Expat life: I had a farm in Africa…

  • 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.


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.

Becoming a born-again tourist


The best thing about knowing that you will soon leave a place is that you suddenly start appreciating it even more than before. I’m a born-again tourist. I’m manically chronicling every part of Shanghai life that I ever took for granted, from abuse of zebra crossings and red lights to my route home on nights out, my favourite restaurants and all the colourful street life (not in the Randy Crawford sense) that makes the city so great. Today, I even bought an ‘I loveShanghai’ t-shirt (from Giordano,627 East Nanjing Road). Why not?

I'm a born-again tourist

Last week was a national holiday, and perhaps one of the best staycations I have had. I think it’s fair to say I am having the best tourist experience possible. I already know all the best things to see and do, I’m not freaked out about being in China, I can communicate with people, I have lots of outgoing, fun people to do things with and a choice of either scooter or bicycle to get around the place. It’s also the best season to be here.

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(Published first on Telegraph Expat on Monday, October 10, 2011.)