In my last post I talked about the frustrations of living in China. Simple errands—opening a new bank account, changing phone plans, returning items to the store—become complex projects. Even mundane tasks—buying groceries, driving a car, communicating simple sentences—can become grand accomplishments.
And yet even if I sometimes have bad days and miss home, there are many things I love about being an expat, and I wouldn’t want to give them up by moving back to the States. Here are eight things that I love most about expat life.
When I first arrived, the other expat moms I met here didn’t bother to sugarcoat their experiences in China. “I’m going to be real with you,” they said. “Be prepared to have good days and bad days. When things start to go downhill, take a deep breath and tell yourself, ‘It’s China. That’s just the way things are.’ And then move on.”
I’ve been pretty fortunate since arriving that my good days have far outnumbered the bad, and yet one day last week, I was walking home and the sights and smells and sounds of China—the tuk-tuks driving by, the language I couldn’t understand, the slight smell of smog in the air—left me wishing for home.
About eleven years ago, while I was living in Korea, a running friend and I tried to register for the Great Wall Marathon. When we realized how cost-prohibitive it was for nonresidents of China to run one of the most difficult marathons in the world, our plans never materialized.
I stored the idea away. And for the next several years, every time I’d amp up my running or fitness routine, the Great Wall Marathon would move to the forefront of my consciousness. I’d play with the idea for a while and then tuck it away again, thinking maybe the Great Wall could still be a someday.
Once the weather turns nice, my family loves to be active outside where the kids can get their wiggles outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Here in Beijing, that can get tricky. Not only does the weather need to be nice, but the Air Quality Index (AQI) needs to be favorable. When the stars align and both of those things happen on the same day, you better believe we’ll take advantage of it.
When we moved to Beijing, we decided to live in the suburbs (Shunyi District). This meant we were far from the parks and activities that downtown Beijing could offer us, but we were close to the international schools and where most expat children live. When we first arrived, we wondered how many amenities we would find in the suburbs so far from the city center, but soon after we arrived, we were fortunate to discover a stunning park area a short drive away.
Several months ago I took my children to a coffee shop and treated them to a smoothie. One cup for the two of them to share would be plenty . . . at least I thought so at the time.
Their faces tell the story:
Any time we move into a new country, a part of us will change. We have to. We learn a new language (or at least pieces of one) or other tricks to enable communication. We learn cultural taboos and make sure we don’t commit them. We embrace the differences when we can. When we can’t embrace them, we endure them and try to be positive.
Perhaps the biggest culture shock in coming to China was not the language (having lived in Korea, I was accustomed to getting by with minimal language) or the air quality (I was prepared for the worst and ended up being pleasantly surprised).
The most difficult challenge was the seemingly flippant regard for others’ safety and well-being—mostly on the road. In a previous post, I discussed the morbid Chinese reaction to car-pedestrian accidents. You can read that here.
A couple weeks ago, when my children were released from school for spring break, we were eager to get away and experience something new. Many of the expat families we know who travel around Asia have recommended Hua Hin, Thailand. I had visited Thailand only once in the eleven years I’ve lived in Asia, and I happened to catch a virus that, for the whole week, made my head feel like it was going to explode. With so many recommendations for the particular resort that we stayed at and the great deal we found on air tickets, we couldn’t resist the temptation to go and give it another try. I was ready to make some new memories of Thailand—ones that included the country itself rather than feeling miserable and unable to get out of bed.
I came across a photograph of myself recently.
I’m standing in a cave somewhere in the Philippines, the turquoise water sloshing against the rock near my feet. I remember that day. I remember getting dressed in the morning—that bikini top I have on with the turquoise trim and yellow and blue stripes (I loved that swimsuit). The short shorts I’m wearing in the picture—I often used them as a cover up for bikini bottoms. I even remember pulling those shorts on that day and noting that they felt smaller—lamenting that I had gained a few extra pounds, that I wasn’t exercising enough anymore, that I was maybe eating (or drinking) a bit too much. I even remember the blue flip flops I have on my feet.
But I don’t remember me. At least not the way I am in the photo. I never looked like that. If there would have ever been one moment when I was actually happy with my body, it would have been then—the previous year I had run three marathons and was in the best shape of my entire life. In the photo, I look youthful—tan, slim, physically fit. Yet all I remember noticing when I looked in the mirror back then were the things I didn’t like.
Memories fade with time. Now I don’t know the truth anymore. Do I trust the photographs or my fickle memories?
What do you see when you look at this picture? An old shoe box? Garbage that’s been picked up off the ground? Probably not valuable objects worth saving, right?
This is my daughter’s treasure box.
My three-year-old’s preschool teacher likes to call her a collector. Every time I take my sweet girl outside to play, she picks something up from the ground—a pinecone, a single stone (among all the other stones on the ground) that she has labeled as beautiful, a dropped advertisement that she can’t even read yet, tangled ribbon with a shriveled balloon at the end. She so often doesn’t want to throw her rocks back on the pile or give up the garbage to the trash bin, I finally gave her a treasure box and told her she could keep all her treasures inside it. She had to leave the box in the entryway of the house but could take the box with her whenever we went outside to play.
I’ve been overseas long enough to know that the media doesn’t always give an accurate portrayal of what life is really like in certain parts of the world.
For ten years I lived in Seoul, Korea and every time North Korea came to the forefront of media coverage, I would get a flurry of questions: “You guys all right over there?” or “Korea is so dangerous. I can’t believe you live there.”
Every time, my answer was the same: “Life carries on as normal. You would never know North Korea is stepping up its antics yet again.” In reality, although you would never guess it from media coverage, even with the North Korean border only thirty-five miles away, we were much safer in Seoul than we would have been in the USA. You could lose a wallet on the subway in Seoul and would get it in the mail a week later with the money and credit cards still inside. Instances like this, in which Koreans won’t even pick up dropped money from the street, don’t surprise me at all. But those kinds of realities don’t get media attention.
I understand that media coverage can distort our concept of what it would be like to live in a certain country, so it was hard for my husband and I to anticipate what the reality of living in Beijing would be. What we, like most others, knew of Beijing was what the media chose to tell us, and the only thing the media liked to talk about when it came to Beijing was the air quality. I remember watching this video and sharing it with a friend while my husband was interviewing for his position.