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.

My Beijing Olympics working for the Chinese media: Eye exercises, lip-synching and squatter loos

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 state of mind: The battle for total recall

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.

What’s Chinese for Colposcopy?


When you take a job in China, you don’t think about the day you’ll find your feet in Chinese stirrups. Guest expat blogger, Violet Tame, shares her trip to the gynaecologist in China. 


This week I had to go for a follow-up appointment at the OBGYN. I had a couple of pap smears come back irregular so it was time to go under the scope. I arrived a little nervous with the word biopsy ringing in my head. I checked in and sat down next to a middle-aged man coming from work. I wished in a way that I was sitting next to him to chew the fat to at least take my mind off the looming exam. I did not make a move as figured I would definitely put my foot in my mouth and rather than discussing the up and coming US election, I would discuss blood clots and the risk we women take with every birth control pill we take.

I waited and waited and finally was called by the nurse after waiting over 40 minutes. She took my blood pressure and then asked me to sit in another waiting room where I could gaze for 20 minutes at a wall of baby photographs. I sometimes think that the OBGYN offices should have pictures of females with their great accomplishments and inspirational quotes including the strange species of the single independent woman, or just any random person from the non-procreating race. Is it not enough that I do not have anyone besides my OBGYN doing anything down there, I have to be reminded every six months “No, you do not have kids, and you are doing maintenance on an organ that only bleeds”.


As I am sitting there staring at the baby pictures with happy couples, thinking about my inactive vagina and fallopian tubes that are still in training I remind myself of past OBGYN appointments where one gynaecologist told me that I had a beautiful womb. This in a strange way is comforting. Then a line swoops in like a stork from the play For Whom the Southern Bell Tolls, “I have a womb, a womb for went, as Elmer Fudd would say”. What do I do with this beautiful womb? Will I ever be able to rent it out for nine months, or will I continue to carry the vacancy sign on my forehead to each dinner, Christmas or OBGYN appointment?


A dear friend rang me to check in and I immediately lost it making a puddle of tears on my baby yellow skirt. The nurse called me into the office before the conversation even started. Walking into the appointment I messaged two friends saying that I was having a meltdown and would like someone there when I was done.


The doctor had diagrams of women with see through legs so I could see where the microscope would be put. I was warned that it might hurt and given a packet that outlined what I needed to be aware of and activities that I needed to stay away from for the next 24 hours…. A girl could be so lucky to have the option to stay away from one of the three letter words.


Through the whole process massive drops were catapulting from my eyes. I was taken through an office to a room with a massive chair with stir-ups. I put on a backless blue gown that brought out my swollen eyes and lay on the table. The doctor was Chinese and so was her assistant. There were four lights above me, which meant I could see the reflection of the different tools she was putting into me. After that the doctor said “I tell you about this later, I have to clean off your cervix first”. Seriously, there has to be a technical term for that, though now I know why they name cars after women: a tune-up is just a different dipstick away from a colposcopy.


The exam continued and I was still unsure if I was passing or failing. The doctor and the assistant were speaking to each other in Chinese and all I could pick up was “Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, biopsy. Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, biopsy”…. Now for China claiming to be one of the oldest cultures and Mandarin being a difficult language with an extensive vocabulary, they honestly could not come up with their own word for biopsy? That was the one word that I could have waited to hear until the tune-up was finished and I was sitting respectably in a chair fully clothed on all sides.


After who knows how many swabs, metal dipsticks and hearing “Chinese, Chinese Chinese, biopsy. Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, biopsy,” they left me to change and closed a steel sliding door, which I later would not be able to open, and resorted to banging on like a captive mental patient. The doctor explained everything shortly after telling me that she was retiring… Upon leaving the office I found my friends that responded to my distress signal to enjoy a cold four-letter word that thankfully was not on the list of things I could not enjoy post tune-up.

Pretty vacant


“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.


What counts for weird these days?


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.


Life after China

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.