The year after I graduated from college, I went to live in China for a year to teach English and study Mandarin Chinese. Considering I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish, this may seem odd. But as a language major at my college, I was encouraged to take a year of an additional language, so I chose Mandarin Chinese. At the time, I thought I wanted to do international business, so speaking English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese seemed like a wise move to make.

I signed a contract to work at the Leewen Foreign Language Institute in the city of Qingdao, China. I knew from learning Spanish that the best way to learn a new language was to immerse myself in the culture. Despite studying abroad many times before, and conducting my own rigorous academic study, I wasn’t fully prepared for what I would experience in my first days in China.

Upon arrival in Qingdao for the start of my journey, I was already a little on edge, as my bag never arrived when I landed in Beijing. I was met at the airport by a representative of Leewen, where I would be teaching, along with a professional driver. (By the way, in case that strikes you as strange, trust me: you need a professional driver when in China). It was around 11:30 p.m. when I arrived, and it was a 30-minute drive to the apartment where I would be staying. I was scheduled to stay in an apartment with four other male foreign teachers, but they informed me there was a little bit of overlap in the contract, so they arranged for me to stay in a different apartment for the first month.

We arrived at the apartment around midnight, and they helped me carry my bags into my room. The school representative was eager to get going since it was so late. She told me my first day of work was on Saturday, and I should arrive at the school at 9:00 a.m. She and the driver quickly shuffled out the door and closed it behind them.

This sounds simple enough, right? The important thing to know about the situation was it was the wee hours of the morning on a Tuesday. Here I was in China, in a place where I did not know one person, armed only with a map of the city and the year of Mandarin Chinese I had taken in college. I was on my own for the next four days. Those four days seemed much longer at the time.

I didn’t have anywhere to be the next day, so I slept in until around noon to recover (jet lag is a real thing). When I woke up, I started unpacking the items I did have with me, and I called the airline to check on the status of my lost bag. I finished about 2:30 p.m., and was growing quite hungry. I got dressed, collected my map of the city, along with my English-Chinese dictionary and headed into the city for lunch. I walked around until I came to a restaurant and noticed it was closed. I soon learned that every restaurant was closed. After looking at multiple signs at restaurants and translating, I surmised that restaurants in China closed after lunch and re-opened for dinner.

I was extremely hungry, considering the last meal I had was on the airplane, and I couldn’t seem to find any convenience stores for a snack. I just kept walking around and exploring the city. When dinner time arrived I was famished! I was as hungry as I can ever recall being in my life. I walked into the first restaurant I could find and sat down. They gave me the menu, all in Chinese characters. I knew the character for chicken, so I pointed to a dish pictured with that character and waited for what I was sure to be an amazing dish. I anticipated my first taste of authentic Chinese food.

My excitement quickly dissipated as I watched the server place a huge bowl of chicken feet in front of me. Mind you: chicken feet are considered a delicacy in China. I don’t know if you have ever tried to eat chicken feet, but there is not much meat on them. I took a few bites where I could find something to fill my belly, but this certainly was not coming anywhere close to satisfying my hunger pangs. Too afraid to point to something else on the menu, I paid my bill and left. I was still so hungry, though I had no idea what to do.

Luckily, I soon found a modern mall with an international grocery store. I browsed through the store and purchased the most expensive jar of peanut butter I have ever bought in my life, along with a few loaves of bread. I survived the next few days on bread and peanut butter until I met some new friends who helped me find the kind of meal I was searching for on my first day.

I did learn a valuable lesson through this. Sometimes in life, we all get a bowl of chicken feet when we expect something different. Sometimes we are simply in survival mode and those moments are our greatest teachers. I learned more about myself during those few days in China than I had learned in some of my years in college. Perhaps you are coming through a season of difficulty and challenge. The middle of your chicken-feet moments could be a great time of learning. In every chicken feet moment lies an opportunity yet to be discovered. I hope you find it.

Graham Honeycutt is a life coach and motivational speaker from Nashville, TN. He helps healthcare organizations and professionals overcome burnout by being joyfully resilient. Visit his website at www.grahamhoneycutt.com.


This essay was published in The Connect’s Summer 2018 issue. You may purchase the full issue here, or download the digital version here.