Cross that off the bucket list-publish book. When we moved to Shanghai in 2013, I started a blog to stay in touch with family and record our adventures. It grew into a daily rhythm to capture the craziness that was our daily life in China. Soon, people from around the world started reaching out to me for advice: Where can I get dog food? Should I bring my own mattress or buy one there? Where should I live if I have kids? Is the pollution really bad? Why yes, it is. Now you know. The lungs don’t lie. Buy a mask and wear it.
When my transfer details were finally worked out and I accepted the offer, I immediately went online and looked for blogs or books to get a feel for what our new normal would feel like. I would be a female executive navigating through the Chinese business world while Thom adjusted to being a trailing spouse. I was disappointed to only find guide books primarily aimed at tourists. I was going to become a local expat and needed a source of truth to turn to that would help guide me through all the unexpected challenges from walking down the street without getting run over (truly a challenge daily!) to opening a bank account and being surprised they still used an abacus to conduct transactions. WTF.
We relied on our Chinese tutor, Fiona, to guide us through many obstacles and just explored through fearless curiosity daily in our quest to not live in the typical expat bubble and instead venture out into the real China. Daily we learned and as our confidence grew, Thom took off on a bike to explore and take beautiful photos and I jumped on the bullet train to commute to Beijing and Nanjing for work on a regular basis.
As a result, our blog posts and photos chronicled a journey that few folks get to take. Those that are lucky enough to live in China can use our lessons learned to adjust quickly and with less pain than we went through at times. Not that we didn’t love living there because we did. We would walk down the Bund, climb the Great Wall (4x) and pinch ourselves. “We live in China!” It never got old and we miss our life and the people there. The pollution, not so much.
Pulling these stories all together after we returned home to Seattle was Thom’s year-long journey. Who knew it was so hard to edit a book? I swear every time we thought we had all the spacing, spelling and template formatting just the way we wanted it, we found more opportunities to improve and had to change it. FINALLY, we hit the button and made my frustrated inner writer very, very happy when Seattle to Shanghai and Back Again: Our Year as Expats in China became a reality.
Will miss Hong Kong!
Fearless and Lucky I am according to my FT
Will anyone read it? Maybe. My mom will. The aunt of a guy I met at a friend’s party who just moved to Shanghai to work for Intel will. Who knows, maybe other people? Making money and world publishing dominance was never the impetus for writing this book. Sharing our adventures, recounting our tales so our granddaughter, Mia, will know that her GiGi and NaiNai were crazy world travelers while she was just being born as well as helping other expats adjust to life in China were the main objectives so we are happy. Back in Seattle, we are always looking for the next adventure. A vacation to Ireland is coming up soon and then possible work travel to India and Europe. Would we move abroad again? You never know. Life is short.
“Seattle to Shanghai and Back Again: Our Year as Expats in China” is available here-looks best in color versions vs. Kindle b/w due to photos:
It’s taken a few weeks of settling into a new routine in the U.S. and obsessing over a new job for me to find my Seattle voice. When I found out we would be leaving Shanghai, I wondered what the hell I would write about in boring, sleepy Seattle. China was exciting and odd and wonderful all at the same time. Even reading the Shanghai Daily would produce laughs and a story to share. So, off to Chinatown we went today. Surely I would be inspired there!
As we wandered the quiet, deserted streets today on our way to Chinatown for lunch with James (yes, trying to recreate the past!), I noticed not one dude peeing in the street. Weird. In fact, there wasn’t hardly a soul to be seen anywhere in the downtown area. Where was the fruit lady and the shoe guy? Amazing when you go from 25 million people in a city to under 1 million you do feel a distinct difference in the pace and most sane people would appreciate it. Not me—I like the busy streets and hum of a vibrant urban environment. Shanghai! Manhattan!
At lunch, I couldn’t wait to taste and compare the egg tarts, one of my favorite delicacies that didn’t make me sick in Shanghai. Definitely not as good as what we had in China, but the Seattle version was still delicious. James dug into shrimp fried puffs, red bean paste sesame buns, barbeque buns and dumplings. I loved that when I spoke Chinese to the staff that they immediately knew what I was saying. Mydan! Check please! When we asked for “take way”, our waitress chided James to eat more so she could fit everything in one small box. Done. You don’t have to beg a 21Year old boy to eat more.
We walked through Chinatown, Seattle style, and ogled the pastries in the bakery. YUM. Hearing a soulful tune, we stopped to listen to the old guy in the park making beautiful music with his Erhu traditional string instrument while checking out the jumbo size lawn chess set available for all to play but no one was–everyone was too busy stuffing their faces with hot and steamy dim sum on this cold, crisp day with skies so blue and air so clean you could actually take deep breaths, which I couldn’t get enough of. It’s good to be home.
As my days are numbered here in Shanghai, I thought it would be brilliant to do a “What I will miss and not miss list” to remember our adventures here. On my final day before going to the U.S. for a business trip, I ran by my hairdresser Michael first for a touch up to look as good as I can for the new job. First impressions and all. He was sad to lose his steady client and I was sad that I wasn’t going to be around to see his new salon open up eventually, a project he has been working on for as long as I have known him. It’s China, of course, so it is taking forever. Afterward I walked a few miles to a final dinner with our friends, Patti and Larry, who are staying for a week after I have to leave. It has been a joy to share China with them.
Of course I couldn’t find a taxi at rush hour but enjoyed the long walk to Lost Heaven on The Bund through the former French Concession all by my lonesome. It was dark yet I felt safe and the locals were enjoying their walks home too and starting to source dinner from the many street vendors. The tiny shops were all still open trying to lure commuters in to buy their goods.
I soaked it all in knowing this would be my last long walk alone in China. Then it dawned on me. I WILL MISS IT ALL–the good, the bad and the crazy that is China. Just as there is no place like NYC, there is no place like China and I have been lucky enough to live in both wonderful places.
I’ll miss the smile from the taxi driver as I try to practice my Mandarin and agree that the scooter he almost hit deserved it by getting in his way. We laughed so hard in the taxi coming home from dinner when, we heard the taxi driver’s friend which he was talking with on his mobile as he drove the busy streets hawk a loogie with a force so huge that it came through the speaker loud and clear. ARRRRRGH but that’s China and if you breathed in all that pollution every day, you would hawk up a lung too.
I’ll miss playing the “What’s the AQI?” game daily with Thom as we wake up and check out the “fog” in the early morning light. If you can see the bridge in the distance, it’s a good day. Can’t see across the river? It’s a 250+ AQI day so wear that air mask! Pollution bad? Good day to buy more $2 DVD’s and have movie day/night/week and order in food delivered by Sherpa’s.
The TV’s not working again in the bedroom for the fifth straight day? Yep-time to read a book. Instagram blocked now? Astril VPN being targeted and slowed down by the you know who? Yep-time to read a book. Be courageous and drink a cold beverage with ice made from local tap water and end up being crazy sick. Yep-time to spend some quality bathroom time reading a good book. Needless to say, my Amazon Kindle bill has gone up in China and many books have been read.
Now, just as we had to move on from our NYC adventure, now it is our time to leave China. As we repatriate to Seattle, I will challenge myself to keep on writing and observing life with the new lens I have acquired from my China cultural immersion. Yes, I will appreciate the blue skies more but I will also seek out the new and different cultural experiences that are everywhere not just China to keep the adventure alive. We are only on this planet a limited number of days. Why waste one moment being boring when you can make every day special and new?
Everyone likes a good list–especially me, so here’s mine so I won’t forget the fun times in Shanghai:
WHAT I WILL MISS
*a sense of security that I feel in China–no one is going to hurt me, steal from me, rape me, etc. It could happen but rarely ever does here vs. on the streets of Seattle downtown, you never feel safe. There are drugs deals going down (never in China) and people beating each other in broad daylight. I will carry a whistle, mace and running shoes to get away fast when I move to Seattle.
*rat motif items–I am born in the Year of the Rat and have started my own little rodent collection of tasteful and colorful rats to celebrate the year of my birth. Who knew the vermin could be so cute?
*Vietnam–a country full of super nice, smiling people and interesting places. I must go back.
*foot massage, foot massage, foot massage–how could I have gone my whole life prior to China without this necessity to keep my body whole and healthy and, yes, 90 minutes is not enough…not nearly…
*going to the local shoe repair guy who works on the street by my house 7 days a week – $2 to stitch up my bag that ripped and no waiting. Smile he gives me because he appreciates me supporting a local craftsman=priceless.
*beautiful flowers and colored lights to prettify the highways that are choked with traffic.
*the Great Wall-got to go 4x and loved every trip especially the toboggan to go down
*warm egg tarts from KFC–yum,yum,yum!
*various colors light up Pearl Tower depending on the holiday aka Empire State Building but with more gov’t. control
*$2 DVD’s-you get used to seeing movies in the comfort of your own home while they are in the theaters and the subtitles go unnoticed after awhile
*unexpected bursts of loud bangs as businesses attract the gods of good fortune with firecrackers
*Our ayi, Pink, smiling and wearing my NYC taxi apron while taking care of us and our gorgeous apartment
*large rooms and square footage–Seattle teeny tiny spaces with no closet space not so much
*Strictly Cookies, English muffins, Taiwan crackers-carbs galore
*surprises around every corner at every moment
*bargaining like a mule at the fake markets and getting bargains
*collecting pillow covers of every type and color–it has become an obsession
*my plants-they made our apartment beautiful and they lived despite me and my plant guy who would deliver even the heaviest banana tree right to the exact spot I wanted it..glad that Fiona’s friend took them all
*sense of delight when I found food I could eat that wouldn’t make me sick-thanks Fresh Elements
*our support team-Fiona who tried hard to teach us Chinese and bought stuff for us on Taobao, watched Thor, and did everything we needed to make life possible here; Robert and Billy who ensured we had car service fast and reliable; smiling fruit lady on the corner adding extra fruit in our bag because we always overpaid
*neon lights, flashing lights on every thing for any reason
*watching the ferries dodge the coal boats-reflexes extraordinaire
WHAT I WON’T MISS…all that much but maybe a little
*killer elevator in our building with doors that would either maim or kill you–I got some serious bruises from being stupid and not realizing that the doors would close on my flesh vs. the U.S. version that had safety features
*spotty at best internet, TV that doesn’t work most of the time though it’s good to live without it
*those damn bumps on the sidewalks making it difficult to walk–for the blind? Really?
*avoiding sitting directly behind the taxi driver so I won’t get hit with backwash from him hocking his lungs out the window and bracing for impact because there are never seat belts that work
*worrying that I’ll get sick or crack a tooth and have to submit myself to the China medical system, which is scary even at the best ex-pat places. Got great insurance but don’t want to use it.
*gov’t. Control of all media including blocking Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. to keep the peace. It’s just scary not really knowing what the hell is going on in your city.
*public pissing. nuf said
*toxic water, no food safety, chunky air that makes me cough, cough, cough…lungs can heal, right?
*cars, buses, bikes, scooters all trying to kill me daily…thus, the mottos below
*I’d really like to not die today–repeat daily
*you can die fast or you can die slow–a Fionaism
*it’s China (as answers to almost everything, i.e. why is this happening??)
“Take Thom as collateral”. Please. I offered my hubster earnestly to the scarf lady who wanted 100 RMB to ensure we would stay and wait for her to retrieve our requested 200+ scarves I wanted to buy. As Fiona interpreted, she shook her head fiercely in protest, indicating that the crazy Laowai was not a good trade–we settled on 20 RMB which tells you what Thom is really worth. Just saying, sweetie–Chinese perspective. Nothing personal.
With rolling suitcase and multiple Ikea blue bags in tow, we journeyed to the South Bund Fabric Market to bargain the day away. Now, I’ve been known to be called the “Mule” at the markets and today was no exception. No comment, those of you who know me. Note–I have also been called a “bulldog” at work but that’s another story. Funny, I never get compared to the quiet, beautiful animals like a swan or cuddly ones like the panda. Hmmm…
I started with Thom’s favorite Tibetan lady (gal in the red in the pic) with her jewelry spread out on several blankets outside the market–you get a better price if the vendor isn’t paying for stall rent. Having previously bought a few pieces, I knew the price and pieces I was looking for–no more than 25 RMB ($4 US) and lower is better. Unfortunately the Tibetan lady didn’t stock quantity in any items so on to the next blanket. The word spread fast that I was a “buyer” and the vendors put two and two together with Thom watching over our large suitcase…. this Laowai had some RMB to lay down! Let the stampede begin.
They started rushing me with similar necklaces to the one I had picked up to check out. I finally found one gal who had some multiple units of what I was looking to buy for our accessory business that Thom/James will run in the US online plus I was buying for my friend Patti to start her own business back in the wilds of Indiana. God Bless Fiona who just laid into it with her as the bargaining began and quickly became heated. As the Mule with the RMB, I kept shaking my head and using my best Mandarin bargaining phrases that always come in handy. A couple watching it all go down (guy in blue shirt) wanted Fiona to help them too but she waved them off–she is our bulldog negotiator. I did share with the nice folks what they should be paying so they didn’t get ripped off. I’m nice like that–sharing the “Mule” tips to the world.
We got what we wanted and a few stink eye glares from the vendor (white/black check shirt gal) who still took my RMB. I was disappointed not to get all I wanted but I'[l go back to the AP market, where I have found it’s easier to find 10/20 units of the same necklace, which fits our online store concept model better. Thom’s so excited-more shopping and carrying bags. Oh Joy!
Then, it was off to the back local street to gather up 200+ scarves for 8 RMB ($1.33) each for really nice prints on large cotton-like scarves. At first overwhelmed at picking out 25 or so patterns, I quickly starting using my print radar to pick out the best on the cart. Fiona told me later that the local women were watching my selection process and, drawing a crowd, immediately started buying whatever I was choosing–the crazy Laowai lady must know her stuff, right??? Thom swears his very presence attracted the ladies but we all know better.
After refusing Thom as collateral, off the vendor went to her home to get the stock we needed–back in 30 minutes she promised. A hour and a half later, she finally showed up with LOTS of scarves in tow. While we waited for her, the vendor’s mom told us we needed to straighten the scarf display as we had messed it up with our selection frenzy. Sure, no problem, I got this. I have many, many years of retail experience. After just a few folds, the lady told Fiona to tell me to STOP! It seems that I may need some scarf display lessons as she suggested to Fiona that NO ONE WOULD BUY the scarves I was rolling up to stack on the table. Okay, message received. After I had paid for my many scarves, though, everyone was all smiles. Good day at the market for all!
THE BIG DUCK HAS ARRIVED! Back in Shanghai after furiously working for two weeks at the new job in the U.S., Thom and I didn’t waste time getting out and about on a beautiful sunny blue sky day on Saturday. Destination–the big Duck. Yes, the famous Duck had arrived to sit on the pond in Century Park and be admired by millions of selfie happy locals. Twenty deep in some spots close to the big dude, we weaved our way up close to take our photos as well. If there were more ducks on display, the world would be a happier place.
The duck has special meaning to me as one of the courses I taught had a “Be The Duck” theme and I decorated with plastic yellow duckies everywhere for ambience. I will probably be forever known as the duck lady to my classes but, as long as they remember to be calm like the duck on the outside when presenting material while paddling furiously unbeknownst to the seeing eye, I’m okay with that. I still carry my own little duck in my briefcase to remind me daily–kind of like a “never let them see you sweat” mantra. It works. It also makes me smile every time my bag hits my leg and quacks a little.
After the duck encounter, and really, who doesn’t love a duck, we headed over to the AP market to make someone’s day. You see, we’ve decided to do a little import/export business selling accessories back home. We’ve made some great connections here and when someone compliments you on the $4 necklace you bought and asked if you got it at Anthropologie and did it cost $88, well, you know you’ve got a business just begging to be created. My friend Patti and I will work with Fiona, our language teacher here, to buy, ship and sell lovely scarves and necklaces. We’ll use our profits to fund more travel adventures and possibly have James assist so he can earn money to pay for law school. More to come as we transition to Seattle and get it up and running!
Walking miles back to the apartment, ’cause that’s what we do, we soaked up every detail and smell on the streets. Oh how I have loved living here and, yes, it feels like home.
Many days we have walked by a hotel and seen the beautiful (and expensive) cars decorated with flowers to celebrate a wedding. And when I say expensive, I am talking that a Porsche is the entry level with Bentleys and Rolls Royce being preferred–the bigger the car, the better the status. We walked by this lovely Porsche on a hot sunny day recently and admired it’s beauty until we saw the driver sawing logs reclined in the front seat and quietly snuck away so as not to disturb his beauty sleep–weddings will do that to you!
The ritual seems to be that the bride/groom lead the wedding processional in the most elaborate car with a hood floral centerpiece with the wedding party cars decorated more discreetly with flowers on the side mirrors. Not having actually been invited to attend the inner sanctum of a wedding ceremony, I can only imagine how over the top the flowers are there if their gorgeous cars are any indication.
As in the U.S., the ceremony might be nice, the food should be good but the pictures are everything. On weekends especially, if you go to The Bund or the parks, you will surely see the brides and grooms getting their pictures taken in picturesque settings, posing with their wedding party. This occurs sometimes months before or after the wedding or for their engagement party. The dresses are elaborate and gorgeous. No expenses spared for Chinese weddings!
It seems like the river boats on the Huangpu River are rented out for weddings frequently. Typically, you will see a huge banner hanging on the side with portrait of the happy couple. Nothing like seeing yourself 12 feet tall and flapping in the breeze to celebrate the happy day. Can’t imagine what that sets back the parents paying for those parties. Yikes!
We were at the Cool Docks recently and the center restaurant among the fountains had been decked out for a wedding in the evening. We didn’t stick around but I’m sure it was just beautiful. White cut out light cylinders indicated a night wedding with the formal chairs and runners all in white and very formal. Party on!
On another night as we were going to Shook bar on the Bund, we ran into, literally, a wedding party just breaking up. The flowers were everywhere and their backdrop banner provided Thom and I with an unique opportunity to “borrow” their props. Always the newlyweds we are!
WARNING: Do NOT read this post if you are a child, have a weak stomach or love sheep. REALLY. I’M NOT JOKING. This interlude may have scarred Patti for life and instead of remembering the cuddly Panda’s we saw at the zoo, she’ll never forget the sheep doomed to die. That being said, it is China and as we say here, you can die fast or you can die slow. The sheep unfortunately had to go the route of the former vs. the latter.
While strolling as a group to the local wet market as part of our cooking class, little did we know we were going to witness a ritual to celebrate Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice. NOOOOOOO…we thought we would pick up some ingredients for our lovely lunch and then merrily skip back to Helen’s apartment for our class. Along the way we saw the cutest sheep tied to the fence so we stopped to take some photos. It’s not often you see live animals in the streets of Shanghai, so I had to take a photo of the boy feeding the cute sheep a leaf. Little did I know that would be his last meal on Earth.
Coming out of the market, we saw a group of people with their phones out taking pictures. As we got closer, we saw that the cuddly sheep had been sacrificed and were strung up by their hooves and were being butchered right there on the street IN FRONT OF CHILDREN! While Emily, the vegetarian in our cooking class, quickly ran away screaming, I felt I had to document what was the most gruesome sight I have ever seen. If I wasn’t somewhat of a vegetarian before, I am now. Thom quickly informed me as he shot photos, that this must be the hajj faithful offering a sacrifice by slaughtering a sheep with the meat going to the needy.
In the Shanghai Daily, Thom had read an article on the festival that 1.5 billion Muslim around the world celebrate. While I respect the culture, it was shocking to see it played out in public for all to see. But that’s why I came on this adventure-to experience new and different cultures–so it was fitting that I witnessed this while still in China. Still, the sheep were so cute….