Sunday, September 9, 2012

The eXpat Files, Vol. 3

As a little intro, I am originally from the USA and my husband is from Canada.  We lived together for 6 years in Canada, 5 years in the USA, and have lived this past year in China with our three children.  I will be sharing some things that we have experienced as expats in China, my feelings about living here and things we have learned about the culture, and some insight that I hope will be helpful to others planning on visiting or living in China.

Reflecting... One Year in China
My hubby and kiddos on a very cold, rainy day at the Great Wall.
Wow!  We have been living in China for more than a year now.  It is crazy to think that much time has passed.  I am happy to say that we are settled in quite nicely, and living in this place (SO different from our home in the US/Canada) does feel like home now.  However, home is where your toys are.  Your bed is.  Your family dinners are had.  Where lazy Sundays are spent.  Where dad heads off to work, the children head off to school, and mom is left to get the house sorted once again while planning for the next family meal.  This is our life.  Wherever that happens to be in the world, we are home.

Before our things made it to China, we enjoyed playing badminton in the extra space in our apartment.
Our life as expats has been a great one.  Not all aspects of this experience have been great, but I think we are in a place now where we are confident in saying that.  We have gone through the growing pains.  However, I had to remind myself that that is natural even when you move your family to another city, let alone, another part of the world.  I think all new situations take me a good 9 months for to grow accustomed to.  That's the Taurus in me.  I need to get my feet in the dirt and soak it all in before I can feel at ease.  In China, that is more literal than it is figuratively speaking!  But knowing that about myself helps me to understand what a change like this means for my family as well.  We are all in this together.

Tate, and our view from our apartment on the 24th floor.
We spent an amazing summer back home with my family in the US and Canada.  We returned to OUR home, where my sister and her family now reside.  I got to drive once again - something that I have truly missed (as in China, we have a driver to take us everywhere we need to go).  I got to walk into a grocery store and find everything I could ever want and more.  I didn't have to drink from bottles for clean water, or worry about whether or not the washrooms would have western-style toilets as opposed to squatty-potties.  I didn't stand out like a soar thumb with my blond hair and my three kids.  People didn't stop in their tracks to watch us walk by.  I could even engage in small talk with people while out and about.  We were like everyone else.  After being back in the US for a week, it felt as though we had never left!  It was hard to believe that we had spent an entire year in China living a very different life.

Eating Italian in China, with our driver Zhang Wei.  His first time eating with a fork!
I wanted to spend the summer in the US so my children could enjoy a normal summer, doing all of the things they have done every summer.  I signed the children up for weeks of swim lessons, summer camp, Girl Scout camp... we spent afternoons at the pool, jumping on trampolines, and playing with cousins.  At Gramma and Papa's we got to go camping, enjoy family bbq parties by the pool, and campfires.  It was a great summer!  We spent 5 weeks apart from my husband while he was "home" working in China, which was difficult.  However, I was so busy with the kids and their schedules that I was more than preoccupied!  We were not the only family doing this over the summer months either.  Most of the working dads stayed in China, while all of the expat wives and children were off to enjoy some time at "home".  This is the way of the expat family.

Trick-or-Treating, organized by some of the expats in our China home.
If you were to ask me before our visit back home to the US, "What will you do after your assignment is finished in China?" I would have most definitely said, "I want to move back to our home in the US.  I want to be in a familiar place when we go back."  I thought that three years is more than plenty to be living in a third world country for me.  After spending some time back in the US, I started to realize that I wasn't as attached to our home and the city we had been living in as I thought I was.  Some of my friends had said that they were so happy to be home that it was hard to return to China after their visit.  I didn't feel that way.  I expected to, but I didn't.  And after eight weeks being away from our home in China, I was more than happy to be going back "home" to sleep in our own beds, and get back into our routine.

In front of the aquarium in our China home town.
We arrived back in China after a long (let's not under-emphasize the word LONG here), 13 hour flight.  The very next day, our children started school.  So no time to get over the jet lag and switch our internal clocks ahead the 12 hours they need to be before jumping back into life!  On the first day of school I meet a new friend who had just arrived to China.  Her daughter is in my daughter's kindergarten class.  She too is from the US, and her husband works at the same company as my husband.  Wow, I thought.  She is exactly where I was this time last year.  It was strange thinking back to how lost I was when we first came to China, and how much I relied on the wonderful expats already here to help me learn the ropes.  Where do you shop?  Where to you eat?  What do you do for fun?  How do you go about living life in China?  Now I am the one happy to share answers to these things, because now I know!

Picking up the kids after school, where we get to chat with the other expats.
More than a year in China!  When we first arrived we had made the decision to stay for three years before ever even visiting the country.  We decided the experience was one we were excited to share as a family, and we knew that our children would gain an understanding of the world that we couldn't offer them from our home in the mid-west.  Of course, shortly after making the commitment, the reality of the decision can weigh on you.  Our kids don't have the opportunities they would back at home.  Our way of life is different here, and it is hard to accept that as being "ok".  I had to remind my husband that just because we wouldn't be enjoying the same things with our children in China, doesn't mean there wouldn't be new things that we could.

Dinner out at the roof-top Indian restaurant a nice walk from our apartment.
In the US, we enjoyed our summers camping, our evenings sitting on the deck, bbq-ing our dinner while the kids played, and walks to the playground.  We spent a lot of time at the pool, going on hikes at the arboretum and local parks, riding bikes around the city, and the kids loved to sell lemonade and cookies from our driveway.  In the winter, they loved to play in the snow, sledding and building snowmen, and we weren't far from skiing, the skating rink, and a movie theater where you could always find films in English!

First day of school in China, at the Teda International School.
In China, we live in a high rise apartment, like most everyone here.  We aren't relaxing on our deck or playing in the yard, but we have a nice park across from us that provides a great place to fly a kite, take the RC car and helicopters for a spin, or enjoy a picnic.  There are other parks that offer 4-person bikes or small boats for rent near-by.  We are also 20 minutes from a sandy beach area that provides the children with hours of fun.  We spend a lot of time exploring, with cities so big here in China, there are hidden secrets everywhere!  At least once every month or two we spend a weekend in Beijing.  There are zoos, a wonderful aquarium near-by, festivals, and Chinese markets of every variety.  And we can't forget to mention KTV, the Chinese karaoke houses, a hit with the kids!  So not the same activities, but we have found more than enough to keep us busy.

Feeding the white pigeons at the park across from our apartments in China.
One of the reasons I most appreciate being here is that we can live so inexpensively!  You can live on SO little money in China, it is crazy!  The more you are willing the live like the Chinese, eating at local restaurants as opposed to the Western restaurants and shopping in the markets, the less money you will spend.  The other part of that is simply the fact that there is a lot less available here!  Everyone always asks me, "Well, if it is made in China, shouldn't it be cheaper to buy in China?"  I am quite certain that all of the goods we buy in the US/Canada that say "Made in China" are made here ONLY to be shipped and sold in the US.  So when I go shopping, I never end up buying more than the items on my list.  It is amazing how much we grow accustomed to spending (and buying) in the US/Canada compared to what we really need.  We have lived this year with so much less in a material sense, but we don't feel deprived in any way.

On the plane, heading to a family vacation on the beaches of Thailand.
For me, the most rewarding part of being an expat is that living so inexpensively allows us to travel as a family.  Before moving to China, we had yet to take the kids on a real vacation.  We traveled to Thailand in October and enjoyed the beautiful beaches there.  In the spring we explored Hong Kong and Hong Kong Disneyland.  I have already planned two more trips for the months to come,  and I'm trying to decide how to fit in all of the little trips within China that I would love to do while we are here.  These are memories of experiences my kids will always have from our time in China, and I love that.

A highlight of our Thailand trip for my kids, for sure!
Another part of this experience that was quite a surprise to me was the wonderful expat community we have here.  I had no idea that we would have this great extended family here in China, and it has been such a blessing.  Where we live, there are several companies that bring in expats to work in China.  Some are here for only two years, some stay 5 or 6... maybe longer.  My husband's company alone currently has more than 30 families here.  Many of us are from the US, many from Mexico, a family from Germany.... am I forgetting any?  Another company has several Danish families here.  Then there are several families from other countries with other companies, such as Scotland, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia, Korea, Japan, Canada... and on it goes.  There is an international school here, where most all of our children attend.  Preschool through grade 12, about 100 students in total, and entirely taught in English.  A lot of our time is spent in the company of each other, and we have made some fabulous friends from all around the world in this one little place!

Charlotte getting a scuba lesson in Thailand.
So the first year has flown by.  I'm no longer thinking to myself, it's only three years... I can do this!  I'm asking, where did that first year go?  Do we really only have two more here?  This time is going to fly by... then what next?  Where next?  China never would have been my first choice for an expat assignment.  However, I didn't expect our experience here to be anything like it is.  I never even thought that we would be a part of an expat community like we are fortunate enough to have here.  It makes me wonder what other expat experiences might be like for our family.  Perhaps there will be more for us after this run.  I am so glad that we made the decision to take this leap as a family, for many reasons.  It has been an interesting, yet wonderful journey for us so far.

Ahhhh..... Thailand!  My three beach babies.
I don't expect my future posts as life as an expat in China to be like this, I just felt the need to share my feelings about the experience now that I feel my feet are right where they are supposed to be!  I hope to share more of a glimpse into our daily life in my next post, as well as an interview with my family members and what living in China is like for them.  If you have anything in particular you would like to know, please let me know!!  I have lots more to share!  And if you are still reading at this point, thanks so much for bearing with me here!  It is not often I'm rambling like this at Sun Scholars!

Thanks for reading!


  1. It truly sounds amazing. I would love the opportunity to travel with my family and to learn a different culture by living it. I hope your next two years are just as rewarding.

  2. I was hooked from the beginning till end of this post. I admire how brave you and your family are. I cannot believe how many similarities there are between expat experiences worldwide. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures:)

  3. Thanks for sharing!! I <3 reading about your China adventures and more... what an amazing gift to your kids and your whole family! :)

  4. I loved reading your post. Best wishes to you for the years ahead. I will look forward to reading future posts.

  5. Love reading your post. As a former expat (Switzerland) reading your post brought back so many memories. I remember everyone always saying 'oh how wonderful' and yes, it was, but what some fail to realize, is that is still just life in a different time zone. There are good days and bad just like at home, the groceries still have to be purchased, clothes laundered and dinner cooked. Can't wait to read more about your adventures overseas!

  6. This is such a good post I certainly wish I had the opportunity to do this!! Xx

  7. Thank you so much for posting your feelings about living overseas. I lived in Japan for years and would love the opportunity to live overseas and raise my family. Bask in all that China has to offer, your family will never ever forget the experiences!!!

  8. This made me smile! I studied in China for a year in college and have been back a couple times since then-and it is where my husband and I fell in love :-) Love that place with all its funny quirks. And tell your kids I am super jealous. It is my lifelong dream to hold a baby tiger.

  9. I am so enjoying reading about your experiences. We adopted our two daughters from China, so we traveled there twice. They are now 15 and 12 years old. My husband and I both loved the country and the people. My older daughter was 4 years old when we traveled to pick up her sister and still has memories of the trip. Both girls are very proud of and interested in their heritage, as are we. They will love to read of your life there (though, maybe will be a little envious)as well. Enjoy this time, you are making wonderful memories.


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