- The expat ’holiday lives’ kept under wraps
“Is that you when you were on holiday?” someone asked me last week at work when I let Shanghai out of the bag for a moment and discretely shared a picture of my life in China taken before I returned to London just under a year ago.
“No, that was my life,” I answered as I reflected on the image of me on my precious scooter I had had to leave behind.
In the picture I am happily coasting down the backstreets of Shanghai, taking in the sights of chickens being cooked alive by the roadside. It was an afternoon when washing was being maneuvered up high onto overhead telegraph cables, the gas man was doing his rounds cycling with a gas bottle on each side of his back wheel, a couple in pyjamas were chatting at a kiosk.
It was all so blissfully everyday to me. Not something to just write a postcard about or pack away in my suitcase with my souvenir chopsticks and suntan after two weeks.
It got me wondering how my friends in England can fully know me, without a grasp of the life I lived for four years.
The majority of new friends I’ve made since returning have a cursory understanding. Jo lived in China. She learnt Mandarin, or was it Cantonese?
But how often do ex-expats really let their life stories out of the bag? How often do they sit down and begin their tale, a la Karen Blixen’s, “I had a farm in Africa…”? Rarely, I would say.
Soon after returning to England, I was standing in a bar, in a circle of people comparing stories of eccentric behaviour they had recently witnessed. “A guy I sat behind at the cinema last weekend brought nachos in with him and ate them really loudly. Who does that?”, one girl said half-complaining, half relieved to have been exposed to such crazy shenanigans to bemoan in assemblies like this. Everyone laughed and shook their heads. Those crazy cinema-goers.
But she’d lost me. My mind had drifted back to a performance of Swan Lake I’d been to in Shanghai where the woman next to me was on her mobile phone the whole way through, describing in detail what was happening on stage to a friend at home.
I didn’t share my story. You have to ration your China. When I start a sentence “In China,” people’s eyes tend to glaze over. They’d much rather hear a funny anecdote from Cheltenham.
So when an expat friend visits London from Shanghai, it’s a chance to talk easily about our ‘holiday lives’. In the last month, three visitors have popped by regaling stories of international flights taken with emergency passports, TV shoots in remote parts of southern China, weekends wreck-diving in the Philippines – familiar currency.
With each of them, I have experienced things my friends at home would probably struggle to. But they will no doubt leave China one day and mothball their stories.
The stories will dwell in the Ngong Hills of the mind, only allowed out when in the company of other China expats or when we’re packed off mumbling to old people’s home.
“I had a flat in Shanghai, on the banks of Suzhou Creek,” I will tell a woman changing my bed pan one day as I busy myself applying lipstick to my eyebrows.
Josephine wrote a blog about her expat life for the Daily Telegraph for two years called Chelsea Girl in China.
Can you pick up a Standard from a stand in one swift movement without breaking your stride? c.Richard Baker
Olympics visitors are going to descend on London soon.
Since I’ve just returned to the city after four years abroad, I’ve been studying its inhabitants and learning to imitate them.
These are my conclusions.
YOU’RE A LONDONER WHEN…
- You don’t break your stride to pick up an Evening Standard from a stand
- You can trot down a moving Tube escalator in high heels
- You own something high viz
- You think 11pm is late
- You don’t question why the bus, train or Tube you’re waiting for is late or cancelled…
- But you’ll sure as hell get narky if a bus passenger deigns to pay in cash or ask a question of the driver hence delaying you by one minute
- You’ve always thought you should one day take the open top tourist bus… but never have
- You are profoundly disappointed when it’s 13 degrees and there’s no sunshine- though this is the yearly average state of play and you’re not living in Rio
- You’ve had too much to drink in a public place
- You are able to navigate the streets of Soho though they were seemingly mapped out by a confused medieval goat
For exhibits of the above and great London street photography, go to the free exhibition at King’s Cross Station until August 15: www.lfph.org/diary/contemporary-london-street-photography.
“You’re cold because your body’s weak” a woman from northern China with heavily pencilled in eyebrows told me as I lay on her massage table.
It was the kind of abuse I’ve missed. It was of course nothing to do with the fact that it was a cold afternoon and for some reason in England Chinese masseuses insist you undress completely rather than wearing a little pair of pyjamas as you do in China.
I quizzed Jianhua Tang, the Shanghainese manager of Dr China at 415 North End Road, Fulham, about this and she responded by saying “human resources cost more in the UK”.
No kidding. It’s why the massages we ex-expats grew accustomed to having regularly in China cost five times more here. And it’s why I am in pursuit of the best quality, best value massage in London, mentioned here.
Lucky for me, Chinese health shops seem to be springing up all over the place tapping into the vanity of the British X Factor generation.
As I sat drinking tea and chatting about Shanghai after my massage, two guys with hoods and baseball caps who looked like they were going to hold up the shop, enquired about a hair growth serum being sold over the counter, which according to the word on the street “really works”.
I sat mystified as they were informed of the regenerative powers of ginger.
What “really worked” about Dr China for me was the authentic verbal abuse, the mushy Mando-pop being played in the massage room and the plastic cup of tea leaves and hot water afterwards.
An hour’s massage is £45. They also offer acupuncture from £28 a session and cupping for £15.
Meanwhile, if you want to feel like you are getting a massage on holiday in Thailand (think Koh Tao rather than Koh Samui) head to Singhra Thai at 391 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich.
I went there on the recommendation of reader EQ. A one-hour massage also costs £45 and similarly no pyjamas are provided.
The mood created by the authentic-smelling oil and the piped in music was only interrupted by the fire alarm outside which beeped intermittently to remind someone to change the batteries.
You get a good kneeing and elbowing for your money and the fake flowers add a thrifty Asian charm.
So the next challenge is to find decent Chinese food in London. Jianhua Tang says there is none and I’m tempted to agree with her.
Any recommendations for where a girl can get a decent mapo dofu?
On top of the world: Josephine at Beijing’s ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium in 2008
I remember thinking on my first day at the newspaper office where I was going to be for the Beijing Olympics, that I never imagined I would encounter the risk of peeing on myself at work.
For there in the new China Daily website office with its break-out zones, potted plants and brightly coloured ergonomic furniture, traditional squatter loos had been installed in the Ladies.
We may have been forging ahead with web pages, text alerts, and online broadcasting at our desks, but in the loos we were only a few porcelain steps up the evolutionary ladder from hitching up our skirts and going by the side of the road, or so it felt.
For the Beijing Games in 2008 I was called up from the Shanghai bureau to live and work at the main office of China’s state-run English national newspaper. I was to help edit stories for the China Daily website. It was a dream gig. Every expat living in China was trying to get themselves to the capital for the big event.
In the tradition of Communist work units, my accommodation was in a block of workers’ flats within the office compound. It took a bit of getting used to bumping into my boss in the lift when I was hungover on a Sunday morning. Three subsidised meals a day were served in the canteen.
Continue reading here.
Shanghai street names are starting to evade my memory
“I can’t remember our address!”, I told my friend in a panic the other day.
I had completed a familiar roll call of the Shanghai knowledge in my mind.
Everything was present and correct except the address details we used to give taxi drivers for the last apartment block we shared.
Like someone with Alzheimer’s in the family I find myself testing my Shanghai memory to check nothing is escaping my recall.
My fear is that the day I can’t remember the pin number of my Chinese bank card or my Chinese mobile number, my reality living abroad will have died.
If you can’t remember the road junctions of the places you lived, you’ve probably moved onto another juncture in your life, but I’m not ready to forget.
Six months after leaving I find myself struggling to remember the names of all my Chinese colleagues and chatting to one in Mandarin last week, the words I used to have at my disposal have been disposed of, mothballed.
When my friends tell me of places they’ve been recently I rack my brains. Is Changle Lu near Changde Lu? Did I ever know that at the time?
Of course, it worked the other way too. I remember freaking out when I was living in Shanghai talking about London and couldn’t remember what changes I would need to make to get to Marble Arch on the underground. Bus numbers were familiar friends whose names I had temporarily forgotten.
I also felt like a geriatric once when confronted with my first ticket turnstile at the Heathrow underground. Did you take the ticket out before you walked? The difference was I knew I would reclaim my London knowledge one day. My Shanghai knowledge could remain in Lost Property.
But just for the record, Zhenning Lu, Dongzhuanbang Lu. Phew.
The other day I was wearing my winter coat buttoned up to my neck when I walked past a girl in orange fake tan, a vest and flip-flops. We gave each other a look which said, “Seriously?”.
Indeed, the thing that has most publicly betrayed my recent expat status in the last few weeks has been my attachment to my coat while other Brits strip off, desperately keen to use their summer clothes for whatever limited period of availability there may be.
So while newspapers have screamed about heat waves, I’ve been the one walking around in at least two extra layers.
I know it’s unBritish to ooze enthusiasm for your surroundings but I can’t help it
I didn’t find the recent spell of warmth hot. Hot to me is now 40 degree heat and 80 percent humidity.
Hot is having to have rugby training drills explained indoors in the air conditioning before going outdoors to complete them to save people from standing in the heat and running the risk of hyperthermia.
Hot is having to wait inside in the air conditioning while you sacrifice someone to man the barbecue outside.
Hot is leaving your office at 10pm at night and being hit by a mist of delicious warm, clammy air as you hear the cicadas clattering and start working out how soon you can locate a glass of gin and tonic to enjoy outside.
A friend who moved to England after spending his early childhood in Hong Kong told me that he needed a hot water bottle every night for his first year.
I moved back in November and a lot of people said, “What a shame you’re arriving back in the winter”. It may have seemed a bad time, but if you are moving back from China I can’t recommend it enough.
For a start, it didn’t feel like Britain really had a winter now that I’m used to what Shanghai gets thrown at it- temperatures around 0 degrees and humidity which makes it feel much colder. It doesn’t really feel like we get weather here at all to be honest now, just middling clement temperatures with the odd bit of extra drizzle or extra sun here and there.
It doesn’t even rain properly. I asked a friend of mine to send me a poncho from Shanghai for riding my bike in the rain but I haven’t yet had cause to break it out. We are technically in a drought- a world away from the plum season in Shanghai when it can rain torrentially every day for weeks and you don’t leave the house without wellies and a poncho.
I spent the winter wearing my thick Shanghai duvet coat on the days it was closest to 0 degrees while Brits wore thin coats and jackets and complained of being cold. I revelled in the fact that my office and home had central heating- most Shanghai buildings do not. And I felt the warmest I have in the winter for years, recalling days when I went to bed in Shanghai in a woolly hat and gloves and with heat patches imported from Korea stuck to my pyjamas.
I am enjoying the spring with a renewed appreciation. I don’t think I ever truly took on board how beautiful London looks with its blossoms. In Shanghai, people take day trips out of town to line up and look at the spring flowers alongside thousands of others, posing Romantically next to blooms. Here, they are on every street and every corner and people just walk past them. I have taken pictures of them as a tourist would.
I can’t help it. I know it’s weird to appreciate your home town. I also know it will be weird if I don’t lose my winter coat at some stage this summer. After all, nothing says “outsider” in Britain more than being positive and keeping your clothes on when the sun comes out.
“How are you adjusting?” is something I am being asked a lot at the moment. I’m four months into my re-entry in England and approaching the psychologically critical six-month point expats talk of. Tales of repatriation meltdowns always tend to begin, “Well, she was fine for the first six months and then she…”
a) Realised she had changed too much to ever be able to live in England again,
b) Realised England hadn’t changed at all
c) Remembered she had left the gas on.
I tell people that I was lucky I started a new job two days after I came back. I tell them I am loving the job and that I am enjoying the simple pleasure of not having to miss my oldest friends and my family.
Is there a re-pat time bomb set for six months?
Oddly, I have felt the most vindicated in my decision to return home when moments come around that are now everyday.
When I was in Shanghai last summer on a warm evening sitting on my balcony 25 storeys up chatting to my friends about my reasons for leaving, I never could have pinpointed the moments that would truly reward my decision.
I knew that Shanghai and I had reached the type of juncture that you come to with a man when you have to decide to either get married or break up. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with Shanghai, but I still love it.
I knew that I wanted to put down roots for a while in England, be near my loved ones and move on to better career prospects.
But since I have been home, I have been made acutely aware of what I was missing. When you have a one-hour Skype call home each week, you miss spending a few post-dinner hours chatting about what your grandparents did during the war or your mother’s first boyfriend. You miss teaching your sister how to perform a London emergency three-point turn ahead of her driving test. You miss the afternoon you spend trying on hats for a wedding you will actually be able to attend. And you weren’t even aware these moments were there to be missed.
There are things I miss about Shanghai but they are not serious enough for me to feel that I will need to run away in two months’ time. Perhaps your first few months home are the most precious, when you have a unique new perspective on things you previously took for granted. Perhaps I’m just still blinkered by the range of lunch options I now have and the fact that shoes in England actually fit me. Who knows? But at the moment I may be the only person in London who can safely say they feel well-adjusted.
Standing in a room in a basement in Shepherd’s Bush this week stripping in front of a stranger, I thought “Hmm, I wouldn’t have done this before I went to China”.
It’s not that I have fallen down on my luck or chosen to supplement my income.
It was all in the name of finding a good massage.
I lamented with an NLE (Never Left England) friend recently that you cannot find a decent, good value massage parlour in London and he stared blankly at me, before his jaw sank and he wore the ‘You’ve changed’ expression that is becoming familiar.
But the fact is that cushy expat lifestyles in China revolve around pampering and massage.
I’m not ashamed to say I went for a massage most weeks and once on a particularly stressful day went for a foot massage in my lunch break. I’ve been slathered in oil and cupped. I’ve been covered in seaweed, sanded down and massaged by a blind man. But generally, I was put in a pair of oriental pyjamas so I looked like something from The Mikado, and then pushed and prodded all over for an hour. A full body Chinese massage cost £8.
One of the few low points came when my friend and I found that our favourite place was full and we dashed to another, untested establishment looking for a hit. The smell of sandalwood and jasmine made us hopeful, the soothing pipe music even more so. But a short while after we lay down side by side and two young guys walked in, we heard them discussing our bodies to each other in Mandarin. At one point I looked behind to see that my guy with his elbow in my shoulder blade had a mobile phone in his hand that he was straining to look at.
But over time, I became hooked on massages.
And to cope with life back in London after four years in Shanghai I need to find somewhere I can go to re-up.
Ideally I’m looking for a Chinese lady who isn’t afraid to use her elbow on my spine and doesn’t shy away from cracking my neck – the one, two, three, jerk move that looks like it might be used to kill a turkey but releases a rush of endorphins.
I need someone who can dig her thumbs into the back of my head, will hit me on the head with the bottom of a clenched fist and forcibly separate my vertebrae. And hell, I’ll take an eyebrow stroke and earlobe tickle for good measure if it’s going. Is it really too much to ask?
“You sound more British. It’s nice,” said my French friend with whom I was flatmates in Shanghai, when I met with her last week.
Until then, no-one had pointed out any change that had occurred in me since returning to the UK after four years in Shanghai.
To me, I have always had an unmistakably standard southern British accent, which if anything, tended to sound ridiculously plummy around Kiwis, Americans, South Africans and Australians in Shanghai.
But then, it is easy to pick up an Australian twang in the Asia Pacific region, and this can make you adopt a cockney sound to boot. I discovered this when I first watched myself presenting on the TV programme, Shanghai Live. I sounded like a cross between Jo Brand and Sid James.
When you are used to speaking English to people for whom English is a second or third language, you learn to speak slowly and use fewer Britishisms too. Once I described someone as “stocky” to a Chilean friend and she burst out laughing, saying how much she loved British terms. My parting gift to her was a list of more words we are fond of in England, including lanky, chavvy, nippy and of course the best of all, dodgy.
But if anything, I am struck by little habits that I have not yet shrugged off from Shanghai life (not that I want to).
For one, I still look both ways when crossing a one-way street. This is a life-saving reflex you develop early on in China because you never know where a scooterist on a silent electric bike ( a ‘silent assassin’) will be coming from.
But the main quirk is that I always open the doors of public loo cubicles (more on Chinese loos here and here) extremely cautiously. I suppose it is natural since I have been conditioned to expect to walk in to a supposedly vacant loo only to find a woman sitting on the loo, or even worse hovering over a squatter.
Walking into Chinese cubicles that are occupied, despite appearing vacant has scarred me for life
I never did get down to the bottom (ahem) of why Chinese ladies so often use loos without locking them. I would often walk in on colleagues having been given the green light of the ‘vacant’ sign, only to wish they had taken the time to save me the sight and the embarrassment. I imagine it comes down to the very flimsy concept of privacy in China.
But the mental damage has clearly been considerable as, even though I’m back in the UK, I cannot trust a loo that says it’s vacant.
One of the best things about living abroad is the constant element of surprise.
Living in a culture that is not your own, throws up constant questions and wonders.
I suspect it’s one of the main reasons people stay abroad. It certainly was for me.
Amanda Riske breaking hearts and hips in Fuxing Park
When you return home, one of the problems is that your definition of “weird” has irrevocably changed.
For a good deal of people back home a shop changing its opening hours or a bus route altering is the height of irregularity.
When you’re an expat it’s not.
Spotted in Shanghai, by Amanda Riske
A reader in Saudi Arabia, for example, wrote to say that he recently encountered a situation where a colleague was jailed for two nights in Jedda because he was caught in a tea shop with a girl he was neither married nor related to. Now that’s bizarre, if you’re a westerner.
”I had Google-translated ‘I like your exercises, can I do them with you?’ into Chinese, but I do not think he can read.”
Luckily, an American expat in Shanghai is keeping a video log of the weird and wonderful things she encounters every morning in her last seven months before leaving.
So far they include doing the ‘twist’ in Fuxing Park, hula hooping on the Bund and doing eye-catching exercises on Panyu Lu.
Amanda Riske, a Maths teacher at the Western International School of Shanghai, has lived in Shanghai for two-and-a-half years. She began running at 5am a few weeks ago in preparation for a half marathon in Xiamen this weekend.
Amanda Riske tries out unconventional exercises
She said: “When running that early you see such cool things and a very different side of Shanghai. It really makes me love the city even more.”
She was partly prompted to make videos so that she could share them with expat friends who have left the city, giving them their daily dose of Shanghai crazy.
Her most popular video shows Amanda and a Shanghai local doing their exercises together in the street- vigorous hip rotations.
She had seen him doing his morning exercise on her way to work for a year and a half and decided one day to join him. She said: “I had Google-translated ‘I like your exercises, can I do them with you?’ into Chinese, but I do not think he can read. So I just started in on his routine with him and he played it so cool.”
Asked what she is hoping to achieve, she said: “I am hoping to show people some of the beauty in this city, and have some fun doing it all.
“Running early in the morning I have seen such a different character of the people here- sweet, friendly, honest and just peculiar in their daily routines.”
You can watch Amanda’s morning “silliness” in Shanghai here.
It’s now been nearly two months since I got back from China where I lived for four years.
And the best thing is that with the combination of delivery times and Christmas there are various elements of my Shanghai life migrating to London at the moment. British friends are coming home for Christmas and I have now received four of the five green plastic China Post boxes I posted, containing clothes and household items, before I left.
Despite one horror story from a friend who lost all of his belongings in the post from China and my misgivings when the postal worker on Nanjing Road insisted on cramming the flimsy- looking boxes with my belongings until they looked fit to burst, everything has arrived in tact.
The much maligned trunk I bought and shipped has also made the distance.
Best of all, today I also received a box containing a felt rug I bought in Kashgar, Xinjiang, north-west China. Back at the end of October when I left the two Uighur rug-sellers I befriended with my money, I have to admit I wondered for a moment if they would take the trouble to take my purchase to the post office for me and carefully write out the foreign address in English. But I needn’t have questioned their integrity. The combination of the biro scrawl on the box saying ‘Xinjiang,China’ and the postman who delivered it wearing a ‘London’ cap with a union jack emblem, delighted me.
The rug I bought was lovingly bundled up and posted from Xinjiang, China…
But while I’m pleased to have my Shanghai life catching up with me I’m also a little sad that when the last box arrives it will be the last physical connection I have with the city that was my home.
… and delivered to my door in London
As the months go on I am sure I will start to question the relevance of the electronic reminders in my day to day life- the desktop clock on my laptop still set to Shanghai time, the newsletters emailed to me from Shanghai Expat, Time Out Shanghai, Time Out Beijing and the British embassy. Occasionally I read the weekly Time Out Shanghai newsletter to kid myself I can keep up with the various bars and clubs that open and close on what seems like a weekly basis. I tell myself it’s worth it so that when Shanghai friends talk about a bar they’ve been to I’ll still know where they are talking about. It’s hard to let go.
But, above all, I’m pleased that I carried out the most traumatic transportation process- getting myself on a plane for London. The enjoyment of being at home at this time of year, in particular, vindicates my decision to leave.
Spitting and smoky bars were two of the things I told myself I would not miss when I moved back to the UK from Shanghai just over a month ago.
On the other side: My former Shanghai flatmate and I in London
The lack of right of way given to pedestrians on zebra crossings and the appalling internet speed also figured highly on the list I compiled.
Among the things I knew I would miss were China friends, the convenience of life, late opening times, having an ayi (cleaner), massages, my favourite Chinese food and the fabric market – where you can get tailored dresses, coats and suits made at ridiculously low prices.
“How come Family Mart sells vibrators but not headache tablets?”
It was a fair assessment and explains why I can be found in central London asking Chinese women in nail bars where I can get a massage. More often than not they reply with thick London accents and suspicious expressions that they don’t know, or even worse, that they would “try Soho”.
It seems that wherever we live we are always searching for answers.
When I was asked two years ago if I would like to write a blog for Telegraph Expat, one thing I was sure would not be a problem was finding things to write about. There were dozens of questions to mull over every day, such as “Why don’t scooterists wait until the traffic lights turn green to go?”, “How come Family Mart sells vibrators but not headache tablets?”, “Why is that building going to be pulled down when it’s only been there for five years?” and “Why do people speak so loudly to each other?”.
But it’s easy to forget that there were other questions that were ever-present. “How much longer should I stay?” and “How will it feel when I leave?” are questions that occupy most expats’ thoughts. As another former expat now back in Europe said to me recently, “It’s nice not to be asked how much longer you’re going to be here.”
There is a sense of assurance about being back home. It is where I am supposed to be.
“Who is Brian Cox?”
But, while thinking about what I would and would not miss about Shanghai, I forgot to consider what I’ve missed while I’ve been away for four years. I have had moments in the last month where I have felt as if I’ve just landed from another planet.
I have asked myself, ‘”What’s The One Show?”, “What’s Daybreak?”, “Who is Brian Cox?”, “Why does everyone care so much about that guy who was on Working Lunch?” and “Why is every man, woman and child in ‘skinny’ jeans (not a good look in a country as overweight as ours)?”. I puzzle over when Kirstie Allsopp’s domination of the TV listings began. I thought JLS sounded like a clothing brand until I was told it’s the name of a boy band. And when did self-service check-outs spring up everywhere?
I’ve learnt to keep quiet if I don’t know what people are talking about. Otherwise they think that by speaking louder and more slowly I’ll suddenly be invested with the cultural trivia I “should” know.
I also censor myself when people around me are talking about good places they have been on holiday or “strange” behaviour they have seen in public. Why ruin someone’s story by telling them I once lived three or four hours away from deserted tropical beaches or that people walking backwards in pyjamas in the park were the stuff of my lunchbreaks? The best advice comes from other former expats. The father of a friend, who spent many years in Hong Kong advised sagely, “If it’s a conversation about Madagascar, join in. If it’s about Magaluf, don’t.”
I try not to start sentences, “In Shanghai” or “In China”. I feel sure that it will make it sound like I’m bragging. No-one wants another speech about how great China was after all, I tell myself.
“Only in England”
I have heard it said a lot that counter-culture shock is worse than culture shock. Before you encounter them yourself, the struggles people have adjusting back in their home countries are the fodder of smug expat tittle tattle. I can’t say it’s all that bad, although in a similar way that people have Bad China Days and exclaim “Only in China” or “This is China”, I find myself muttering, “Only in England”. The dysfunctional nature of so much of our infrastructure and the uptight nature of people I can now see as being typically British.
But I also find myself being proud of some British traits as well. The generally stoic, even jolly nature of people dealing with the infrastructure problems, and the eccentric antics of people when they do let go, I witness as an anthropologist might. I also have an appreciation of the simple things that I may have taken for granted before I left, such as a nice meal with my family or a quick chat on the phone with my niece without the need for headphones and a webcam.
I’m pleased to say there is life after China. I only have to think of how much I would be looking forward to returning to the UK for Christmas to know that I made the right choice in coming back.
There are adjustments to get through. You cannot flick a switch and be the person you were when you left. You inevitably have to let some things go. Convenience has been one of them. I have had to come to terms with the fact that I won’t be dashing out to buy nails from a hardware shop at 10pm on a Sunday again any time soon. Likewise, the Telegraph Expat blog I have enjoyed writing so much has also had to come to an end.
Meanwhile, I will persevere in the pursuit of a cheap Chinese massage, deftly skirting the realm of shops with tinted windows and red lights.
And from now on the sound of someone spitting will transport me back to my life in Shanghai as quickly as a smoke-filled room or a smelly drain. But I wouldn’t change that for all the episodes of reality shows, unflattering fashions and one-hit wonders that I’ve missed while I’ve been away.
This appears here on the Telegraph’s Expat site.
Three years ago I was sitting in a freezing office in a Shanghai lanehouse- part of a package of perks used to entice foreigners to the city which would have been well beyond my reach back home. I was researching an article when I stumbled across a website that finally seemed to speak my language. It was the Expat Telegraph site.
It told me of people around the world with the same background as me going through some of the most daunting, captivating, exciting and terrifying times of their lives. Without realising it I had stumbled upon a club.
Before I arrived in Shanghai I had hardly heard or used the term ‘expat’. It conjured images of smug, lobster pink people opening fish and chip shops on the Costa del Sol.
Continue reading here at Expat Telegraph
Six weeks ago I was on the Silk Road. This week I was in the Silk Road.
The first was the famous trade route which runs through Kashgar in north-west China; the second a Xinjiang restaurant in Camberwell Green, London.
It was probably only a matter of time before I went searching for China life in London.
My friend, also a former Shanghai expat, had heard of a restaurant “run by Chinese students for Chinese students” and so we went there unsure what to expect but secretly hoping it would make us feel ‘at home’, amongst our own.
When we were handed a plastic folder with a poorly translated menu we knew we had struck gold. Tucking into a meal with a ridiculous chilli to meat ratio washed down with tsingtao beer and surrounded by Chinese people and sinophiles we couldn’t have been happier. Hell, we even spoke Chinglish with the fantastic waiting staff. I was amused to hear one of them jokingly recycle a typical prejudice speaking half Chinese, half London: “Wo bu xi huan Shanghai ren. Shanghai ren f*king tight b*stards.” It seems there are more than one or two of us straddling both China and Britain.
Continue reading at Expat Telegraph.
It is now 19 days since I touched down back in London after four years in Shanghai.
When I last blogged I was finding public transport one of my biggest problems. Crossing London each morning to get to work from Chelsea was taking an hour and a half. I have now got around this problem by joining the hi-viz brigade.
Last weekend I converted my sister’s mountain bike, which hasn’t been used for 10 years, into a fully functioning commuter bike complete with flashing lights and basket. I bought myself the high- visibility tabard and helmet which are the accessories of choice for rush hour cyclists trying not to become another road death statistic. It’s the kind of get up that feels like it should automatically endow you with the skills to survey a building site or inspect a railway.
Riding sidesaddle in Shanghai in July
It makes me laugh when I think that a few months ago I was merrily sitting sidesaddle on the back of a bicycle in the streets of Shanghai employing simply the best safety precautions available- common sense. Last week, I was sent a picture of the 8ft tree my friend moved from my old flat to hers. It was, of course, loaded onto my old scooter for the purpose of relocation, casting an amusing shadow. I’m pretty sure it would be against the law to do that here.
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I have now been back in England for just over a week having lived in China for four years.
My first impressions have been those that a foreigner might have. Straight away in the taxi home from the airport, I was hit by the quality of the music on the radio and I could understand all the lyrics- a novelty. Hearing British songs that I’ve not heard for ages is a real treat. I started my new job two days after I landed. It’s in the West End which means that I wandered around in a slight daze for the first few lunch breaks- so many stylish young people, so many lunch options, so many different street fashions, and so many girls who look just like me. In Shanghai I had days where I might only see two or three other white people in a day. I felt plugged in again. These old western capital cities do have a lot to offer, I told myself.
In my first week as a Brit looking through Chinese eyes, I noticed that British people eat and drink too much and don’t look after their health enough, while staying healthy is the golden rule in China. People walk faster here, but the transport moves much much slower.
Since I can understand 99 percent of everything that is said around me (excluding foreigners speaking languages I don’t know on public transport), I have overheard the quaintest of expressions that I’ve not heard for years, including “okie dokie” and “whoops-a-daisy”. These make me smile.
Continue reading here at Telegraph Expat.
How do we do it? That was the question I kept asking myself this time last week as I packed up what was left of my life in Shanghai. After weeks of being busy sorting things out, spending time with friends and doing some travelling, the enormity of what I was about to do by leaving China hit me. Until then I had busily changed the subject, putting a positive spin on things and evading talk of how sad things would be every time a friend looked at me bleary-eyed. It was far easier not to think about how distressing it would be when the moment came to say goodbye. And then it hit me.
It seemed non-sensical on so many levels to be leaving a city and group of people I love so much. I felt like my head had written a cheque that my heart couldn’t cash. I felt the same way before I left England for China in 2007. I kept thinking about it. Humans surely aren’t supposed to travel such long distances and be apart from those we love. If we were it would be easier. I tried to think of how I would feel if my trip home was going to be taken away: if I were told I could never return to England, see my friends and family again and start my new job. I would have been devastated. But still, mental trickery provides little comfort when you are preparing to leave a place you’ve called home.
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I have a two-page story about my four years in China in the Globetrotter section of the Daily Telegraph today.
Ahead of leaving Shanghai on Monday, a good chunk of my belongings are now in transit. I have 25 kilos going by post, plus an 8kg rug I just bought in Kashgar in northwest China. I also have a trunk full of books and things I’ve collected here which is now wending its way by ship to Felixstowe.
My “useless” piece of…
This trunk and its contents have prompted the most surprised reactions from Chinese people. Last week, I arrived home pushing the 1940s relic from the lift to my door and ourayi, Qian Zhi Hui, was at home. She helped me push it into the living room and then within seconds was wiping it over with a cloth, disgusted at how dusty it was. In my eyes, I had got a bargain from the junk shop. I had found it sitting amongst the general clutter of Chairman Mao tapestries, old light fittings, biscuit tins, suitcases, a typewriter and crockery. To me this place is a treasure trove as you never know want little gem you might find there. I had bought the box because to me, it was perfect for transporting my belongings and will be something nice to keep. I got a 1950s biscuit tin thrown into the bargain, and together they cost 35 pounds. The first person who turned his nose up at it was the driver of the taxi who took me home. He said his mother used to have one but no-one does now because old stuff like this is not good and everyone likes new things. He wasn’t telling me anything new. I have seen hundreds of historic buildings be demolished since I’ve lived here.
Continue reading at Expat Telegraph