From the beginning of 2008 to the end of 2011, we lived in Shanghai, China. We were offered the opportunity for an assignment in China through my husband’s company and we thought it would be a great experience for everyone, but especially Mei Mei.
On this cold and snowy February day, I thought it was time to reflect on some of our expat days in Shanghai, where it rarely snowed. The following is a blog I wrote on March 1, 2009. Slightly revised.
Many have heard of the advantages of being on an overseas assignment. Some of the more widely known benefits are things like having a driver, housekeeper, paid for private schooling, a large house, and travel opportunities. These are what you focus on when you are about to move your family to the other side of the world. They are vague, but intriguing, and are really all you know when you leave your home.
After being here a year, I can tell you that there is so much more to it than that. We don’t just have a driver, we have Mr. Tao. Mr. Tao is in his mid 40s, and has a wife and college-age son. He was born and raised in Shanghai, and is one of the kindest people I have ever met. He would do absolutely anything we ask him to. He’s a very careful and cautious driver, and prides himself on never receiving a ticket or causing an accident. Unfortunately we were hit by another car last month, so I can no longer say he is never been in an accident, but he was not the cause.
He is great with the kids. Mei Mei and Mr. Tao have an especially close relationship. He loves her, and she him. He is protective of them and always makes sure that they are safe. To us, he is not just our driver but a good friend that we can always count on. When Mr. Tao and I are in the car together, I teach him English and he teaches me Chinese. We joke around, chat, and play tricks on Bill. He is a good friend, and we will miss him when our time here is over.
Our housekeeper, or Ayi (auntie), is Yuan-Yuan. She’s in her mid 30s and has a husband in Shanghai, and a school-age son and daughter in Jiangxi province where she was raised. They are cared for by her parents, and twice a year she goes back to visit. She is at our home from 9 AM to 5 PM, Monday through Friday. She is also a very kind person, and a valuable member of our household. She would also do anything for us. I can leave for the day and when I return the house will be clean, laundry done, dinner will be made, and the dog and cat will have been fed. She only speaks Chinese so our conversation is limited, but the more we learn the more we chat, and we even joke around with her a bit. We have recently begun paying for her to receive English lessons. When she speaks English, and I understand what she is saying, I get very excited for her. I know when we leave she will continue to another job, and if she speaks English she will have more opportunities, and more pay. We want to take care of her by helping her prepare for the future.
Our Mandarin teacher’s name is Qing Qing. She’s in her mid 20s and single. She was born and raised in northern China, close to Beijing. She’s as cute as can be, and is someone who we go out on-the-town with every now and then. A few weeks ago, we went out with her and some of her friends to play badminton. I have also gone shopping with her, and we have taken her out to dinner several times. She’s fun to hang around, and speaks enough English for us to socialize with, while her Chinese allows us to do things that we otherwise could not, due to our limited vocabulary. She is also a great teacher, and I’m hoping that when we leave I will speak Chinese fairly well. I hope we are able to keep in contact with her when our time is done in China.
Our children are not only exposed to Chinese culture here, but many other cultures. We are surrounded by expats on a daily basis, from a number of countries. The kids not only have friends who are Chinese and American, but friends from Japan, Korea, India, Thailand, Germany, England, the Philippines, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, and France. They attend an American school that is filled with children and teachers from these countries, and learn about other cultures everyday.
As part of their learning about Chinese culture and history, the middle school students go on one-week trips within China each year. In sixth grade our oldest went to Xian to see the Terra-Cotta Warriors, and in seventh grade he will go to Beijing to see the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and Forbidden City. In eighth grade he will go to Guilin, where they will see the Karst mountains, Li River, and experience a number of outdoor activities. Each trip includes some sort of community service as well.
Last summer we took a trip to Hong Kong, and saw things we never would’ve imagined we would. We spent a few days at Hong Kong Disney enjoying the park and pool. We also took the tram up to Victoria Peak and cruised on Causeway Bay, both are famous historic sites. Things I have read about in books, but never thought I would see. Next month we will go to Japan, and are hoping to be there during the arrival of the cherry blossoms. We will visit Kyoto and its history of shoguns and temples. We will also go to Tokyo Disney, Disney Sea, and see a Cirque Du Soleil show. In May we are hoping to take Brennan and Mei Mei to Xian and Beijing, while the oldest is on his trip to Beijing with the school.
The common impression of the expat wife, is that while their husbands work hard on these assignments, the wives are enjoying the highlife. I cannot disagree that some things are easier here than at home, but others are not. There is usually more business travel and late hours involved in an expat job, so we give up family time with dad, and spend more time alone with the kids. We also give up many of the conveniences of the States. Shopping for groceries, and basic personal supplies is never easy. Chinese people just don’t eat the same things, or use the same products as Americans. Many things are not labeled with any English. Doctors, dentists, specialists, and medications are all harder to find, and trust. You are inevitably going to have to deal with a situation, or many, that are going to be hindered by the language barrier. Frustration is a daily occurrence.
Besides the fun of making amazing new friends from all over the world, getting an occasional mani-pedi, shopping, and lunches, I volunteer at the school at least once a week, and take Chinese lessons three times a week. I also hope to volunteer at an orphanage soon. I’m trying to learn all I can about China, and hope that I can use the experience and language to some benefit in the future.
It’s hard to imagine what we will take with us from this experience, the benefits will be innumerable and immeasurable, and ingrained deeply in who we are……….For this I am grateful.