Do All Roads Lead To China?

When you’re living the ‘enviable’ expat life, it is for the most part, just that. But looming amongst the five star shindigs, endless shopping extravaganzas and cultural enlightenment is the little unavoidable fact: you never quite know when it’s all going to end; when the phone’s going to ring with the next ‘tour of duty’.

Last week, we got one of those calls…

We’d been half-expecting it (if there is such a thing as half?) let’s just say it wasn’t a complete shock to the system. I didn’t run around the house yelling “We’ve been punked!” but to be honest, my heart did a triple somersault with a twist and leapt right out of my chest. We’ve had many conversations about the next step. When we’ll be ready, where we think we’d like to go, where we think we’ll get to go. (For the record, the planets rarely align when it comes to the answers.)This wasn’t a ‘do or die’ battle, we could say no and (hopefully) live to tell the tale, but when it’s all said and done, we like to think of ourselves as brave soldiers always up for a new adventure. (I’m sure soldiers don’t call their missions ‘adventures’) but you get the picture?

“Bring. It. On!” we chanted with all the nervous enthusiasm we could possibly muster.

But silently we were fretting. The week carried on around us as normal (don’t you hate that) but we were both lost, deep in our thoughts, trying to dissect the urgent news the Gods had swung our way. Our life as we knew it was under threat, potentially about to cartwheel itself right out the front door and spin wildly off course. That life that had taken me almost three years to build – successfully – having arrived barefoot and pregnant in a place they call Asia’s World City, a place that had slapped me in the face with culture shock – on all fronts (including my then burgeoning belly). We created a haven amongst the chaos and rose to the challenges life in a new country brings.

Perched high up on the 45th floor, we made our home amidst the strapping skyscrapers that stood their ground as far as the eye could see. Below us, life travelled at a fast and furious pace, but the city that never sleeps no longer felt foreign. It felt normal.

My biggest achievement, I could get my baby and I around this heaving metropolis with relative ease. I’d unlocked the secrets to navigating life with a stroller in a city that was anything but baby-friendly. Footpaths were narrow and had steps; underground railways were unreachable; taxi drivers refused to stop and feigned ignorance when it came to my address. I’d been pushed to the brink on more than one occasion, but now, I could confidently say I’d nailed it!

The constant stares, photos and bold, upfront questions from locals no longer overwhelmed or annoyed me. These people had become my village, a familiarity I’d come to enjoy. (Yes Starbucks cashiers knowing my coffee order goes a long way.) My sentimental side thought of all those wonderful friendships I’d formed in the city our daughter was born.

So as we quietly contemplated our future, I found I couldn’t look my husband in the eye. In all reality, I was probably too afraid to see my own anxiety-fueled horror reflected back at me. Despite this, I knew we were on the same page. It’s moments like these your ‘expat couple’ existence needs to shine. You simply can’t afford to be on different boats, charting a different course. Away from family, you rely wholly and solely on each other, for everything. So armed and ready to face our fate together, we resolved to visit the battlefield. Weekend plans were cancelled and last minute flights booked – toddler in tow, we set off on our reconnaissance, bound for Central China.

A frantic google had equipped me with enough facts to conjure up a ‘livable’ image of our potential home. I knew this to be a city of ten million people, a developing city with huge growth and potential. I also read it was a ‘major’ transportation hub with the longest history in China. 3500 years to be precise! I’d never been to this part of China so it was with an open-mind that we jetted off to Wuhan, the only Guilos (white faces) onboard – intrigued, excited and a little bit petrified. It’s all well and good to visit a place far removed from that which you know and view it with keen interest and cultural curiosity, but when you know you might have to live there… friends, it’s a whole new ball game.

A six hour journey from door to door, we arrived in downtown Wuhan. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – we hit the expat-jackpot when we got the call to join forces with Hong Kong. Westernized, Sophisticated, Vibrant – we know it’s going to be tough to beat. We’re OK with that. So as we drove from the airport for what seemed like an eternity, through dusty, desert-like streets, across giant tangles of motorways drenched with thick, grey smog – that seemed to reach all the way to the ground (the first thing I was advised to do was download the API – that’s Air Pollution Index to you and I), past dilapidated buildings, many just empty shells that quite frankly, resembled a war-torn city, I tried to maintain that ‘open mind.’

There are millions of people living happily here, the little voice in my head said.

I was desperate to chat with the driver, ask him about life in Wuhan, but English was not an option. (Whilst, I’m all for mastering mandarin, at this point the gravity of living in a city where you don’t speak the language and they don’t speak yours was staring me down with all the intensity of a violent tornado!)

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Two full days in central China and suffice to say, we learned a lot!!

Call me naive… but my perception of China, The People’s Republic of China, is that of the world’s second biggest super power. Right? It’s the second largest country (geographically) in the world and the most populous country on the globe. (1.3 billion people). That’s billion! It’s currently the world’s fastest growing economy and last year accounted for 60% of the world’s export growth with NO sign of a slowdown. No. Mean. Feat.

BUT…what I didn’t realize or perhaps give too much thought to, China is for all intents and purposes a ‘developing’ nation. 800-million people still live in rural China. Mind you, millions of them are moving off the farm to become would-be city slickers, at a rapid rate. This I’m told, is the main reason behind the economies massive explosion and it’s predicted in the next 15 years, 250-million Chinese will move to urban centres.

These sprawling up and coming cities are essentially becoming huge villages of rural citizens. A government desperately trying to keep up with this internal migration has labourers working around the clock to meet the need for housing, sewage, energy and transport. It’s akin to creating an entire nation from the ground up and it means construction sites are buzzing day and night.
This was evident in Wuhan, where there are tens of thousands of sites currently under redevelopment. Hence the dust!!

But while there are a fast-growing number of citizens now rich enough to own cars in these urbanized cities, don’t expect them to become developed overnight. Standards of living, healthcare and education still lag dramatically behind western neighbours. Despite its reputation as a flourishing university town, in Wuhan there are no international hospitals and just one English speaking doctor. If a child develops a fever, it’s straight to hospital and on a drip. (Panadol anyone?)
Early-Childhood education is limited and whilst there is a western presence, it’s minimal. Like many cities in China, the culture itself is still developing. It’s not something that can be fixed with technology or found in the school curriculum. It’s a people, who, for thousands of years have lived in a society where you have to fight to survive. Spitting in public is the norm, the lack of personal space makes pushing and shoving also par for the course, littering is not frowned upon and smoking anywhere and everywhere is still OK.

We visited Wuhan’s fanciest shopping centre (desperately searching for some retail therapy I’m sure) it boasted all the big glossy designer names like Louis Vuitton, Blvgari and Chanel, yet the toilets, mostly of the ‘squat’ variety, were at best filthy. (Not just your average, ‘someone hasn’t been in here for a couple of hours messy’ really unsanitary, that even me, who’s spent time in rural Africa (and can squat) declined.)

And while China’s success on the world stage means an influx of foreigners, the vast majority of locals have never laid eyes on a white person, particularly a mini one with very pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair (I’m looking at you Ava Isabella)! To think I thought staring, pointing and prodding was all too prevalent in Hong Kong, let me tell you sister, ‘you ain’t got nothin’ on the motherland!’

SO, back to our arrival, my mind spinning, heart racing – we made it out of the haze and into the hotel. The hotel where James would work and the hotel we would live in. Set on the banks of the Yangtze River, looking across to the city (when you could see through the grey fog), as far as five star hotels go, it more than matched our expectations. Greeted by a grand lobby with all the ‘bling’ you can imagine (Chinese love a chandelier and this one was as big as a small football field), fine-dining restaurants, a lush day spa plus an indoor pool, there was little to complain about. When it came to cuisine we were quickly reminded of the saying “When in Rome…” (My tip: always bet on wantons as opposed to poached eggs.)

But for how long can you take refuge in a hotel? I’ll be honest and say the city nicknamed the ‘furnace of Asia’ did not help to further entice me outdoors. It also snows…and is freezing for a good six months, not to mention the ever-present pollution. Are you feeling my unbridled excitement yet?

Culture shock is defined as ‘a condition that affects people who travel to a country different from their own.’ It can be used to describe a traveler’s feelings of bewilderment when the environment and culture change from the one that he or she is familiar with. The unfamiliar surroundings, foreign language and strange habits of a new country can all contribute to a feeling of uneasiness and confusion. It’s fair to say, here on the central China plain, I was feeling all of the above.

It’s also only fair to say we did find a little bit of charm in Wuhan….a fascinating Chinese street sporting hundreds of delicious food stalls that pumped out everything from Wuhan’s famous hot dry noodles to fish balls and every kind of delicious dumpling you could imagine. Despite feeling like we’d been transported to Mars, these locals had nothing but smiles for us (well, my little blondie.)

I even found an H & M and a Starbucks, so Wuhan, you almost had me…But for an indefinite period? The question hung in the air every bit as hazardous as the thick haze itself. We can make anywhere home as long as we’ve got each other, right? (The words ringing in my ears from a friend who couldn’t quite force herself to join her Wuhan- working husband.) I’m guessing, once you get there, you can’t click your heels three times like Dorothy and say “There’s no place like home?”

Our list of pros and cons was heavily one-sided and needed some serious revamping but we were struggling to find the positives we needed as a family. So, after much anxious deliberation, we made the tough decision to pass on this call to arms. Maybe we aren’t quite as hardcore as we had envisaged? Maybe having a small child has heightened our sense of responsibility?

It’s more than likely the next call will be in China too (don’t forget it’s the fastest growing economy in the world and that my friends means hotels, hotels and more hotels…) but now, at the very least, we know what we’re up against. We know what we can and can’t tolerate as a family and most importantly, we know it’s important to follow your gut instinct. Until then, let’s chalk it up to one hell of an experience. They say ‘All Roads Lead to China’ and for us, just maybe they do…

Nicole was a Journalist and News Reader with Sky News Australia for a decade before making the life changing move to Hong Kong with her hotelier husband.

Mum to hyped up blondie Ava, Nicole has swapped the news desk and microphone for a change table and nappy bag but is still enjoying the best of both worlds, freelancing as a Journalist, Presenter, Master of Ceremonies and Media Trainer.

Her expat journey to date has been filled with plenty of intriguing and humorous tales. Check out her blog Mint Mocha Musings and on Twitter @nicoledwebb

Read more of Nicole's Expat Focus articles here.

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