When we accepted this expat assignment, my husband and I had family goals we wanted to achieve while living abroad. I also had a few that were just for my own growth and development.
One thing I really wanted to focus on was being open to exploring and understanding other ways of life. I wanted to see what the East could do for someone who is so very, very Western.
But I admit, this immersion into a new culture can be extremely frustrating at times. Downright maddening, in fact. For the most part I can laugh it off, but the longer I am here without a trip on the horizon the crankier I seem to get. I can’t help it; as much as I love immersion into another culture I just reach a point where I want my own “normal” again for a few days.
Last week I sat down with a friend, Carolina, who has been here about as long as I have. She hails from Germany, and is expecting her third child later this year (first one born in China!). We kept circling back to the topic of perspective, and our conversation reminded me of one of my personal goals at a time when I was almost at my breaking point. When you’re head down in a new culture, trying to survive day to day in a language completely foreign to you, remember that while it can always be better, sometimes it can be much worse!
Carolina, tell me what brought you to Shanghai. “My husband’s job brought us here. He studied in Hong Kong almost a decade ago, and worked briefly in Shanghai right after school. He always wanted to come back here to live, and I was on maternity leave when the assignment came up so it was a good time to go. In Germany, you can have up to three years of maternity leave per child, so because we have a three-year old, two-year old, and another baby due in November, I am able to be on maternity leave until this assignment is over and still return to my previous job when we move home.”
Wow, that is an amazing opportunity…in the US you’re lucky to get three months unpaid leave and even that is hard to come by for many women. What did you do before you had your first son? “I was a journalist and editor at Vogue in their beauty and fashion department for eight years. I could work remotely if I wanted to, but the challenges of working remotely from China are numerous. The internet, the time change, access to new beauty and fashion products… it’s just not very easy for me to do here. In Hong Kong, I could probably have an easier time.”
In many jobs, it’s hard to take such a long break and feel up to speed when you return. But I imagine it’s especially hard in journalism and magazines. “Yes, definitely. The job is totally different even after just three years away. Even though the internet and social media were big three years ago, it’s nothing compared to today. And the main boss of my department was angry that I was leaving my job to follow my husband, even though I was on maternity leave.”
How has this experience in the past year changed you? “You appreciate more what you have in your home country. And you get frustrated when people back home complain about what they have because they have access to so much more than we do. Germans have everything; so much access, life is easy, and then people complain about the smallest thing. I always thought we could move back to the countryside someday, but now that I lived there for two months over the summer, I am sure we’ll go back to the city when we return to Germany. People living in the countryside complain too much. They live “behind the mountain” so to speak, and the dialect is different… we will live in Munich I am confident of it. As for my kids, I think it’s a positive experience for them in a lot of ways, but I hate the air quality in Shanghai and the lack of places to run and be outside like we have at home. But that’s why we go home for months at a time.
Also, in Germany the kids don’t learn English until 10, so they have two new languages to learn here. They’re open and friendly to everyone. In school, my sons have friends from all different countries, and all the children learn English together. Eventually they can try to speak English together or just play and talk in everyone’s native language.”
It sounds like you and your family have settled in well here. Do you get frustrated with China at times? “Of course. But then the other day my husband’s boss said there was an opportunity for us in a Southeast Asian country if we wanted it…so we did a little Googling about this place. There’s nothing there. You can have a huge home with six servants and four cars but there’s nowhere to get coffee or buy Western clothing. So, we said “definitely not!” Shanghai looked a lot more appealing after that! At least we have all the western comforts here, even if it can be frustrating at times.”
Do you plan to work while you’re here at all or just wait until you’re back home and return to your previous job at Vogue? “I have been slowly working on my own business, a kids’ collection of clothing and accessories. I want to design German-style clothing using cashmere and wool sourced from China. So far, I’ve talked with three factories here in China, but it’s very slow going. You talk for two weeks about one blanket and then come to find out the color or fabric is not available or is too expensive. Just when you think something is worked out, more complications arise. It has been eye opening and very challenging. But again, at least it’s not a third-world country!”
I think most expats perspectives are constantly changing about where they live, regardless of the location. Every location has as many benefits as negative aspects. Most of the time, once you’re embedded in a culture, you prefer the devil you know to the devil you don’t. But even then, sometimes you just have to get away for a little while and mix things up.
What do you value about living in China? How is it better (or worse) than your home country?