My bags were packed, the last of my home furnishings were sold in the yard sale we held to consolidate our belongings, and I sat back watching my 2 year old boy play with our dog. “What was I doing?”
I had a pregnant wife, a small boy and a whimpering dog that was on the verge of insanity. Packing our life into 5 suitcases and moving to China was a humor my friends and family teased us about for months now. “China, wow….really… don’t you know that they will eat your dog and convert you to Communism!” was the common mentality of those around me. “You don’t even speak the language and you have never been to Asia in your life!” was another haunting reminder of my questions in life.
I held the fear and panic of our decision deep in my stomach and knew as we boarded the plane, that there was no turning back now. China was our destination; Songjiang was to be our new home.
Thames Town, Songjiang; a place often referred to as an oasis of China, a replica of England; sat awaiting us, surprisingly inviting and clean. My anticipations were that of poverty, homelessness, vagabonds holding their hands out for a foreigner to fill them with money, but now a friendly warm welcome from the security gate guards staring and waving as we passed by. Was this the right place, did our pilot accidently miss the landing strip and diverted our destination to some European country?
We settled into our new abode and slowly unpacked our small belongings in silence. We didn’t dare question or speak of our feelings; afraid someone would storm into the house and arrest us for violating some Chinese law. Were they listening? Did they have secret spies taping our conversations? My wife turned to me, exhausted from the travels and said, “Man, I am going to miss Starbucks!” The driver, patiently waiting for our next command, perked up and in broken chine-english blurted, “Ah ha, Starbuck’s good!” That was all we needed to hear. Our anxiety and freight eased out of our systems as we sat back, sipping calmly on a Latte knowing that things couldn’t be that bad, if they had Starbucks!
7 months after arriving, the fear rushed through our veins again. My fully pregnant wife was now growing close to the delivery with our new addition to the family. “What in the hell are we doing!” She constantly brought to my attention. “Maybe we should fly back to the states and have the baby there” was another nighttime question we discussed. “Where in the world were we going to find a hospital to deliver our child that can speak English?” These were everyday occurrences as we tried desperately to solve the situation. Many places claimed to speak English but in reality it was one person and only during their daily shift. So we kept searching, scouring the surrounding areas, desperate to find a clean, sanitary hospital that we would feel comfortable in.
At last, American Sino only 30 minutes from Songjiang was more than we could expect. The staff and Doctors were fully capable of speaking English and if the truth was to be known; it was far better than any hospital we have experienced in the United States. My wife was treated with care, her every need and complaint was instantly followed up with a smiling nurse eager and able. And during the delivery, as I, the weak husband felt like passing out, they comforted me and breathed slowly with me, then quickly turned their attention to my delivering wife who was the actual one needing attention. 4 hours later our healthy baby girl cried into the air and for a moment it sounded Chinese!
My family and I have been here just over 1 year. To most expats that is still a virgin awaiting to be noticed. My ability to communicate with the locals is limited to purchasing food and directing the taxi driver to the local pub and back home and occasionally finding out what day and month it is since times seems to just quickly pass by. My child is enrolled into a local all Chinese kindergarten and I sit back in awe as he knows more of the language than I do. We felt it best to dunk him into the culture as he is still young, to soak in the language and education. My wife, like me is still adjusting to the surroundings but has found local mothers with young children and ventures to the park for playtime and socialization.
Through my experience, the people of Songjiang have surprised me with their kind demeanor and patience. They always are interested in taking pictures of us, posing next to us, and often practice greeting us with, “ha low” to better education themselves. The town is regularly kept up with hundreds of workers, pruning, sweeping, and cleaning the roads, and besides their unstable and chaotic driving habits everything is modern and new. I have learned important survival techniques; that streets signs and yellow lines on the road are merely suggestions and not laws and most importantly, never make eye contact while walking, driving, riding a scooter and being escorted, this would mean you are the one that has to stop and let traffic by.
Local night life has several options, depending on the environment you are wanting. Several places offer traditional Chinese culture mixed with modern Western Music. Others places like the Red Bar, Dimples and The Rose Bar offer an expat a haven to rest and feel comfortable and familiar with people from different countries.
There are plenty of restaurants to choose from depending on your tastes and desires and honestly I have not seen one dog served on a plate yet. My family and I were only used to American Chinese food and I was quite surprised when I first approached the Asian cuisine. Now, I am the only one in the family that is addicted to the local food and I wake each day excited to have lunch and rice made local style. Carrefour and Tesco are establishments that sell food products from the western world and are quite accessible by taxis, car or the convenient train station. This has become my families security blanket.
All in all, “It is not all that bad; it is more than we ever could expect; maybe China is not what the rest of the world thinks it is!”