Last March my wife asked me to meet her for lunch at Union Street, one of our favorite restaurants in Detroit, and we had this conversation:
“Want to go to China,” Karen asked with a slightly amused look on her face.
“Sure,” Howard replied. “Great Wall, Hong Kong, the Forbidden City, the girls would love it, though its kind of an expensive trip.”
“No, I mean move to Shanghai,” Karen said. “Ford offered me the Asia job today.”
“What the…..,” Howard spluttered, choking on his ice tea. “You have got to be freaking kidding me!”
And that was the start of the fear. Fear of the unknown about China, fear of the known about China. Fear about how the girls would fare there, how I would fare there. What would we eat, how would we talk to Chinese folks, what about the air pollution and Cassidy’s asthma? How do you pay bills in China? And how would we communicate back to friends and family? Would we make any new friends? Would we live in some sort of Pagoda? What would we do with our house in Grosse Pointe? Hell, what would we do with the dog?!?!
The thing about China is that it is very remote from most Americans, physically, intellectually and emotionally. And that was the case with our family. Even though we knew moving to Shanghai was a great opportunity — experiencing a foreign culture, traveling throughout Asia, and meeting new people from around the world — we were still sad and scared. The girls cried for days after we told them. The thought of locking up our house, saying goodbye to friends and family, shipping our dog Gabby out ahead of us, and leaving the great, comfortable life we had built to move to the other side of the planet, was disturbing. In the weeks leading up to our departure, all of us, at one time or another, regretted saying yes to the move.
The key for us in defeating the fear was to get motivated for the coming adventure and get proactive about what life was like in Shanghai. We talked to anybody and everybody who knew someone who lived or had lived in Shanghai, then we talked to those people. We had the girls do online research on China, and about places they wanted to travel to from China, which really motivated them. We also started reading English language publications online like “Shanghai Family”, “That’s Shanghai”, and “City Weekend”, and websites like shanghaiexpat.com and cityweekend.com. These outlets gave a better sense of what day to day life in Shanghai was like.
The most important thing we did in preparing ourselves to move was a pre-trip to Shanghai. Karen and I went and it helped make China a less foreign place to us. It also gave us the opportunity to talk to other Western folks (Expats as they are called) who had come to China before us. And most importantly, it gave us the chance to find the girls a good American school (Concordia) and find all of us a good house to live in. It was invaluable to be able to return home with pictures of Cassidy and Stephanie’s new school and home in China, which they were then able to show their friends. If you have the resources and opportunity, I would strongly recommend a pre-trip if you are planning on moving to China.
And in the spirit of “This happened to me, don’t let it happen to you”, I share the following story from our pre-trip: Markets and “grocery stores” in China are unlike those in the States (in most, food hygiene is treated like a suggestion). They are usually packed. Employees are aggressively helpful. Shoppers are rabid and most of the food is unrecognizable (and packaging unreadable). While there are some pretty upscale western stores in Pudong (where we live) where you can get most things you can in the U.S., the majority of Chinese markets are licensed free-for-alls, particularly on the weekend. One of the biggest is Carrefour and we were warned by many to never, ever go into a Carrefour on a Saturday — which of course we did.
And I saw things I hoped I would never see in my lifetime (I’ll share pics and details in future posts). Much was unidentifiable, from products to beasts, and the experience rattled me to my core. All I could think about was how in God’s name was I going to feed my family in this city? We got back to the hotel and Karen said that for the next 1/2 hour I moaned and paced the room. Finally she told me to start drinking or go work out, but either way to get the hell out of the room because I was freaking her out. I did the latter and felt better afterward. So the moral of the story is do not go to a Chinese supermarket on a Saturday on a pre-trip — it may change your mind. The good news is that you eventually figure the shopping thing out, and these days I’m like the king of Carrefour — with no fear.