In our first interview, we sit down with Liz A., a recent transplant to Shanghai. Hailing from the East Coast of the US, Liz and her young family moved here in September 2016 so her husband could take a new job within his company. This is her family’s first ex-pat experience. Believing their time here to be about three years in total, Liz is coming up on the first anniversary of her move abroad.
Depending on your life experience and where you’re from, certain parts of the world naturally become ex-pat worthy destinations. After spending time in Central America and Europe in her 20s and early 30s, Liz naturally gravitated to the idea of moving to Europe if the opportunity arose, but never thought about moving to Asia, especially China.
Liz, tell us about your initial reaction to the idea of moving to China. “Well, I had a 4-month-old son and I had just gone back to work, and I was not happy about the idea. We had talked a lot about where we would go internationally, but I told my husband repeatedly that I would never move to Asia. So, of course, that’s where his company told us we were moving. And I was really upset, I refused to talk about it for two days. As a new mom…just figuring out how to go back to work was challenging enough, let alone thinking about moving halfway around the world.”
So, you were always open to moving abroad but you just weren’t interested in Shanghai. “Right. I have always wanted to be an ex-pat, even before I met my husband. I don’t know why, but it always sounded cool to me to live somewhere else. I’ve traveled to Central America several times, I’ve been to Europe, so I knew what those places were like, I knew what to expect. I had never been to Asia, so I had no idea what we were in for. I had no idea how modern Shanghai would be, I had no clue about anything. So, it was that fear of the unknown that made Asia sound bad to me.
I think if we didn’t have a child I would have been much more open to Asia, but it just felt like we would be so disconnected from family, and it would be so far for people to come visit. So, it was more of a distance thing than disliking Asia.”
Is the fact that Shanghai is so well set up and Westernized important to you living abroad? “Yes, definitely. I think, again, if we didn’t have a kid, I would be much less concerned about all that. But I am a mom, and I have a very young son, he’s not even 2, so ease of getting around, access to events and other English speakers is very important for us. I am learning Mandarin, but it’s very much a work in progress.
I really like it here, and there are great benefits to living here as an expat. But, I can’t work for a Chinese company, and I can’t get around here without people meeting me halfway. So, it might not be the most immersive expat experience you can have, but this really works for us.”
After talking about how Liz got here, we segued into the issues around settling into a new culture and country as a mom. As with many new transplants, loneliness plays a big part in the initial reaction to coming here. You plan for months before you come, you envision all kinds of scenarios that you might encounter here, but when your husband is off at his new job (often out of the country) and you’re home for days at a time with no one around but your child(ren), the sadness can set in quickly. “Everyone talks about it; they say the first few months are hard and the change takes a lot of getting used to, and my husband had warned me that he would travel. But in my head, I thought he would have more Shanghai time than he ended up having. It turns out no matter how much preparation you do for anything, when you’re in that hard period it feels like it will never end. And even when we found our ayi, it took a while for my son and I to adjust to that new dynamic. It’s hard to get into a new routine wherever you are.”
Settling into a strong ex-pat community can be somewhat daunting, but Liz is outgoing, which helps. “It helps that I have my son here with me, and I must get out and find activities for him. I find that because everyone’s in the same boat, people are open to making new friends much easier than if we were in the US. Even if you’ve been here for years, your friends have come and gone, and people travel so much that there’s never just one person that you hang out with.
Up until now, I have done all the typical settling-in things: find gym classes, mom groups and play groups, new restaurants for date nights and girlfriend dinners… and now I’m at the point where I feel like I want to start exploring options for myself professionally. I just started some volunteer work in my field, which is publishing and marketing, just to see if I want to do something while I’m here without the pressure of having to find a full-time job.”
Before China, Liz had a 15-year career in publishing and marketing, but was looking for new challenges and avenues to explore. “I keep trying to find the role that fits, and I feel like what I excel at is mentorship and management of teams. I had a small group working for me at my last job and I really loved helping them grow their careers and grow within the company. I would love to find a way to do that in the future.”
When asked whether this ex-pat experience has influenced her opinion of herself, Liz said, “I think it doesn’t change anything per se, but rather reinforces my belief that my strength lies in encouraging people, gathering people, and helping people meet and network. And whether that means focusing on recruiting or management-level positions I’m not sure. But personally, I think this experience has given me a lot of confidence. I think I was very brave to take our child around the world and expose him to opportunities he never would have had otherwise. I think I’ve done a good job settling us in. We are constantly adjusting to new situations, and I am doing the best I can with that. I am more confident in my abilities and it’s made me a lot less afraid. Everything I do here, from flying solo with my kid to a new country or finding a doctor for my son in a foreign country gives me more confidence for the next time adventure.”
So, Liz, how do we take confidence and parlay it into something we want professionally? Sometimes women are so confident personally and cannot transfer that confidence to the professional arena, particularly when they’re going after new jobs. “I don’t know, that is a good question. I think the tendency is for women to feel like they need to be 100% qualified for every job and men just act like they know how to do something and figure it out once they’re in the role. I personally have trouble asking for things, whether it’s more money or a better title or management responsibilities. I don’t know, this is the big question. The only way I can try to do this is by adding smaller experiences. For me, it’s more about my confidence level than the hiring manager thinking I am not qualified for the job. So, while I’m here, if I can add a few small volunteer opportunities to my resume, it’ll give me something to talk about and give me the confidence to ask for the money or the title or whatever I need when I am going for my next job back home.”
Thanks for chatting with us today, Liz. As your closing thoughts, what advice would you give to the new expat mother/spouse just arriving in Shanghai? “I would say get involved as much as you can, because everyone is in the same boat as you. Try to get out there, be friendly, join classes. I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t want to at least be friendly. And equally as important; just take the trip. Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you, because I think you’ll regret not going more than going. Do whatever it is that you can while you’re here because when you’re home you’ll just get wrapped up in the day-to-day of family and old friends. This is the time to embrace new opportunities. I’ve wanted to say no several times to trips that my husband suggests because it would mean flying solo with my son, but in the end, I go and I’m so happy that I’ve gone and done those things. I survived, we had fun in a new city, and now I have more confidence in myself.”