After a few pints one grey October night in 2003, I said to my wife “I’m bored with my life. I have a good job and we live a comfortable existence in our nice Solihull home but I just keep thinking, ‘is this it, is this all there is ? …. Are we just going vegetate here, year after year until retirement ?’ My company is buying ever increasing volumes from China and I’m sure I could justify setting up a Shanghai buying office. How about it ? Why don’t you me and the kids just up sticks and go live in Shanghai for a few years ?”.
In all honesty it wasn’t a particularly considered appeal. More of a rhetorical one, a moan if you like. For this reason my wife’s reply caught me on the hop. Instead of the “Don’t be stupid ! Time to stop drinking I think……”, she replied with an even….”Yes, why not ? Sounds like a good idea….” It suddenly dawned on me that if she, the voice of sanity, was not going to stop me, then, my god, it was probably going to happen !
Anyway, to cut a long story short, after much planning, much excitement and more than a little trepidation, we set off on a freezing January morning to begin our new adventure in Shanghai. The journey was fraught to say the least. My wife Heather had initially been shocked at my suggestion that we sedate the kids for the 12 hour flight. She was reassured when our GP told her it was common practice however and so we gave our 1 year old son and 3 year old daughter a dose of anti histamines. Reassured that we would not be troubled by the kids on the flight, I took some anti histamine myself, selected the comedy channel and prepared to drift off to sleep as the plane steadily climbed over the north sea.
Unfortunately, our GP had neglected to tell us that the drug could sometimes have the reverse effect. So, whilst I steadily fell into an increasing slumber, my 15 month old son, who had only a couple of weeks before mastered the art of walking, suddenly became hyper. It must have been a full 8 hours before he finally conked out and what an exhausting 8 hours they were for me, his medicated, stressed, 38 year old Dad.
I am sure the air stewardess thought she was performing a great customer service as she rewarded young Tommy with a kit kat every time he visited the cabin at the tail of the plane. I can’t say I greatly appreciated the gesture however. Melodramatic I know, but to me, my 50 plus journeys to the tail and back, in pursuit of Tommy at high altitude whilst heavily sedated, represented a marathon effort of Kenyan proportions. No medals for me however…
I’d thought it a great idea that we stay at the Xi Jiao Guest House whilst we looked for a villa to rent. A beautiful and extravagant retreat, favoured by the Communist grandees (Mao included) set in lush gardens with beautiful lakes. It seemed a no brainer.
Wrong. As idyllic as it was, we just felt totally isolated. The guest house appeared to be populated by Chinese bureaucrats and businessman. No families and not a westerner in sight. We spoke not a word of Chinese and it soon became apparent that the staff knew very little English. Years later we would marvel at our initial isolation. If only we’d known that just half a mile away, Lao Wai Ji (Hong Mei Lu food street) was thronging with friendly western expats Or, that just down the road, the Hongqiao Marriot would be hosting many western families in our very position, i.e. biding the time before they find that villa or apartment to rent.
I felt sorry for my wife Heather. I at least could escape to the office but Heather had no such release. In the bitter January cold she traipsed the streets, exploring the markets, 15 month Tommy in his buggy and an anxious 3 year old Isabel, gripping her hand so tightly. After a couple of weeks it seemed desperate. No friends to share our experiences with and our Chinese conversation limited to “Ni Hao” and “Xiangjiao”. A Chinese waitress had kindly taught us the word for Tommy’s favourite snack, banana !
I could see Heather’s head going down. When she had so eagerly agreed to try a new life in China I had assured her that if it didn’t work out, we could always come home. I said “…look, let’s give it a few more weeks…….if by then, were still billy no mates, lonely, isolated… then we’ll pack up and go home..”.
One of the few escapes Heather did have was in the pursuit of project “find a home”. Agents would pick her up every day to go look at potential homes. They were ruthlessly efficient, squeezing in more viewings than you would believe possible. One day I volunteered to go assess what was out there. How hard could it be ? I returned 4 hours later feeling like I’d been through the wringer. “Well, did you see anything nice ?” asked Heather. “Yes, I’ve seen quite a few good villas but looking back I’m not sure which was which…” I’d seen a total of 23 villas and in my addled mind they had all seemed to mingle in to one perfect yet very flawed composite villa. I wasn’t much help…
Heather persevered with the agencies but soon grasped the Chinese penchant for eagerly and politely agreeing to your specifications and then ignoring them.
“ The garden must have a fence” she pleaded. “My kids are little and I don’t want them running on to the road..” “Yes, of course… No point taking you to a property that you won’t rent” replied the sales girl. They then proceed to take Heather to 5 consecutive houses with unfenced gardens. Each time Heather points out that she’s already said she needs a garden with fence. The girl smiles and nods in agreement. It’s of no use. Heather eventually comes to the conclusion that if the house has no garden fence, she must refuse to leave the car. The penny soon drops….
It soon dawned that reality would of course, never meet expectation so Heather lowered the bar and we found ourselves negotiating a contract for a spacious open plan ‘villa’ in nearby a nearby compound called ‘Elegant Garden’.
The lady from the agency who was negotiating on our behalf was very persuasive. “You want them rip out garage door, put in bay window and convert to nursey room ?!!”. We felt that might be a little too demanding of our new landlord. Being English we didn’t really want to offend the other side with seemingly unreasonable requests. “Well that sounds like a bit cheeky. Agreeing to rent a house and then asking them to re-build it to suit our tastes..” I ventured.
“ Do you have car to put in garage ?”
“No….” I replied meekly.
“ Right. That sorted. I tell landlord new nursery with window, furniture and air conditioning for same price. If not, he can forget deal ! “.
Too our surprise, the landlord dully assented to the demands. Had we agreed to a high rental ? That would explain the apparent willingness to move heaven and earth for us. On the other hand we’d thoroughly researched the market and our rent seemed fair.
We soon discovered that radical surgery on newly acquired houses, even rentals, was the norm. There were 2 factors at play. Shanghai, a city of perhaps 25 million was flooded with millions of internal migrants, the ming gong. These “countryside people” had fled desperately poor provinces such as Anhui and Henan for the better life on offer in Shanghai. These poor migrants were largely treated with disdain by the native Shanghai people. My Chinese step mother later told me that the Shanghai people referred to these internal migrants as Xiang Woo Nin (Shownies). Literally, “country low people” or country servant people.
Of course, what the migrant considered a good wage was seen as little more than a pittance in Shanghai. Consequently, building work and the like could be done at an extremely competitive rate, hence my landlord’s acceptance of our demands….
The other factor at play was the Chinese obsession with the new. I couldn’t tell you the number of times that people would buy a beautiful house on our compound only to rip out the interior to re-decorate entirely. And, it didn’t stop at that. occasionally a beautiful house would be bought for maybe 2 million pounds and then razed to the ground and a new property would be built from scratch.
Why this obsession with the new. Was it because the old was associated with drab, conformist, Communist austerity ? May be. The few things I gleaned on enquiring on this penchant for the new with Chinese friends and colleagues is ;
It is somehow shameful to accept the furniture and decorations of a previous owner. It somehow denotes that you don’t have the means to put your own stamp on a property.
Whilst we westerners are nostalgic about the past, the Chinese are certainly not. They are still in the midst of their industrial revolution and they have not reached that point where they look back with sentimental affection at country living. We think of quaint rustic cottages, beautiful old furniture, the genteel splendour of country life. The Chinese think of recent poverty, hunger and a desperate need to escape the rural squalor. So for them, there is nothing romantic about the old but there is something exciting, tantalising and even exotic about the new.
So recycling, make do and mend, sustainability…..? Forget it ! Acquire the new and when it is no longer new, dump it and replace it with the new, new. Be it phones, branded handbags or even homes…. Unbridled consumption. For the Chinese who can still remember the bitter taste of poverty, this represents immense progress……
Anyway I digress ! Within a couple of weeks we vacated the drafty service apartment we had been using in Xiaoxiabang Lu, and moved in to number 715 Elegant Garden. This airy open plan villa soon felt very much like home. The compound was largely western expat dominated and we soon made long and lasting friendships with our Scandinavians, Dutch and French neigbours. Tommy and Isabel played happily in the garden and I could see that Heather was finally enjoying life again. It really was a case of “mother father kindly disregard this letter”.
A few days after moving in, with Bel in tow and Tommy in push chair, I sauntered down to the playground. I sat on the bench to watch the kids play. Feet stretched out, incredibly relaxed, I struck up a conversation with a very friendly Indian woman.
“So, what’s this compound really like ?” I asked.
“ Well, it’s ok but it’s not like living in real China…”
Thank God I thought.
I was still a liberal minded chap. I was still very interested in China, it’s rich History, it fascinating cultural differences, the unique development of i’s civilisation, effectively cut off as it were for thousands of years..
However, our hard landing in China had taught me that I definitely didn’t want to live full time in that alien world. Instead, to live full time in the familiar, friendly expat community whose culture I could identify with suited me just fine. At the same time I still had a fascination for the different, the alien, the unknown. The great thing was, that fascinating, alien and yet so interesting world was still there and it began not 100 yards away at the compound gates .
A home in a western expat haven with the excitement of real China on our doorstep. The balance was right…..