Nicole, tell us what made you first decide to become an expat.
I met my husband James on a blind date. He was a hotelier, and I was a television newsreader. I can distinctly remember him saying on one of our early dates that, ‘in his career, they like you to continue progressing and that means opportunities to live and work overseas.’ At the time, as a self-professed ‘career-girl’, I was adamant that my opportunity to work and live overseas had come and gone and instantly dismissed the idea. Coming to Australia as a backpacker from England, James was quite ok with staying put. He was an expat anyway!
A couple of years later though, we were newlywed, and James got the opportunity to put his hand up for a job in Hong Kong. For the first time, we really considered this seriously. Something came over me, and I realised how short life can be and urged him to go for the job … As they say, the rest is history.
One thing that many expats struggle with is adapting to culture shock. Is this something that resonates with you?
Absolutely. The same week we said ‘yes’ to moving overseas, we found out I was pregnant! So, here I was, arriving in Hong Kong, with no job, no home, no car, no pets, no family or friends … And I was about to have a baby in a foreign country. Culture shock hit hard. While Hong Kong is very westernised, it still has that Eastern flavour, which means a different language, food, lifestyle, cultural nuances etc. And of course, as the trailing spouse, I was often on my own while James was busy learning his new role. I can remember waddling around Hong Kong, trying to get to doctor’s appointments and getting lost amongst the crowds of people. It could be quite daunting and frightening. I didn’t know how to get home and often ended up in taxis all over the city!
Before moving to mainland China, you lived in Hong Kong. How do the two places compare? What are some of the starkest differences, based on your experiences?
The two places are really chalk and cheese. While mainland China is literally just over the border, the great divide is very real. We moved to a city called Xi’an in China’s north west. It was a city with a comparable population – 9 million people – but whilst Hong Kong had that element of westernisation from 150 years of British influence, Xi’an in China was distinctly Chinese. Very few people spoke English, there were no English signs like there were in Hong Kong, and the pool of expats was smaller than small.
By then, my baby was 3.5 years old, with fair skin and long blonde hair. If we went outside, we were literally bombarded by locals who were fascinated with my little blondie. They would poke and prod her, take photos, pick her up. I thought I was ready for the so called ‘motherland’, but it took quite some time to feel comfortable and understand it. I can remember feeling very alone and wondering what on earth we had done!
Your novel is described as ‘a true story of love, reinvention, and finding your place in the world.’ How did you go about reinventing yourself?
I think the reinvention part began in Hong Kong. Obviously, having a new baby meant I was restricted in how much work I could do (or wanted to do for that matter), but I knew, no matter what, I had to have something of my own. It took me a while to work out what that would look like. I really felt like I was pigeon-holed as a newsreader, and it took a friend to remind me that I had 20 years of media experience, which meant there was a lot I was capable of outside reading a live news bulletin.
Through word of mouth, I got some MC gigs – my first when Ava was nine weeks old. I was terrified but knew I had to do it, and once I had, I felt amazing. The old me was back. I also started writing creatively for local websites, which was something I wouldn’t have dared to do in my own country. That led me to start my own blog, which I later monetised. That opened up all sorts of opportunities, from copywriting to media training and writing for all sorts of publications. And, most of all, it was flexible. By the time we moved to Xi’an, China, I had established my network and was able to continue on from there.
Expats often tell us about the importance of establishing a good support network when first moving abroad. Is this something that you found challenging? Do you have any tips for first-time expats looking to ‘find their tribe’?
I found it quite challenging, but the first thing I did, which, admittedly, was completely outside my comfort zone, was to join a pregnancy group in Hong Kong. We were all due around the same time. It was awkward at first, but I maintained that I just needed to find one likeminded person to have a coffee with. I am still friends with many of those women today.
In Xi’an, at first, I was quite reluctant to reach out to expats (not that I could find any to start with). I felt like I had my expat tribe in Hong Kong and couldn’t replace them. Eventually, I realised I needed someone. Still, they weren’t easy to find. I met some through the school my daughter went to, and an American woman reached out to me through my blog about finding a hairdresser who coloured blonde hair (there were none, but we met for coffee and never looked back).
I think it’s imperative to find your tribe, as an expat. While it can take time to find ‘your people’, it will change everything. Other expats become your pseudo family, and you really can’t get by without that network of support.
Are there any aspects of the Chinese culture that Westerners may find particularly surprising? And how would you say that Westerners are perceived in China?
So many aspects of China life and culture would probably surprise Westerners. In China, traditions run deep and are still very much a part of daily life. For example, one thing I learned early on is that you should never drink cold water. Warm water is the cure for everything! The Chinese culture is quite incredible and fascinating to learn about. For Chinese New Year, the biggest holiday of the year, everyone gives lucky red envelopes to each other, filled with crisp new bank notes. Also, firecrackers are let off left, right and centre to ‘scare away the baddies!’ Only certain foods can be eaten, and red lanterns are strung up across the city, far and wide. It’s quite spectacular.
Then, of course, there’s those things that make up daily life, like censorship. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are all banned in China, unless you have a VPN and pay for it to let you access those sites. In China, family is everything, and it is absolutely the child’s obligation to take care of their parents when they are older. It’s not uncommon to find many generations living under one roof, which is quite a lovely part of the culture. Other things that can be quite shocking initially are the squat toilets and the older generations who tend to ‘spit’ on the pavement. It’s the old adage, ‘better out than in.’ I really could go on forever. Luckily, I wrote a book about it! Ha!
You are now based in Sydney, Australia, working as a freelance writer and speaker. How does your life now compare to when you were living in Asia?
Where to even start? Daily life is obviously so much simpler. If I need to go to the supermarket, doctor, hairdressers, etc., I don’t need to ‘psych’ myself up by working out what I will say in Chinese. I can drive again, which is wonderful. It’s also much quieter – there are no crazy crowds – but I do miss living away. I think, as an expat, you can get quite addicted to life in a foreign country. There is always something new and unpredictable happening. It can take some time to adjust to life back home again, not to mention you are always missing someone when you’ve lived in another country. The great thing is being back with family. Although, in these crazy Covid times, sadly, I think I saw them more when I was living away.
And finally, if you had your time again, would you do anything differently? Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, what advice would you give to people looking to move abroad for the first time?
I don’t think there’s anything I would do differently, but I always tell new expats to remember that it all takes time, and you really need to have patience – which I know can be tough. Fitting into a new culture and country won’t happen overnight, but I do think, eventually, there comes a time where you feel like it’s home. I always like to think it takes about a year to really feel at ease. You just can’t rush these things, as much as you’d like to at the time.
And make sure you put yourself out there and try to meet new people. You really only need that one friend to have a coffee with, and it makes everything so much easier. At the end of the day, don’t forget that you will have an experience to remember for the rest of your life. You only live once, so do it!
To order a signed copy of Nicole’s book, CHINA BLONDE – How a newsreader’s search for adventure led to acceptance, friendship … and peroxide pandemonium!, visit her website. Global shipping is available, or you can order the eBook online from Amazon. You can also find Nicole on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.