Dave Cooper and Liz Ashforth met one night in the fall of 2004. They were both studying for their PhDs at Newcastle University in Great Britain. Hers was in biology; his was in computer science.
A common friend introduced them briefly during a rock music club event. But the friend kept talking to Dave, and by the time he finished, Liz was gone. The next time he saw her, a few weeks later, he positioned himself at the bar so that he could talk to her without interruptions. They soon began dating.
As they got to know each other, Dave kept telling Liz about his experience taking a gap year after high school, in 1996. He taught English at a school in Neijiang, Sichuan province, and had the time of his life discovering Chinese culture and Neijiang’s underground nightlife. As they became closer, the discussions turned from “this is what I did” to “we should go to China together.”
So when Liz got a job offer from the Chinese Academy of Sciences at the end of her PhD program, she couldn’t wait to tell Dave.
“I sat Dave down and said, ‘We’re coming to China. You’re coming with me,’” she says.
They moved to Beijing in 2009. She arrived a month before Dave, who was visiting friends in Vietnam and Malaysia. That first month, while Liz was reading an expat magazine, she saw an ad for Beijing Improv’s weekly workshops. She circled the ad, thinking Dave would love it.
She had spotted what would become a favorite pastime, passion and entrance into one of Beijing’s many artistic communities.
Improv, also known as improvisational theater, is a form of theater that is created in the moment it is performed. Invented in the US and Canada in the 1950s to the 1970s, improv is now played by groups around the world.
Dave had started training with an improv troupe in Newcastle upon Tyne just a few months before leaving for China. When he arrived in Beijing, both he and Liz joined Beijing Improv.
“It definitely kick-started our social life, helped us make friends extremely quickly,” Liz says.
Dave joined an English-language group, and Liz joined a bilingual group. They soon discovered that improv networks span several Asian countries. They traveled, participated in improv festivals and made friends in Manila, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Besides being relaxing and fun, improv principles can be applied to other areas such as business, therapy or disaster preparedness. Improv teaches you to say yes, accept what you have been given and build upon it, Dave says. It helps to alleviate anxiety about the future and about life’s unpredictability.
The couple found that doing improv and living in a foreign country were complementary. It helped them ease into their Chinese experience.
Looking back at why he wanted to return to China in the first place, Dave says it was because of people’s friendliness but also because of the freedom he experienced here.
“The freedom to choose what you want to do, accompanied by relative financial security is quite a powerful aphrodisiac,” he says. “But having thought about it a lot more, I wonder how much of that freedom I believe is afforded only because I’m a foreigner in another country.”
Life and Work
That’s not to say there weren’t culture shocks. Liz, who was screening marine bacteria in search of new antibiotics at the Institute of Microbiology in Haidian district, found the work culture to be very different from her PhD program back in the UK.
In the UK, she worked mostly by herself and rarely consulted one of her busy supervisors. In Beijing, she was the only foreigner among approximately 40 Chinese researchers. Everybody had time for her, but she also had to request permission for every relevant move she made.
Dave in the meantime found work teaching video game design and development at Beihang University and editing scientific papers. He also became involved in a hard rock band, Red Pirates, along with three other Chinese musicians.
Toward the end of Liz’s two-year work contract, the Institute of Microbiology along with a foreign laboratory organized an international conference with about 500 participants. Liz, being the only foreigner in her laboratory, became the go-between person between the two parties. She coordinated the publishing companies, wrote the program, designed the student workshops, wrote press releases and designed the logo.
“I found that was really, really great, being in that middle ground and helping people achieve things,” she said.
She discovered her passion for event planning and decided to pursue it.
She has since organized cultural, educational and improv events. She has held training sessions in aquaponics, which are systems that combine raising aquatic animals and cultivating plants in water. During this year’s Beijing Design Week she designed an environmental project complete with recycled materials, a bamboo waterway and bike-generated electricity.
Alongside his work at the university, Dave started developing his own video games. He also built the Mozzilla Web Forward accelerator with a partner in London. About six months ago, he left his teaching job and joined a game developing company, and later a start-up. He has just submitted his latest video game, Blockships, to the Independent Games Festival in California.
This variety of creative projects would not have been possible in their home country, the couple says. Beijing is a creative melting pot, and one that’s welcoming to newcomers.
“There’s live music everywhere, there’s art installations, there’s theater, there’s so much going on, and if you want to get involved in it as an expat, you just have to say the word and suddenly it happens,” Dave says. “Try and do that in any other city, and there’s already 10,000 people established.”
The same opportunities are available to Chinese, they say. And Chinese-only artistic groups are usually welcoming to outsiders.
“Language doesn’t matter in those cases, only enthusiasm,” Liz says.
The couple says the challenges they overcame here have made them stronger. In 2014, they married.
But in mid-December, they’re moving back to the UK. They want to have children and raise them away from Beijing’s polluted air. They also want to live closer to their families.
“The third reason is one we probably didn’t think about, but it’s probably the most important one,” Dave says. “And that’s that it’s time to face the next adventure. We got comfortable in Beijing, and it’s time to shake things up a bit.”
Photo by Ollo Schwan