I had gone through pretty quickly. But then, yeah, I just was really obsessive about studying Mandarin all day, every day.
And it took a little while to take the rust off. But it came back pretty quickly.
And then Cloudflare was really gracious and helped me have a tutor in Beijing.
So I was doing a lot of work with a company called italki.com. So doing some online learning, and then I had a tutor in person as well.
It was awesome. And, of course, all my colleagues spoke to me all day long in Mandarin, which was really helpful.
I learned a ton, actually, because we have a WeChat group, like Cloudflare China WeChat group, where I learned so much just because I had to follow that.
I had to keep up with what's going on and hearing about sales deals through that.
So I learned a whole new vocabulary really quickly, because I just read the same things over and over again.
And I read the inside jokes and these little comments and all the memes that have characters like, what does that even mean?
So yeah, learning a bit more of a business Mandarin as opposed to stuff I needed in rural Sichuan is very different.
Got it. Got it. Yeah. I mean, I think there's learning the language, and then there's learning the local sayings and slang and integrating into the business.
So I can imagine that that would be a bit of a challenge.
So take me back to the decision before you decided to go abroad. What was going through your head?
As someone who's done it myself, I know I've been going back and forth and predominantly in the UK for the last couple of years.
Not quite as far of a move as you, but we both were coming from San Francisco.
I think I would imagine there's concerns and social scene and friends and family.
What was going through your head when you said, I want to pick up and move to Beijing?
Yeah. So I actually moved to San Francisco from China. So I was in the Peace Corps from 2011 to 2013.
And then after that, I moved to San Francisco.
And at the time, I was actually lecturing in philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
I was commuting from San Francisco to Santa Cruz twice a week.
And then basically, eventually, Matthew actually wrote a blog post about this that people can check out in the Cloudflare blog about that whole story.
But I'd been in San Francisco for about five years.
And I was okay with that because I had been really fortunate with the Peace Corps to be able to travel a whole bunch and spend time abroad.
And I felt pretty burnt out on being on trains and planes and things, which is a really, you know, a really, I felt really fortunate to have that all those experiences.
But I was pretty, I was itching.
I was itching to get out. I've been in the same place for five years. I moved to the city, experienced a lot.
I love the Bay Area, but it was time to go. And so actually, I was the, when we first started working with Baidu, the topic came up with having a China office.
And that point, I was already talking to Matthew and Michelle, like, can I go?
Can I go? Can I go over there? And it was like, slowly came back around.
I kind of forgot about it. But yeah, I was ready to go like that.
If they had, if they told me a year earlier that I could leave the next day, I would have packed myself up and left.
I was, I was itching to get out. So yeah. No, that's cool.
I think it's great. You know, we've, we've been very fortunate to work at a company that's been growing really fast and having the opportunity to open new offices.
And I think, you know, taking what you've learned sort of back at the home office, the headquarters and from a culture perspective and instilling that, you know, in new offices around the world is really important.
So we're very glad to have you there and teaching everyone about what it's like to work a couple.
So what is your role there?
Like, what are you, what are you doing kind of on a day-to-day basis?
And how have you found that's differed from, you know, what your role was like in San Francisco, even if it was sort of the similar function, like how is it different operating and being productive in a different country?
So I was on the, the, the CSM team in San Francisco, the customer success team.
And I was technically part of the special projects team in Beijing. I think most of the team working on China falls under special projects, but I was doing a lot of similar stuff.
So a lot of post -sales account management type work. And then I got involved with the Baidu partnership.
It's a whole different animal trying to, I feel really fortunate that a lot of my job function stayed the same because absolutely everything about everything, everything else in my life radically altered.
And I feel like it had, I moved to China and started a different job.
I might've had a nervous breakdown. So it was nice that there were certain functions, like certain key things that I knew how to do and could do them well, because I've been doing them for years before.
So I could at least show up to the office and feel productive.
I feel like I can handle that while the rest of my life was spinning because yeah, moving from the U.S.
to China, it's, I think there's probably a lot of folks who experienced cultural difference, like a culture shock, going from places of traveling.
And I just, I personally feel like going from the U.S.
directly to China is that culturally we're so far apart that it's, it takes an awful lot of, it's mentally exhausting to do that.
And then of course, trying to find an apartment, trying to figure out where I'm going to live and, you know, adjusting to all kinds of different things, trying to figure out where to find food, where's the grocery store, all those things.
At least I knew what I was doing for a job, which is helpful.
But of course then doing it, using, doing it, using Mandarin in the office and trying to figure out how those teams work together and trying to, you know, deal with time difference.
Cause I knew how to operate in San Francisco.
I knew, I knew you, I knew a whole bunch of engineers.
I could get things done. I could just ping people. Like, you know, I had a network there, folks that could help me solve problems, but that went away when they were sleeping when I was awake and trying to solve problems remotely is more difficult.
I didn't learn a lot more stuff on my own. It was a massive adjustment. So I actually want to drill in on that, that sort of integration process a bit.
So talk me through, what was it like actually physically moving there and sort of getting, getting plugged in and physically, you know, orienting yourself and finding the groceries and things like that.
What was that experience like? Sure. So I didn't pack very much.
So I didn't, I didn't, I didn't really want to have stuff mailed to me.
Basically the thing was I could send a gigantic shipping container full of stuff to Beijing, but I couldn't mail stuff and have it counted to the, whatever the relocation allowance because of the company we were using to help with this.
So I didn't, I didn't mail anything. I didn't have any, I didn't have enough stuff to put in a container.
So I just didn't mail anything. So I just brought a suitcase and a bag.
So I didn't have very much stuff. The relocation package I got from Cloudflare was really great so that I was put into what is essentially an extended stay hotel in the CBD area of Beijing, the central business district, which ended up being a really, really great location.
So I was there and basically, you know, working there and then commuting to the office.
How can I explain this in terms people might understand around the world?
I was, I was in the CBD and commuting to Wangjing.
I basically, I bought a, the head of, the head of the China office, Xavier, helped me buy an electric scooter.
I bought the smallest, the biggest scooter I could buy that did not require me to have a Chinese driver's license.
I had this electric scooter that I would ride from the hotel to the office and back, which was amazing.
It was so fun. It's about a 45-minute ride that was sometimes terrifying, oftentimes very fun, very dangerous.
So basically, I was staying in this hotel.
I had two months. So basically, like two months in this hotel to like familiarize myself with the surrounding areas, figure out where to get food, figure out where the grocery store was, and then from there look for an apartment, which is great.
It's like having a home base, someplace actually, you know, decompress a little bit, figure out my surroundings, have some time to explore the neighborhood, see where I want to live, and then I ended up moving to a building that was like four blocks away from that hotel.
Probably, it was a lot easier, but also just like it, I just, I happen to know everything around the area and it's all the stuff I really wanted.
So we found a place that, that works for my budget and I moved there.
So it worked out pretty well, but yeah, I was thankful to have a place to land and crash because the first month, I was, my head was spinning like severe culture shock and trying to, you know, a little bit like, what am I doing with my life?
What's going on? I'm terrified. I don't know if I want to be here.
This is, it's a little too much. I think, yeah, when you read books about culture shock, they talk about like the information overload.
You're trying to process so many, trying to learn so much so quickly.
It's, it's pretty intense. Yeah, I think it's great that you were able to kind of stay in a given place for a period of time and orient yourself and figure out where you wanted to live.
And I think I had a similar experience in London where I was in one neighborhood and in an Airbnb for a few months and kind of got a feel for that neighborhood and then, you know, bounced around a little bit before I figured out where I wanted to settle down.
So I think that's always good.
And I'm sure you probably found your, your favorite spots to eat around there and, and, you know, jump in on that.
So tell me about the food, like what is, what is it like there?
And what have you, what are the delicacies that you've been, you know, trying and enjoying and how has your, how's your palate changed, you know, from, from the US?
Yeah. I think, I think the first thing to explain is that in the US, when we talk about Chinese food, that's an awful lot like saying, let's go have European food, because China is, it's so diverse.
Like it's such a gigantic country and the regional differences with food are so vast.
So when I was in the Peace Corps, I spent all the time, I spent my whole service in Sichuan, especially in a place called Yibing, which is near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.
And Sichuan food is super spicy. And I've tried every Sichuan restaurant in the Bay Area.
Some of them are good, some of them are all right, but it's just, it's not the same.
It's really not the same. So I spent a lot of time just trying to find the best Sichuan food in Beijing.
But yeah, I personally, like my favorite cuisine on the planet is Sichuan food.
I just, it's just, it's phenomenal.
And Beijing has tons of it. And it's all kind of, you know, you can get Yunnan food and food from Southern China.
And of course, Beijing has its own delicacies.
China is a place to eat for sure. It's just like phenomenal, phenomenal food choices.
Got it. I didn't realize you were a big fan of spicy food. I am as well.
So next time I see you in person, we'll have to go out and you can, you can point some stuff out to me and I'll see if I can keep up with you.
So one of the things that I struggled with, and I'm curious if you did as well was, you know, you're, you're kind of leaving where your friends are and I'm not sure where your family is.
But for me, my family is on the East coast of the United States. And so not a huge time zone difference, but my friends were, you know, eight hours away in the West coast for the most part.
And it was tough for me to sort of stay in touch with them regularly.
You know, you, you're, you're on different time zones and for you is even, even further exacerbated.
Like, how did you deal with that first off?
And, and, you know, what sort of routines or techniques maybe did you kind of, or tactics that you put into place to try to help offset some of that, that difference?
Yeah. Good question. I had to, I had to start scheduling calls just like a business call because in the U S if, you know, if I was my, my friends and my family members, they weren't that far apart on the East coast, it could be a bit more casual, like I get like step out of the office, you know, whatever, after, after work, give them a call on the weekends, give them a call whenever, just, just try to catch them if they're free.
But that's just not possible when there's a 12 hour time difference between the two of you.
So yeah, I just started scheduling calls.
I just, I would text people and say, Hey, look, I will call you at 6am Beijing time, just 6pm in New York.
And we'll talk then. Okay. All right. Tuesday the 14th, we'll do this.
But that's, and that's how it's been the last year and a half.
I just have to schedule time with people because otherwise, yeah, otherwise I won't, I won't do it.
And if I try to call them randomly, they're not free because I'm calling them weird times.
They try to call me in the morning. And you know, if my parents who were born and raised in small towns, like what time is it?
I don't even know what day is it over there. I don't even, it's in the future. They just can't wrap their mind around it.
So, you know, it's better to get my mom, like, just say, all right, mom, hey, look, at 6pm on Tuesday after work, I'll give you a call.
Right? Yeah, no, that's, that's funny. I got to a Sunday kind of evening schedule or evening for me and weekly schedule with them.
So so are you sending like calendar invites?
Are you making it easy for them? How are you? Is this actual phone calls?
Or some sort of, you know, video conference? Or how are you actually is what sort of medium are you using?
Well, it's everything's different with COVID.
Of course. Normally, yeah, I'd like to do a video chat and actually talk to someone and get to see them.
But I'm doing video calls all day long for work. It just the last thing I want to do outside of work is to open up another zoom call that I'm making here for you, Pat, just for you.
I'll do this. But yeah, just right now I just if I'm on a phone call, I just want to put my headphones in and walk around outside and just have a and enjoy it.
I just can't. I'm in a tiny room. 23 hours a day looking at zoom.
I hear you. I think we all have a little bit of fatigue from that.
Speaking of kind of pandemic, like how are you? How are you staying sane?
How are you staying fit? Like what are you doing to sort of, you know, keep yourself in good sort of physical and mental health.
There's a great video that talks about this time is like being in your own private spaceship.
I'm not sure what the title of it is, but if you like YouTube it, I'm sure you can figure it out.
But basically, I have tried to keep myself into a semi normal routine. Just like, okay, I go to bed at this time I get up at this time.
Like those two cornerstones are really important.
And just getting a little bit exercise. I'm, you know, I'm a really, really active person, super active.
I have found that during lockdown, I'm just I'm super lethargic.
And I don't know if it's, you know, being worn down from, like, you know, being in a room all day long or lack of social interaction.
I don't know anyone here in Singapore, I'm by myself, for the most part.
And so it's been strange. But yeah, it's trying to get a bit exercise, regular sleep schedule, trying to get some sunshine, get some vitamin D, I just stand out in the balcony sometimes let the sun hit my face for 30 minutes, put a timer on listen to music for 30 minutes, like, alright, let me just get this in.
I can't go outside right now.
It's small things, but it's whoo. I'll say this, I'm feeling grateful that if if you know, right now, the world's experiencing, you know, there's all sorts of really huge events happening in the world right now, a lot of people are going through an awful lot.
And if the worst you have to deal with is a bit of boredom and loneliness, I'm extremely grateful.
Yeah, that's well said.
I think, for those who know me, I'm a vitamin D aficionado. And I'm always touting the benefits of it.
So I'm glad to hear that you're you're getting your sunlight, make sure to do it through open windows, you can't you can't get the UVB through the through the windows.
So there you go. Don't say I didn't teach you the next the next segment.
I'm gonna interview you all about vitamin D. All right, we will get the Cloudflare.
I know, I know, just the expert. I know, just the expert to join.
One of the things I was just looking back through what I was going to ask you, one of the questions I wanted to ask was, you know, you talked about the process of moving over and you told me of how you navigated it.
But I think and this is something I ask folks when they when they join Cloudflare is, what are the things like you're going to be experiencing this for the first time just once, right?
And so that's a really good time to jot stuff down. In particular, you know, where I work in product management, those initial experiences with a product are, are crucial.
And that's something that you want to kind of keep with you and refer back to it, because, you know, you'll get used to things, right.
And so one of the things I was curious about was, what was sort of like the most surprising thing for you when you got there, and you started to get plugged in, like, what, what surprised you now that maybe you're kind of used to and you say, Oh, that's sort of how things are done.
Yeah, so this is actually really interesting. It was an interesting experience for me, I actually read an article about this for the Peace Corps magazine called worldview, because it felt to me like I was going through this is like somehow double culture shock, because my experience of China up until moving to Beijing had been rural Sichuan.
So like, out in the middle of nowhere, where one direction, I was at this small university campus where right outside the university gate, there were, you know, fields of people using wooden hose to like, till their fields for rice.
And then the other direction, there's like a Walmart or Starbucks, which is a big deal, big deal in Yibing.
But it was, you know, like, it was a very, it's a vastly different experience.
Like, you know, it's like, I was in a situation where I was like, really, really watching the rapid development of China.
I was watching buildings go up overnight and things like that.
Like, I saw that happening. And so that was my that's like, that was what my experience of China had been.
And then going to Beijing, I rocked up like, oh, I can get a kale smoothie and avocado toast with some pour over coffee.
Like, I just completely blew my mind.
Because globalization, yeah, like, you know, all these capital cities, for better and for worse, like have a very common thread, like you go to Beijing, go to Shanghai, go to Tokyo, you know, go to Singapore, like, you know, there's these common threads, which is, it's bizarre to see.
But yeah, that completely blew my mind.
I had a gym membership, we go in the gym, I was training jiu jitsu and Muay Thai, like, it was all that stuff.
Like, it's Beijing's major global city that has all the same amenities.
So I guess, to put it in terms of the US, it'd be like, I spent two years in rural Kentucky, and then ended up in New York City.
It's like, whoa, hang on a second. This is, this is not the same country.
Yeah, like, I can imagine that'd be a bit of a difference there. So kale smoothies, pour over coffee, avocado, it sounds like you're back in California.
Well, yeah, in some ways, yes.
But of course, yeah, there's, of course, it all has its own flavor to it.
But it just blew my mind that those things were even available.
I just, it was not my experience. That was not possible where I was in the Peace Corps.
Well, what is the, you know, we have a lot of coffee aficionados at Cloudflare.
I'm always, at least when we're in the office, there's all sorts of special brewing going on.
And some of the folks here take it really seriously.
What is the coffee like there? Are you a big coffee guy? Is that something that you shop around for?
Pat, I'm glad you asked that question. Because, you know, if you're in China, you gotta drink tea, man.
This is, this is, this is the, I'm going to geek out on tea for a second.
How much time do I have left? We've had enough of my tea rant.
But when I was in the Peace Corps, I went to visit tea plantations, like I picked tea with some tea workers, like I got deep into tea and did a bunch of research on tea.
At one point, I considered doing a PhD on tea because there's so many bad books written, they were, they had all this misinformation, like I could do this better.
Anyway, I geeked out on tea. So in China, I drink tea, you can get the most fresh, amazing green tea from all over China, in these amazing tea shops in China, and it's not that expensive.
If you buy this stuff in the US, it's obscenely priced because you have the shipping of it and whatever else, it's probably going to be not that fresh, it's been in a boat or whatever, how it's been transported.
But yeah, like getting the first flush of fresh green tea leaves in the springtime, it's a really special thing.
Yeah, so coffee, I don't know, man.
I can't tell you about coffee in China. I was... No, that's, I'm a green tea fan.
I had a friend who used to travel to China a lot, and she would bring me back some really nice green teas.
And sometimes I would forget about them, and they would get a little dry, but I really enjoyed them when they came back.
So I want to switch gears a little bit. I want to talk to you about, this is a bit more profound question than coffee versus tea, but I want to talk to you about sort of what are the things based on your time there that you think, either lessons learned or experiences that you'll have with you, you know, for the rest of your life, as you look back in five, 10 years, 20 years, and you reflect on your time in China, like what are those things that will stay with you?
Yeah, I think the big thing is, you know, global politics will always run their course, always with this gigantic narrative happening.
I don't want to speak to any of that.
The thing for me is that China is a place that some people don't know that much about, and it's a place that there are people that I know and love there, and that will forever shape the way I feel about that country.
I feel like that, like that to me, it changes the whole narrative.
No matter what I read or what's going on, like I know what people are like, kind of like one-to-one level there.
And I met unbelievably smart, curious, kind, gentle people.
It's a really special place.
For me, it's the people. I'll forever have a connection, and I'll forever have a really positive connection to really wonderful people in China, and particularly my colleagues.
My colleagues in the Beijing office were amazing. Took me out for dinners.
We'd go out for hot pot at lunch, which was amazing. Shout out to my colleague there.
He helped me through so much stuff. I can't tell you. Xavier saved my butt so many times when my bank transfer didn't come through because I didn't know how to...
Bank transfers take forever, which is like, we should have solved this problem a long time ago.
But anyway, I didn't have any money, so Xavier transferred money into WeChat to me so I could buy lunch.
These people saved my butt so many times.
They didn't know me that well, but there's something really special about the way in Chinese culture, this collective culture, people take care of each other, and I really felt that.
I felt extremely fortunate to be a part of that.
The team I was with was amazing, really amazing. Yeah, that is amazing. I think as you, hopefully when you're moving to a different office, you'll be able to draw on those relationships and those connections.
For whatever office you end up in, you'll be the go-to guy if someone wants a favor called in to a different office.
I think that's really important to strengthen those cross-office ties, in particular in the world today where people aren't physically able to come together in the same room and conference room.
I know that I've had a few new starters on my team and just getting plugged in and building those relationships is really important, but it's more difficult to do.
There's more overhead when you're trying to work with somebody from London to San Francisco or some other different office.
It's different rather than just meeting people in person and forging those bonds.
What about, are there places, so it sounds like the people, the office, the culture, are there places that you visited?
Do you have much time to travel on the weekends and see various tourist sites and things like that, or just other sites that people might not be aware of that are off the beaten path?
Yeah, well, Beijing's a really unique place because it's this massive modern global city, but at the heart of it is the Forbidden City, the old Empress Palace, and then surrounding that are Hutongs.
So Hutongs, they're sort of like this organic growth of homes that sort of grew up around the palace.
And the Hutongs are still there. They weren't all taken down for buildings, and they're really beautiful.
I have these fantastic memories of summer nights riding my scooter through these Hutongs, and there's some of these beautiful Hutongs that end up around these beautiful lakes and these cozy little bars and cafes and fantastic restaurants.
That is a really magical part of Beijing.
The culture of Hutongs and that particular part of the city, it's a really, really unique thing.
So yeah, people, of course, seeing the Great Wall and seeing the Forbidden City is really amazing, but if you have time in Beijing, definitely take a stroll through the Hutongs.
It's such a unique part of the world.
Yeah, I'd love to visit at some point. Maybe you can be my tour guide. I'll happily be your tour guide.
Cool. We should get you doing a segment here on Cloudflare TV where you take people around to the site.
Go part of my helmet. I'll just ride my scooter around the Hutongs.
Yeah, maybe do some. I would love that. I think those at home would like to see it as well, and maybe we could get you a tea show as well where you can tea with Andrew, I think we can call it.
It would be great right before nap time for everyone.
Tea with Andrew. Everyone will be sleeping in 30 minutes.
No worries. That's terrific. So Andrew, I really want to, we're drawing near on our time here.
I really want to thank you for sharing your experiences with everyone watching around the world.
This was really interesting and fascinating and appreciate your insights.
The last question I want to leave you with is, if someone's looking to do what you're doing, are there any tips you could leave them with?
Do it. Absolutely do it. Yeah. You're not going to go and push away your comfort zone.
Jump into it head first. It's going to be crazy and hard. Life's going to be crazy and hard anyway.
That is very wise advice. As someone who's done it myself, I would agree.
Anyway, thank you so much for joining us and best of luck with your travels and getting back to Beijing and all the best.