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.
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.