For as much as I love getting to call Harlem, NYC home, there are times when my mind wanders to thoughts about what it might be like to live abroad for a year or two. To immerse our family in a different culture, new adventures, perhaps a new language. In my 34+ years of life, I’ve moved to different cities and states, but still never farther than a three-hour drive from where I was born. So the whole idea of packing up and moving across an ocean is hard to fathom.
And yet, lots of people do it. And I’m totally fascinated by it.
Since I don’t see an international move in my near future, I figured the next best thing was to send a barrage of questions to a friend who is doing the very thing that I find so fascinating, in part to learn something new and to also live vicariously through her.
She and I have lots of childhood connections. We grew up in the same Philly suburb and attended the same schools from elementary to high school. We rode the same school bus, back when I was playing Janet Jackson tapes in my yellow Sony Sport walkman (wow!). Our parents were friends. Her older sister and I went to the same college. There’s lots more, but you get the drift.
Now we’re all grown up, and the interwebs help us stay up-to-date on each other’s lives. And I’m so excited that she’s shared a little look into her life as an expat living in China.
Jen and her husband Jay have spent 2.5 years of a 3-year assignment living in the Minhang District of Shanghai, which is a little neighborhood that’s home to expats from all over the world, along with their three insanely cute kids — Kael (age 6), Pippa (age 3) and Selah (age 1).
Here were my questions for Jen…
Where were you living before moving to China?
Northern Virginia, right outside of D.C.
What was your initial reaction to the idea of moving to China?
I actually thought my husband was joking when he called from work asking if I was open to the possibility. When I realized he was serious, I hung up the phone on him, hahaha. It just sounded ridiculous–I was home with a one-year-old and a three-year-old and barely surviving in the comfort of my own country. The thought of trying to take all of that to China seemed too much to even fathom.
What was your reaction when you first arrived in China?
It was a steady stream of tears for the first three weeks. The airport is so intimidating, with people everywhere. My family stands out here, so immediately all heads turned and looked at us as we came through baggage claim. I felt like a fish out of water and couldn’t really imagine what my life was going to be like living here, which was a scary feeling with two small children in tow. On top of all that, I knew I wouldn’t see my friends or family for nine months (when we planned a visit home). It was a lot to swallow.What are some unique aspects of your day-to-day life?
Well, for one, we aren’t allowed to drive here because of insurance reasons, so we have a driver. It may sound very luxurious, but it turns out one of the things I miss most about home is my freedom to drive myself. As a mom of young children, the car isn’t always the most serene place–there are 700 questions, meltdowns, seatbelt issues, carseat issues, dirty diapers, babies who want to breastfeed, and fights over iPads. Having someone else in your car when you are managing all these issues took a while for me to get used to.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about life in China?
It is way more western than I thought it would be. Friends used to ask me if they had hamburgers here, and now I just have to laugh at that. China, although culturally very different from the U.S., has just about everything to offer in terms of food, and Shanghai is a huge international city. One thing I am not sure people realize is that Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Twitter are all banned here, and you need to use a VPN (which is technically not legal, but often ignored) to access those sites.
Are there nuances to being a mixed race family in China?
Yes! China is not really accustomed to “mixed” families. Seeing me and my husband together alone will get some stares. Not because people are being rude but genuinely because this is something so foreign to them. When we are all out together as a family, with all of our different shades of skin and hair colors, we get many, many stares. It has been hard on the kids and myself to grow used to that aspect of living here.
You gave birth to Selah, your youngest child, while living abroad — how was the experience of giving birth different or the same?
I knew coming to Shanghai that we would want to have a third child while over here. Once I found a good doctor and realized how great the care can be I felt comfortable expanding our family. Since we delivered at a private hospital for expats where the staff was all english speaking, the hospital was like a five-star hotel–even the toilet seats were heated, haha! Obviously this is not the norm in China, but as expats, that is what was offered and I will never forget it.
What has it meant to your family to have this experience of living abroad?
I say this all the time, but I am truly a different person than I was before coming here. It has really opened our eyes to Chinese culture and what living in a communist country means. The United States has so many issues right now, but one thing I will never take for granted after living here is our freedom. We are also surrounded by other expats from across the world. I have become more tolerant and also much more socially sensitive to other people’s cultural norms, and I think the children have too.
Are there aspects of Chinese culture that you’ll carry back to the U.S.?
I think we will try to bring back the dumplings, haha! The food has been surprisingly good, and mid-bite, we’re always saying, “Oh man, I am going to miss this dish when we move back to the U.S.”What’s been your favorite thing about living in China?
Everyday is a little bit of a challenge. I give this place a hard time often, but at the end of the day, I am living in China and the adventure of it all sometimes overwhelms me, and I feel grateful for it. It has also taught me that our unit of five can do anything together.
You’ve gotten to travel to different countries in the Asia Pacific – which one has been your favorite?
Surprisingly, Hanoi, Vietnam was my favorite. The people were amazing, the food was amazing, the streets were bubbling over with energy. As soon as you walked out of your hotel, you felt the good vibes of the city. In addition, I truly haven’t met a beach I haven’t loved, so obviously Bali and Thailand are amazing places as well in that respect.Are there things you’d recommend for anyone traveling to China?
I would say be prepared to be stared at a little. It is not rude, they are just truly intrigued with westerners, and in Chinese culture it is acceptable to stare. I would also say you must try the soup dumplings called xiao long bao–truly delicious!
Outside of family and friends, what do you miss most about the U.S.?
I miss the easiness of it all. Throwing the kids in the car and running to get frozen yogurt. Everyone speaking English. Driving myself to go get milk and bread. The little things. Also, I miss Target more than I ever could explain. China hasn’t quite figured out the one-stop shopping thing yet.
What advice would you give to someone who’s preparing to move abroad?
I would embrace the adventure fully. The first six months I was in China, I fought it every step of the way, constantly comparing it to the U.S. Until I let that go and started to embrace the culture here, I didn’t truly enjoy myself. As my husband always says, “We have the rest of our lives to live in the U.S., let’s for now enjoy China.”