We have been in China two years now, though I started writing this particular blog post in 2011. Last night, we had dinner with an old friend who had great things to say. And this morning, I got an email and a wake-up call from Mark Bryan and Chucktown Music. Their song of the fortnight gave me some needed perspective, and I decided I to “stumble on a better place to be”. http://www.ctmg.us I believe it just that easy to change your mind.
Ten years ago, Michelin gave us our first expatriate experience, and we are forever grateful. We spent two and a half years in France and loved it. Despite the difficulty of learning the language, of being not as thin as everyone else, of having surgery in a foreign country, of buying peanut butter in tiny cup-size containers, it was all worth it. We look back on it with love and appreciation and longing to go back someday. So, in 2009, when they spoke to Tim about a new assignment in China, we discussed it and were all in. We looked forward to the overall experience, the “totality of circumstances”, to quote LD. We prepared ourselves, read and researched, listened, thought, etc. And we thought some more; about what to take and what to leave in storage for 5 years. About how to tell our family and friends. About how to resign from a job that was very important to me and that I was good at. About the language and the culture and how we would not only LIVE in China, but how we would make a LIFE in China.
Not everyone has the same processing mechanisms that we do, or the same kind of relationship. I have actually heard one woman say that her husband came home one day and told her they were moving to China. That Michelin made them move to China. Wow. The company didn’t make us move here. They offered Tim and many other people an amazing opportunity. No, it isn’t all tea and shopping, but it will be life changing, and we are fortunate to be well-taken care of by the company.
The most important thing I tell myself about moving to and living in Shenyang is: I am not in the United States anymore. I said that out loud just now, and I felt a little weight come off my shoulders. China is a foreign country, and Shenyang is more foreign than you realize. If someone had told me before we moved that everyone will stare at us in Shenyang, I would have smiled and said, “That’s okay. I can handle it.” Then you get here, and you go to the grocery store or walk along any street, or spend a week with your husband in a Chinese hospital, and hundreds of, if not a thousand, people stare at you. Gawking, in some cases. They stare at my skin and my light, curly hair, and my hips (that none of them have), and what’s in my shopping cart, and my shoes, and, and, and. Nothing prepares you for this. If you are the least bit self-conscious or lack confidence, or if you’re just having a bad day, your self-esteem is going to take a hit. Someone like me, I just stare back and smile or say hello. It freaks them out a little bit. I’ll be honest though, some days, I don’t want to be stared at. I know I’m not from around here, but I just want to buy my groceries and go home. They may not be staring to judge. I know that. It’s why I’ve gotten used to it. They just don’t see a lot of Westerners or curly hair or blue eyes. I have literally shocked people in Shenyang. I was standing next to an old woman at the tea counter once, picking out my dried lemons. She looked up, eyes widening, as though she had never been this close to a giant panda buying tea. I smiled and said ni hao. She choked down her shock and did the same. And we both went on buying our tea. So maybe we are all unofficial ambassadors of the US.
The most important thing I can tell others about moving here, in addition to my own advice to myself above, is: You will not change China. This is a 5,000 year old culture. The population is approximately 1.3 billion. You are the minority. Watch and learn. You don’t have to like everything. You don’t have to hate everything either. Sometimes, it is best not to speculate or ask why something happens in China. “Why” is a question you cannot always answer here. And speculation will get you in trouble or make you look like an idiot. If you get upset because someone doesn’t understand you or won’t explain why, it’s probably because you aren’t speaking Chinese. Just try.
Every year at this time, I take a picture out the big window in our apartment. Here is an update, after 2 years. The sun is shining, the cats are sleeping, and I’m headed out to see what I can stumble on today.